Recovery Issues of Aged Population – Findings from Japan

Disaster drove down Japan’s lifespan along with recovery;

article reprinted from the Economist, August 5, 2012, in the Canadian Chronicle Herald.

 The findings are so significant I am including the full article here. Two issues are worth noting: the stress of a disaster can shorten the lifespan of a victim and the older and younger victims have different priorities and operate on a different time scale re recovery planning.

Many in Japan were taken aback recently by the news that, for the first time since 1985, Japanese women have lost their crown as the world’s longest-living people. Their average life expectancy fell to 85.9 years in 2011, a bit less than a year shorter than that of the women of Hong Kong.

People were even more crestfallen at the news that this was largely caused by the death toll from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. It was a reminder of how disproportionately the disaster had hit the elderly in this aging corner of the planet. Of almost 18,800 dead and missing, 56 per cent were older than 65.

Aging is taking its toll on the reconstruction process too. In towns along the coast, officials say that they have encountered a “generation gap” that is hampering their efforts to rebuild. Simply put, older people, aware of their relatively short remaining lifespan, want to restore what they lost as soon as possible. Young families want revitalized communities with more people, jobs and social freedoms.

In miniature, it is a problem faced across the country: An elderly population, richer, more risk-averse and more powerful than the young, is also more resistant to change.

In Onagawa, a fishing port in Miyagi prefecture that lost about one-tenth of its 10,000-strong population in the disaster, the elderly have so far gotten their way, officials say. More than a third of residents were older than 65 at the time of the tsunami, compared with 24 per cent in Japan as a whole.

As local official Toshiaki Yaginuma recounts it, many of the elderly lived in 15 fishing hamlets partly or wholly washed away by the tsunami. Instead of rebuilding them, the local government wanted to merge them into fewer, larger settlements. It dropped the plan, however, because of staunch opposition from the fishermen, mostly older people. They argued that each beach had its own history, culture and tradition, and they were worried that, if they moved, they would lose valuable fishing and oyster-farming licences that, some say, can bring in $100,000 a year.

Their sons and daughters have different priorities. Yaginuma said that, as well as wanting more access to shops, hospitals, jobs and schools, the young wanted the settlements to be merged to give them more chance of finding a spouse and raising a family.

This is a telling factor in a country with one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Whole families are split over the issue, Yaginuma says.  “The elderly tell the young that they’re arrogant to think like that,” he says. “The young say, ‘Father, you are not thinking about our future.’”

Finding compromises on such fraught social issues is key to the rebuilding, which suggests that it will remain painstakingly slow. In the past Japan’s central-government bureaucrats would have run roughshod over those who resisted them. This time, the country’s Reconstruction Agency says that the devastation is too widespread for a one-size-fits-all solution. It therefore has been left to local governments to draw up reconstruction plans, funded from the national budget.

The central government still hopes that rebuilding stricken areas can be a blueprint for revitalization of aging communities elsewhere in Japan. It is allowing innovative places to become “special zones” that are light on regulation and heavy on such new ideas as smart energy grids and high-density living.

The implication is that those who simply want to restore what was lost may not get generous treatment. Yet officials acknowledge that the elderly have a great deal of voting power in Japan and are hard to boss around.

The challenges of demography are even more acute in neighboring Fukushima prefecture, where the tsunami-induced meltdown of a nuclear-power plant has scattered hundreds of thousands of residents. Here the varying outlooks of young and old overlap with different perceptions of the dangers of radiation.

As in Miyagi, experts say that more elderly than young evacuees are in favour of returning to their hometowns and picking up life where they left off. Many pensioners consider low doses of radiation less of an issue than the severed ties with their old communities.

Younger parents, meanwhile, see little hope of things ever getting back to normal. First, they fear that their children are more susceptible to cancer threats from radiation. Even if some of the mess can be cleaned up, they worry, businesses are less likely to return to contaminated areas.

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