Old versus Young in Japan

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If you read about a country with economic problems where “already indecisive leaders [are] loath to upset retirees from the baby boom who make up more than a quarter of the population and tend to vote in high numbers,” you might guess that the article was about the U.S. and Medicare.

It’s not. It’s about Japan and the value of the yen. In 2007 the Japanese yen was trading at 123 to the dollar. In the post-2008 economic crisis the yen was seen as a safe haven currency. Its value went up. It now trades for about 78 to the dollar.

So what does the exchange value of the yen have to do with intergenerational conflict? A recent article in the New York Times explains why the old and the young are fighting about currency. The strong yen makes imports cheaper. Cheaper imports drive down domestic prices as well. Older people on fixed incomes can buy more. Imports that cost 123 yen in 2007 cost only 78 yen now. But a strong yen makes exports more expensive, and Japanese industry – very export dependent – is suffering. This hurts the young.

Japanese political scientists say the government has tolerated the strong yen out of fear of the voting power of the elderly. Shigeru Ono, a 62 year old retired oil company manager who lives on a monthly pension of 130,000 yen (approximately $1,660), clearly understands the intergenerational conflict.  “The strong yen and deflation have been a boon for us baby boomers,” he told the Times. “But I also know that they cannot be good for my son’s generation.”

We get a very different picture of the relationship between old and young in Japan from the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima. After the earthquake and tsunami, Yasuteru Yamada, a 72 year old retired engineer, decided that cleanup work at the Fukushima Daiichi facility that did not require youthful muscles should be done by elderly volunteers, because, as he told NPR last year, it “would be better to send men and women who have finished raising families and are in the sunset of their lives, rather than younger workers whose lives could be cut short by extreme radiation exposure. I want to make the most of the time I have left.”

He contacted 2,500 retirees with technical experience. Six hundred signed up! The volunteers have not yet been accepted in the cleanup process. Here’s how Kazuko Sasaki, a 72-year-old grandmother, explains her reason for volunteering: “My generation built these nuclear plants. So we have to take responsibility for them. We can’t dump this on the next generation.” See here for a story last month about Yasuteru Yamada’s effort to get U.S. support for this effort.

Although Japanese culture is known for stronger communitarian values than we in the U.S. live by, over the years my elderly patients often expressed sentiments that come from the same psychological and spiritual space as the Fukushima volunteers. But contemporary medical ethics in the U.S. typically asks us to be suspicious of the altruistic stance. When our elderly patients say, “I don’t want to be a burden to my family” or “Pay attention to the youngsters – I’ve lived my life,” we interpret these sentiments as signs of depression and low self-esteem. Sometimes that’s what it is, but sometimes it represents the moral perspective that Yasuteru Yamada presents in his matter-of-fact way.

The U.S. is struggling to contain the cost of Medicare. Japan is struggling with the impact of a strong yen. In families, grandparents cherish children and grandchildren. But in wider society the generations are struggling to balance of cooperation and competition between generations.

The Over65 project wants to tap the altruism that is part of the aging process for many seniors. Working on behalf of making Medicare more efficient so that the next generation has a better shot at a good life isn’t as dramatic as volunteering to work at Fukushima. But many seniors, myself included, agree with Kazuko Sasaki that our generation made the mess we’re in and we can’t in good conscience dump it on the next generation. The future well-being of both countries depends in large measure on whether the values expressed by the Fukushima volunteers play out in policy and politics.

James Sabin, M.D., 73, is an organizer of Over 65 and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

5 Responses to “Old versus Young in Japan”

  1. Gail Schonbeck

    Right on Doc!! With a few minutes of thinking, we over-65ers ought to come up with a number of things we can do very well to help “clean up our U.S. mess.” Fortunately we don’t (YET!!) have an obvious Fukushima facing our nation, but many othr things that can use our time as well as our extra $ ( those earning over $100,000/year income easily)can be “taxed” extra – can donate time, etc. Suggestions anyone? I think many over-65ers are already donating & volunteering time & giving $ on local levels without much fanfare. Nonetheless, more could join the growing number of helpers.

    • Jim Sabin

      Hello Gail and Walt –

      Gail makes the point that many in the over 65 generation are doing pro bono work in their communities. The offer from the Fukushima volunteers is a dramatic version of the not uncommon wish to “give back” insofar as one is in a position – from the perspectives of health and finances – to do so. We know from health studies that activities of this kind contribute to the well-being and even the longevity of the individual.

      But Walt raises an interesting and important question about a potential downside to volunteerism. We know that college students and unemployed young adults working as interns in businesses, government agencies, and NGOs,sometimes displace paid workers. I don’t know whether this is happening with volunteers among the elderly, but it’s certainly possible.

      We expect to explore different aspects of work, finances, and volunteerism among over 65s in future posts.



  2. Alex Smith

    Love the blog Jim! Interesting international perspective. Would be interesting to compare what seniors feel they are owed and what they owe the community in Japan vs. the US. Perhaps the results will surprise, and more Americans will be like the elders who say “I’ve lived my life, make room for the young folks.” Or perhaps that is a socially desirable abstract sentiment, but when it comes to facing hard choices – like forgoing certain medicare benefits – the responses will differ.

    PS I’ve added you to our blog role on GeriPal.

    • Jim Sabin

      Hi Alex –

      We’re honored that you’ve visited Over 65 and have added it to your blog role at GeriPal (http://www.geripal.org/). Over 65 readers – GeriPal is a TERRIFIC site, with content focused on geriatrics and primary care! I’ve been excited and proud to follow your career since you did your primary care residency with us here in Boston.