Aging is one of the most critical problems confronting Japanese society in the 21st century. As Japan enjoys the highest life expectancy in the world, the elderly population in Japan is growing very rapidly. There are more than 20 million people over the age of 65, almost one in every five Japanese. By the year 2025, the elderly population will be nearly 35 million people; one in every three Japanese will be old. This is one of the highest ratios of older citizens that any postindustrial society is expected to experience;society has ever dealt with such a high ratio before. The social resources needed to support the elderly population with social security, health care, nursing care and other services will be unprecedented.
Obviously, longevity is something to celebrate, but when life expectancy grows by as much as 50 percent in a matter of decades, it creates a social problem. Today, acute illnesses that were once lethal have become more containable, so chronic long-term illnesses have become more commonplace. This raises the need for more medical and nursing care facilities. It is ironic that in learning to conquer one set of health problems, we have created another set of problems. Old age islonger a social bonus.
Aging has wide-ranging consequences for the organization of society. When a society ages fast, there is less time to adjust the social infrastructure to meet the new demands of the changing population. Social expectations and cultural norms regarding rights and responsibilities of citizens must also change in the new environment.
How does aging challenge Japan's salient cultural norms? The cultural ideal of aging in Japan has often been expressed in the multigenerational household and in filial relationships. Filial co-residence, which typically consists of a three-generation household that includes elderly parents, son and daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, average about half of all elderly households. Although this residential pattern follows the primogeniture model that was abolished as long as a half century ago when the postwar Family Law was established, it is an arrangement that has continued to be taken up widely in postwar Japan.
The Japanese preference for co-residence has been high, not only because of the obvious economic benefits of pooling financial resources and sharing living expenses, but also because it can offer the kind of security that comes from a preference for predictability. The three-generation household is an entirely concrete and tangible informal social security system that establishes exactly who will do what for the elderly when parents become frail, bedridden or otherwise acutely needy. It is an arrangement that exacts a commitment from co-resident adult children even before the need arises, very early in the family life cycle. This arrangement can create certain knowledge about the definite availability of identifiable primary caregivers when need arises, which has been an essential component of -dependable- security to many Japanese. As many age, they want to and expect to know that they will be cared for by their children. The high rate of filial co-residence in Japan is based on a fundamental desire for security that is part of a worldview that values certainty.
Changes in family composition and mobility have diversified the multigenerational households in kind, but changes in the cultural assignments to care for the elderly has not necessarily kept pace. A significant number of elderly Japanese still prefer to live with their children, and the rate of co-residence also remains high. Even though circumstances today can delay the timing when parents move in with their adult children, like when one aging parent is widowed, multigenerational living prevails as a salient feature of aging in Japan especially compared to other postindustrial nations. The premium placed on predictability and certainty, the unwillingness to leave matters undecided, and the unwillingness to leave help up to voluntary goodwill are important characteristics of the Japanese sense of security in old age.