A New Welfare System For The New Future?

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More and more often, elderly patients are making the news in Japan not for their longevity, but for their negative impact on the country’s welfare system.  Angry politicans such as Aso have suggested that elderly Japanese should relinquish their rights, while others have called for reform to what they believe is an antiquated system.

So far, one solution that both sides have agreed upon is to raise the sales tax.  However, research has shown that doubling the consumption sales tax will not be sufficient enough.  Another solution has resulted in the fact that “welfare benefits will be slashed by ¥74 billion over a three-year period starting from fiscal 2013.”  As expected, the second change ignited much more protest from the Japanese population, of which the elderly population makes up a huge portion of.

Overall, I do not agree with Aso that elderly people should not be eligible to receive welfare benefits.  Also, I do not agree that the answer to the problem at hand lies in taking back benefits that have served the country well.  Instead, I believe that the current welfare system can act as a good foundation for the Japanese government to improve upon.  After all, past posts have revealed that the elderly Japanese are contributing members to society, and their ability to live longer than others should be awarded instead of apprehended.

According to Forbes Magazine writer Stephen Harner, the welfare system can and should be reformed.  Harner argues that the answer is “to present the issue in terms of which model the people are willing to support.”  In order to make the situation understandable to Japanese citizens, the government should educate citizens in simple terms what changes need to be made in order continue offering sufficient welfare benefits.  The main idea that they should promote is that high welfare expenditures often lead to high tax burdens.  However, they should also make people aware that paying into the system will benefit everyone, seeing as most anyone over 65 in Japan is eligible to receive welfare benefits.  Given that the average life expectancy in Japan is 83.91 years, most people will be eligible to receive an average of 18.91 years of aid!

On top of making the general public aware that a moderate consumption tax increase is necessary, the Japanese government should also strive to make necessary changes.  In fact, politicians should work towards making their debates more transparent so that they would have to become more responsible for their actions.  According to Harner, “to date the political class has dishonestly offered society a high level of welfare expenditures while demurring from presenting the bill to pay for it; instead, taking the easy, expedient, and politically self-serving way out of issuing debt the burden of which will fall on future generations.”

Overall, I remain optimistic towards the future of Japan’s welfare system.  Even though a decrease in welfare benefits spending has been approved, I believe this is only a minor setback to an otherwise historically generous country.  For years, Japan’s welfare system has served its country well, and I believe that history serves as the best indicator of which systems work and which don’t.  Also, given that the Japanese are culturally more inclined to revere the older generation, I believe Japanese citizens will be more willing to pay higher taxes just so their elderly people can keep on enjoying the benefits they have enjoyed for so many years.  Nonetheless, politicians like Aso will continue to speak out against welfare spending on the elderly Japanese, but the huge volume of criticisms and backlash he has received goes only to show the Japanese people’s solidarity when it comes to supporting their elders.

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Who Should Welfare Benefit?

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Most people praise Japan for having a population that enjoys longevity.  However, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso would be the first to point out that most people fail to recognize the problem that older people may pose towards an effective system for welfare.  In fact, during a meeting of the National Council on Social Security Reforms this past January, Aso infamously announced that he “would wake up feeling increasingly bad knowing that [treatment] was all being paid for by the government.  The problem won’t be solved unless you let [old people] hurry up and die.”

Aso’s comments immediately raised controversial debate.  Supporters pointed to the fact that the Japanese government had to pass a plan to double sales tax to 10% over the next three years in order to combat rising welfare costs.  On the other hand, opponents argued that Aso was being extremely insensitive towards a generation that should be applauded for its healthy practices and contribution to society.

Regardless of which side people are on, it is undeniable that Japan’s aging population and their reliance on welfare is an existing problem.  It is a well-acknowledged fact that “Japan – the world’s tenth most populous nation – has become one of the fastest aging societies, a situation that impacts heavily on the country’s social and medical services.” Many believe that despite attempts by reformers of the welfare system, Japan faces a stark future where the population will have more dependents, mainly elderly people, than people belonging to the age-range that allows one to work and contribute financially to the family.

Overall, in Japan, the government will give welfare benefits to those whose total household income is below the minimum living expense that the current health and welfare minister sets. Payments are made in cash, but medical and elder care are also provided as part of the welfare system.  In Japan, welfare for the elderly alone comes in three parts: health care, nursing care, and state pensions, with anyone 65 years or older eligible for welfare as long as he/she has paid into the system for at least 25 years.  In general, “households with members 65 and older make up more than 40 percent of the recipients.”

As expected, many elderly Japanese have taken full advantage of the aid given to them.  In 2011, welfare for the elderly alone cost “JPY 16.6 trillion, with pensions taking the lion’s share at JPY 9.9 trillion, followed by health care at JPY 4.6 trillion, and nursing care at JPY 2.1 trillion.”  Researchers have only warned that the problem will only get bigger.  Even though the Japanese government just passed the plan to almost double consumption tax, analysis by Hitotsubashi University Professor Oguro Kazumasa has revealed that “to support today’s system of old age social security and health care, the consumption tax must be more than trebled, to over 30%, and this must be done within the next five years, or the required tax rate will rise to close to 40%.”  In fact, by fiscal year 2025, the cost of welfare is expected to rise to JPY 65 trillion.

Since his statement, Aso has publicly issued an apology for his abruptness, but holds firm to what he views are his own personal beliefs.  With so much at stake, it will be hard for the Japanese government to find a solution that satisfies all of its citizens.  What complicates matters is that the elderly Japanese have proven to be active voters, and so they will hold much sway in what direction future laws concerning welfare will go.

A New Feminine Approach to Aging

5342871974_ca8e44fed6_zUpon hearing the word “menopause,” a few things often pop up in a woman’s mind: fatigue, hot flashes, less sex drive.  Although these are all common symptoms of menopause, the majority of elderly Japanese women actually do not mind the onset of this transition in their lives as much as their female counterparts in other countries do.  In fact, Japanese women view menopause, or konenki, as a natural process in life which involves better habits involving better eating, sleeping, and exercising.  According to Millie Creighton for Pacific Affairs, this indifferent view towards a seemingly daunting change “suggests that as we go through life we should expect ups and downs, some easy and some difficult times.”  In this sense, menopause is simply another step in life, which detaches it from the common perception that menopause is the beginning of the loss of womanhood.  In fact, Japanese elderly woman still view themselves as fully feminine, keeping in mind however that they may need to be more healthy and cautious.  Creighton even argues that Japanese women, until recently, did not even recognize menopause as a significant event and very few even reported a difference in their health.  I personally admire this aspect of Japanese culture because this approach must lead Japanese women to a happier, and more satisfied elderly life, where their attention can be focused on more important aspects of life rather than one they simply can not avoid.

Menopause for American women, on the other hand, is an extremely stressful topic.  The common view is that menopause is the beginning of the end – females need to inject estrogen in order to stay a “woman,” and discomfort is an expected consequence.  According to Joyce Bromberger, Peter Kravitz, Howard M., and Barbara Sommer’s article in the American Journal of Public Health, much research in the United States “suggest that there is an increase in psychologic distress during that transition that is probably transient for most women but may be more severe and enduring for a subset of women.”  Unlike Japanese women who see menopause as a natural and unimportant transition, American elderly women obviously stress themselves over the onset of menopause, which can lead to much mental distress later on.  However, according to Lara Olson in her book Age Through Ethnic Lenses: Caring for the Elderly In A Multicultural Society, this fear may stem from the fact that “despite a lifetime of providing care to others, women also are more at risk than men of lacking any care for themselves.”  Drawing from this fact, I realize that American women, especially this disadvantaged by ethnicity, must already feel that they are not on a equal footing.  With menopause as another factor defining them as “different,” it is understandable as to why American women shutter at the thought of menopause.  However, I think it may be beneficial for American women to change their view towards menopause considering it is inevitable; after all, much more time can be devoted to making their life a healthier and more fulfilling one.

A Future with Robot Caretakers

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Japan has always been known to be on the forefront of technology, and this fact remains true even in healthcare for the elderly Japanese.  In fact, many see robots as the solution to a growing aging population with less and less people available to take care them.  In his article, Charles Bickers reveals a new robot that has been installed in homes and reminds its owners, usually the elderly Japanese, to take their pills before leaving the home.  Apparently, “the cuddly-but-electronic pal also arranges prescription refills via the Internet, while advising the central office of [the customer’s] latest blood-pressure readings.  If there’s a problem, it calls for help immediately.”

With robots providing so much help, it is no wonder that more and more variations are being marked to the public.  In fact, many believe that the robot RIBA, will eventually be a household name among the elderly Japanese because it aids immobile patients who have transportation problems at home.  According to Corey Binns for Popular Science, RIBA apparently has “a powerful motor, plus 454 sensors embedded in [its] arms, [which] helps the robot lift and move people weighing up to 135 pounds.”  Basically, with a simple command, RIBA, who recognizes faces and voices, will whisk its patient away to his/her desired location with is foam-covered arms.  Since such machines have been meet with favorable responses, I wouldn’t be surprised if by by the end of the century, a number of robots will be roaming the halls of Japanese hospitals.  In fact, I’ve even wondered if robots may outnumber human nurses in the future Japan.

Compared to its Japanese counterpart, the United States elderly group is much less accepting of the “robot craze” revolutionizing healthcare for the older population.  In fact, the majority of the technologically advanced machinery in American healthcare involves singular body part imitations operated by human hands as opposed to the free-moving and life-like robots that are bursting into the Japanese market.  This discrepancy may be due to the fact that, according to The Economist, “in western popular culture, robots are often a threat [while] by contrast, most Japanese view robots as friendly and benign.”  Therefore, older Americans may be more hesitant to accept help from robots simply because it is engrained in their minds that robots pose a certain threat.

This makes sense considering many American films often portray robots as villains.  In fact, robotic engineer Daniel Wilson explains that Americans tend to be scared of robots because “the problem with tools – which is what robots are – is that we become dependent on them […] That’s scary, so we contemplate the disaster scenarios that could come from being overdependent on tools.”  Also, if more advanced artificial intelligence were to be introduced to the American public, there will definitely be an outcry by citizens who see their jobs threatened not only by outside countries, but now also by advanced machinery.  However, the United States should not be so close-minded and be aware that some groups, such as the elderly population, may benefit from robot helpers.  Overall, America shouldn’t let its fear be the contributing factor to the country falling behind when it comes to modern technology.

A New Elderly Political Presence?

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As mentioned before, Japan is one of the most fascinating countries simply because it has the greatest number of elderly people in proportion to the rest of its population.  Inevitably, such a huge group of people with roughly the same interests must yield some power whether they choose to utilize it or not.  Therefore, to the surprise of none, there actually has been talk of a new political party made up of Japanese baby boomers called the Dankai Party.

However, don’t be alarmed if you have not heard about this before.  After all, one of the biggest problems is getting elderly people to form an organized movement in Japan.  In fact, contrary to common belief, the elder population actually has much more to say about politics than expected.  A recent study by Nicolas Danigelis, Melissa Hardy, and Stephen J. Cutler concluded that “the 60+ group is not significantly different from the <40 group on for of the five privacy items: both groups become more favorable toward the right-to-die, both become less tolerance of extramarital and premarital sex and easier divorce laws.”  Regardless of which country it is, no country is as liberal as to tolerate all those conditions, especially Japan, and therefore, it seems only reasonable the elderly population should be more active in politics once a better established group can successfully voice everyone’s opinions.

Although there isn’t a formal political party made up of the older generation, the United States is still home to one of the most influential organizations made up of the elderly – the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).  An advertisement representative of the AARP can be found at: http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4O1kr4swMw.

Although not strictly a political entity, the AARP has managed to have an impact on society that the Dankai Party has yet to see simply because the AARP boasts flawless and careful organization. In fact, according to Yasuo Takao, the AARP may actually benefit because they have no political affiliation – the group successfully lobbies to politicians because “they claim to represent millions of senior citizens who can be mobilized for grassroots lobbying […] it is more cost effective for the AARP to avoid political contributions and focus on lobbying and alternative forms of political participation.”  Therefore, if other countries with a growing population of aging elders, such as the Japan, follow the AARP’s organization and structure, they too might slowly gain more and more precedence in the political world.

Exploring Pre-Funerals

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Everyone points to Japan as the prime and extreme example of the consequences of youths all over the world today choosing to have a limited, if any, number of children.  According to the New York Times, in 2005, people aged 65 or older account for 21% of the population, which is the world’s highest elderly ratio, while the ratio of people aged 15 or younger in the total population was the world’s lowest, at 13.6%.  Japan has been facing a huge population decline, which is a direct result of “a dwindling birthrate, with deaths continuing to outnumber baby arrivals, combined with the postwar baby boom generation reaching retirement age as well as strict immigration laws are factors fuelling the declining population.”  More and more Japanese youths have been struggling to find ways to support a lifestyle that accounts for an aging elder.  Therefore, as contributors to one of their greatest national problems, the elderly Japanese have come up with an interesting approach towards mitigating their families’ stress while still celebrating a long-lived life.

Their solution has come in the form of pre-funerals.  As morbid as the word sounds, pre-funerals actually provide a number of arguably positive functions: 1) the elder pays for his/her own pre-funeral so that the family is not burdened with the financial responsibility of paying for a funeral later on 2) the elder is able to express his/her gratitude and satisfaction with life while still alive and finally, 3) the elder is able to exercise a degree of independence which dispels the stereotype of elders as being dependent.

As expected, this practice has drawn both praise and criticism from societies.  While the elder is able to celebrate his/her life with loved ones, is it really fair for the family to have to go through the obvious grief associated with parting due to death earlier than necessary?  For example, in 1993, actress Takiko Mizunoe held a pre-funeral celebration and later stated: “I can’t tell you how marvelous it felt,” she said the next day. “Body and soul,I was washed clean. It was like a rebirth.”  Although Mizunoe felt rejuvenated, her loved ones could not help but cry and feel the pain of having to live without her one day, all the while knowing that they would have to repeat the emotional roller coaster once Mizunoe actually passes away.

Although many may view Japan as a country deeply rooted in tradition, the planning of a pre-funeral may be more complicated in the United States.  As a country whose aging population struggles to cope with ageism, who would really want to throw a party emphasizing one’s descent into oblivion?  Japan has a tradition of reverence for the elderly, while Americans tend to see elderly people as playing increasingly smaller roles in society.  In fact, Jack Culberg, a 79-year-old American wrote in the book Worlds of Difference: Inequality in the Aging Experience that “ageism is a tremendous problem today […] Business analysts don’t give a good rating if a seventy-five-year-old guy is running the company.  What the hell, he’s going to die any minute […] it starts getting dangerous at sixty, sixty-five”.

Personally, I believe it might be beneficial to destroy this American skepticism towards aging, simply because one’s later years should be spent in comfort.  Celebrating one’s life with a pre-funeral will offer elders the opportunity to express their gratitude and love.  Most importantly, it will help everyone accept something that is inevitable.  If something is bound to happen anyways, everyone should just make the most of the situation.  After all, there must be a reason that the Japanese, who greatly respect their elders, have the greatest aging population in the world.