In feudal Japan ubasute or “granny dumping” sometimes occurred in times of famine or hardship. It refers to the horrific practice of abandoning elderly relatives on lonely mountaintops.  The demographic challenges the country currently faces have caused a modern revival of the practice, with some charities establishing a service called “senior citizen postbox”.  The charities assign elderly parents left with them to retirement homes. 

The tragedy is the family members who abandon their elderly relatives are normally genuinely desperate and struggling on their own, often with a relative with severe dementia.  Many are depressed as a result of the weight of the burden.

The problem comes because the number of 20- to 29-year-olds in Japan has dramatically decreased from 18.3 million to 12.8 million since 2000, according to the World Bank. By 2040 there may only be only 10.5 million. Thus cities are chasing an ever-diminishing number of young adults and children in order to support their economies and retiring populations.

A quarter of Japan’s 127 million people are over 65, and there is expected to be an explosion of further pensioners around 2025 when the post-war baby boomers reach their mid-70’s.  At the same time the latest census showed that the Japanese population fell at its fastest rate since records began, decreasing by almost 300,000. 

The government has made addressing declining fertility a huge priority.  One important thing will be encouraging a focus on family, motherhood and time spent with children and older family instead of a focus on such long working hours.  Some companies are now looking at more flexible working hours or even three days weekends, as they begin to acknowledge the excessive working culture.  Flexibility is needed both to have children and to look after the growing elderly.  Japan is increasingly a lesson in a corporate culture that just simply doesn’t encourage life or quality of life.  What is it all for?

The government and business groups are also launching a Premium Friday campaign on February 24th.  The campaign encourages companies to allow workers to finish early on the last Friday of every month so that they can go out and have fun.  Let’s hope more initiatives such as these are aimed at family time and recreation.  A re-balance away from a sole career focus (with even the pressure to socialise away from family among colleagues for many Japanese employees) might make having children more attractive for Japanese couples.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...