Standing in the middle of Shibuya, I began to feel a little perplexed. Something didn’t seem right. It wasn’t the fact that there were thousands of people surrounding me. It was that, of those thousands, not one single person looked to be over the age of 35. This was shocking to me because I live in a prefecture which is very obviously suffering the effects of Japan’s ageing population.
Toyama prefecture is the place I call home in Japan. You’ve probably never heard of it. I hadn’t. It’s one of Japan’s forgotten prefectures, “famous” for blue glow-in-the-dark squid, YKK zips and robotic seals that comfort the elderly in rest homes. It’s also home to an increasingly elderly population. Having lived in Toyama for over two years, I have seen the first-hand consequences of this phenomenon.
In 2008, 7.57 million houses in Japan were vacant. A third of those were because owners had left them, or owners had died. On my way to and from work every day, I walk by one of these abandoned homes. The garden is overgrown, the shed is half collapsed and windows are broken. Through the deteriorating paper screens, I can see into what was once a bedroom. A clothes rack is by the window and an old man’s shirts sit on their hangers. I used to wonder why no family members went to clean up the house and sell it off, but I came to the realisation that maybe he didn’t have any family left. It’s a sad reality for many of Japan’s elderly.
There are 1,083,000 people in Toyama and only 87,000 are children younger than nine years old. The number of young children has been decreasing each year. Some schools in the rural towns are closing down or merging. The most recent closure was Inami High School. In 2010 they stopped accepting new students due to a significant decrease in applicants. In 2012 they bid farewell to their last batch of graduates and shut their doors for good.
In stores, the section for elderly diapers is much larger than that for infant ones. The elderly population in Toyama is continuing to grow. In 2012 there were 392,000 people over the age of 60. You can see more ‘Oba-chan’ (grandmother) stores along my city’s main shopping street than anything else. In fact, the walking stick section in my local home centre has just recently relocated to a larger area so more stock can be accommodated.
I don’t know what the future holds for Toyama. I asked one of my teenage students if there was a solution to the ageing population. She said elderly people needed to stop eating so healthily and young women needed to stop working and have more babies like in the old days. I don’t necessarily agree with her but she raised an important point. There is no simple solution to this problem. But whatever happens, I don’t want Toyama to turn into an elderly ghost town.