Ageing Asia: In Japan, it’s never too old to start a boy band

Ji-Pop, consists of five senior citizens, aged 65 to 87, holding day jobs as farmers and fishermen.

Walter Sim

Walter Sim

The Straits Times


Mr Noriyasu Tanioka (centre), 74, is the leader of "male idol group" Ji-Pop, which comprises five senior citizens. PHOTO: JI-POP/THE STRAITS TIMES

September 28, 2023

TOKYO – Mr Noriyasu Tanioka wears many hats: He is a grape farmer, the manager of a roadside rest station, and an entertainer whose band was signed by Universal Music Japan in 2016.

He is also 74 years old. The “male idol group” he leads, Ji-Pop, consists of five senior citizens, aged 65 to 87, holding day jobs as farmers and fishermen. The oldest of the quintet, Mr Hidetaka Yamada, still runs full marathons.

While they mainly groove it up on stage in Japanese, they have one English ditty – the disco track I Was Young (2017) with such lyrics as “I am young, I am young/I am happy more than ever”.

The group has released two digital singles and performs around Japan frequently.

The sprightly Mr Tanioka told The Straits Times: “I don’t want to be seen or treated like an old man.”

The group Ji-Pop both references the genre J-Pop and pays homage to their seniority with the word “ji”, which means “old man” in Japanese. What began as a public relations coup for their native western Japan region of Kochi, among the oldest and least-populated of Japan’s 47 prefectures, soon caught the attention of the record company.

“Precisely because we are old, we can seize new challenges by making the most of our previous experiences, rather than just sit around and grow old,” Mr Tanioka said.

And that is the healthy, active ageing mindset that Japan wants its seniors to adopt.

Japan has the world’s oldest population, and more than one in 10 Japanese are aged 80 or older.

The country has one of the world’s top life expectancy rates – 87.09 years for women and 81.05 years for men – and has in its midst senior citizen influencers, octogenarian politicians and football players, and a 90-year-old mountaineer who summited Mount Everest three times as a senior citizen.

Honouring the elderly is so ingrained in Japanese culture – as they are respected for their experience and wisdom – that seniors have long been feted. In the Shinto religion, rituals have traditionally been held to celebrate milestone ages in life starting from 60 years old, when the 12 zodiac signs, which are similar to the Chinese zodiac, complete a full cycle.

From the age of 60, milestone ages that are celebrated are those ending with zero, such as 70, 80 and 90, and those with repeated numbers, such as 66, 77 and 88. In modern times, honouring the elderly was formalised as the Respect for the Aged Day, an annual public holiday in September since 1966.

How Japan copes with its ageing population – sometimes described as the “silver tsunami”, a term seen as fatalistic and derogatory by some – and the associated social security, health, welfare and employment challenges could become an example for the region and the world.

In 2007, Japan became the world’s first “super-aged” society, defined by the United Nations as one where more than 20 per cent of the population are aged 65 and above. The ratio now is 29 per cent. That proportion stands at 24.5 per cent in Italy and 23.6 per cent in Finland, which rank second and third respectively.

Both South Korea and Taiwan will become super-aged by 2025 and Singapore, by 2026. These three economies, like Japan, have life expectancies above 80 years old.

At the same time, fertility rates are not just falling, but also hit fresh lows in 2022 in all four territories – at 0.78 in South Korea, 0.87 in Taiwan, 1.04 in Singapore, and 1.26 in Japan.

This has wider repercussions on society. While Singapore’s population size is boosted by its comparatively liberal immigration policies and currently stands at 5.64 million with 4.07 million residents and 1.56 million foreigners, resident sizes elsewhere are falling. Japan’s population has fallen for 12 straight years to 124.9 million, and South Korea’s for three years to 51.4 million. Taiwan’s population has fallen every year since it peaked at 23.6 million people in 2019.

Prevention better than cure
Among the grimmest scenarios commonly linked to ageing are escalating healthcare costs that cripple the economy, and societal fractures resulting from competing needs across different demographic groups.

While this is not yet the situation in Japan, the threat is real.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in January 2023 warned that Japan was “on the brink of social dysfunction” when addressing the twin trends of low fertility and rapid ageing in his country.

Already, Japan’s non-conscription Self-Defence Forces is struggling to meet its recruitment quotas, while labour shortages have hit essential services such as nursing and blue-collar industries like manufacturing.

Singapore, meanwhile, has described ageing as the “biggest social transformation for this generation”, and the Government has emphasised that how people look after and engage with seniors to keep them healthy has to change.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said in May that, given the rising burden on family members, there was a need to “reduce the prevalence of severe diseases by focusing on preventive care, and to generate health in homes and communities”.

This was the thinking behind Healthier SG, which was launched in October 2022 and marks a “decisive shift” to emphasise preventive care from a focus on treating illnesses.

Among other things, it enlists private general practitioners to help people manage their health. This is to foster strong patient-doctor relationships so that GPs are in a better position to encourage patients to receive preventive care such as health screening and adult vaccinations.

Mr Tan Kwang Cheak, chief executive of Singapore’s Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), told The Straits Times: “By focusing on preventive health, we want to help our seniors take proactive steps to manage their health, prevent the onset of chronic diseases and have strong support to lead healthier lifestyles.”

The AIC is also launching more “active ageing centres” – from 154 now to 220 by 2025 – to support seniors, especially those at risk of social isolation. Anyone aged 60 and above can drop by, regardless of their financial background, to make friends, take part in activities, and do health checks.

Dr Shuhei Nomura, a public health expert at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research think-tank and adviser to Japan’s Health Ministry, said preventive care and early detection were particularly important for ageing societies.

While Japan has been strong in areas such as high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease prevention, he saw Japan as lacking in such areas as diabetes and dementia prevention and care, which face stigma.

Measures such as the pop-up event-based Restaurant of Mistaken Orders, which hires wait staff with dementia and was held in Singapore for the first time in May, are ground-up community or municipality-led, rather than driven by the national government.

“The word ‘dementia’ is usually avoided in death diagnoses where possible,” said Dr Nomura, who also teaches at Keio University. “Dementia needs to be made a top priority to create social momentum to break down stigma.”

In June 2023, Japan passed laws on dementia, with the national government to draw up policies to ensure those with symptoms will have opportunities for social participation and seamless access to health, medical and welfare services.

Further, more elderly people are living alone, especially in the countryside. This could be because they never married, have been widowed, or because their children have moved for work.

This, Dr Nomura said, necessitates the urgent and uniform digitalisation of welfare services across Japan’s 1,741 municipalities.

Amid a shortage of nurses and caregivers, he said, sensors could be used to detect anomalies in the health or behaviour of the elderly, who should also have a digitalised personal health record that emergency responders can easily access. Creating more social communities where the elderly can gather is also crucial.

Ageing with family
Taiwan’s strong tradition of filial piety means care for the elderly is usually home-based and undertaken by family members, although institutional care is widely available.

Freelance copywriter Tiffany Liu, 43, told ST she is grateful that she can work from home for most of the week as an independent contractor. This arrangement allows her to take care of her 66-year-old mother, who suffers from arthritis and must use a walker.

When Ms Liu goes out, she uses her smartphone to check on her mother via security cameras installed in her flat.

“I’m her only child and there are only two of us at home ever since my parents got divorced years ago,” she said. “I feel it’s my duty to take care of her, and keep her at home where she feels most comfortable.”

This is helped by Taiwan’s Long-Term Care Plan 2.0, which was launched in 2017 and promotes “ageing in place” by providing care services close to home and subsidising the purchase of assistive devices, among other things. In 2022, the plan served 470,000 people – nearly four times that in 2017 – while the budget swelled to over NT$60 billion (S$2.5 billion) from NT$5 billion.

But caregiving is an exhausting task.

Ms Chang Hsiao-chan, deputy director of the non-profit Taiwan Association of Family Caregivers, said: “As much as there is a strong sense of filial piety and desire to take care of the elderly at home, that is simply not possible for everyone given how small Taiwanese households are becoming.”

Calls are growing for the government to support those who wish to admit their wards into residential care facilities, which are expensive.

In Singapore, there is also awareness of the stress that caregivers go through. To help them watch out for their seniors with dementia, 15 dementia-friendly communities have been set up across Singapore with people trained to act as “community lookouts”, taking seniors who appear lost to a safe go-to point.

One area to be looked at is how to help employers support the family caregivers among their staff, noted Singapore Hospice Council executive director Sim Bee Hia.

“We have all heard about caregivers having to quit their jobs to help take care of a frail or dying parent. They may take a long time to return to the workforce, if at all,” she said.

A recent survey of 200 family caregivers of Dover Park Hospice patients found that caregivers spend nearly seven hours a day looking after their wards, with nearly half deemed at risk of depression.

Work if desired
South Korea’s twin trends of rapid ageing and plunging birth rates are evident in how 13,000 senior welfare facilities have been built since 2018, while nearly 10,000 childcare centres have closed.

Like in Japan, many elderly folk there live alone. To stave off isolation, technology is being deployed with robots teaching the elderly how to use smartphones and keeping them company at home.

South Korea’s rapidly ageing population and low birth rates mean there will be far fewer working-age adults who can pay income taxes and pensions that will go into, among other things, social security. By 2070, nearly half of South Korea’s population is expected to be elderly.

One solution that is being mooted to mitigate the impact is to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 – or even older. Such a measure will also slow the depletion of the National Pension Fund. There was 974 trillion won (S$993 billion) in the coffers in May 2023, but this is projected to be emptied by 2055 if nothing is changed.

Concurrently, Seoul is looking at raising the pension withdrawal age from 62 to 65, by 2033, with average monthly premiums also to be increased by at least 90,000 won.

Japan is grappling with the same issue of depletion of its pension funds as a result of rapid ageing, and reforms to its pension system are due to be announced by 2025. The country is thinking of raising the age cap for pension contribution to 64 years from 59 years.

The upside is that a majority of the elderly in both countries want to continue working. The figure is as high as 70 per cent in South Korea, a government survey in May showed, with respondents’ ideal retirement age averaging at 73 years. Of those who want to continue working, 55.8 per cent said they wanted to earn enough to get by, while 35.6 per cent said they wanted to do it out of enjoyment.

Japan’s elderly folk are also working into their golden years. Over half of those aged 65 to 69 continue to draw a salary.

At the same time, Japanese companies are increasingly hiring older workers, to alleviate labour shortages and keep their business competitive. Close to 40 per cent of businesses employ workers 70 and older, double the proportion of 10 years ago.

Daiwa Steel Tube Industries, which was founded in 1932 and manufactures galvanised tubes for the construction industry, is keeping its seniors on the payroll for as long as they want to work, though third-generation owner Shinichiro Nakamura acknowledged the “physically tough” environment.

Of the firm’s 164 employees, 18 are in their 60s while three are in their 70s, the 51-year-old told ST.

The ageing workforce and labour crunch were reasons why the company adopted “smart factory” systems with real-time analytics in 2019, Mr Nakamura said.

It was not easy to implement as it meant not only changing decades-old plant floor work processes, but also getting the buy-in of experienced workers. But he said the systems were necessary to boost productivity and remain competitive – yield has improved by about 20 per cent.

The “smart factory” systems that leverage artificial intelligence also reduce the subjectivity in operations – slight malfunctions can be discovered more promptly based on data. Acknowledging that attrition may be higher among younger work-staff, Mr Nakamura said that relying more heavily on data to develop prototypes makes it easier to pass on knowledge when craftsmen retire.

As the Japanese experience has shown, staying active and productive for longer is beneficial not just for the seniors themselves, but also for the society at large.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 71, made a clarion call for active ageing in April, when he said: “Individuals must embrace ageing positively – you cannot help your hair from growing greyer or sparser, but you can stay open to change, keep learning and remain productive for as long as we can.”

Seniors themselves are well aware of this.

Mr Tanioka, the 74-year-old entertainer, said: “Life experience is a treasure, and the more elderly (folk) there are means the more abundant the treasure. This is a point of pride. Even for those who are starting to sense the weight of their age, it is possible to feel brighter and more positive.”

Additional reporting by Joyce Teo, Yip Wai Yee and Wendy Teo

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