Aging is Cool in Japan

Aging in JapanTokyo has a neighborhood for everything. Electronics. Plastic displays of sushi. Online gaming. High and low fashion. And tucked into the northern reaches of the city, one for aging gracefully.

The Sugamo neighborhood’s half-mile long shopping street, Jizo-dori, offers a window on the way that Japan views its graying population, and a good lesson for the rest of the world. Groups of older adults, families and increasingly, hipsters, shop shoulder-to-shoulder at family-owned markets and linger over newspapers at coffee houses, all with prices geared for the budgets of pensioners.

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has little choice but to cater to its silver foxes. The number of people aged 65 and over now accounts for more than 25% of the population, or about 32 million people. If Japan continues policies that strictly limit immigration, the percent of seniors is forecast to hit 40% of the population by 2060.

As well, aging has better connotations in many Asian countries than it does in the US or in Europe. In Buddhism and Confucianism, for example, aging is characterized as maturity and wisdom. Retirement years are considered a “spring” or “rebirth.”

Many of Sugamo’s retailers specialize in merchandise for celebrating your 60th birthday, which is known as “kanreki.” Men and women don red garments, and are feted with gifts that honor their achievements. Troubles are banished as the celebrants look forward to starting the next full cycle of the 12-pronged zodiac calendar. And the partying doesn’t stop there. Special celebrations also mark a person’s 77th, 88th and 99th birthdays, and when you turn 80, you take part in a “Revere the Elder” day, when city mayors give money to people who are octogenarians.

One recent morning on Jizo-dori, a grandmother strolled hand-in-hand with a young grandchild. They stopped at a sidewalk market, where the older woman pointed to different dried vegetables. The child hung on every word. “She says I am very smart,” the woman translated for foreign visitors standing nearby. “We shall see if she still thinks so when she reaches 60!”

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Image via Meredith P./Flickr