Old versus Young in Japan

If you read about a country with economic problems where “already indecisive leaders [are] loath to upset retirees from the baby boom who make up more than a quarter of the population and tend to vote in high numbers,” you might guess that the article was about the U.S. and Medicare.

It’s not. It’s about Japan and the value of the yen. In 2007 the Japanese yen was trading at 123 to the dollar. In the post-2008 economic crisis the yen was seen as a safe haven currency. Its value went up. It now trades for about 78 to the dollar.

So what does the exchange value of the yen have to do with intergenerational conflict? A recent article in the New York Times explains why the old and the young are fighting about currency. The strong yen makes imports cheaper. Cheaper imports drive down domestic prices as well. Older people on fixed incomes can buy more. Imports that cost 123 yen in 2007 cost only 78 yen now. But a strong yen makes exports more expensive, and Japanese industry – very export dependent – is suffering. This hurts the young.

Japanese political scientists say the government has tolerated the strong yen out of fear of the voting power of the elderly. Shigeru Ono, a 62 year old retired oil company manager who lives on a monthly pension of 130,000 yen (approximately $1,660), clearly understands the intergenerational conflict.  “The strong yen and deflation have been a boon for us baby boomers,” he told the Times. “But I also know that they cannot be good for my son’s generation.”

We get a very different picture of the relationship between old and young in Japan from the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima. After the earthquake and tsunami, Yasuteru Yamada, a 72 year old retired engineer, decided that cleanup work at the Fukushima Daiichi facility that did not require youthful muscles should be done by elderly volunteers, because, as he told NPR last year, it “would be better to send men and women who have finished raising families and are in the sunset of their lives, rather than younger workers whose lives could be cut short by extreme radiation exposure. I want to make the most of the time I have left.”

He contacted 2,500 retirees with technical experience. Six hundred signed up! The volunteers have not yet been accepted in the cleanup process. Here’s how Kazuko Sasaki, a 72-year-old grandmother, explains her reason for volunteering: “My generation built these nuclear plants. So we have to take responsibility for them. We can’t dump this on the next generation.” See here for a story last month about Yasuteru Yamada’s effort to get U.S. support for this effort.

Although Japanese culture is known for stronger communitarian values than we in the U.S. live by, over the years my elderly patients often expressed sentiments that come from the same psychological and spiritual space as the Fukushima volunteers. But contemporary medical ethics in the U.S. typically asks us to be suspicious of the altruistic stance. When our elderly patients say, “I don’t want to be a burden to my family” or “Pay attention to the youngsters – I’ve lived my life,” we interpret these sentiments as signs of depression and low self-esteem. Sometimes that’s what it is, but sometimes it represents the moral perspective that Yasuteru Yamada presents in his matter-of-fact way.

The U.S. is struggling to contain the cost of Medicare. Japan is struggling with the impact of a strong yen. In families, grandparents cherish children and grandchildren. But in wider society the generations are struggling to balance of cooperation and competition between generations.

The Over65 project wants to tap the altruism that is part of the aging process for many seniors. Working on behalf of making Medicare more efficient so that the next generation has a better shot at a good life isn’t as dramatic as volunteering to work at Fukushima. But many seniors, myself included, agree with Kazuko Sasaki that our generation made the mess we’re in and we can’t in good conscience dump it on the next generation. The future well-being of both countries depends in large measure on whether the values expressed by the Fukushima volunteers play out in policy and politics.

James Sabin, M.D., 73, is an organizer of Over 65 and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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