Current situation in Japan

“My church consists mostly of older people. I need missionaries to come and help us reach out to young people so that our numbers don’t continue to decline.” Many Japanese pastors have been saying this, often with a measure of desperation.

Japan’s population is shrinking (a birth rate of 7.1 people per 1,000, against a death rate of 10.2 in 2020).1 Furthermore, Japan has the second highest life expectancy of any country (84.67 years in 2020).2 Currently, 29.18% of Japanese are over 65,3 and this is expected to rise to 38.4% by 2065.4 Healthy life expectancy (HALE: the current number of years a newborn can expect to live in “full health”) was an astonishing 72.14 (men) and 74.79 (women) in 2016.5

Cities are scrambling to cope with this rapid increase in older people. The workforce is being stressed by healthy 70-year-olds wanting to continue working, while the soaring costs of medical treatment are bringing the health insurance system to its knees. More elderly Japanese are sick and need to be cared for. One-third of Japanese people die of cancer,6 which often requires expensive treatment and long- term care. There are not enough trained caregivers. The use of health-care robots may further dehumanise the elderly.

“Every week I go to see my doctor because he takes time to talk to me,” said Mr. K. However, Mr. K’s Christian doctor told me that he struggles to provide the extra time needed to cope with the increasing loneliness of the elderly.

The respect traditionally shown to elderly people is disintegrating. “I feel abandoned by my family, who are so busy with their own lives,” said Mrs. M.

In 2009, 32,000 Japanese died a “lonely death” (kodokushi);7 most of these cases involve elderly people over 65. This trend is expected to increase. There is a lack of hospices and home hospice care facilities in Japan. Only 10% of Japanese die at home, compared with 30% in other developed countries.8 Japanese people generally have a negative image of “hospices” and many end up spending their last days surrounded by the noise and bustle of a normal hospital. Spiritual care at hospices has only just begun to be considered in Japan.

Criminal offenses by Japanese aged 65 or over accounted for 21.7% of all crime in 2018.9 “The elderly are turning to shoplifting, as an increasing number of them lack assets and children to depend on. Some elderly, particularly men who have lost their wives, even commit crimes to be put in jail so they can be fed three times a day.”10

Problems and Opportunities from a Christian Perspective

Japanese politicians know that the problems associated with the ageing population of Japan—pension, care and welfare of older people, and the increasing cost of health care— will continue to spiral out of control. I believe that we need to pray that God will raise up politicians and bureaucrats who will have the wisdom to see the big, long-term picture, and especially have the courage to implement changes that are unpleasant in the short term but that will produce a stable society in 40 years’ time.

Problems Christians face as we seek to reach out to the elderly:

  • Time and patience is needed to build relationships.
  • Reduced concentration span.
  • Communication problems.
  • Memory and reasoning difficulties.
  • A number of older people struggle with new technology.
  • Vision difficulties so they are unable to read small-print Christian literature.
  • A good general working knowledge of illnesses and hospitals is needed to understand the physical and mental problems of older people.
  • The church needs to be ready to deal with sudden health crises among the elderly.
  • Abuse (neglect, poor care, and physical abuse) of people in old-age homes is more common than it was. An increasing number of old-age homes do not allow visitors who are not immediate family or approved friends.
  • In some cases, getting involved with an older person also means getting involved with the family, and the family problems, of the person.

Opportunities:

  • Older people usually have more time to consider the meaning of life and the existence of a Creator God.
  • Many elderly in Japan are relatively healthy well into their 80s, and their wisdom and experience can be used by God to minister to others.
  • The door is open for volunteer work.
  • Christians are freely able to join in with recreational activities frequented by older people: hot springs, sight-seeing tours, Go and Shogi clubs, etc.
  • Modern technology can make reading the Bible and Christian books easier for sight-impaired people.
  • Sickness and grief open doors for loving Christ-centered care.
  • Funerals can be opportunities for evangelism.

Thoughts on reaching the elderly for Christ wherever they are:

  • The elderly should be reached through a local church (rather than through a parachurch organization).
  • Older Christians need to be encouraged to see that they have a vital role to play in the growth and vitality of the local church. The best way for the elderly to be reached for Christ is through the witness of elderly Christians who have experienced similar difficulties.
  • Preaching and teaching in the church should be one-point messages that make good use of personal illustrations to teach theological truth. Messages need to be short (within 30 minutes), clear, and somewhat repetitive.
  • To allow older people to be baptised, the church may need to lower the bar in terms of not requiring a detailed knowledge of theology.
  • Learn how to really listen. In many cases, listening can be as effective as professional counseling. How willing are we Christians to spend time talking about seemingly non-essential things, to be Christ to the older person? Are we willing to take the natural opportunities that God will give us to share about Jesus and our Creator God?
  • The church needs to speak out against abuse in old-age homes.
  • The church could hold seminars on “How to live each day with joy,” or “How to die with dignity and peace.”

Is it an understatement to say that Japanese elderly are, and will continue to be, the largest unreached group in Japan? Whether young, middle-aged, or elderly, it is the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus, convicts of sin, and gives faith to believe. Praise God for His work!

—By Dale Viljoen, an OMF Japan missionary

  1. Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook, last updated June 2020, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html
  2. Macrotrends, Japan Life Expectancy 1950-2020, https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/JPN/japan/life-expectancy
  3. CIA: The World Factbook.
  4. National Institute of Population and Social Security Research 2017, http://www.ipss.go.jp/pp-zenkoku/e/zenkoku_e2017/pp_zenkoku2017e_gaiyou.html
  5. 内閣府 / Cabinet office https://www8.cao.go.jp/kourei/whitepaper/w-2018/html/gaiyou/s1_2_2.html
  6. Japan Cancer Society, accessed November 10, 2015, http://www.jcancer.jp/en/cancer-in-japan
  7. Anne Allison (11 November 2013). Precarious Japan. Duke University Press. pp. 126–127. ISBN 978-0-8223-7724-5. Retrieved 22 June 2014.
  8. Dr. Maeno, head of Minami Seisyu hospital’s hospice. Conversation with author, 2009.
  9. 年版犯罪白書 by法務省 (Ministry of Justice) http://hakusyo1.moj.go.jp/jp/66/nfm/images/full/h4-8-1-01.jpg
  10. Stuart Biggs and Sachiko Sakamaki, Poverty, Pension Fears Drive Japan’s Elderly Citizens to Crime, Bloomberg, November 13, 2008, http://www. bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a s80aWlHdA1M&refer=home

Originally published in Japan Harvest, in Autumn 2015. Updated July 2020 for OMF’s website.

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray that the church in Japan would see the ageing situation in their country as an opportunity.
  • Pray that the Holy Spirit would be at work in elderly people’s hearts.
  • Pray for more missionaries who have a heart for working with elderly people.

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