Home >Politics >News >In aging Japan, under 75 is the new ‘pre-old’

NAGANO (JAPAN) : Sachiko Kobayashi turns 65 next year, but she isn’t eager to be called elderly—not with a job making box lunches, a crafts business and a garden full of pumpkins and radishes.

The good news is that so long as she stays in Nagano, she won’t be elderly next year, or even in 2030. The city, eager to keep its older residents active, has redefined the word so that only those 75 and older qualify.

“I think it’s a natural move, because people in their 60s are much younger than I had imagined before," Ms. Kobayashi said.

Japan is by far the world’s oldest nation, with more than 29% of the population 65 or older, compared with 17% in the U.S. and 21% in Europe. Efforts to get younger have gone nowhere. The birthrate is still falling and immigration has nearly ground to a halt with Covid-19.

Linguistically, however, Japan is at the forefront of change. Millions of people have learned they no longer are old, but merely “pre-old."

That is the terminology suggested by both the Japan Gerontological Society and the Japan Geriatrics Society, which say the 65-to-74 range now should be called “pre-old age." The government says the idea is worth looking at and has modified its annual White Paper on the Elderly to make clear it isn’t necessarily calling people in their 60s elderly.

Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, used the new definition to reduce the proportion of its population classified as elderly to just 16%, from 30% under the old definition, making it one of the youngest cities in Japan.

One pre-old person is Ms. Kobayashi’s husband, Yuichi, 67. He takes it a little easier these days after retiring from his factory job. Unlike his wife, he doesn’t get up at 3 a.m. to head to the lunchbox store. Still, he has a part-time job at a supermarket and believes he is physically much younger than his grandfather, who died at the age he is now.

“Grandpa looked like he was 80 years old or so at his death," said Mr. Kobayashi.

Nagano part-time farmer Norihiro Aizawa, 38, said he planned to work through his 70s, as do many farmers in Japan. “We say here that a person in his 40s or 50s is still a child with a runny nose, and people in their 60s and 70s are in the prime of their careers," said Mr. Aizawa. He said he planned to take over his parents’ rice and vegetable farm full time someday, but for now his father, in his early 70s, is in charge.

Japan’s White Paper on the Elderly this year pointed to studies suggesting that many in the 65-to-74 set don’t share the traits often associated with the term elderly. Only 6% require care by others. Half of those 65 to 69 hold jobs, as do a third of those in their early 70s. Life expectancy in Japan now stretches into the late 80s for women and the early 80s for men.

Hiromi Rakugi, a gerontologist at Osaka University who was involved in the pre-old proposal, said data on walking speed suggest those who are now in their 60s and 70s are, on average, equal in health status to those who were a decade or so younger a generation or two ago. He said he is hoping to present his ideas to the World Health Organization for wider consideration.

Among the pre-old set, fear remains that the redefinition, even if advocated only by independent bodies, simply encourages the austerity-minded Ministry of Finance to slash benefits.

Meiko Yamamoto, 74, who works at a medical-clothing factory, said she agreed that many people remained active at a more advanced age these days, but she said wider recognition of that might lead to an unhappy result. “I suspect the government is likely to delay offering pensions," she said.

As in the U.S. and other developed nations, Japan has been nudging up the age at which pensioners can receive full benefits. In April, a revised employment law took effect, telling big employers they should offer workers a place until they turn 70, up from the previous government-sanctioned retirement age of 65.

The government says that is meant to protect the right of people to keep working and isn’t a stealth way of making everyone work full time until their 70s.

Yamato, a suburb of Tokyo that also changed its definition, has put up a banner on a bridge over the highway that reads, “The town where people in their 70s are not called elderly people." The city initially had “people in their 60s" on the banner, figuring 70 was still old, but raised the figure to “70s" a few years ago.

Yamato Mayor Satoru Ohki, 73, said the signs aren’t about creating an excuse for government officials to cut pensions and benefits, and his city hasn’t done so.

“I wanted to break the frame that confined those in their 60s and 70s as old so they would be set free," said Mr. Ohki.

Some feel it is still ageist to single out a particular group of people as elderly or old, even if the cutoff age is higher.

Isao Oshima, 82, of Nagano would be considered elderly even under the revised definitions, or perhaps “late-stage elderly," a term used currently for those 75 and older. Mr. Oshima leads a volunteer group that shoots video of community festivals and stays up into the wee hours editing the footage.

“Even if someone calls me late-stage elderly, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah? I don’t care,’ " said Mr. Oshima.

Dr. Rakugi of Osaka University, who is 63, wasn’t about to get into a fight with Mr. Oshima. He said people of any age can call themselves pre-old if they like. “ ‘Old’ can be further away," he said. “It’s fine to make it 80 or 90."

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