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Embracing the Japanese Approach to Aging

A gerontologist argues that 'ikigai' — the Japanese concept of value and self-worth — is crucial to growing old positively

By Dawn Carr | May 24, 2013
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Dawn Carr is a research associate at the Stanford Center on Longevity. Her expertise is in understanding active engagement during later life. Previously, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a researcher at Scripps Gerontology Center.

Japan is the world's "oldest" country, with 21 percent of its population over age 65, compared with 13 percent in the United States. By 2040, 38 percent of Japan's population is expected to be over age 65. Part of this phenomenon can be explained by Japan's low projected fertility (1.2 births per woman, compared with 2.1 in the United States), but the country also has the world's highest life expectancy, at 82. For Americans, life expectancy is 78 (and, at least for some groups, dropping). Japanese women who reach age 65 can expect to live an additional 23 years; men, 18.

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Some researchers have speculated that lifestyle heavily influences the exceptional life expectancy of the Japanese. Elders there face the same issues as others worldwide, including widowhood and declining health. Compared to Americans, though, it appears that older Japanese have developed more positive ways to manage these challenges.

In Japan, the transition to retirement from a period focused on work and family often includes a re-evaluation of life's purpose. And older Japanese adults seem to rely on a different compass to assess their identity and social roles, says Yoshiko Matsumoto, a linguistics professor at Stanford University and the author of Faces of Aging: The Lived Experiences of the Elderly in Japan.

"Older people in Japan do seek to be useful," Matsumoto says. "But they base their idea of being useful on their life purpose, or 'ikigai.' It guides why they do what they do each day, from exercise to social engagement to productive contributions and engagement with their families and society." In her undergraduate course, Joys and Pains of Growing Up and Older in Japan, Matsumoto says her students are intrigued by the concept of ikigai, in part because older people in the United States are so often stereotyped as frail, lonely and disengaged from society.
 
Ikigai resonates with me as well. The lack of a similar philosophy in the United States is part of what inspired me to become a gerontologist. As a young child, I was very close to my widowed octogenarian grandmother. I have fond memories of afternoon snacks of graham crackers and milk, watching reruns of I Love Lucy and giggling together on the couch.

On Sundays, I often went to church with her. Sitting snuggled up to her in the front seat of her eight-cylinder Nova, we flew around Tempe, Ariz., picking up widows who could no longer drive. In addition to the richness of her church social life, my grandmother volunteered and was heavily engaged in community organizations. These activities – including helping care for me – were critical to her sense of self-worth. Later, when she received a cancer diagnosis at age 93, she chose not to receive any treatment, despite being otherwise healthy. Her rationale? She felt she no longer had a purpose in her life. "I can no longer drive, volunteer, take care of others or even set the table for dinner," she said. "I'm nothing but a burden." She died less than a year later.
 
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The impact my grandmother's perceived inability to be useful had on her sense of identity and social value is not uncommon. The problem is rooted in the fact that in the United States, our definition of individual success and value is heavily tied to productivity. Why should we be surprised then that older people struggle to develop a strong sense of identity?

The primary way we differentiate older and younger adults is to focus on what the former can't do. A 1988 New Republic article by Henry Fairlie epitomized these attitudes by famously referring to healthy older people as "greedy geezers." Fairlie hit a nerve and motivated gerontologists, now including me, to point out the many ways older adults contribute to society. Another goal: to help our culture become more cognizant of the impact of our definition of what seniors are "supposed" to do.
 
A sense of purpose is a foundation for personal growth, but by necessity it shifts as we age. Responding to that shift with positivity and intentionality is part of normal aging in Japan, Matsumoto says. Older people are not hidden and maintaining meaningful social connections is strongly encouraged by society. There's a profound awareness in Japan "that isolation is not good," she says. "If you have purpose in your life and people around to share your issues, that brings happiness."

The effects of this attitude, and evidence of the role elders play in Japan, is visible throughout the nation. "When you walk around Japanese communities," Matsumoto says, "you don't just see young people walking to school or work. You see just as many older people on the streets. Aging is embedded in everyday life. You also see older people in the media."

The United States and other Western industrialized nations are facing a rapid shift in the proportion of their over-65 populations, forcing us to confront unfamiliar issues. The embeddedness of older people in Japanese culture offers a meaningful national roadmap. Since it is widely understood that a quarter of the Japanese population will be over 65 in the near future, businesses there are already addressing the growing need for caregiving and figuring out solutions for projected shortages in the work force. While these issues may not be as pressing today in the United States, we know that one day they will be. A national conversation about the role and social value of older people, therefore, is an integral piece of our economic future.
 
(MORE: Why We Live Longer — and Can Still Live Better)
 
Perhaps older people in Japan offer us a "face" of aging that can help us prepare for the changes ahead. With an anticipated 56 million Americans expected to be over 65 by 2020, there are many challenges to address and opportunities to embrace.