A Diminishing Family Value: Care for the Aged

Fr. Barry Cairns
January 9, 2011

Every year in September, Japan has a national holiday called “Respect for the Aged Day.” This year that very name has taken a battering!

Fr. Barry Cairns

At age 79, Fr. Barry Cairns lives and works in Japan.

It all started in June 2010 with Mr. Sogen Kato of Tokyo. In the city family records, he was listed as alive and 111 years old, but he had never been seen. Police became suspicious. It turned out that 30 years ago he barricaded himself in his room in his son’s house, telling the family that he was going to become a Buddha. The family left him to it! His mummified body was found by police.

After the story broke about Mr. Kato, more and more similar cases came to light. One city health offi cial trying to trace a 108-yearold woman went to the woman’s daughter who said she had not contacted her mother in 25 years but thought she was living with her brother. The brother told officials he did not know where his mother was, or even if she were alive or dead. Another woman was registered alive at age 125 and living at a designated address. Upon investigation, the address was found to be an expressway. A Kyodo News headline on September 10, 2010, reported that at least 234,000 centenarians are missing.

Magazines, newspapers and television commentators have gone beyond the bizarre details and have challenged the Japanese people to look into these cases. The challenge they throw down is this: from ancient times we Japanese have been known for our filial piety. Is our traditional respect for the aged growing weak?

Obasute means “abandon old women.” The sign marks the spot where many years ago, the lord of the region ordered all old people in his domain to be thrown out of their homes and abandoned.

From among the people interviewed came these comments: “Look at my small apartment. I live here with my wife and two children. I respect my mother, but where could I possibly put her?” From another: “My married life is already under stress, and we could not cope with living with my aged father.”

All interviewed said that they could not afford to support aged parents in a retirement home. And from interviews with the elderly there were such comments as “I don’t want to cause inconvenience to my son and his family.” Causing inconvenience is one of the greatest social sins in Japanese society. Another said, “My daughter-in-law doesn’t like me, and I don’t like her.” Another said, “My children are not interested in me so I will stay alone in this apartment until I die.” A new word has been coined made up of three Chinese characters, kudoku-shi, meaning, to die alone. How sad!

Japanese life expectancy is the highest in the world—86 years for women, 79 years for men. In five years, 32 million, or roughly 25% of Japan’s population will be over age 65. Research says that at present 35% of those over age 65 live alone and that number will drastically increase.

Where is care for the aged to come from? This is a major worry for the elderly. Many cannot foresee being cared for by family. The care so glibly promised by political parties at election time seems very shaky. Millions of pension records have been lost. Prices rise while pensions do not. Changes in government and policies unsettle the elderly. Only the rich can afford a retirement home.

But city officials are also in a bind. They may go to the home of an aged person to check on health and welfare, but if they press the doorbell and someone answers with “it is not convenient to see you,” they must leave. The privacy laws in Japan are explicit and strict. Here is another indicator of the sad state of the aged and the breakdown of family values: in the first six months of 2010, 97 elderly people were charged by police with keeping protected wild birds illegally, especially a bird called a mejiro or white eyes. The reason they gave: “I feel lonely. Hearing the bird sing eases the pain.”

Again, the National Police Agency reports that shoplifting among the aged has increased — 27,019 cases in a year. Recently, loneliness, not financial difficulty, has been given as the reason the people were shoplifting. Japan is a rapidly aging society. Materialism and urbanization have weakened family ties. Respect for the aged and traditional care by family members is a tradition that is disintegrating. So many aged persons are hurt and lonely.

They are in prison. Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me…take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt. 25). Would that more and more people come to claim this reward for the care they bestow on the aged members of their family and society.

The article originally appears in the December 2010 issue of Columban Mission.