The Reality of Japan's Aging Society: Emergence of Furious Senior Citizens

By Junichiro Nakashima : Reporter of Toyokeizai
March 23,2016
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(photo by sakai/PIXTA)

It is a very cold night in December 2015. In a train station, a sexagenarian is yelling at a station staff member. The old man is furious because he had intended to travel from the city to a certain station but rode the wrong train and ended up at another, unknown station on an unfamiliar line.

Due to the late hour of his arrival, the last train back has already departed, so he screams at the station attendant, "Pay my taxi fare!" This is just the start of the elderly man's unreasonable demands.

Obviously, railway companies are not responsible for passengers' taxi fares, so the attendant refuses the infuriated passenger, who yells back, "I have a business meeting tomorrow for a deal worth hundreds of millions of yen. If I don't make it in time, the deal will be broken off. How do you plan to compensate me for that?"

When the station attendant refuses to respond, the man continues, "You're nothing but a worthless underling, so of course you can't help me. Get your manager out here now!" He continues to demand money for his taxi fare, and, when the attendant realizes things are getting nowhere, he suggests to the passenger, "How about we call the police and discuss it with them?" The irate man suddenly settles down and, in the end, walks sullenly away.

"Younger customers realize that missing the last train late at night is their own fault," explains the same station attendant, "and they aren't likely to make such ridiculous demands of us. It's the older customers who tend to become nasty, and they don't stop at taxi fares—some demand that we pay for their hotels and other such things. On rainy days, there's always the possibility they may use their umbrella as a weapon, which makes the situation more dangerous."

According to a survey of the Japan Railways (JR) Group's six passenger-line operators, statistics on perpetrators of violence against railway staff indicate that customers in their sixties account for most incidents. This trend has continued for five years running as of the FY 2014 survey.

Moreover, nearly 60% of these assailants were inebriated at the time, and more incidents occurred between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. than at any other time. Based on this data, it seems that problems tend to be caused by intoxicated customers around last-train departure times at night.

Pride seems to be a pronounced trait in many elderly Japanese people. "When they are given a warning or even taught how to do something, many of these customers tend to take offense," adds an employee of another railway company. "Problems related to purchases at reserved-seat ticket machines are quite common. When an elderly patron is unsure about how to operate the machine, they may continue to struggle without asking for help, causing a large line to build up behind them. When a member of the station staff tries to step in and help, the customer refuses. This results in the people in line getting mad, yelling, and sometimes starting altercations."

One fourth of the population is over 65 years old

Today, one out of every four members of the population is at least 65 years of age, and, by 2060, one out of every two-and-a-half persons is expected to fall into this same age group. With a rich range of knowledge and life experience, senior citizens in Japan were once highly respected throughout society. In recent years, however, there is a prevalence of senior citizens who cause problems by suddenly becoming furious or violent, or by making unreasonable demands.

The number of demanding and unreasonable senior citizens is also growing at hospitals. In 2004, The Jikei University School of Medicine Hospital in Tokyo set up a "Hospital Police Box" liaison office inside their facility, where former police officers are stationed. The purpose of this office is to respond to violence committed by patients, unfounded complaints and claims, and other such issues.

"Senior citizens who become ill or injured believe that consolation is their inherent right. As a result, many of them act in very self-centered ways, which can lead to acts of violence within the hospital," explains Akimitsu Yokouchi, a former employee of the Metropolitan Police Department who served as an honorary adviser in the The Jikei University School of Medicine liaison office from its initial establishment until March of last year.

According to a survey of 11 medical facilities (23,000 valid responses) carried out in 2011 by the Liaison Council for the Promotion of Safety in Private University Hospital Medical Care, more than 40% of medical facility staff surveyed indicated that they had been treated violently by a patient or member of a patient's family. In these facilities, violence was most commonly committed by persons in their 70s and sexual harassment by persons in their 60s. In addition, persons in their 60s were also the second most common perpetrators of verbal abuse.

More crimes by senior citizens

Crime has become a major problem among senior citizens. When the number of persons arrested for criminal offenses is examined by age group, persons aged 65 or older accounted for approximately 47,000 cases, second only to the 14–19 age group. Despite a more than 30% decrease (to approx. 250,000 cases) in the total number of crimes committed among all age groups compared to 10 years ago, the number of crimes committed by senior citizens has risen by about 10%.

The most common crime committed by the elderly is theft (approx. 35,000 cases, an increase of about 30% compared with 10 years ago), followed by assault (approx. 3,500 cases, a roughly fourfold increase) and infliction of bodily injury (1,600 cases, an approx. 50% increase).

Many people think that people grow more docile as they get older, but the reality is that many senior citizens engage in verbal abuse as well as eccentric behavior and speech, inevitably becoming more quick-tempered and self-centered. The human brain, which handles our emotions, atrophies with age, and its ability to function effectively withers relative to the level atrophy—this is what causes increased forgetfulness among the elderly, for example.

The frontal lobe, which controls such things as impulses, logic, and desire, begins to atrophy before other parts of the brain. This leads to a reduced ability to control one's emotions as well as weaker decision-making skills and decreased desire. Additionally, common habits among senior citizens, such as smoking and drinking, also contribute to decreased brain function.

The true problems of Japan's elderly citizens are just beginning to surface, and society is not yet sure of how to handle them. Adopting an erroneous approach to these problems could lead to an irreparable generational divided. There is one thing, however, we must always keep in mind: each and every one of us will grow old someday.