Japan: an aging society not prepared for retirement

SMU Japanese politics expert Hiroki Takeuchi talks about Japan's aging population and the politics of retirement there.

Washington Bureau

TOKYO — Before the devastation of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fire, Japan’s Parliament was nearing a breakdown over attempts to hike taxes and cut spending for senior pensions and health care.

Politicians have now united to confront a natural disaster. Regaining control of the budget, however, will be much harder as reconstruction piles on more debt in a country already straining under the costs of an aging population.

Japan’s social security budget woes are worse than those facing the United States, even though the Japanese government has faced up to them more often than the U.S. government.

Those confrontations with the cost of an aging society have had political consequences, however. A backlash among the elderly, who are ill-prepared for retirement, has created a powerful senior voting bloc that’s defeating incumbent governments. Japan has gone through five prime ministers since 2006.

While poverty among the elderly is no worse than it is in the United States, recent surveys show hardly any Japanese know how much money they will have to live on in retirement. Fewer than one in five have a plan on how to spend it.

Analysts say this lack of readiness has political costs. Seniors are a powerful and growing voting bloc in Japan, and they have come to rely on the government to provide adequate pensions and health care. They don’t like it when Japanese politicians try to reduce massive levels of government borrowing by cutting benefits.

 “Especially among older Japanese voters, they are dissatisfied with their treatment, and they vote against the incumbent party,” said Hiroki Takeuchi, who teaches Japanese politics at Southern Methodist University.

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