Japan's demographics are entering a new phase, in which the "super elderly," those 75 years old or older, outnumber senior citizens aged between 65 and 74.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the number of Japanese aged 75 or older stood at 17.70 million as of 1 March, while those between the ages of 65 and 74 numbered 17.64 million. Because people are living longer, the number of older senior citizens is growing by an average 30,000 every month. On current trends, by 2025 Japan's first wave of baby boomers will all be 75 or older, outnumbering their 65- to 74-year-old counterparts by 50%, reported Nikkei Asian Review.
Many of these older elderly are frail, suffer from dementia or are bedridden. Unlike the Japan of today, in which many retirees are in good health and lead active lives, the future points to a "heavily burdened aged society" in the words of Keio University economist Dr Keiichiro Kobayashi. The rapid graying of Japan is likely to be a permanent drag on the economy as consumption slows and more of the government's budget goes to pay for things like nursing care.
So far the economic effects have been mild. Advances in medicine and healthier lifestyles mean many over 65s in Japan remain active. And they have money to spend: People 60 and older account for roughly half Japan's personal consumption
But the picture may soon darken as older senior citizens make up a larger slice of Japan's elderly population. At present, just 3% of senior citizens are classified by the national health insurance scheme as requiring nursing care. The figure jumps to 23% among older senior citizens. And around 30% of the nursing care in private homes is provided by elderly people caring for other seniors.
Dr Kobayashi said Japan will soon reach a stage where the burden of supporting the elderly will require "innovations to tackle social problems in fields such as finance, fiscal policy and working style".
The over-70s hold many securities and those with dementia will probably have their assets frozen.
Financial institutions are responding by creating services that make it easier for elderly clients to hand over their financial assets to family members. But many issues remain unaddressed, such as making it easier for people to assume legal guardianship over adults with dementia.
Japan's social security system also has problems. The government is considering allowing people to delay receiving pensions until after age 70, but change will take time.
"In many cases pension payments to elderly people with dementia are made to their children. [Japan] needs to consider [adjusting] benefits across the health care, nursing care and pension frameworks, such as reducing payments to those in public nursing homes. Otherwise, it will not be able to stop social security costs from ballooning," said Mr Noriyuki Takayama of the Research Institute for Policies on Pension and Aging.