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The Challenge of Aging Societies
Monthly Feature, October, 2017.
By Alex Khadanovich
The Challenge of Aging Societies
Monthly Feature, October, 2017.
By Alex Khadanovich

Editor's Note: The following is the winning essay from a contest co-sponsored by the 2100 Project and Tokyo City University in Japan. Students were asked to compare the cultures of two countries in the context of societal or environmental challenges. The entries were all impressive, especially considering they were written in English, not the native language of the participants! We look forward to future collaborations with students from TCU.

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      Japanese ikebana

The aging of society presents a global challenge that is often overlooked. This challenge is the complex result of long-term demographic changes, changes in population fertility and mortality, and also, in part, migration. It is further complicated because of the long time required to change the demographics of populations.

In an aging society, the elderly are likely to experience loneliness and alienation from younger generations. There are also economic consequences such as a relatively small labor force having difficulty providing the economic base to fund pensions. Furthermore, since the majority of the population is elderly, more health problems arise which can lead to the expenditure of additional funds for social assistance.

If these challenges are not addressed, the situation will only become worse. Governments will be forced to spend more money to help the older generations, and accordingly, taxes will increase. The retirement age will need to be increased, which may also affect the health of older people. A reduction in the size of the labor force could lead to economic decline. Indeed, increasing the burden on the younger generation might even lead them to emigrate to other countries.

A PERSPECTIVE FROM TWO CULTURES

I would like to consider how this problem is being addressed in two particular countries: Belarus and Japan. I chose these countries because I have lived in both. I was born and raised in Belarus, and for the last four years I have been living and studying in Japan. This gives me an opportunity to look at the problem from more than one perspective. The cultures of these two countries are very different, but there is much in common. For example, I was surprised to learn how both cultures value folk wisdom in the form of proverbs, and how the messages from these proverb can be quite similar. Another similarity is that in both countries, people love nature. In Japan, when the weather is good on weekends, people try to get out into the mountains or to the ocean, or they get together with friends for a BBQ by the river. Similarly, in Belarus, especially in the warm season, people also try to get out of town and into the countryside for a BBQ or fishing.

I think these strong ties to the natural world are in part due to the rich heritage of agriculture in both countries. For a long time Japan was an agrarian country, and only in the last 50-100 years has it made a huge leap into industrialization. In Belarus, even now a large part of the population is engaged in the agricultural complex. But there are also differences, perhaps in part due to differences in terrain, climate, and geology. In Japan, the characteristics of the terrain and climate may have made it more difficult to grow crops. The care required to grow crops might have instilled in the Japanese a love for small things and care for details. The long rainy season in the summer, together with earthquakes and typhoons, might have forced people to live in close union with nature. On the other hand, in Belarus, although the winter is colder, there are no mountains and typhoons. That might have made it much easier to grow vegetables and grain. Perhaps, therefore, we are seeing two completely different approaches as to what is valued most: in Japan it is unity with nature, and in Belarus it is the conquest of nature. These differences are exemplified by the contrast in how the two countries view the presentation of flower arrangements.

Put simply, Japanese flower arrangement, called ikebana, is a small bouquet in which there are not only flowers, but also twigs of trees and grass. Ikebana brings to the house a part of nature, but at the same time it reflects an important cultural aspect of the Japanese: attention to detail. Each flower, every twig (and there are not many of them) has its own place and meaning. This love of small things, and the importance of detail, no matter how small, is also reflected in the tea ceremony and in the Japanese classical garden, where all nature is represented, but in miniature. There are small mountains, a pond and trees, and everything is in natural harmony. On the other hand, in the culture of Belarus great importance is given to splendor. When someone presents flowers to somebody, they try to make a bouquet large and bright. Often people make flowerbeds with a huge number of flowers in front of their houses, even in the city. Gardens fill huge spaces with trees, shrubs cut into interesting shapes, and a lot of flowers.

CULTURAL APPROACHES TO THE ISSUE OF AGING

So what effect might these aspects of culture have on approaches to solving the challenges of an aging society? I will briefly describe some of the efforts being made in these two cultures.

In Japan, the visa system for foreign professionals wanting to work in Japan was simplified to encourage young professionals from other countries to come to Japan. Also, firms are gradually moving away from the policy of overtime work and trying to limit working hours. Limiting overtime work gives people more free time for their private lives. They have the opportunity to realize themselves not only in work, but also in their hobbies and their social life. They have time to meet someone and have a family, which might later lead to an increase in the birth rate, and accordingly, a reduction in the problem of the aging of society.

In Belarus, there is state support for large families, as well as cash bonuses paid at the birth of the third and subsequent children. This changes the image of the family: a large family becomes the standard of a happy family. But although the state helps families with many children, increasing the number of children in the family still increases the financial burden on parents for raising and educating their children. Accordingly, fathers, and often mothers as well, need to spend more time at work to make money for the family. This indirectly affects the education of children because parents are not able to give them as much time as necessary. Therefore, only material support may not be enough. A more comprehensive approach may be required to enable people to create large families. (It is also true that large families can contribute to problems of overpopulation and putting a strain on the Earth's resources to support large human populations, but, that is not the focus of this essay.)

It is clear that both approaches are aimed at increasing the birth rate. But, in Belarus, the solution of supporting large families is more aggressive and directly aimed at increasing family size with the goal of a quick result in a short time. On the other hand, in Japan, the approach of limiting overtime work hours is more passive and only indirectly leads to an increase in the birth rate. This is consistent with a Japanese approach of thinking deeply about every step. In this way, we can see the influence of cultural differences on the approaches taken to solve problems accompanying the aging of society. While the Japanese attention to small things may result in a more thorough solution over the long term, the results may be slower than in Belarus. Ultimately, each approach has its unique advantages - and perhaps, through cultural exchange and a greater awareness of cultural differences, each culture can learn from the other.






Image Alex Khadanovich is from Minsk in Belarus. He has been living in Tokyo for four years. He is a 3rd year student at Tokyo City University studying Computer Science. In his free time, he enjoys snowboarding and surfing.