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IJapan, as in North America and Western Europe, the population is growing old very rapidly. Over the past 30 years, the number of people over age 65 has more than doubled in both Japan and the United States, and in both countries the elderly are expected to become one-fifth to one-quarter of the population in the next 30 years. Although the rise in life expectancy that has led to this increase should be celebrated, the speed of the population's "graying" causes much concern in Japan over how society will support this population. Social policies that address the needs of the elderly were established in Japan largely in the 1960s and 1970s when there seemed to be enough wealth to go around for everyone. The provisions include pensions, health care, and social services such as meals, home health aids, and community centers. But now there is a great deal of concern over the expenditures for these programs-expenditures that will multiply in the coming decades.

These public policies are in some ways quite different from those found in other industrial nations such as the United States. Japanese public provisions tend to be targeted specifically toward elderly people who are living alone or are bedridden at home, and many services are explicitly designed to supplement, not replace, support from the family.

The lives of the Japanese elderly are closely tied to those of their adult children. Almost two-thirds of the Japanese elderly live with their children, most often their eldest son. This is true regardless of the older person's age, sex, or marital status. By contrast, only 10 percent of older people in the United States live with their children.

Japan's "three-generation households" typically include the aging parents, the eldest son and daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Usually, the financial responsibility rests with the son, and the daughter-in-law is responsible for household tasks like cooking and washing, as well as emotional support. The number of these three-generation households has been decreasing in recent years, but even if the decline continues, over half of the Japanese elderly will still be living with their children at the end of the century. And most of the elderly who do not live with their children plan to do so in the future. Many talk about plans to move in with their children when they become ill or widowed.

But in Japan, care of the elderly is so focused in the hands of one adult child that the elderly may not develop a wide range of social networks. For example, in my surveys, when I asked Japanese and American elderly to name a confidant, most Americans named a friend or spouse, while most Japanese named one of their own children, regardless of whether they had a spouse or friends.

This family support system persists despite a rapidly changing social environment. The Family Law was revised in 1947, removing the legal requirement that eldest sons inherit all the family property in return for taking in the older parents. More daughters-in-law participate in the work force now, so caregiving at home can no longer be taken for granted. People have fewer children, so some couples are responsible for four, not two, aging parents -- for instance, when a single son marries a single daughter. And the elderly parents are living longer, often with chronic illnesses that require more attention over a longer period than in the past. So why does this system persist?

THERE ARE FOUR REASONS. THE FIRST IS THE relatively low level of public resources allocated to financial security and social services for the elderly. Because the social definition of "needy" is mostly limited to those who have no children, the majority who do not fit the description usually must fend for themselves. This targeting of provisions to a specific group makes it difficult for most of the elderly to attain independence from their families.

On the other hand, the universal pension system in Japan was established only in 1961 and has not yet fully matured. When it does, it will be comparable to US Social Security, at least for some recipients, although the benefits it offers to others will be less generous. One result of the pension system is that the younger elderly today are richer than the older elderly, who were already middle aged at the time that the system was established. The younger elderly can more readily afford alternative types of housing. A few retirement communities have been established, and there are new social services to be purchased. But these private services still have many constraints. For example, an elderly couple may need a person to come in and help twice a week. Unfortunately, they may find that they can have somebody either for five days a week or nothing.

The second reason that the family support system persists is that pooling resources between parent and child makes economic sense for the Japanese, both young and old. For example, housing is a major consideration in a country of high land prices and population density. (Japan has 120 million people in a country the size of California, and 80 percent of Japan is uninhabitable because of mountains.) As a result of the wage system, in which earnings increase according to seniority more so than merit, the young have low earnings. The ready access to housing that their parents' resources may help to provide can thus be a significant attraction for the young.

The third reason is the cultural idea of adult children's obligations. Japanese culture places a high premium on obligation rather than entitlement, and on responsibilities rather than rights, so individuals are more readily predisposed to take responsibility for the care of their elderly family members. Although it would be a mistake to depict the Japanese as people who passively follow the cultural prescription of filial piety, the emphasis on obligations nevertheless helps to reinforce the system of family support.

This ideal of family responsibility also helps shape public policy, and the constraints of public policy can, in turn, reinforce certain elements of culture. For instance, it is useful for the government to have the obligations of caregivers emphasized in the culture, so as to limit expectations for social services. Even as demographics change and daughters-in-law are perhaps no longer able to provide the kinds of care they used to, the ideal of what a "good" citizen ought to do pressures them to provide that care. The deliberate application of culture helps maintain social systems needed to curb increasing social expenditures for care of the elderly.

The fourth reason is that the give and take between generations living under the same roof assures the certainty and predictability of future support. A high value is placed on the dependability of future care in Japan because illness and dependency in old age are accepted as a predictable end to life. The importance of dependability fosters an informal but concrete contract among family members. Predicted problems of old age are dealt with in advance, at a cost to the independence and freedom of younger family members.

In the United States, we take more of a contingency approach, intervening to meet a specific need of the older person as each crisis arises. The system of support facilitates the older person's self-sufficiency rather than taking over his or her care. The Japanese, on the other hand, take a protective approach, planning ahead to take care of possible future needs even before they occur. For example, an adult child who is not living with an aging parent may start building an extra wing on his or her house to prepare for the time when the elderly parent moves in. It gives the older person a great sense of security to know this space will be available. But the cost is that the younger family members make a very long-term commitment. For instance, they may be committing to living where they are for a long time, instead of taking opportunities elsewhere in Japan.

The three-generation household is not an easy solution to old age. It requires daily compromises and sacrifices among family members about what to eat, when to eat, where to sleep, when to sleep, and so on, with all the attendant personal ambivalences. The price of this arrangement is growing higher, especially for daughters-in-law, as prolonged illnesses become more prevalent and care for the elderly becomes more than a full-time job.

At the same time, the responsibility for caregiving is passed on from generation to generation. The actions of the younger generation signal to the next generation what they would like done for them in their turn. In this sense, in the three-generation households of Japan, one starts paying for one's own old age early on. In the long run, however, more diverse resources for support and increased options for care will become essential as the cost of family grows higher for a greater number of Japanese, both young and old.

Akiko Hashimoto is assistant professor of sociology. She is the author of The Gift of Generations: Japanese and American Perspectives on Aging and the Social Contract.

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