Japan's Silver Democracy

The Costs of Letting the Elderly Rule Politics

An elderly woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tokyo December 16, 2012.
An elderly woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tokyo December 16, 2012. (Yuriko Nakao / Courtesy Reuters)

The results of this weekend’s upper house election in Japan’s Diet will hinge on voters' assessment of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic stimulus plan, his proposals to revise the constitution, and his relations with neighboring countries. In other words, yet another election will pass with hardly a mention of the single-most important factor for the country’s prospects: demographics.

No country is aging faster than Japan. Between 1985 and today, the percentage of the Japanese population over 65 rose from a tenth to nearly a quarter. By 2060, that figure will rise to nearly 40 percent. And by that point, Japan’s population will have shrunk from around 128 million to less than 100 million people.

Although this transformation has only just begun, it is already weighing heavily on Japan’s national finances. It is widely known that the country’s public debt levels are expected to hit 240 percent of GDP next year -- higher than in Greece. But it is less well understood that a portion of Japan’s debt comes from funding the national pension program. Indeed, total spending on social benefits, including health care, pensions, and nursing for the elderly, now exceeds spending in all other categories combined, including education, defense, and Japan’s beloved bridge and tunnel building programs. Much of those expenses are directly related to the rising costs of caring for the elderly. Japan's total expenditures on those 65 and older tripled in the two decades before 2004 and have only continued to increase since then. Spending on families and the young, by comparison, has not increased nearly as much.

In Japan, these vital issues are subjected to very little public discussion. Particularly ahead of elections, politicians avoid addressing subjects that are sensitive for the elderly, such as the over-generosity of the pension system, the excesses and inefficiencies in the health-care system, and the economic difficulties facing young people, which dampen already low fertility rates. The reason: voter demographics. Over the last three decades, as Japan’s population has aged, the percentage of Japanese voters over 60 has more than doubled, to 44 percent. By comparison, as of November 2012, only 21 percent of registered U.S. voters were over 65. Meanwhile, the share of Japanese voters in their twenties has fallen, from 20 percent in 1980 to 13 percent today.

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