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U.S.-Japan Study: Japanese Elders May Be Happier

Posted: Jan 02, 2013

Photo: Saburo Shochi is shown last year at 105 at the Gerontological Society of America conference. Dr. Shochi demonstrated his exercise regimen for seniors. (Image courtesy of Araceli Martinez/La Opinion).

SAN DIEGO--Amid dire predictions about the world’s rapidly aging population, one group of researchers reports that cultural practices, traditions and attitudes may explain why older adults in Japan seem to be more content in old age than their American counterparts.

Findings of the United States-Japan research project, Cultural Perspectives on Aging and Well-Being: A Comparison of Japan and the U.S., are among the first to compare aging and wellbeing of older adults in the United States and Japan. The researchers rated psychological aspects, personal growth, relationships with others, level of autonomy and a feeling of having purpose in life.

Other influences taken into account were living arrangements, philosophical and religious traditions and popular literature.

The research team for the ambitious project included Mayumi Karasawa of Tokyo Women’s Christian University and Shinobu S. Kitayama of the University of Michigan joined by other colleagues at Michigan plus researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. The presented the study during the Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) recent conference in San Diego.

Fewer Japanese Elders Live Alone

Japan is an older and more rapidly aging society than the United States, the study points out, and it has the highest median age (41 years) and the longest life expectancy (80 years) in the world. Median age and life expectancy in the U.S. are 35 and 77, respectively.

Older Americans are more likely to live alone. A reported 10.7 million or 27 per cent of 65-plus population in U.S. live on their own, according to the 2009 American Community Survey, compared with 13 per cent in Japan in 2010, according to the Japan National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

“Such living arrangements increase the likelihood that Japanese elders, in comparison to their U.S. counterparts, give and receive more economic, instrumental and emotional social support, which may lead to a greater sense of wellbeing,” the study states.

“Aging has more benign meanings in Japan than in the U.S.,” according to the research, pointing to beliefs rooted in Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism that characterize maturity as a socially valuable part of life, a time of “spring” or “rebirth”—the reward an older person earns following a life of working and childrearing.

The 60th birthday celebration, known as kanreki, is celebrated among both Japanese Americans and Japanese in Japan. Its significance is drawn from the Asian zodiac calendar with each year named for a different animal in a 12-year cycle.

At 60, an individual has experienced five cycles and all five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The celebrant typically wears a red hat and red vest, symbolizing a return to the carefree life of childhood. Other significant milestone celebrations occur at ages 70, 77, 88, 90, 97 and 100.

Popular in Japanese culture is the image of the older person as sen-nin, a wise sage. Aging in Japan is also divided into more clearly recognized social roles, the report points out. Japanese women age 55-70 may experience a particularly good time of life because they are free from the obligation of child-rearing, have time and energy for personal pursuits, and may have more disposable income than at any other time of life.

However, Japanese men, typically forced to retire at 65, may be left without a sense of purpose, the study says. “These retired men are sometimes called nure ochiba, or ‘sticky fallen leaf,’” meaning they become dependent on their wives, seeming to stick to their shoes like a wet leaf.

Personal Growth, Autonomy and Relationships

When assessing development of their talents and capabilities, Americans felt that their abilities had grown during their 30s and 40s, but began to decline in middle age. Japanese responded that their personal growth, including the ability to make calm, reasoned decisions, had increased between middle age and old age.

Wellbeing has been correlated with high levels of autonomy as it pertains to independence, personal achievement, self-esteem, uniqueness, self-confidence and self-motivation. Japanese women rated their autonomy significantly lower, relative to their overall wellbeing, than did Japanese men, but this difference was not evident in the U.S.

In contrast, the research found that in the United States men scored much higher than women when asked about managing the demands of daily life and ability to meet their personal needs, whereas no gender difference was evident in Japan.

Americans ages 35-55 rated their relationships with others much lower than the Japanese but reported improved interpersonal relationships as they grew older.

Japanese, though, stated that their relationships with others decreased dramatically after age 50, perhaps due, in part, to leaving the workforce and/or children leaving the nest. Gender differences were also noted in the findings. In addition, Japanese older adults were more likely to be married than those in the U.S.

Women in both the U.S. and Japan scored significantly higher than men when it came to positive relationships with others.

Japanese Culture More Supportive

One explanation for the more positive attitude among the older Japanese was their generation’s historical context. “Older members of the Japanese sample lived through post-war reconstruction…whereas older members of the U.S. lived through a post-war economic boom. In that sense, old age for many in Japan may, in fact, reflect improvement over prior life periods,” the report said.

“Results suggest that Japan’s age-supportive cultural meanings and practices nurture perceptions of personal growth among its aging adults, whereas in the U.S., the aged show diminished profiles of personal growth relative to midlife adults,” the study concluded.

The researchers also noted that technological advances may undermine perceptions of a purposeful life among aging adults and that greater attention should be paid to cultural practices that support positive attitudes in this area.

Ellen Endo wrote this article for The Rafu Shimpo through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

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