Tackling an age-old problem

Japan’s rapidly ageing population demands new approaches in its cities. Patsy Dell and Sarah Longlands look at a development that’s grappling with the issue

Japan has the fastest ageing community in the world. Although the UK’s population is not ageing as fast, we are heading in the same direction and the lessons from Japan are worth looking at to see if there is anything we can translate to the UK.

The average Japanese lifespan is now 82 and 23% of the population is currently over 65 – compared to an under 16 population of around 16%. By 2030 the government predicts that the over 65s will amount to 32% of the population, rising to 41% by 2050. The ‘age shokku’, or age problem, is due to increasing longevity and changes in Japanese society; primarily fewer people marrying and decreasing numbers having children. At the same time there are growing problems in addressing these issues: the cost of caring for the elderly and the bill for medical treatment is rising, and because of the cost of housing, many people no longer live as they used to in multi-generational households. Large numbers of elderly people die alone, around 32,000 each year.

Myth has it that long ago the practice of ‘obasute’ was popular, referring to a local place in mainly rural communities where elderly people were carried to and abandoned to starvation, literally ‘throwing grandma away’. Clearly this is no longer practiced but the current economic climate in Japan is giving rise to the phenomena of ‘missing’ elderly Japanese, a scandal recently reported in the Japanese news. These are very elderly people, allegedly living with their relatives but who are never actually seen, but who are still claiming their pensions.

In Kashiwa City located in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, the Japan Urban Renaissance Agency, University of Tokyo Institute of Gerontology and Kashiwa Metropolitan Government are undertaking an innovative project to redevelop a 45 year old, 32.6ha, 4,500 unit public housing project to provide a new, mixed tenure, mixed household housing scheme incorporating specialist facilities for the elderly within this community.

A general store sits below flats built in the 1950s to accommodate Kashiwa’s post-war boom. They will make way for new homes designed to meet the needs of older people.

Built in 1964, the Kashiwa ‘Toyoshikidai danchii’, or public housing project, was an exemplar scheme in its day. Five-storey, walk-up apartment blocks set in a landscaped setting were built in the economic boom to house Japanese salarymen and their families. Now those salarymen have grown old and the housing is no longer fit for modern living, particularly if you are over 65, which 52% of the population of this part of Kashiwa City are.

Research in Kashiwa has shown that with small amounts of support its elderly people can live at home pretty well until they are in their mid-70s but after that increasing amounts of care may be needed, but not necessarily to be provided away from the home, providing the home is adapted to meet the care needs in situ.

The 103 existing apartment blocks in the scheme are a standard form of public housing seen everywhere in Japan but at 45m2 they are very small even by Japanese standards and the lack of lifts makes them difficult for older residents to live in. The Kashiwa project plans to redevelop them, replacing them with taller, modern blocks of public and private housing. As part of the scheme there will be apartments for every household size including specific blocks to be built for the elderly residents in this community, offering sophisticated monitoring and alarm systems, differing degrees of in-situ care and on-site 24 hour medical treatment facilities. Local shopping facilities and community restaurants will be provided as part of the plans, catering for the needs of all residents but particularly enabling elderly people to stay in this area as long as possible.

The project also seeks to support the mental as well as physical health of local people. This part of Kashiwa has a strong and active local community, based on the original pioneering families that settled there back in 1964. The feeling of community pervades this neighbourhood from the well-used communal rooms to the popular kindergarten, the OAP gym and greengrocer in the local shopping parade.

The Institute of Gerontology has plans to keep the elderly active by encouraging those who are interested to get involved in light work, providing childcare support, growing vegetables in the grounds of the scheme and on new roof-top gardens. One interesting issue identified was the need to provide particular support to the retired salarymen. Leading a working life elsewhere, working long hours and commuting long distances they had had little opportunity to invest in home and relationships in their local community over their working lives. Now no longer commuting, they need particular encouragement to leave their homes and participate in local life. The increasing divorce rate for retired couples in Japan also suggests men and women need to continue to lead active lives upon retirement.

The redevelopment scheme will be completed in phases over the next three years. Masahiro Mizobe, the project officer from the Japan Urban Renaissance Agency, believes the key to the success of this community as it reinvents itself boils down to three factors. Firstly, that the area needs the diversity of all generations and types of households to be present; secondly, these projects need leadership and governance to make them happen; and thirdly, there needs to be encouragement to facilitate active community involvement, particularly among the elderly.

We could do a lot worse than keep an eye on this and other similar projects in Japan to learn from their experience. It would be interesting to go back in few years to see how this project fares.

  • Patsy Dell is head of planning and economic development services at St Edmundsbury Council and Sarah Longlands is director of policy at CLES. They visited Japan through research fellowships provided by the Norfolk Trust, A full report on their findings will be published in April, contact Sarah at to find out more.


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