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Lessons For The World From A Dramatically Aging Japan

China's GDP has overtaken that of Japan. If there's one key area where Japan can still teach the Chinese, it is Japan's demographic crisis.

Four smiles in Japan
Four smiles in Japan
Daisuke Kondo

TOKYO â€" Last week on my 50th birthday I strolled to the coffee shop near Tokyo University where I used to spend a lot of time as a student. It’s located underground with dim lighting, and plays classical music all day long, loudly. I had expected to find the shop shut long ago, but to my surprise, it’s still around. The middle-aged man who used to run it is still there, now a grey-haired elderly man. I looked around, and apart from my middle-aged self, all the other customers were old men.

There, I listened to Schubert’s impromptus that I used to listen to 30 years back, which remind me very much of the first half of my life. I realize that I haven’t changed much. I used to drink coffee, read and write. I liked listening to classical music and play piano. Over the years, all those daily habits remain, which is perhaps why I rarely notice the passage of time. It’s probable that most Japanese people feel the same. Tokyo has stayed nearly unchanged in the past decades. Meanwhile, over the last 30 years, the "other" country I have called home over the years, China, has been through enormous changes. Tokyo experienced its own drastic changes during the 30 years after World War II. The shopping centers, office blocks and subways built at that time are still being used today.

The site of that café where I hadn't been for 30 years made me think that, unwittingly, Japan has gone from “economic power” to “elderly power.”

Last year, the proportion of over 65-year-olds exceeded 25% of Japan’s total population. It is estimated that in 10 years time the proportion will soar to one out of three Japanese being a senior citizen. At the current rate, by 2060, this figure will be one out of two.

Just look around in Tokyo: taking buses, shopping in supermarkets or buying books, one sees mostly old people around. Even taxi drivers are mostly older men. In my apartment building in Tokyo, two-thirds of the 230 households are elderly families. Nearby, there is a 500-meter-long pedestrian paradise. It has become entirely a shopping mall for the elderly.

If longevity is just about health there won’t be much a problem. Hideyoshi Miyazaki from Kyoto, has raced into the Guinness World Records, at 105 after running 100 meters in 42.22 seconds in Kyoto. Shigeaki Hinohara, honorary chairman of the board of trustees at Tokyo’s St. Luke’s International Hospital, is 104 and remains active, carrying around with him a notebook to update his 10-year work plan.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is now 97 years old. He remains hale and hearty and is still piping up with political comments in the newspapers.

But of course such “senior stars” are rare cases. Age-related problems are gradually becoming the biggest issue in Japan, including growing incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Currently, in the population over 80-year-old in Japan, nearly 20% are afflicted with the disease, some five million eldely people with senile dementia, or the early signs of it, which is expected to double to account for 10% of Japan’s demography in the coming years. Japan is entering a unprecedented era of the history of mankind.

Burdened nations and families

Two weeks ago, a 73-year-old man, in Miyazaki Kyushu, drove his car onto the sidewalk killing two and severely injuring five other. He was found to be a patient with early stage Alzheimer's, and couldn’t recall a thing about what happened before or after the accident. Japanese police also report an increase in cases where old people with dementia take things without paying.

It is a huge burden to have a dementia sufferer in one's family, and the weight accumulates across society. Japan recorded 10,783 Alzheimer patients last year who were reported lost or missing. Some 100,000 people per year resign their jobs to take care of their parents suffering from the condition. This adds to a serious labor shortage already created by the nation's low birth-rate.

Feeling the weight in Tokyo â€" Photo: Mailas

Still, families where children are capable of looking after their elders are already better off than couples who both suffer from dementia or who are childless.

Japan was the world’s first country, in 2000, to develop a nursing care insurance law. The elderly can obtain a subsidy, in accordance with five categories, to obtain nursing care. Still, facilities and staff can't meet the need, and Japan is currently spending an astronomical $118 billion dollars on such care. To fundamentally solve its demograhic crisis, Japan must try to attract immigrants.

Having long outsourced most of its manufacturing sector, Japan must rely on foreign students working part-time to keep its service industries operation. And not always. Last weekend, I met up with an old friend visitng back from his current home in Brussels, and we wanted to get a drink at the big hotel in Tokyo's Shibuya district where he was staying. But both the bar and café were already closed, and the hotel told us they were simply short of staff. It took us nearly one hour wandering the neighborhood to find a place to sit down. When I was at college, Shibuya was a bustling downtown area, with pubs and bars open all night. Now they shut down by 11 p.m.

My friend, who works for the European Union, sighed: “Europe’s biggest social issue for the moment is the Syrian immigrants. But in reality every country is competing to grab young refugees. The whole of European history is a history of immigrants and refugees. Twenty percent of Germany’s population is of immigrant origin. In the 1970s, it relied on Turkish immigrants to achieve its position as an economic power. Meanwhile, even our capital city has become a city of old people, and our immigration policy remains closed. The government worries about security, when it should be worrying about demography. Japan will die sooner or later if this doesn't change.”

The question of immigration, demography and security connects us all, from Brussels to Beijing to my old university neighborhood in Tokyo.

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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