Pensioners Pumping Iron Shows How Much Aging Is Reshaping Japan

The social and economic landscape is changing in unusual ways

Elderly people work out with wooden dumb-bells in the grounds of a temple in Tokyo.

Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images

Gym membership among pensioners is surging in Japan while people in their twenties drop out. Many of the young don’t want to give blood anymore, while the elderly need more of it. A shortage of denture technicians is looming.

As aging takes hold in Japan, the change it’s bringing goes far deeper than the obvious impact on social welfare costs and the shrinking labor force.

Here’s an eclectic collection of charts that show some of the less known ways that demographics is playing out in Japan, where more than a quarter of the population is age 65 and over.

  As the Japanese live longer (the average life expectancy for men is 81 and for women is 87)  they’re becoming increasingly conscious of looking after their health in old age. About 60 percent of people who are 65 and older play sport or do exercise to keep themselves in shape, higher than the ratios in younger age groups, according to a 2014 survey by the health ministry. 

While the numbers are still small, more pensioners are venturing into video-game arcades, venues that are typically associated with young men. That’s some consolation for these businesses, given that the sector is in decline as the proliferation of smartphones and personal computers offers new opportunities for gamers.

Demand for dentures will keep increasing as the population ages, but fewer young people want to join the ranks of the dental technicians who make them. Over the next decade as the generation of technicians who are 50 and over retire, Japan may be hard pressed to keep up with demand for dentures. Only about 12 percent of technicians are age 29 or younger, according to a report by the health ministry.

Demand for blood will remain high, particularly among the elderly undergoing surgery, yet the pool of young people who can give blood will gradually shrink as the population ages. A health ministry survey also found a growing number of young people were avoiding the blood bank because they think needles are too painful. More than 80 percent of blood transfusion recipients are age 50 and above.

A lot of businesses in Japan are shutting down simply because their owners have no successor to pass the reins to when they retire. The number of companies that were closed last year reached almost 24,000, which is about triple the number that went bankrupt, according to corporate researcher Teikoku Databank. The likely reason: many small business owners who were born in the years after WWII are retiring and their heirs or offspring would rather do something else.