EDITORIAL: One-person households
Significant changes are taking place in the structure of Japanese families and society. Unless the social security system is reformed in response to these changes, Japanese cannot hope to live with a sense of security.
Preliminary prefecture-by-prefecture statistics from the national census conducted last autumn are beginning to be published.
One notable finding is a significant increase in the number of reporting households. With the overall population declining, this means a growing number of people are living alone.
A majority of experts are now expecting that single-person households will eventually become more common than households comprising a couple and their children.
It has been pointed out for some time that the number of the elderly living alone after the death of their spouses is rising. Now an increasing number of males in their 50's and 60's are joining that demographic.
One of the factors behind the trend is a growing number of unmarried people. Already, one in every six 50-year-old males has never married. Two decades down the road, the ratio will be one in every three.
Japanese society as a whole has become much more affluent and people now enjoy greater freedom in their lifestyles.
A decision to live alone should be respected as a lifestyle choice based on individual values. But the grim reality is that an increasing number of young people are drifting through singlehood with no expectation of a stable life as a full-time employee, thus discouraging them from pursuing matrimony.
The number of aging single-person households is rising. They are extremely vulnerable to poverty and isolation in the event a job is lost due to unemployment, accident or illness.
Japan's social security, tax, education and other public systems were designed on the basic assumption that so-called standard households, consisting of a working husband, a full-time homemaker and children, would represent the majority of living situations.
The systems have also banked on a certain level of family support for the care of the elderly. This can no longer be assumed to be sustainable.
Projections say that by 2030, one-person households will be the norm in Japan, accounting for 40 percent of the total. It will become increasingly more necessary for women to work outside the home. More and more sick and aged Japanese will be left alone at home during the daytime even if they have family members living with them.
The social security system must be reinvented to focus more on the needs of unsupported individuals.
A major reform is in order for the current premium payment scheme for the public pension system, which favors full-time homemakers, and the nursing care insurance program, which is ill-designed to meet the needs of the growing numbers living alone.
There are also many problems with the health-care insurance program for the aged that need to be addressed from a viewpoint of focusing more on individuals.
The ongoing policy debate about income tax deductions for spouses should go beyond simply looking at it as a source of revenue.
Building a better social security system that is designed to meet the needs of individuals also requires enhanced efforts to revitalize local communities. The argument for more social emphasis on individuals tends to be criticized for playing down the roles of families and causing conflict over values.
But we are in an age when anybody could be forced to live alone at any time due to the death of the spouse, divorce, or other circumstance.
It is time for us to face up to the realities of the present and take the necessary steps to adjust our social systems.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 8