The Backwards Opportunity of an Ageing Population

From the office of JFS, Japan for Sustainability, chief executive and co-founder, Junko Edahiro shares three Japanese challenges — and backwards opportunities—for a sustainable future.

Japan for Sustainability is a non-profit organization that tracks, and provides information and news on sustainability efforts in Japan. Their aim is to spread inspiration, insight, motivation and encouragement in Japan — and from Japan around the world.

Junko Edahiro is one of the most prominent environmental journalist Japan, a a beautiful and fascinating country (not least when viewed from my vantage point of Scandinavia) and it has managed to keep their customs and traditions still intact in the 21st century.

1. An Ageing Population Challenging the Welfare System

The greatest challenge facing Japan today is a steadily declining and ageing population. Like my countrymen in Sweden, the Japanese people are getting older — and together with low child birth rates, this creates a pressure on the welfare system with fewer young to support the elderly population.

Japan has the highest proportion of elderly in the world and is experiencing a so called “super-aging” society, where the proportion of the population aged 65 and older constitutes 27 % of the population. The corresponding number in Sweden is 20 %, which also is quite high.

The change in age demographics affects the pension systems and creates new demands on society, for example in health care. To tackle this problem, Japan needs to change their society drastically to adapt to these new conditions. And this requires a whole new way of thinking.

Junko Edahiro is one of the people working hard to find solutions for Japan to handle this pressuring issue. Her view is taking this fact of demographics as an opportunity to find a solution that transforms society– and to actually live within the earths carrying capacity. The opportunity is to become a small, but sustainable country.

But why is the ageing and decline of population not happening in Sweden at the same speed? Well, the simple answer is immigration. Junko explained that as wonderful as Japan is in many ways, Japan is in some ways a closed country. The immigration to Japan is, and have historically been comparatively limited, and this is one other factor that Japanese politicians are debating about to adress not only an ageing population, but also the labor shortage that is a consequence of an increase in the elderly population.

2. Happiness, Nature and Sustainable Communities

Junko Edahiro is also the president of ISHES (Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society) — another interesting initiative that promotes studies in happiness, systems of the economy and society to research the connection between happiness and sustainability.

While visiting JFS, Junko shared an inspiring story which made her stand very clear. Junko was raised in a place where she saw the deterioration and destruction of nature happen right before her eyes. That special spot that she had as a child, where she played and enjoyed nature, was destroyed to make way for land development.

The connection between happiness and connecting with nature is a Japanese theme, that can contribute to understanding sustainability.

3. Business as Actors for Sustainability – A Work in Progress

Since we believe businesses to be one of the most forceful and influential actors in society, we also got the chance to discuss how Japanese companies work with sustainability. Junko said that even though more Japanese businesses are starting to work with sustainability issues, it’s not something that is required by either consumers or financiers.

It has yet to become a demand from consumers, even a “hygiene factor” as in Sweden. Junko presented the possible explanation that Sweden has a much stronger consumer groups that adds pressure on business to transform and become more sustainable.

In intersecting JFS’s views and work, with the Inter Business Initiative’s – and through this also reflecting on Japanese and Scandinavian patterns — we were fast to find common ground:

The current systems are neither sufficient nor sustainable, we need to rethink.

The Inter Business Initiative

The Inter Business Initiative is a knowledge lab, an ongoing collision of thought — developing framework towards holistic value creation where business can act as change agents in a world where sustainability, responsibility, agency are business as usual.

We are a non-profit, founded by Johanna Hallin and engaging a tribe of individuals and businesses. Together we have identified the need for independent and iterative examinations of how we make the shift, what it means and what it entails.

We arrange think tanks, discussion, seminars. We publish insights and articles, sprung from discussions and dialogue. We produce research papers, reports and books. All our activities aim at challenging and strengthening Inter Business, which provides framework for business strategy to shift perspective.