Report on “Japan-China-Korea Expert Conference on Population Aging”

Japan Aging Research Center

Japan Aging Research Center started “Expert Conference on Population Aging in East Asia” in 1994 as a platform for demographers, sociologists and gerontologists in East Asia to freely exchange their research experiences. While relevant organizations in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China had taken turn to host the conference since then, this meeting has been interrupted since 2013.

Experts from China and South Korea, who longed to resume the conference, visited Japan recently, and we held “Japan-China-Korea Expert Conference on Population Aging” on February 17, 2015 (Tue.). The following is a summary of this conference. This report will also be sent to experts in China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore who have made a significant contribution to organize “Expert Conference on Population Aging in East Asia.” 

 <Conference Outline>

  • Date and Time: February 17, 2015 (Tue.) from 14:00 to 16:30
  • Place: Japan Aging Research Center Conference Room
  • Main participants: Sungkook Lee (Professor, Kyungpook National University School of Medicine), Lizhong Ma, (Professor, Shanghai University), Ichiro Kai (Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo; President, The Japan Gerontological Society), Haruo Sagaza (Professor Emeritus, Waseda University), Kenjiro Umehara (Former Professor, Bukkyo University), Tsukasa Sasai (General Manager, National Institute of Population and Social Security Research) and Shigeyoshi Yoshida (Japan Aging Research Center)
  • Summary: First, the host introduced the aim of the conference, handouts (demographic situation, life expectancy, survival rates, population aging, etc.) and presenters (Dr. Ma and Dr. Lee). After these guests gave presentations on situations in China and South Korea respectively, Japanese participants also joined a discussion. It should be noted that the following summary does not follow the actual order of contents being presented at the conference.

<Population Aging in China: Dr. Lizhong Ma>

In 2013, the elderly population in China (aged 60+) reached 202 million, accounting for 14.8% of the total population. The proportion of the elderly reached 7% in 2001, and it is expected to take 26 years to reach 14%. Hence, the proportion will reach 14% around 2027, and the speed of population aging is close to that in Japan, which took 24 years for the same demographic shift. The average life expectancy is 74 years for males and 76-77 years for females. However, in Shanghai, it is 80 years for males (1-year longer than Japanese males) and 85 years for females (1-year shorter than Japanese females).

The unique characteristics of population aging in China include: (1) Population started aging before the country developed; (2) Population is aging faster in rural areas than in urban areas (because young people move from rural to urban areas due to urbanization), resulting in serious problems with population aging in rural areas; and (3) A lack of pension reserve is becoming more serious.

Reasons for the rapid population aging in China include the increase in birth rate and average life expectancy in the beginning of “New China” as well as the decline in birth rate in the last 30 years. The declining birth rate is affected not only by “One-child policy” but also by other factors such as the rising childcare cost. Hence, revising “One-child policy” seems to have only a limited effect on slowing the population aging. Moreover, it is also important to develop measures that are tailored to each region because demographic and economic conditions in China vary from one region to another.

The future economic situations will be dependent on the labor market. For example, if regions with strong economy can slow down the population aging, the entire country can enjoy demographic bonus for longer time. Consequently, the country can also have more time to adjust its industrial structure and to develop a social security system. China, mainly in coastal areas, has been facing a labor shortage and a sharp increase in wages since around 2004. Some argue that China may have crossed the Lewisian Turning Point (at which it would move from a vast supply of workers to a labor shortage economy). However, demographers suggest that it is not a labor shortage but rather a mismatch and that rural areas still have labor supplies.

The following proposals have been made based on the goal that China should aim to develop into a productive aging society: (1) improving home-based care to resolve elder care problems in rural areas, (2) promoting social integration by removing barriers in social security systems between urban and rural areas, (3) adjusting the one-child policy to minimize the risk of population aging and (4) developing the Silver Industry (products and services for older people) as the new driving force for economic growth.

As for Japan-China economic relationships, China has great potential as a place for Japan to expand investment in service business. For example, Japan’s growing export to China is expected in the areas the country is leading, including: elder care facilities, assistive devices and medical supplies. Therefore, population aging in China will provide more business opportunities to Japanese companies. Yet, it is also pointed out that these companies should pay attention to the increasing labor cost when investing in China. Moreover, China has a lot to learn from Japan regarding the Silver Industry, including care services. For example, Japanese companies cooperated in organizing a symposium on “development of dementia care services in Shanghai City (hosted by Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences)” in January 2013. Local officers who attended the symposium deeply appreciated their presentations on research reports regarding overseas development of Japanese group homes and home care.


<Population Aging in South Korea: Dr. Sungkook Lee >

While the proportion of older people (aged 65+) in South Korea is 12-13%, it exceeds 20% in many rural areas. The average life expectancy is 76 years for males and 83 years for females. In South Korea, people rarely categorize older people into “the young-old” and “the old-old” and therefore have few such data. Yet, we may need these categories from now own. 

While South Korea started a long-term care insurance system in 2008, it has a number of problems. First, the system started for political reasons without sufficient discussion. Although preparation started around 2000, it did not seem enough. Japan had the Gold Plan before starting the long-term care insurance, and South Korea should have taken similar measures. Second, the long-term care insurance limited choices among people on public assistance. Before the insurance started, people on public assistance had been able to use relevant facilities freely. However, they can no longer do it since the insurance started. While people can still help each other and have places to gather in rural areas, situations are more difficult in urban areas. Third, the system does not include care managers. Although National Health Insurance Corporation claimed that it would provide care management, that is not the case. There is no care plan either. In reality, services are mostly provided by care workers. Fourth, few people pay attention to prevention. For example, people can receive rehabilitation services only if they are institutionalized. More education on and investment in prevention will be needed, both as a system and for the entire citizens.

In South Korea, we conducted an interview study with centenarians in 2012-2013 and found the following characteristics: (1) They are engaged in a lot of physical activities, (2) They have nutritionally balanced meals (usually prepared by daughters-in-law) 3 times a day, (3) They usually do not smoke or drink, and (4) They keep positive attitudes despite difficulties throughout their lives. We would like to keep working on this study. Also, since this is a collaborative study with faculty members at Yamaguchi Prefectural University, Japan, we would like to have a joint publication on the 2 countries.


<Population Aging in Japan, China and South Korea: Discussion>

Based on the presentations summarized above, participants discussed population aging in Japan, China and South Korea.

  • Work, places and social activities of older people

Dr. Ma’s presentation on labor force in China led to a discussion on work, places and social activities of older people. In China, the retirement age is 60 for males in general and 55 for female white collar workers. The actual average retirement age may be around 52, including those who are laid off. While some people call for raising the retirement age, many are against this because many older people would like to take care of their grandchildren after the retirement. Moreover, a number of college graduates have difficulties in finding a job, ending up in a graduate school. This is another reason why people are against the idea of raising the retirement age, which would allow older people to stay in the labor force. Japan is also facing the similar situation: Young people have difficulties in finding a job, and an increasing number of them go to graduate schools.

Meanwhile, South Korea has been discussing a rather broader issue: “At what age do people become the elderly?” Many Korean people seem to think it is at age 70. South Korea also faces challenges in creating places for older people. Currently, Gyeongno Dang (Elder Respect Center or senior center) is one of the few places for them. Yet, many older people stop going there once their functions decline because they are concerned about becoming burdens to others. Other infrastructures, something similar to day care centers for the elderly in Japan, are needed to provide places for older people other than their own homes. 

  • Distorted demographic structure

Japan, China and South Korea share the same challenge: rapid population aging. In South Korea, the birth rate has declined sharply since a family planning system started. Currently, the total fertility rate (TFR) in South Korea is lower than the one in Japan.  Meanwhile, in China, the problem with parents of one-child is becoming serious. For example, in Shanghai, 80% of people aged 60+ have only one child. The one-child policy started in 1979 throughout China and 1976 in Shanghai. Although this policy was recently eased, not many people have the second child.

In all of the 3 countries, fewer young people are getting married, and it is difficult to have and raise children. Recently, young men are becoming “herbivores (softer)” and young women tend to be “carnivores (more aggressive)” in all 3 countries. In South Korea and China, the majority of excellent students are females regardless of major. Such situations lead to fewer marriages among young people. In South Korea, particularly in rural areas, an increasing number of men marry women from other countries (e.g. Philippines and Vietnam), creating intercultural families. Moreover, raising children is quite difficult in both South Korea and China because of excessive emphasis on academic records and other factors: This also affects declining birth rates.   

Moreover, all of the 3 countries have significant regional differences in population aging. The population is concentrated in urban areas, where birth rates are extremely low, while rural areas face depopulation and high proportions of older people. In Japan, based mainly on birth-rate data, Japan Policy Council recently released a list of municipalities which were expected to “disappear” due to depopulation. However, according to the 2010 Census data, the proportions of older people are already over 50% in 11 municipalities; yet, these communities are functioning adequately. These data suggest the importance of paying attention to “quality” of communities rather than the proportion of older people only.

  • Fewer demographers

In South Korea, the number of researchers in demography and maternal/child health has been declining since the end of family planning. In China, although demographic research institutes exist, they are not active. Meanwhile, the participants had the impression that demographic research is still active in Western countries. Hence, demographic research in Asian countries is at a turning point to reexamine its direction.   


The participants had an informal dinner, where further discussions took place. In particular, participants were interested in the interview by Korean media MBC at Japan Aging Research Center on January 13, 2015. The interview theme was “prospects for labor force.” The interviewer asked, “How will Japan support an increasing number of older people while the country can no longer consider people aged 15-64 as ‘working-age’?” The answers to this question included the following. In a book “The Great Turning Point: Demographics of Japan” which was published in 2014, Dr. Shigesato Takahashi (Professor, Meiji University) mentions that the ratio between “supporters (those actually working, including the working elderly) and “supportees (older people not working)” remained around 1.5:1 between 1970 and 2010. As a national legal system, Japan also has “Law Concerning Stabilization of Employment of Older Persons.”