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Editorial: Involve local communities in social security reforms

Japan faces a challenge over how to secure resources for its snowballing social security and medical programs as well as for nursing care workers as the country is aging and the population shrinking.

    In particular, some rural areas where the population has fallen particularly rapidly are struggling to maintain their communities.

    Japan's social security system reached its first peak when employed workers became a majority in the country's workforce and the universal healthcare and pension systems were established in 1961.

    However, the average lifespan continued to extend, as a result of which the elderly population who need nursing care has increased. At the same time, the number of dual-income households grew, making it difficult for families to look after seniors who need care. The public nursing care insurance was established in 2000, which marked the second turning point for the country's social security system.

    Japan will face a further rise in the number of its elderly people and a rapid population fall in the near future. It is obvious that Japan cannot respond to such a situation with the current social security system based on traditional ideas.

    In considering reforming the social security system, it is necessary to pay attention to not only the shortage of financial resources and workers but also changes in people's lifestyles. The number of senior citizens who live alone has kept increasing while problems involving people with depression, those who shut themselves away from society or are addicted to alcohol, among other issues, are becoming increasingly serious. Even if public social security services were to be expanded, it would never eliminate the sense of solitary and alienation felt by those who spend their long post-retirement lives alone.

    In the past, it was common that there were people, such as relatives and neighbors, who supported the elderly in poverty and who looked after impoverished children in place of their parents. Nowadays, however, people have fewer family members and they do not interact with their neighbors like they did before.

    Such a reality shows that there are functions that had been performed by families and regional communities that cannot be substituted by the public social security system.

    The time is ripe for the public to consider how to overcome problems in the third turning point in the country's social security system.

    The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has established a study group on how to protect people's livelihoods in the age of the declining birthrate and aging population. A report that the group is expected to compile shortly will urge all people to proactively involve themselves in their communities. Specifically, it will encourage elderly and disabled people to also support those who need help instead of separating people into those who help others and those who receive assistance. The report will also urge businesses to participate in local economies and provide mutual assistance beyond industrial sectors. It will also call for the establishment of a system under which each local community addresses its own challenges.

    There are a growing number of impoverished families in which parents in their 80s support their unemployed adult children in their 50s. There are also families that must look after both elderly members and children. It is difficult for a traditional, vertically divided government organization to respond to these problems.

    The national government's policy of encouraging local communities to play a more active role in providing social security services is likely to stir protests. Fears have already been expressed that the central government, which is unable to secure enough resources, may abandon its responsibility for social security, and instead force local communities to play this role. Behind such concerns is the fact that the national government has restricted the social security services that people can receive because of a shortage of funds.

    It is no easy task to have elderly and disabled people play an active role in supporting the social security system, nor is it easy to involve parties of different industries to help revitalize communities. Unless the central government shows its determination to take responsibility for developing human resources, accumulating relevant information and creating a social security network, it would be impossible to dispel the public's concerns about the sustainability of the social security system.

    At the same time, people cannot gain a sense of security if they only criticize the government and become pessimistic about their future. There are some examples of regional communities succeeding in mutual assistance. A social security corporation in the Hokkaido town of Tobetsu has created a venue where middle-aged housewives, senior citizens and disabled people, as well as those who have shut themselves away from society, participate in the creation of their community.

    In the Tottori Prefecture city of Kurayoshi, a social welfare worker in their 40s started a buckwheat noodle manufacturing business, creating numerous jobs for people with disabilities, as well as for those who have quit nursing care jobs and those with rare diseases. The entrepreneur has utilized closed factories to expand the business.

    Different communities have different circumstances. In many administrative districts, the aging of their populations is about to peak. Many of these local bodies are trying to revitalize their communities while maintaining their specialty goods and traditional culture.

    This is not the time when it is enough for the state just to create a uniform system and apply it to all regions across the country. Residents of all communities are required to proactively participate in efforts to revitalize their own communities depending on their situations.

    The average lifespan will likely continue to extend. Each and every member of society must consider how to spend their long post-retirement lives.

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