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Editorial: Japan needs more diverse support systems for aging recluses

The number of people middle-aged or older in Japan who are thought to be isolating themselves from society was found to be far larger than previously thought. Their parents, who themselves are aging, have been taking care of those reclusive children while harboring misgivings about their future. It is necessary to introduce measures to save those families from isolation.

Social withdrawal is often believed to occur with children and young adults, and the government's fact-finding surveys on recluses conducted twice in the past both targeted only those aged between 15 and 39. While the number of recluses has dropped from around 700,000 in 2010 to some 540,000 in 2015, the number of people who isolate themselves for at least seven years has more than doubled, raising concerns about their prolonged state and aging.

In the first move of its kind, the Cabinet Office targeted 5,000 people aged between 40 and 64 in its latest survey. As a result, 1.45 percent of them were found to be reclusive, such as hardly coming out of their rooms or going out only when engaging in hobbies. This led to an estimate that 613,000 people in that age bracket nationwide have remained reclusive for at least six months.

It had previously been believed that long-time withdrawal involved the generation who experienced the so-called "employment ice age" in the wake of the bursting of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, when fresh college graduates had a hard time finding the jobs of their choice. However, the latest poll has shown that some people began to isolate themselves from society in their 40s. Furthermore, it was found that full-time homemakers and those mainly helping with household chores are also among the recluses.

Behind their reclusive tendencies lie factors such as falling sick after working long hours or being subjected to power harassment at workplaces, as well as providing care to aging parents. At least three-fourths of recluses were men, while more than half have remained isolated from society for at least five years. One person had even remained secluded for over 30 years.

Many of these recluses are barely managing to make ends meet by counting on their parents' savings and pensions. There are also many shut-ins who develop diseases and disorders as they age and grow pessimistic about their future.

An increasing number of parents of recluses are entering their 70s or 80s and are requiring nursing care. If these parents develop dementia or succumb to a disease, their isolated children could face a life crisis.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has urged local governments to set up counters that can accept consultations from those isolated from society, but such counters have only been introduced at prefectural governments and ordinance-designated big cities. It is also difficult for long-time recluses to go out and seek consultations at those counters on their own.

Some local governments and private organizations have taken advanced approaches, visiting recluses at their homes and connecting them with social welfare and medical services. These outreach efforts are increasingly necessary to support shut-ins and their parents.

Because the government has heretofore envisaged providing assistance to recluses in younger generations, many of the support measures are aimed at enabling them to start working and become self-reliant. The government is urged to develop diverse systems that can lend support to recluses over their physical conditions and livelihoods as they gray.

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