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MONDAY, December 11, 2023

Never too old to start a boy band in greying Japan

Never too old to start a boy band in greying Japan
MONDAY, September 25, 2023

Noriyasu Tanioka wears many hats: He is a grape farmer, the manager of a roadside rest station, and an entertainer whose band was signed by Universal Music Japan in 2016.

He is also 74 years old. The “male idol group” he leads, Ji-Pop, consists of five senior citizens, aged 65 to 87, holding day jobs as farmers and fishermen. The oldest of the quintet, Hidetaka Yamada, still runs full marathons.

While they mainly groove it up on stage in Japanese, they have one English ditty – the disco track I Was Young (2017) with such lyrics as “I am young, I am young/I am happy more than ever”.

The group has released two digital singles and performs around Japan frequently.

The sprightly Tanioka told The Straits Times: “I don’t want to be seen or treated like an old man.”

The group Ji-Pop both references the genre J-Pop and pays homage to their seniority with the word “ji”, which means “old man” in Japanese. What began as a public relations coup for their native western Japan region of Kochi, among the oldest and least-populated of Japan’s 47 prefectures, soon caught the attention of the record company.

“Precisely because we are old, we can seize new challenges by making the most of our previous experiences, rather than just sit around and grow old,” Tanioka said.

That is the healthy, active ageing mindset that Japan wants its seniors to adopt.

Japan has the world’s oldest population, and more than one in 10 Japanese are aged 80 or older.

The country has one of the world’s top life expectancy rates – 87.09 years for women and 81.05 years for men – and has in its midst senior citizen influencers, octogenarian politicians and football players, and a 90-year-old mountaineer who summited Mount Everest three times as a senior citizen.

Honouring the elderly is so ingrained in Japanese culture – as they are respected for their experience and wisdom – that seniors have long been feted. In the Shinto religion, rituals have traditionally been held to celebrate milestone ages in life starting from 60 years old, when the 12 zodiac signs, which are similar to the Chinese zodiac, complete a full cycle.

From the age of 60, milestone ages that are celebrated are those ending with zero, such as 70, 80 and 90, and those with repeated numbers, such as 66, 77 and 88. In modern times, honouring the elderly was formalised as Respect for the Aged Day, an annual public holiday in September since 1966.


How Japan copes with its ageing population – sometimes described as the “silver tsunami”, a term seen as fatalistic and derogatory by some – and the associated social security, health, welfare and employment challenges could become an example for the region and the world.

In 2007, Japan became the world’s first “super-aged” society, defined by the United Nations as one where more than 20 % of the population is aged 65 and above. The ratio now is 29 %. That proportion stands at 24.5 % in Italy and 23.6 % in Finland, which rank second and third respectively.

Both South Korea and Taiwan will become super-aged by 2025 and Singapore, by 2026. These three economies, like Japan, have life expectancies above 80 years old.

At the same time, fertility rates are not just falling but also hitting fresh lows in 2022 in all four territories – at 0.78 in South Korea, 0.87 in Taiwan, 1.04 in Singapore, and 1.26 in Japan.

This has wider repercussions on society. While Singapore’s population size is boosted by its comparatively liberal immigration policies and currently stands at 5.64 million with 4.07 million residents and 1.56 million foreigners, resident sizes elsewhere are falling. Japan’s population has fallen for 12 straight years to 124.9 million, and South Korea’s for three years to 51.4 million. Taiwan’s population has fallen every year since it peaked at 23.6 million people in 2019.

Walter Sim

The Straits Times

Asia News Network