Japan's new right-wing government hasn't wasted time in alienating tens of millions of its voters. According to finance minister Taro Aso, elderly people should "hurry up and die" so that pressure can be relieved on the state to pay for their skyrocketing medical bills.
Indeed, nearly a quarter of Japan's population is over 60, so the government is starting to feel the strain. But given the potential for more advanced life extension technologies and even longer lives, it's something that governments — and voters — are going to have get used to. Anything less would be utterly discriminatory.
Aso made the statement Monday during a meeting of a national council looking at changes to social security. He also referred to seniors who are unable to feed themselves as "tube people." The Guardian reports:
Cost aside, caring for the elderly is a major challenge for Japan's stretched social services. According to a report this week, the number of households receiving welfare, which include family members aged 65 or over, stood at more than 678,000, or about 40% of the total. The country is also tackling a rise in the number of people who die alone, most of whom are elderly. In 2010, 4.6 million elderly people lived alone, and the number who died at home soared 61% between 2003 and 2010, from 1,364 to 2,194, according to the bureau of social welfare and public health in Tokyo.
The government is planning to reduce welfare expenditure in its next budget, due to go into force this April, with details of the cuts expected within days.
Aso, who has a propensity for verbal blunders, later attempted to clarify his comments. He acknowledged his language had been "inappropriate" in a public forum and insisted he was talking only about his personal preference.
This "clarification" aside, the finance minister is evidently reacting to not just current fiscal realities, but to estimates predicting that over 40% of the Japanese population will be over 60 in the next 50 years.
Clearly, the aging population is placing a tremendous strain on the government, both in Japan and elsewhere. But that's no excuse for such agist and callous comments. The elderly population is being treated as second class citizens, and as a kind of regrettable reality that the state is forced to deal with.
Such sentiments are unacceptable and completely undemocratic. But what's even more troubling is the potential for this kind of discrimination to get even worse. We are at the dawn of the second wave of life extension, where human longevity is set to increase even more dramatically. Wishing that elderly people would just "hurry up and die" is not a vision for the future. It's a myopic perspective that will only exacerbate the resentment young people feel towards the older generations — generations who have the right to life and unhindered access to medical technologies.
Rather than bemoan the presence of an increasingly aged population, governments need to own up to what's happening. It's clearly going to be a monumental challenge, but simply hoping that people will quickly die so that they don't have to figure this all out is clearly not the way to go.
Top photo by Daniel Berehulak. Lower image: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images.