Japan’s elderly in Malaysia, like shooting stars in the twilight

Author: Shiori Shakuto-Neoh, ANU

With a quarter of the population above 65 years old, Japan has become a ‘super-aged society’. The now retiring members of the baby-boomer generation have enjoyed rapid economic growth in their working lives. They were appreciated as the workforce behind Japan’s internationally acclaimed ‘miracle’ economy. Today, they have retired into a completely different society: Japan is facing a burgeoning deficit as well as the fallout — humanitarian, economic and political — of the 3/11 triple disaster. National and international media have rushed to call the rapidly ageing population a burden on the Japanese economy, warning that ‘a dwindling band of workers will have to support rising social security payments, as the number of retired people grows’. Kiyohiko Nishimura, as deputy governor of the Bank of Japan, commented that national productivity will decrease with an ageing population. The nation that once commended them as heroes now paints them as a burden.

Japanese expatriate artist Masami Teraoka, age 78, smiles. Japanese elderly are leaving Japan to enjoy new lives overseas and countries such as Malaysia are offering a special visa to do so. (Photo: AAP).

While the media paints a homogenous picture of the elderly as burdensome, the number of retirees who are active, healthy and wealthy is steadily increasing every year with a corresponding growth in their life expectancies. Today, the average age to which one can expect to live without disability is 70 for men and 73 for women. In 2012, over 24 million Japanese were aged between 60–73 years, amounting to almost 20 per cent of the population.

As the number of active, healthy and wealthy elderly grows, pockets of popular culture are challenging the assumptions and stereotypes of ageing. Tasogare Ryuseigun (Like Shooting Stars in Twilight) is Hirokane Kenji’s best-selling comic series that is popular among the middle-aged and the elderly in Japan. It illustrates various protagonists’ searches for ikigai (meaning in life) in old age, mainly through adventures and romantic relationships in the last years of their lives. Through short stories that highlight the last sparkle of one’s life, the comic defends the elderly’s right to enjoy their lives rather than being labelled as burdensome.

Of course not all the elderly would go and find their true love like the protagonists of the popular comic series. But an increasing number of elderly Japanese in their 60s to early 70s is indeed searching for alternative lifestyles to shine like stars in the twilight. Some would go as far as Malaysia.

Malaysia issues a special ‘Malaysia My Second Home’ (MM2H) visa to foreigners to stay in Malaysia for a period of up to 10 years. To date, more than 3346 Japanese have obtained the MM2H visa to stay in Malaysia. The lower cost of living in Malaysia means that Japanese retirees can afford a comfortable lifestyle within the means of their limited pension. They can live in condominiums equipped with swimming pools, gyms and tennis courts. It reminds some of them of their glory days as expatriates for Japanese corporations around the world. Even for those who have never lived abroad, Malaysia offers the comforts of home through the availability of Japanese groceries and familiar brands in the nation’s iconic shopping malls.

The presence of one of the world’s largest Japan clubs no doubt helps the retirees feel at home in Kuala Lumpur. Many make new friends in the Japan Club of Kuala Lumpur by participating in weekly choir and dancing activities. After the classes, some participants go for group dinners at nearby Chinese restaurants. ‘I am much busier in Malaysia than in Japan. When I was in Japan, I used to pass time at home quietly sipping tea. Whereas here I am involved in multiple activities. I am having the time of my life here’, says Mr Aoyama, who is in his early 60s, during a singing session.

Others volunteer to teach Japanese to local high school students and make traditional Japanese toys for children. The availability of low-cost airlines to and from Malaysia also allows them to make easy return trips to Japan and even to the wider world. Many couples travel to neighbouring Asian countries from Kuala Lumpur on budget airlines at least once a month. ‘I have to see the world while I can!’ says Mr Sonoda, a self-proclaimed ‘silver backpacker’ who travels around the world from his apartment in Kuala Lumpur on a shoestring.

Removed from a society that framed them as burdensome, the elderly Japanese in Malaysia are actively seeking health, enjoyment and relationships in their remaining lives. Encouraged by these positive reports from the pioneers of retirement migration, the number of applications for the MM2H visa is increasing every year. Especially in the aftermath of the 3/11 tsunami and nuclear disaster, the number of visa recipients has doubled from 423 recipients in 2011 to 816 in 2012. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of Japanese residents in Malaysia has increased by 96 per cent from 2012 to 2013, and in Kuala Lumpur the figure increased by 120 per cent.

But all good stories come to an end.

Most of them plan to return to Japan when their health declines. Some of them still have their elderly parents in their 80s and 90s for whom they will eventually have to provide care. Thus the retirees in Malaysia maintain an ambivalent relationship with Japan — their original and final home, that they have seen rise and fall with pride and melancholy. There are not yet many elderly who have returned to Japan since their arrival. For now, they live their transnational lives like shooting stars in the twilight.

Shiori Shakuto-Neoh is a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at The Australian National University. She has conducted her fieldwork among the elderly Japanese retirement migrants in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.