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Japan Table of Contents


Social Welfare

The futures of Japan's health and welfare systems are being shaped by the rapid aging of the population. Medical insurance, health care for the elderly, and public health expenses constituted about 60 percent of social welfare and social security costs in 1975, while government pensions accounted for 20 percent. By the early 1980s, pensions accounted for nearly 50 percent of social welfare and social security expenditures because people were living longer after retirement. A fourfold increase in workers' individual contributions was projected by the twenty-first century.

A major revision in the public pension system in 1986 unified several former plans into the single Employee Pension Insurance Plan. In addition to merging the former plans, the 1986 reform attempted to reduce benefits to hold down increases in worker contribution rates. It also established the right of women who did not work outside the home to pension benefits of their own, not only as a dependent of a worker. Everyone aged between twenty and sixty was a compulsory member of this Employee Pension Insurance Plan.

Despite complaints that these pensions amounted to little more than "spending money," an increasing number of people planning for their retirement counted on them as an important source of income. Benefits increased so that the basic monthly pension was about US$420 in 1987, with future payments adjusted to the consumer price index. Forty percent of elderly households in 1985 depended on various types of annuities and pensions as their only sources of income.

Some people are also eligible for corporate retirement allowances. About 90 percent of firms with thirty or more employees gave retirement allowances in the late 1980s, frequently as lump sum payments but increasingly in the form of annuities.

Japan also has public assistance programs benefiting about 1 percent of the population. About 33 percent of recipients are elderly people, 45 percent were households with sick or disabled members, and 14 percent are fatherless families, and 8 percent are in other categories.

Japanese often claim to outsiders that their society is homogeneous. By world standards, the Japanese enjoy a high standard of living, and nearly 90 percent of the population consider themselves part of the middle class. Most people express satisfaction with their lives and take great pride in being Japanese and in their country's status as an economic power on a par with the United States and Western Europe. In folk crafts and in right-wing politics, in the new religions and in international management, the Japanese have turned to their past to interpret the present. In doing so, however, they may be reconstructing history as a common set of beliefs and practices that make the country look more homogeneous than it really is.

In a society that values outward conformity, individuals may appear to take a back seat to the needs of the group. Yet it is individuals who create for themselves a variety of life-styles. They are constrained in their choices by age, gender, life experiences, and other factors, but they draw from a rich cultural repertoire of past and present through which the wider social world of families, neighborhoods, and institutions gives meaning to their lives. As Japan set out to internationalize itself in the 1990s, the identification of inherent Japanese qualities took on new significance, and the ideology of homogeneity sometimes masked individual decisions and life-styles of postindustrial Japan.

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A good general introduction to Japanese society is Edwin O. Reischauer's The Japanese Today. The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan contains articles on numerous aspects of Japanese society. The Japanese government publishes excellent information on a variety of subjects in English, as well as Japanese-English statistical reports, such as the Nihon tokei nenkan (Japan Statistical Yearbook). Japan's physical setting and its relation to society are discussed in Martin Collcutt and others' Cultural Atlas of Japan. Hori Ichiro and others' Japanese Religion and H. Byron Earhart's Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity provide good introductions to religious life.

Analyses of Japanese culture and values can be found in Japanese Society by Robert J. Smith, Long Engagements by David W. Plath, The Monkey as Mirror by Emiko OhnukiTierney , a variety of articles in Japanese Culture and Behavior edited by Takie Sugiyama Lebra and William P. Lebra, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict, and Conflict in Japan, edited by Ellis S. Krauss and others. Social organization is described by Nakane Chie in Japanese Society, Ezra F. Vogel in Japan's New Middle Class, Harumi Befu in Japan: An Anthropological Introduction, and Joy Hendry in Understanding Japanese Society. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of January 1994

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Japan Table of Contents