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Centuries ago, Japan created a word called ubasute. Translated as “granny dumping,” it described the practice of poor citizens bringing their senile elders to mountaintops because they can no longer afford their care.
Today, amid Japan’s widespread demographic and economic woes, ubasute is making a comeback.
Modern-day granny dumping doesn’t involve hauling seniors up the sides of mountains, but driving them to hospitals or the offices of nearby charities and, essentially, giving them up for adoption.
“There are a lot of people who have a certain amount of income but who still live in poverty and struggle terribly with relatives who can’t look after themselves,” social worker Takanori Fujita told the Times of London. “They are reluctant to ask for help because they feel it’s shameful.”
Japan’s economy has been shrinking for the better part of the last decade. Senior citizens have continued aging into their 80s, 90s, and 100s, while younger generations have largely stagnated in having children. As a result, there are fewer people to help take care of the elderly, pay for social security, and keep the workforce full.
Economists have taken to calling the situation a “demographic time bomb.”
There have been a number of related side effects to the demographic time bomb. For instance, the country has seen greater rates of karoshi, or “death by overwork,” in which burnt-out employees commit suicide under the weight of job pressure.
The government has also taken steps to make family life more enticing to people, including hosting speed-dating events, teaching men how to be fathers, and recommending shorter work hours in large companies.
Granny dumping’s revival signals another side effect of the demographic time bomb. Fujita works in Saitama prefecture, where he said there are roughly 10 abandoned elders per year. That likely equates to a nationwide total in the low hundreds, he told the Times.
The trend is unlikely to stop anytime soon. There are more people in Japan over the age of 65, as a share of the total population, than at any point in the country’s history. As of 2016, elderly people accounted for 26.7% of Japan’s 127.11 million citizens.
And since 2011, adult diapers have outsold those intended for babies.
Some charities around Japan have begun catering to the new crop of abandoned elders, even setting up “senior citizen postboxes” (offices where people can be dropped off) to standardize the practice as best they can. The charity will then transfer the family member to a local retirement home, where they can receive the care they deserve.