The generation who joined the ranks of the so-called elderly this year, like myself, lived through the era that saw both a period of high economic growth and an increase in the average life expectancy.
In 1970, when I was 28 years old, the average life expectancy became 69 years old for males and 75 years for females. Nevertheless, when I was young and hospitalized with tuberculosis, I thought I would be lucky to live to be 60 years old, or thereabout.
When I was in my 20s, I understood that I wouldn’t live very long, but I was never particularly disheartened by it. This was because I miraculously survived the WWII firebombing of Tokyo when I was three years old. My mother carried me on her back, running to escape the storm of fire bombs. Hence, even if my life was shorter than that of others, I still felt it was ample. Looking back on it now, my presumption of a shorter life expectancy may have prompted me to work more diligently, so perhaps it was a fortunate miscalculation.
Taisho Era (1912–26) life expectancy forecasts
Incidentally, the average life expectancy now is 87 years for females and 81 years for males. According to predictions, future life expectancy will not increase as dramatically as it has, although it will continue to grow. The forecast given for average life expectancy in 2060 is 91 years for females and 84 years for males.
However, actual average life expectancy is highly likely to increase even more. There have been news reports of a new test, using nematodes, that can easily and inexpensively detect early-stage cancer. It is expected to become available for practical application in a few years’ time. Medical applications of iPS cells are also progressing steadily. Given that the predictions of average life expectancy do not take into account future innovations in medical technology, it is quite possible that average life expectancy could exceed predictions.
Speaking of predictions, I recall reading a Taisho-era magazine called Japan and the Japanese as part as some other research. It featured a special article, “Japan in 100 Years,” which included predictions of the giants of various fields. (Special Spring Issue of 1920 – Year nine of the Taisho Era)
The 100-year anniversary of its publication is 2020, which is in two years’ time. The predictions in the article include “Aircraft which carry 600 passengers,” “Female Cabinet Ministers and University Presidents,” “Travel between Earth and Mars,” “Esperanto will be the National Language,” and so on.
Amid these, the “Average Age” by 2020 was given as “125 years old.” That forecast was wrong, but it was nevertheless a prediction of the advent of the aging society.
The era of the demise of death
When the article was written, the average life expectancy was in the low 40s. As such, the prediction of the average age reaching “125 years” must have seemed totally unrealistic. Whether or not the notion of an average age of 125 years is ever reached, an average life expectancy of 100 years is likely to be achieved in the not-too-distant future.
If we were asked today to complete the same survey predicting the average life expectancy in 100 years’ time, we would not answer with just a simple increase in years. This is because we have entered an era where the demise of death itself is a factor to be considered.
Natsume Soseki wrote of an era where death has disappeared in the book I am a Cat, which was written over 100 years ago. Soseki’s alter-ego, Master Kushami (Sneeze) speaks of an era 1,000 or 10,000 years into the future. In this future, all people are immortal, and suicide is the only available form of death.
Consequently, research into suicide has progressed, and it is an established discipline of science. Instead of ethics, suicide-ology has become a regular subject. Thus, it is that sensible people commit suicide, although there are also those who just cannot bring themselves to do so.
”As such, those who wish to be killed place a notice on their gate. So the men or women who wish to die would just hang a notice and at a convenient time, the local police would call round and fulfill their wishes.”
It tells of an era where the nightmare is not a fear of death, but a fear of not dying.
The challenge of having to continue living
This conversation, hinting of a slow suicide, is at the end of the novel, when the cat is drunk on beer and drowning in a jar as he becomes more intoxicated.
Nevertheless, when one asks readers of the book about this section, the majority have trouble recalling it. Granted, it is a sidetrack from the main theme. However, perhaps in an era where the fear of death was paramount, this kind of fanciful concept may have been dismissed as absurd and thus largely forgotten. Now, the idea is no longer merely fanciful. If read today, it would likely ring ever-so-slightly true.
Even without the advent of immortality, life expectancy continues to increase, and so it is possible that an average life expectancy of 125 years is not so far-fetched. When that time comes, people may grow weary of living and, perhaps, have to deal with the challenge of having to continue living. In the current longevity society, the signs are already there.
At the same time, people may become nostalgic for a time when death was to be feared. As if it is only the act of living in the shadow of death which gives rise to the desire to live a meaningful, if limited, life.
Soseki writes, “Dying is painful, but being unable to die is more so.”
Yoh Takeuchi is a sociologist, and Head of the Kansai University Tokyo Center. He is a professor of the Kansai University, Faculty of Health and Well-being.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)