In the heady years of cyberpunk, Japan epitomized the future: gritty and neon-lit, urbanized and electrified, computerized and high-tech, dominated by massive corporations.
Today, Japan continues to front-run the rest of the world. It's the first country on track to have more than 20% of its population over the age of 80; and there are whole towns where everyone is over 65. The country has been repeatedly smashed by climate disasters, including this year's lethal heatwave and landslides.
The ruling party is a xenophobic, war-crimes-denying autocracy, and the country continues to refuse any solution to its vast labor shortage that involves immigration from the nearby, poorer Pacific Rim countries with their huge skilled labor pools (Big Hero 6's subtext was really, "We'd rather have robots care for our parents than allow in care workers from the Philippines and Malaysia").
Japan is a trendsetter: other wealthy countries are just catching up with it when it comes to xenophobia (hi there, Trump!), climate disasters (ahoy, Florence!), gerontocratic racism (oh, hai, Brexit!), and an unwillingness to look abroad to address labor shortages (build that wall!).
Mikiko Takasago's article about the island of Teba, where every resident is over 65, is a good look at the sort of structural (literally, as in "buildings and roads") problems that insular, change-wracked, climate-wracked gerontocracies will face.
The current problems of design start at home. As we know, most people over 65 begin to experience some form of physical impairment, and in a city like Tokyo, this becomes a major concern, especially when it comes to housing. Even though most of the housing in Tokyo was rebuilt after World War II, it still has certain traditional features that are difficult for the elderly such as steep staircases leading to houses and steps around each room. Since earthquakes often occur in Japan, many houses shift and warp over time, creating problems with traditional Japanese sliding doors. Many old people often leave their interior doors open because they fear they might get stuck inside if they try to close them. Even in these postwar houses, the furniture is designed for sitting close to the ground on tatami mats, which also requires people to bend their knees.4
This traditional style originated in the fifth century in Japan, when the life expectancy was about 40 years, which meant people usually died before losing their physical strength. By contemporary standards, such design details would violate most disability regulations.
A Slow Utopia [Mikiko Takasago/Offramp]
(via Beyond the Beyond)