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In-depth Aging Consumers Reshaping Japanese Market
Tapping the Potential of Japan’s Senior Consumers

Murata Hiroyuki [Profile]


Japan’s aging population offers new opportunities for Japanese industry—provided it can tap into the diverse needs and shifting consumption patterns of the elderly. Murata Hiroyuki offers a tantalizing glimpse of future trends in Japan’s senior market.

The number of elderly citizens in Japan has hit 33.8 million, a full 26.7% of the total population, according to government figures released on September 15. As the children of the postwar baby boom (1947–49) enter their golden years, this segment of Japanese society will continue to grow. While some have portrayed this trend as a demographic crisis, others look on the burgeoning senior market as a unique business opportunity.

Opportunities abound, to be sure, but viewing Japan’s elderly population as a single monolithic market would be a serious mistake. In the following, I offer several concrete examples of consumer trends to illustrate the growing diversity of the senior market and provide a glimpse of its future potential.

Who’s Buying Those Prepared Meals?

One of the big consumption trends of recent years is the rapid growth of the market for prepared foods. Increasingly, people are buying meals or dishes prepared commercially and taking them home or having them delivered. According to a survey by Recruit Lifestyle, men in their 30s and 40s account for a substantial portion of this increase, but another growing market segment consists of consumers in their 60s, men and women alike.

A key factor behind the increase in prepared-food consumption among Japanese in their 60s is the fact that the baby boomers are transitioning to a new life stage. One aspect of this trend is the growing number of retirees and the impact of their retirement on their wives. In a 2011 survey of women in their 50s and 60s by the Living Kurashi How Institute, respondents whose husbands had retired were asked how often their spouses stayed at home. A full 38% answered “about seven days a week,” while 25% replied “more often than not.” In short, more than 60% of the women surveyed reported that their husbands spent most of their time around the house.

The same questionnaire asked the women whether they felt they had more or less time to themselves than five years previously. The percentage indicating that they had less time was 18.6% among women whose husbands were still working but climbed to 31.6% among those whose husbands had retired. The main reason women of this age bracket feel they have less spare time is that they are expected to serve three meals a day to their retired husbands. While it is true that more Japanese men are cooking than ever before, most males of this generation are still fairly helpless in the kitchen; teaching one’s husband to prepare his own meals would be a huge undertaking in itself. Much of the growing demand for store-bought meals reflects the desire of women with retired husbands to minimize the added burden of food preparation.

On the other hand, the “underfoot husband” phenomenon is just one aspect of a complex picture. The uniformity that characterized the boomers’ incomes and lifestyles during the years of rapid economic growth has given way to diversity rooted in such differences as employment or lack of it and disparities in health, fitness, and family situation. Indeed, the senior market is best thought of not as one mass market but as a collection of micro markets. Let’s look at some examples of this diversity.

Are Seniors “Morning Consumers”?

There is a widespread perception of the elderly as early risers who are most likely to consume in the morning hours. Certainly it is common to see older people walking their dogs or taking a walk around the block in the early morning or lining up outside a department store before it opens. Cognizant of this phenomenon, some businesses have begun tailoring their hours and offerings to early-rising seniors. One example is the Komeda coffee shop chain, which offers a 7:00–11:00 AM breakfast special of coffee, toast, and a boiled egg.

But a pattern of evening consumption has been emerging as well. Exemplifying this trend is 65-year old Yamamoto Jirō of Saitama Prefecture, who stops at the local supermarket to buy prepared foods for his dinner on his way home from work each evening. “Eating out every night would be too expensive,” he explains.

Meanwhile, an izakaya (restaurant/bar) near Gotanda Station in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district is doing a booming business offering an “all-you-can-eat senior course” for groups of customers aged 65 and up. At ¥2,680—including 180 minutes of free drinks—the pricing is attractive, and the course has made the bar a popular destination for older office workers and hobby groups alike.

Growth in consumption from evenings on can be attributed in large part to the rising number of working seniors. According to the government’s Labor Force Survey, the number of employed persons aged 60 and up has risen steadily over the past decade. In 2013, the total was 12.1 million, accounting for almost 20% of all employed persons 15 and up. One driver of this trend is the amended Act for Stabilization of Employment of Older Persons (in effect since April 2013), which requires companies to offer all regular employees options for continuing employment at least until age 65. That said, the number of employed persons 65 and up has been rising as well over the past 11 years, hitting 6.81 million in 2014.

As for retirees, the overall trend in recent years—underfoot husbands notwithstanding—has been toward a more socially and culturally active lifestyle. Going forward, this trend should drive further growth in evening consumption among Japan’s seniors.

  • [2015.11.26]

Professor, Smart Ageing International Research Center, Tōhoku University, and CEO, Center for Studies on Ageing Societies. Born in Niigata Prefecture. Earned his master’s degree in engineering from Tōhoku University and his MBA from École des Ponts Paris Tech. Worked for French petroleum giant Total S.A. (formerly Elf Aquitaine) before joining the Japan Research Institute in 1991. Author of Seikō suru shinia-bijinesu no kyōkasho (How to Succeed in Senior Business), ‘Smāto eijingu’ to iu ikikata (The ‘Smart Ageing’ Way of Life), and other works.

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