For Japan’s Oldest Survivors, the Ruined Landscape Is All Too Familiar

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A woman walks amid devastation and debris after a 9.0 magnitude strong earthquake struck off the coast of Japan

Japan’s survivors barely recognize the remnants of the towns that collapsed around them. But for the country’s oldest citizens, the ruined landscape is eerily familiar.

(More on See a father’s quest to find his missing daughter in Sendai)

With unbelieving eyes, the island nation now takes in the devastation wracked upon it — its soil repeatedly shaken and swallowed in parts by the sea; possible radiation contamination from a nuclear catastrophe — in recent days. But the stricken country’s aged can believe.

“The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in a televised statement on Sunday. Parts of the country have come, in a tragic backwards step, to resemble their post-war selves. An older generation will have seen this type of wreckage before and its members know, if no one else does, that it is possible to rebuild.

Hirosato Wako, a 75-year-old whose tiny fishing village is now but a repository of debris, was one witness of the Allied bombings of Sendai, the largest city in Japan’s northeast. “I lived through the Sendai air raids,” he told the New York Times. “But this is much worse.”

Japan has the largest elderly population of any nation and that pool continues to grow rapidly. In the 1950s, the percentage of Japanese over the age of 65 was a stable 5%. In 1989, it had grown to 11.6%. As of 2005, it sits at 21%, and it is estimated that by 2030 nearly a quarter of the nation’s denizens will fall into the 65-and-over category. By comparison, in the United States it took 75 years for that same group to expand from 7% to 14% of the population.

Once, it was expected that adult children in Japan would live with, and tend to, their parents in old age. But the proportion of elderly Japanese co-residing with their kids began to drop in the 1980s, and the number of nursing home patients jumped from about 75,000 in 1970 to over 216,000 in 1987. In one nightmarish account from last week, nursing home worker Kaori Ohashi tells how she was forced to move 200 residents suffering from severe dementia to the building’s highest floors instead of returning to her own family. She feared that none of them would survive the night. Thankfully, no one in her care was injured.

In Japan, as elsewhere, young people have left the countryside to find work in major cities. Increasingly, Japanese seniors are maintaining their own, separate households. And when those households were washed away Friday, most of their inhabitants were too weak to escape the wall of water. The New York Times reports that Jun Kikuchi, owner of a taxi company in the coastal northeast, offered to evacuate half a dozen denizens aged over 70 after the earthquake. They refused, and when he returned to the area post-tsunami, their homes no longer stood there. The members of Japan’s older generation may be best acquainted with disaster, but last week they were the least well equipped to survive it. (via the New York Times)

(More on See TIME’s complete coverage of the crises in Japan.)