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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 October 2006, 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK
Japan's old, young enough to work
by Duncan Bartlett
BBC World Service, Hamamatsu, Japan

In Japan, an increasing number of older people are deciding that they do not want to leave their jobs at retirement age.

Old worker in Japanese piano factory
Skills required to make a grand piano takes years to develop

In a country where men are expected to live till 78 and life expectancy for women is 85, one of the highest in the world, the official retirement age remains 60.

Many elderly Japanese feel that they are still healthy enough to keep working and they enjoy their jobs and the money it earns them.

As a result Japanese companies are now enjoying the benefits of having older employees on its work force.

Motorbike city

Hamamatsu in central Japan is the city where three world-famous companies were founded, Suzuki, Honda and Yamaha.

All are well known for their motorbikes but Yamaha is also one of the world's leading musical instrument firms. Its most expensive products are grand pianos.

Some sell for tens of thousands of dollars and factory workers require a great deal of skill.

Yamaha has introduced a mentor programme at its piano factory in Hamamatsu where a hundred older workers hand on their skills to younger staff.

If they are healthy and enthusiastic, we will give them a job
Hiro Okabe, Yamaha director

Yamaha director Hiro Okabe believes it is a key to the company carrying on its tradition as a top piano maker.

"Half of the workers are now over fifty. In the early 1980s, when we had a huge piano market in Japan we trained many people, but we haven't hired much since then," says Mr Okabe.

He encourages older workers to pair up with younger people to train them. That means that many employees decide to stay on as mentors even though they could choose to retire.

"About half the people over 60 would would like to work two or three more years if they can. And if they are healthy and enthusiastic, we will give them a job," says Mr Okabe.

Pension crisis

At the moment, people in Japan can retire from their jobs at the age of 60, if they so wish, and receive a pension from the state.

About 70% of men keep working beyond that age and around 40% of women. But Japan has been thinking seriously about raising the retirement age.

One reason is that a very large number of people were born just after the end of the Second World War and they are now reaching 60.

If they all suddenly retire, companies will lose many of their best staff and the government's pension payments will shoot up.

Golden oldies

Another musical instrument factory in Hamamatsu makes harmonicas. Among the staff is Michiko Takeya, who's 71 years old and is determined to keep working.

"I've been working here for many years and I really love the sound of the harmonicas," says Mrs Takeya. "I suppose most of my colleagues belong to a different generation but we still get on very well as friends."

Her colleague is 65-year-old Kamiya Yoshitaku says he stayed on because the company needed people with special technical skills.

Old Japanese woman
The elderly in Japan work in harmony with younger generations

He insisted he would rather work in the factory than spend time on his hobbies like hiking or fishing.

It is not just people who have been working for the company for decades who are allowed to stay on.

Suzuki Harmonicas has even hired new members of staff at the age of 60 according to Managing Director Takeomi Mishimura.

"Making musical instruments like harmonicas you need a lot of skill with your hands - computers can't do that," says Mr Mishimura.

"It's a great advantage for us to have older people working for us because they have got so much experience and can teach and nurture the younger generation."

The factory also offers a harmonica school for people who want to learn the instrument. Most of the students are in their sixties and seventies and go to lessons every week.

They also give concerts and invite their grandchildren to come to listen to the music.

Proof indeed that different generations can work in harmony.

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