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Published:February 3rd, 2010 22:11 EST
Taiwan: The Old and The Dead

Taiwan: The Old and The Dead

By Geoff Dean

 When you think of Taiwan what comes to mind? Troubles with Mainland China? Arms sales from the US? Endless products "Made in Taiwan"?

 For me, personally, (Thanks for asking), Taiwan is a place I would like to visit (I did stop over at the airport on the way to Thailand, not that you care, or that I care whether you care), a land of warm beaches, pulsating cities, and ancient Chinese artifacts. For my younger daughter, age 6, Taiwan is the place of delicious food. Her favorite restaurant is a Taiwanese one near Shibuya Station, here in Tokyo, (especially the spring rolls), although I can`t distinguish Taiwanese food from Chinese, to be honest. For my elder daughter, age 14, Taiwan is the land of origin for a lot of the bands that make up (infest?) the Japanese pop music scene. For my wife, Taiwan is a place she probably can`t find on a map.


 One thing that none of my family associates with Taiwan is extreme aging. Japan suffers from a "baby poof" (the opposite of a baby boom-I coined this one myself and surely it will soon be everywhere) but Taiwan has the greatest problems of any country (oops, Taiwan is not a country, I guess) in this area. A recent Japan Times report pointed out that the birthrate was just over 1 child per couple (1.05 to be too exact) in Taiwan, leading to a massive population drop off. School teachers were being forced to look for other work as the number of students dropped off and schools were closed in droves, claimed the report. One population expert based in Taipei said that this was not only the lowest rate in Taiwanese history but indeed, in human history.

 Chen Yu-hua, a demographer at National Taiwan University pointed to the lack of political will (I guess this is not just an American condition) to do anything about the problem, the growing tendencies of women to work, not to have kids, to marry late, and for young people to move to cities and away from the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents who might urge them to settle down and have kids, as critical factors in the trend. According to current forecasts, by 2051, 1 in 3 Taiwanese will be 65 or older. This, added Chen, could be a major danger in relations with a steadily strenghtening China.

 Many Taiwanese citizens have ignored this problem and the media seldom touches it, continued Chen, while others have said it will reduce overcrowding and even be "good for the environment." A gradual reduction might indeed be so but not a massive and rapid one as Taiwan now faces, she concluded.

 In another recent article in the good old JT, there was a discussion of how embalming had become a hot profession in Taiwan. Whereas in the past, it was considered a dirty job that someone had to do, morticians have become the latest fad, even appearing as celebrities on TV. Salaries are good and status is improving, so much so that many parents have urged their kids to give up on becoming doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and going into the funeral business, said the report.

 Taiwanese morticians, beyond usually funerary services, will give the corpse a "total makeover" for a price, so that a person ends up looking better in death than in life. There are "spa treaments" for the dead and many deceased in their wills ask for a change in hairstyle (and even hair color) or even "tanning" (don`t ask me how they do that). There are also reuqests for fashion clothing and the like (although most are cremated shortly therafter- I guess you can`t take Armani with you). Celebrity funeral stylists and hairdressers are all the rage.

 The two articles make no connection between the aging society and the rise of the funeral business but it doesn`t take a PhD to figure that one out (Proof in point: I did!) Japanese funerals are much less glamourous and glitzy events, apparently, than their Taiwanese counterparts but maybe it`s something to look into. If anybody wants an American funeral director in Tokyo, I`ll send my resume!