Japan has one of the world’s grayest populations – nearly 30% of Japan is over the age of 65.
Meanwhile, Japan is also proactively pursuing a path of digital transformation. The government hopes that a healthy embrace of future-facing tech such as cashless payments, online government services and digital education might help prevent the country’s economy from falling behind.
Together, these two elements make for a tricky situation. As Japan looks to leverage the power of modern tech, there is a large portion of the population still more familiar with landline telephones and fax machines that is in danger of being left in the dust.
How can Japan move forward without leaving anyone behind?
There’s an App for that
“Our mission with Rakuten Senior is to extend the healthy life expectancy and to promote the health and wellbeing of our users,” explains Yu Hirayama, Rakuten Senior’s Business Manager. “This includes everything from encouraging moderate exercise and leaving the house safely, to social participation and finding post-retirement activities.”
Launched in mid-2019, the Rakuten Senior app is aimed squarely at one demographic: Seniors. Users can track health-related functions such as daily steps, for which they can earn Rakuten Points upon reaching their targets. It’s also a hub for joining events and classes to forge new connections with the community, both on- and offline.
“The digital shift, together with the pandemic, has brought about a serious risk of social isolation… “Without being able to connect online, many seniors are at risk of falling out of contact with friends and family.”Yu Hirayama, Business Manager, Rakuten Senior
But to reduce Rakuten Senior to a simple app would be misleading. In fact, there is a fundamental step that many users must take before they even download the app: learning how to use a smartphone.
“Because they’re so different from flip phones, many seniors aren’t even able to carry out the most basic operations on a smartphone,” Hirayama says. “They need to be shown how to make a phone call. They need to learn how to install apps. If they can’t use these basic functions, then they would never be able to take advantage of any app we built for them.”
Rakuten has been holding smartphone classes for seniors since 2016, when Rakuten Mobile trialed the initiative for some of its elderly customers. This endeavor continued with Rakuten Senior, but the team soon found themselves facing a new hurdle: COVID-19 and the age of teleconferencing. Takasaka’s team was forced to take smartphone school online.
“Our regular users are familiar with joining online meetings, but new members often don’t have those skills yet,” Hirayama says. “Some users don’t even know where to start. We have to call them on the phone and walk them through every step of the process.”
A Dangerous Divide
As the world’s digital shift picks up speed, being able to meet online has become a core skill of the modern age. This, Hirayama says, comes with risks.
“The digital shift, together with the pandemic, has brought about a serious risk of social isolation,” Hirayama warns. “Without being able to connect online, many seniors are at risk of falling out of contact with friends and family.”
Seniors are being left behind in other important aspects of life, too: “In times of disaster, crucial information is often broadcast through digital devices. A lack of timely information could lead to delays in getting users to safety,” Hirayama adds. “Meanwhile, basic government services are also heading online, leaving many unable to take advantage of them.”
Through Rakuten Senior’s smartphone school, Hirayama wants to bridge this digital divide. The app also serves as a platform allowing users to participate in a range of community-oriented events such as fitness, yoga, calligraphy and English conversation classes.
“Japan’s aging population is a huge topic in Japan, and we feel that the public and private sectors need to come together to find solutions.”
“We hope the event platform will serve to connect people through their hobbies and form lasting connections with the community through events held by local firms, councils and individual instructors.”
Online connections are here to stay
As vaccination rates rise and Japan slowly reopens, Rakuten Senior has begun holding in-person events once more.
In the remote island community of Kushima in Ehime Japan, seniors make up over 40% of the local population – a significant jump over Japan’s already high national rate of nearly 30%. The town is battling social isolation and social withdrawal, something locals hope Rakuten Senior’s smartphone schools can assist with.
Over a period of six months, participants joined regular classes, learning everything from tapping and swiping and downloading apps to mobile payments, social media and online conferencing.
The classes were a mixture of online meetings and in-person instruction. Even as offline events become possible in Japan, cases like Kushima make it clear that for the important task of building communities, the ability to connect online remains crucial.
Playing to Rakuten’s strengths
A tech-driven company in an aging society, Rakuten is in a unique position to empower Japan’s seniors, and even to provide some hints to other countries expecting similar demographic challenges down the line.
“Japan’s aging population is a huge topic in Japan, and we feel that the public and private sectors need to come together to find solutions,” Hirayama reasons. “Being an IT-driven company, we have a lot of digital services that we can provide in the pursuit of extending the healthy life of our users.”
The Rakuten Senior app recently reached one million downloads – a substantial segment of Japan’s senior population.
“Thanks to cooperation with councils and lots of participation from users, our community is growing,” Hirayama boasts. “Once we show them how to get on social media, word spreads fast.”