The country is a global leader in the kinds of societal changes needed for an aging society, including when it comes to “one of the greatest joys” — eating.
YOKOHAMA, Japan — The 94-year-old man had come for lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and he was determined to make the most of his squid and leek stir-fry.
Eigo Shinoda, a former shipbuilding executive and fighter pilot in World War II, spends his days in a wheelchair and has trouble eating solid food. But that was no impediment as he dug into his meal with a plastic turquoise spoon recently.
That’s because the staff at the restaurant, Kaze no Oto, had puréed the stir-fry in a food processor and served it to his group, which was from a nearby nursing home. While it didn’t look that appetizing, it did the trick for Mr. Shinoda. He finished by licking his plate clean.
Kaze no Oto, in a suburb of Yokohama, is one of a few restaurants in Japan catering to an aging population with meals for those who have difficulty chewing or swallowing. In the way that restaurants have long offered children’s menus, some are now offering special senior meals, too.
Japan has the world’s highest proportion of people 65 and older, at more than a quarter of its population. The country is a global leader in adapting to the needs of an aging citizenry, with racks of reading glasses at bank counters and walking-cane holders in city offices.
With its expanding efforts to accommodate the growing population of the elderly, Japan offers a foretaste of the kinds of societal changes that are beginning to shake a number of wealthy places with rapidly aging populations, including many countries in Western Europe as well as South Korea and Hong Kong.
In Japan, companies are developing special thickening products that can be added to meals during preparation to alter the texture of various foods and ease swallowing. In a culture where meals are prepared with great care and artistry, the thickening gels make it possible for chefs to reshape the food into visually pleasing dishes.
At the Mutuai nursing home in Yokohama, nutritionists and chefs experiment regularly so that they can offer residents a variety of meals.
On a recent afternoon, the lunch menu was Japanese sea bass and sweet-and-sour marinated carrots and radishes, with a side dish of spinach and mushrooms. To adapt the meal to those with slight swallowing problems, the kitchen staff substituted flounder, a more tender fish, and removed the mushrooms and stems from the spinach.
For the residents who have more severe swallowing issues, the staff sent the meal through a food processor, adding a gel powder before cooking the puréed versions in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. Then the resulting gelatinous blocks were poured into molds so that the chefs could create meals that looked like a piece of fish accented with slices of carrots and radish.
“We want them to enjoy different textures, flavors and looks,” said Fumie Egashira, a dietary consultant who works with the nursing home. “This is one of the greatest joys for them. We are not satisfied just because they feel full or can eat safely. We also have to give them pleasure and let them share a meal together.”
In a sun-filled dining alcove, eight women ages 70 to 99 gathered for lunch as three servers circulated among them, delivering different meals depending on the residents’ swallowing capabilities. As the women deftly ate with chopsticks, Natsuko Suzuki, a staff dietitian, noted that a few years ago, the kitchen staff had simply chopped or puréed meals, which was not particularly enticing for residents.
Now, Ms. Suzuki said, “they clearly understand what they are eating.”
As people age and are increasingly restricted in their activities, eating is one of the few daily gratifications they have left, said Eiichi Saitoh, a professor at Fujita Health University.
“Solving the eating problem is not just about averting pneumonia or suffocation, dehydration or malnutrition,” Mr. Saitoh said. “It is also a quality-of-life issue because it is the most important activity for our pleasure.”
Others that tailor meals to the needs of older eaters include luxury hotels like the New Otani in Osaka or the Nikko Kanaya in Tochigi, about 85 miles north of Tokyo, which honor special requests to chop or purée courses. Yoshinoya, a casual restaurant chain that serves a variety of beef and rice bowls, now sells special packages of softened beef stew to nursing homes and hospitals.
While puréeing and chopping make food easier to swallow, doctors say some people still have trouble: The purée may go down too fast, and chopped pieces can accidentally slip into the lungs.
According to Isamu Shibamoto, a speech, language and hearing therapist at Seirei Christopher University, about five million people have had swallowing problems diagnosed. That number is expected to rise to 6.6 million in a decade.
The kind of preparation done by the Mutuai nursing home is still too time-consuming for most restaurants, given that relatively few customers with severe swallowing problems go out to eat.
At Kaze no Oto (which translates as “The Sound of Wind”), the kitchen is too small to accommodate the large vacuum ovens or the counter space needed for the meticulous reshaping of gelled food.
The day the nursing home group arrived for lunch, Motoko Hirose, the restaurant manager, stood in a corner of the kitchen chopping and putting multiple plates of squid and leek stir-fry through a single food processor.
The restaurant is owned by Aishima, a regional nursing home operator in Kanagawa prefecture that runs 21 dementia-care facilities. Toshihiko Aizawa, Aishima’s founder and chief executive, said he wanted to open the restaurant to respond to requests from residents who longed for a meal out.
He designed the space with wide aisles that wheelchairs can pass through and three large wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Many restaurants throughout Japan are in tiny spaces with little room for wheelchairs or walkers, or up flights of stairs where no elevators are available, a barrier for many older customers.
For Kesami Murasawa, 83, the chance to get out to a restaurant means she can experience a broader palate than she does most days. “The taste is more authentic,” she said of the stir-fry.
Even with a chopped meal, Yasuji Uemura, 80, had to push the leeks to the side because he found them too tough to chew. But he grinned widely in his blue-and-fuchsia tracksuit jacket, saying he looked forward to the restaurant trip every month. “I like, very good!” he said in English.
The bulk of Kaze no Oto’s customers are not elderly patients with special eating needs but residents who enjoy the inexpensive lunch specials and dishes like broccoli and beef with oyster sauce or shrimp and beans with chili sauce.
While the nursing home residents ate at a long table in the back, several groups of regulars dined in a front room. Yoshimi Aizawa, 46, a teacher who was out for lunch with two friends, said she appreciated the mixed-age clientele and menus. “I think it is great,” she said. “It is still kind of unusual.”
Mr. Aizawa, Aishima’s founder, said that for now the restaurant would not be profitable if it relied only on its oldest customers. But as Japan’s society ages, he said, the restaurant industry won’t be able to afford to ignore the change.
“There are not enough young people,” Mr. Aizawa said. “We cannot stay profitable without the senior customers.”