snacking on mikan in the shed
The following is an essay I wrote about my experience in Japan. It was published in both English and Japanese in the 2008 Japan Exchange and Teaching Journal.
Lessons from Obaa-chan and Ojii-chan:
Overcoming Ageism in the Aging Society of Japan
Japan: the land of contrast. It is the land of skyscrapers and mountains, hi-tech toilets and hot spring baths, vending machines and tea ceremony. It’s also the land of a decreasing birth rate and an increasing population of elders. In fact, Japan is facing a serious demographic dilemma, as about a fifth of its population are aged 65 years or older, making it the most rapidly aging society in the world.
Putting aside the countless negative effects this problem is presenting to Japan, what effect did it have on me as an American living and teaching in Japan for two years? It would have been one thing if I had been in a city, with so many young people out and about that an aging society crisis would have been hard to see. However, I have been living and teaching on an isolated island in Japan’s Inland Sea where most people are either retired or young enough to
displaying one of her cloth paintings
be my students.
I have always considered myself to be an open-minded person. I think anyone who moves to a country on the other side of the world to teach English could probably say the same. Yet it was not until I lived on this small island for a while that I realized I had been living my life with prejudice towards elderly people. And, as with most prejudices, my ageism was born from a lack of knowledge and exposure. Coming from a small city in the United States, I had little experience with old folks. In fact I knew almost nothing about them, other than they move slowly and clear their throats loudly. It’s not that there were no elderly people in my hometown: I just didn’t see any reason to spend time with them. I lived far away from my grandparents and only made friends with people my age. The only people outside of my generation with whom I had regular conversations were my parents.
So, when I settled in to my new home in Japan and came to realize that there were virtually no people my age to befriend, I started to feel the “crisis”
an afternoon of origami with the oldest woman on the island (104 years old)
of the aging population in Japan. I was forced to confront my ageist attitude by living on this small island, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that if I didn’t want to be alone with no friends in Japan, I better start opening my heart to all the obaa-chan, or elderly women, and ojii-chan, or elderly men. Of course they made it easy with all their gifts of fruits and vegetables from their gardens and endless amounts of red bean sweets. It seemed as though the local obaa-chan were just waiting to be of some help to me and make my life here more comfortable.
I can’t possibly convey all of the unforgettable experiences I have had, lessons I have learned, and stories I have heard from these people during my stay here. Ishikawa-san gives me a big bag of vegetables from her garden every week in exchange for English lessons. Yamaguchi-san, the oldest woman on the island at 104 years old, spent one afternoon making origami with me. Murakami-san, an 83-year-old woman, gives me shamisen lessons every week in her ancient house. Yamada-san is always available to drive me somewhere or just to offer some
my shamisen teacher
tea and an open ear. The list goes on an on, but I would like to tell a little more about a few people who have left a big impression on me during my time here.
Kawasaki-san, among many things, is a retired sea captain, atomic bomb survivor, artist, farmer, and an excellent English speaker. I met him at the first adult English conversation class I taught, and I immediately thought he looked like a Japanese Ernest Hemingway with his white beard and mustache. He has lived, and is still living, a fascinating life, and I don’t have to worry about keeping the conversation going when he comes to the class as he is a great storyteller. He has told horrific stories about his experience in Hiroshima during the atomic bomb. At the time he was only a schoolboy and survived the bomb while many of his schoolmates were killed on a class outing near the bomb’s hypocenter. His school was destroyed, and all survivors were moved to a temporary school in the surrounding mountains where they worked for the war effort and helped transport bodies. He described looking at the ruined city from the mountains and trying to
visiting with friends
point out where the houses and buildings he was once so familiar with had been.
When Kawasaki-san had reached adulthood, he took to the open sea as a ship captain. His stories about managing his crew and the wild waves of the open water are endless. One story that was particularly suspenseful was about a journey to Africa. After docking his ship in the port, he went to look for a bite to eat in the port town. He and his crew were soon approached by some city officials. The officials yelled at Kawasaki-san and his crew, but they couldn’t understand because the officials spoke in French. Kawasaki-san tried to explain that they just arrived from Japan, but the officials couldn’t understand his Japanese. So, Kawasaki-san reached into his coat pocket to show his papers to the officials, and before he knew it, he was being held at gunpoint! The officials assumed he was reaching in his pocket for a gun. The crew put their hands up, but Kawasaki-san calmly presented his papers and the matter was settled.
After retirement, Kawasaki-san chose the island on which I now live to build his small log cabin overlooking the sea.
four generations of women
He spends his days there tending to his mikan orchard and working at his pottery wheel. I asked him once if retirement ever got boring for him after living such an eventful life. He told me that his life after retirement is even busier than before. He knows his days are limited, but there are still so many things he wants to do, so he makes sure to live each day to its fullest.
Taguchi-san, unlike many Japanese women, has a very aggressive way of speaking. Her voice is husky, and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She also happens to be a fabulous singer and dancer. Her favorite music genre to sing is old jazz ballad hits from the 1950’s. Even when she was hospitalized in the summer, she found the energy to cheer up the people in the beds beside her with a sing-along. Taguchi-san has lived her entire life on this small island in the Inland Sea. She knows about every person, plant, and animal that lives here. Her family has a long history on the island, and they are so respected that a whole mountain on the island is deemed hers. She knows something
about any traditional Japanese craft or cuisine, and if you want to know the history of the island, she is the person to ask.
Every month on the twenty-first day, members of the community visit 88 Buddhist sights (including temples, ojizou-san statues, and other places of worship) as part of a small Buddhist pilgrimage on the island. Pilgrims stop at each site, offer a prayer or a couple of coins, and receive a small gift or snack in exchange. Participants of the pilgrimage are mostly obaa-chan, and Taguchi-san joins them every month. A few times, when I didn’t have school, she invited me to join the pilgrimage as well. Every time was an enlightening experience. To begin with, the pilgrimage route takes us on a beautiful walk through the mountains, all around the island, and to the cliffs overlooking the Inland Sea on the island’s eastern side. Taguchi-san never fails to lead me off the route to show me the oldest tree or house on the island, pick tsukushi (a wild vegetable), or find a hidden tomb of noble islanders from ancient times. Every stop on the route provides the opportunity to meet some of the more elderly people
forcing the mikan on me
who usually don’t even come out of their homes, and to share a sacred tradition with them. They all know Taguchi-san and she introduces me to them. Each woman has her own life story to tell, and they all seem to talk freely and without fear of death. Together, they try to explain to me the rituals involved in the pilgrimage and the importance of the Buddhist god, Odaishi-sama, for whom the pilgrimage is a tribute. At the end of the day I am always left with empty pockets from giving out coin offerings, but a full stomach from all the gifts of food given to me.
One weekend in spring, Taguchi-san took me takenoko digging. Takenoko are baby bamboo shoots that have just barely popped out of the ground. The beginning of April is the best time to dig them out before they grow too tall and tough for eating. You have to act fast to dig them up as soon as the tip is first seen popping out of the ground because some bamboo can grow up to one meter every day! We went searching for the little takenoko in a bamboo grove on the hillside belonging
showing off the prized takenoko
to Taguchi-san’s family. We didn’t have to search far. Little takenoko were poking their way out of the spring soil everywhere we looked. We didn’t spend much time digging, but ended up with more takenoko than any of us could eat. Taguchi-san taught me how to dig up the takenoko by digging around it first, and then slicing it off right at its roots. The outside skin, which the takenoko eventually sheds, is brown and furry, but the inside is tender and delicious. I was stuffing myself with takenoko every day after that.
Of course, when all of your friends are obaa-chan and ojii-chan, chances are they will have various health problems, and there’s even a chance that they may die. When I first met Mari-san, I was taken aback by her odd voice. Her words were muffled and often impossible to understand. She was my coworker at the junior high school and sat right across from me, but I was nervous about talking to her. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to understand her response. She could have felt the same way about me, as I am not fluent in Japanese and probably hard to understand sometimes,
stopping for a chat
but she showed nothing but kindness and talked to me freely. I soon learned that she had throat cancer and wasn’t expected to live much longer. Still, she lived alone, and she wanted to spend the last days of her life working at the junior high school with all the children.
During the time I worked with her at the junior high school we were often left alone together in the staff room while the rest of the teachers were busy in the classrooms. Sometimes it was almost comical to talk to each other and try to figure out what the other person was saying. I felt like we had some special connection because I was difficult to understand with my less-than-perfect Japanese, and she was difficult to understand because of her illness. We both came to the point where we could find humor in our inability to communicate, rather than remain silent with nervousness.
Mari-san’s condition became worse and worse during my first year here. She grew gaunt and often fell asleep at her desk. Her hair was falling out rapidly, but, being the good-humored woman she was, she would often show off her wig styles to the other teachers. Then, one day the school nurse took her to the hospital where she died. The night before her funeral I went to her family’s house to visit her. Mari-san was lying peacefully on her futon wrapped in blankets and flowers. Her mother, kneeling beside her, gestured for me to sit down and thanked me for coming. I said goodbye to Mari-san in English, as I thought she was now beyond the communication barrier. The next day, I experienced a Japanese funeral. I was surprised that even at funerals the hosts give gifts to the guests. When I saw Mari-san’s photograph surrounded by candles and incense, I didn’t even recognize her face. The photograph was taken before Mari-san became sick, and I had not known Mari-san when she was well.
The example of people I have mentioned here didn’t have to show any kindness to me, just as I didn’t have to show any kindness to elderly people in my hometown, but they did. They welcomed me into their hearts, their homes, their community, and their culture. They put aside any prejudices they may have had of me and taught me how to do the same. They have made my time in Japan truly unforgettable, and I am forever indebted to their kindness and the lessons they have taught me. Kawasaki-san has taught me that I still have a life of experiences to live through, and I should live each day to its fullest; Taguchi-san has taught me the importance of community and tradition; and Mari-san taught me how to get past a communication barrier. If I had let ageism get in my way, I may not have learned any of this nor had any of these enriching experiences. There is so much knowledge and wisdom being lost in the lack of intergenerational dialogue. Other young English teachers ridiculed me for spending so much time with the obaa-chan, but I quickly came to understand how valuable this time spent with them was.
Now, preparing to return to the United States, I only hope that I can find as many amazing old folks to befriend back home. Half of the international exchange for English teachers in Japan is bringing the experience back to our home countries and continuing to use and spread the knowledge gained here. Some people may say the aging society of Japan is a crisis, but in my experience, it was a blessing. I will be returning to the United States with an open heart to people of all ages. Elderly people are just like you and me; they have just lived a lot longer and have much better stories to tell.
(Note: All names mentioned in this essay have been changed to protect each individual’s privacy.)
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