Coping with Old Age

Crammed in, squashed, crushed and suffocating from a heady mix of ineffective deodorant and sweat, rattling along in the bus towards the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. I had made the fatal mistake of getting on the bus just before the end of the school day. My punishment for such foolish timing would be to spend the journey getting repeatedly jabbed in the ribs by errant school bags, while simultaneously playing catch with a pensioner. By which I mean I was repeatedly catching a little old pensioner before he fell over and rolled down to the back of the bus to become a sprawling mess of broken and shattered limbs. It seems he had decided that holding onto one of the many hand holds dangling above was simply too much of an effort, especially when he could position himself just ahead of me and fractionally to the left so that with every lurching motion the bus made as it departed from each successive stop he would fly back into my quickly outstretched arm. Safe from the floor and a sea of shuffling feet he would nonchalantly rebalance himself, adjust his footing and prepare for the next sharp jerk as the bus jolted back to life. He seemed quite content and rather amused with the arrangement.

Flying pensioners are not a usual feature of Japan, but the amusement and total lack of anxiety in regard to life and its various predicaments is.  Older people in Japan are simply far more confident and relaxed than their western counterparts. It’s a peculiar reversal of the West where confidence is deemed to be predominantly a trait of the young. Yet here in Japan, the combination of a deep held reverence for seniority and a school system quite devoid of opportunities for individual creativity often means that the spontaneity and imagination usually associated with a young mind at play are more evident in the older generation. While my teenage students sometime struggle to come up with a daft answer to a question my older ones are never short of self-deprecating and lightening fast witticisms.

That confidence can however, have a more dangerous side. Little old people behind the wheel of an enormous car are a continual fear of mine. You see, Japan’s roads are quite often remarkably narrow and in my part of Japan also have open drainage along the sides. These open drains are about 60cm deep so if a single tyre slips into one of these you’re going to come to a rather abrupt and dangerous halt. I have been dreading accidently tumbling into one these from the moment I first got in a car here. However, what I hadn’t initially feared, though now I do, is the total disregard for safety exhibited by little old men in enormous cars. Often careening onto my side of the road and then skimming past me while I hug the edge of the road, a minor precipice to my left and an oblivious geriatric to my right. All the while, the other old folks in cheap mini trucks, perfectly narrow and nippy for Japan’s tiny roads are king. They fly around corners, bends and down hills secure in the knowledge that they can dart through any gap no matter how small. A little more manic in their approach to driving than the former, but at least they can see over the steering wheel and are unlikely to send me flying into a ditch at the side of the road. I hope.

There is a passion for living and learning that doesn’t seem to fade in old age in Japan, if anything it is rejuvenated in retirement, once free of the crushing grind of standard Japanese working hours. I teach many people over the age of sixty, some even edging closer to eighty these days and all of them are in possession of a keen desire to learn, to travel, to discover new things and to ask me endless questions covering the mundane, the peculiar and the downright personal.

This week they’ve been engaging with British politics and the unusual turn it has taken of late. Questions have often focused on the age of the candidates (our young Tory PM elicited a great deal of surprise, perhaps more surprisingly they felt Japanese politics could use a similar injection of youth), their backgrounds and what will change in Britain as a result. Considering the political upheaval and general distrust of all politicians in Japan they have found British politics to be an interesting comparison. They also discussed the seemingly little known influence on and relationship that Britain has had with Japan for just short of four hundred years now.

I am all the more impressed with the older generation of Japan as it has lived through changes that have occurred at an almost impossible rate. Japan never does things by half. In April 1895 one Lord Charles Beresford, who was quoted in the Times of London, perhaps summed up best just how rapid modernization has been and continues to be in Japan,

‘Japan has within 40 years gone through the various administrative phases that occupied England about 800 years and Rome about 600, and I am loath to say that anything is impossible with her.’

The people here are able to come to grips with new technology and a changing world with seeming ease. Yet, there is one thing that they will always struggle with, which seems petty to mention, but to be honest, they often have difficulty with their pronunciation of ‘R’ and ‘L’ the result being that the two are often transposed. Not that big a deal really, unless of course they want to discuss the British Election.

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