Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
It’s been four years since I found myself in Toshima Ward’s Sugamo and the combination of the weather (heavy autumn), the time (late afternoon) and the sight of Jizo Dori, the main shopping street was enough to make the experience unforgettable: the description of the market as “old people’s Harajuku” (in contrast to the actual, youthful Harajuku in Shibuya) is perfectly apt since for the most part it caters to the needs of what we usually call “senior citizens”. What this means in a country with 20% of its population over 60 is, of course, debatable but the tens of shops selling canes, wheelchairs, hearing aids and red clothes for those just completing their 6th decade (according to Chinese astrology at 60, or kanreki/還暦 age, the counter resets having completed five 12-year cycles and people become babies again; babies are called “akachan”/ 赤ちゃん or “red” so at their 60th or “second first” birthdays people wear red) and bursting with customers confirm that the particular market is flourishing.
Something similar is confirmed by today’s national holiday, the third Monday of September: it is “Respect the Aged Day” or “Keiro no Hi” (敬老の日); since 1947, when it started as a local celebration in the small town now called Taka-cho in Hyogo Prefecture until 1966 when it became official and until today, the day has changed names a couple of times since the rapidly aging population combined with the rise in life expectancy (as of now it is, I think, 86 years for women and 80 for men and there are over 50,000 Japanese centenarians) forced society to both redefine when it considers someone “elderly” and how to refer to this constantly growing segment. At any rate, and even though given the above every day is “day of the elderly” in Japan, the particular day is of special importance and both communities and their public expression (local government, associations, companies, media etc.) never neglect to remind everyone that senior citizens remain an central piece in society’s puzzle.
Not that this last part needs any reminding though –the holiday is probably just another Confucian guilt: one of the first things one notices even in Tokyo’s fastest areas (and “fastest” in Tokyo means “really fast”!) is not just the elderlies’ omnipresence but their vitality. They travel (within or without their city or their country), they visit museums, gardens or other sightseeing spots, they take pictures, they learn foreign languages, music of painting, they use electronic technology, they go to the theater, they converse loudly and lively, they study books or archives in libraries, they organize gastronomical evenings, they discover traditional arts –shado, calligraphy or ikebana- and they work, driven by a need that is not always financial; in other words, they remain alive and active, refusing to die before their time. Besides, every age has its role –and vice-versa.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.