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An Englishman in Japan - Time will not age them

Date Posted: 2002-03-08

Last winter one of my Japanese friends had to return home for a funeral. Her grandfather had fallen from the roof of his house while shoveling snow. While my initial feelings were of sadness, later I thought how truly remarkable it was. In England, more and more old people are living in nursing homes, needing constant attention. My friend’s grandfather, however, was not just outside clearing his driveway, but well into his retirement he was clambering around clearing the snow off his roof.

Even before I came to Japan, I had heard that Japanese people had the longest life expectancies in the world. I knew that exercise and healthy food meant people lived longer. But, I hadn’t realized that older people in Japan were so active.

Kumiko, a 70-year-old student of mine, once told me she studied English because she had a bit of free time she wanted to fill. “Only a bit of free time?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “I have my yoga classes in the mornings; I meet a friend for lunch; and I go to my flower-arranging lessons three times a week. I had some free time left, so I started learning English.” I said how healthy she looked, and with a twinkle in her eye she replied, “I don’t have time to get sick.”

Maybe the key to a long and healthy life is to simply forget or at least ignore the fact that you are getting older. People need to continually try new things and to keep up their hobbies whether it is growing vegetables, playing badminton or painting.

Sometimes I hear even young people saying things like, “I’d love to play the piano, but I’m just too old to learn.” This is the start of a slippery slope. Once you put limitations on what you can and can’t do, you place restrictions on your life. Age brings wisdom and experience, the active 70-, 80-, 90- and 100-year-olds I have met can see aging as bringing advantages, not just problems.

A few weeks ago, I met a 100-year-old Okinawan lady at a party. She was dancing, singing and clapping her hands to the music. When she eventually sat down for a break, she started a conversation with me. I tried to speak Japanese, and she spoke a little English. After five minutes of talking about our families, hobbies and Okinawa, I told her how good her English was. “No, no,’” she said, “My English is very broken.” She then gave a big smile and squeezed my hand, “Just like your Japanese.”

I had thought that there was no point in me trying to learn any kanji. Most people in Japan started learning them when they were closer to six rather than 26. Now I am going to follow the advice of my “mature” students and just give it my best shot. I’ve already learned 10, only another few thousand to go.

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