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"Respect for the Elderly Day" a cross-cultural glance

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-10-18

Recently, my sister just returned from a trip back to the United States. One of her many experiences of reverse-culture shock included a situation she witnessed at the supermarket. A little, old lady was at the check-out counter trying to inquire about whether or not she qualified for the free roll of film being given to customers who had their film developed. She had dropped off one of those old "disc" films about a week ago, and was there to pick up the finished prints, along with her free roll of film. Anyone who remembers the 1980's will probably also recall the "disc-film fad", which happened to die out as quickly as the film and the cameras appeared on the shelves of all K Mart stores - just another fatality in American ingenuity.

However, the real shock here was not that someone was actually still using disc-film, but at how she was treated by the young girl at the counter. "We do not even sell that here!" boomed the girl with a look of disgust on her face. The woman, who seemed to have trouble understanding what the difference was between her disc-film and the film sold at the supermarket, again asked politely about her free roll of film. "No, you do not understand. YOUR FILM IS NOT THE SAME!" the girl said in an even louder voice. By now the commotion drew the attention of another sales girl in her early twenties. "A possible rescue?" thought my sister to herself - no, just more yelling and nasty facial expressions now coming from another supermarket employee. The girls seemed to be getting angrier at each question the elderly woman asked.

Eventually, the woman retreated and left without her free roll of film. My sister watched her walk away, knowing that she felt humiliated and sad. The two girls were busy shaking their heads and rolling their eyes.

Recently, here in Japan people across the nation celebrated "Respect for the Elderly Day". The national holiday is filled with parties, both big and small, celebrating the elderly of Japan. An Okinawan friend asked me if there was such a holiday for old people in the United States.

Wanting to give some type of answer, I replied, "No, but everyone over 100 years of age gets there name said on TV before the weather report by this jolly, plump guy in the morning." My friend nodded with a smile and said, "That's really nice!"

We started to talk about how in Japan the elderly have always had respect from younger people, especially in Okinawa. The respect goes well beyond a once-a-year holiday. At the bank, grocery store, and other places, the elderly are treated with kind and gentle politeness. Reaching that age when one is considered old, they are no longer called by their name. They are affectionately called "Ojiichan" (grandfather) or "Obaachan" (grandmother), even by people they do not know.

For many young people in Okinawa, having someone elderly around is a natural part of everyday life. Most grandparents still live in the same household as their grandchildren. This connection from an early age, teaches young people the value of respect for the elderly and gives the two generations a strong bond. Grandfathers and grandmothers are always included in family gatherings, and their presence is always greeted warmly.

After we finished our conversation, I realized that the lack of such a holiday in the United States was really not some sort of social problem, but I started to think about my sister's story - and that was.

It is sad that a society treats their elderly with such disrespect. Many incidents similar to the one my sister described happen everyday in America. Even worse, the elderly are often targets of scams and other rip-offs.

Maybe a holiday for grandparents and the elderly in America wouldn't be such a bad idea. I wonder if the two girls at the supermarket back in the U.S. would agree. I also wonder if they even realize they too will one day become old -hopefully it will be in a society that treats them with respect.

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