Senior citizens have always fascinated and charmed me. Since I was a small boy, I have always loved hearing their stories about the world and how things used to be. I have found that the older the person is, the more wonderful the stories they tell. I wonder why young people today don’t seem to care much about the thinking of the elderly. How could anyone who has survived to a ripe old age — after the disasters of the 20th Century — not have some real gems of wisdom to tell?
I have always envied those who had grandparents for I had none. My father’s father died long before I was born — I believe he was shot; and my father’s mother died when he was still young. They were the quintessential American hillbilly from North Carolina. I have seen pictures of these folks. I wish I could have met and talked with them at least once.
From what I understand about my mother’s parents, they died during the war. I have never even seen pictures of them. But when my mom’s adopted mother died, I remember my mother talking about being "visited by smoke" that night. Japanese people burn incense upon death and some believe that you will see smoke when a loved one dies far away from you. But I digress.
As a boy, and even as a teenager, I easily made friends with adults and senior citizens. I suppose it was because I was brought up in a strict household that taught us to respect people and to show deference to them. It could also be because I was not popular at all in high school and was considered a geek by my peers. When I did meet my girlfriend’s parents, grandparents, or other elderly folks, I knew what they were talking about if those folks enjoyed talking politics, history, or were interested in other geeky things like Ham radio for instance. I guess those folks might have appreciated it when I addressed them as "Sir" or "Ma’am" as opposed to when those same girlfriends brought home their other courtiers and those guys would greet the adults with a, "Dude!" or grunt language. (Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do… I went to high school with a lot of surfers and stoners.)
During my recent hospital stay I was placed into a room with four other senior gentlemen; the youngest being 65 and the oldest 85. That was very good for me. I’d much rather enjoy the conversation with temporary roommates than to watch TV. At least I could learn something from these old gentlemen. These old guys had many good stories to tell and I had all the time in the world to listen. I wasn’t going anywhere. Let’s face it, when you are in the hospital for a while, no one really wants to come and visit you; and if they do, they want to leave immediately. That’s fair enough, I suppose. Hospitals are not the most exciting places to visit nor are they the safest. I didn’t have many visitors because I did not want my 2-year-old son hanging around a hospital.
Talking with these old guys was quite enjoyable and therapeutic for me. It was also a chance for me to practice my capacity as the self-appointed unofficial American Ambassador to Japan and to show these good folks that not all Americans are warmongers. Talking with them and observing the sadness of the human condition was also a big reason why I realized that I needed no revenge for what had hospitalized me.
Let me go around the hospital room for a minute and introduce you to these fine gentlemen and tell you a little about them. Of course I must respect them so, to protect their privacy, I will not use their real names.
First is Mr. Kato. Mr. Kato is sixty-five years old and he had been in the hospital for almost a week when I arrived. He is a frail-looking man who walked and talked slowly and is a really nice guy. Mr. Kato said he didn’t remember what had happened to him but he was told that he was hospitalized because he had been drinking too much and he collapsed and hit his forehead. I didn’t ask, but I guess he had to have several stitches above his right eye. Mr. Kato and I got along quite well.
By the way, I have come to understand one painfully obvious thing about people over these years: Non-drinkers have a hard time understanding the thinking of drinkers. When I was hospitalized, my wife — a teetotaler — was mad at me for being drunk, not paying attention, and not being more careful. She figured my being in the hospital was partially my fault. This is a very Japanese way of thinking. In Japan, there can never be any sort of problem that is completely one person’s fault. It takes two to tango so to speak. Of course, in my dreamer’s view of the world (which is not the way it is at all) I figure that it’s too bad that a person cannot walk around without worrying about criminals or thieves. Japanese people think it is foolish not to be more realistic. I suppose they have a point. I told Mr. Kato that, at first, my wife was a bit mad at me for being hospitalized.
When I explained to Mr. Kato that my wife was angry at me, he got all excited and said something to me that really blew my mind and struck me as the most Libertarian thing I have ever heard a Japanese person say. He said something along the lines of:
"As a man in a free society, I should be able to drink and smoke all I want, where I want, when I want, as long as I don’t bother anybody."
He said that his wife was mad at him too. But he also added that he was retired and he’s put up with guff all his working life, so if he wants to start drinking in the afternoon, then that’s his right. I had to agree with him (if his wife was there, I might not have — I’m not stupid). From there, we became good friends.
Poor guy, though, in the entire one week I was in the hospital, not one single person came to visit him, not even his wife. But we enjoyed talking to each other. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.
Across from Mr. Kato was Mr. Sudo. Mr. Sudo is 76-years-old. Another frail man, he would sit on his bed, facing my way, and listen to the radio through an ear-phone all day with his eyes closed. Mr. Sudo and I didn’t talk to each other until 2 or 3 days before I was discharged. I thought he didn’t like talking much for he rarely acknowledged me talking to him — he rarely acknowledged anyone talking to him for that matter. But I discovered why he was this way when I realized that he was completely blind in both eyes.
Mr. Sudo told me that he had lost his sight because of working too hard and not being too concerned about his cataracts. He had an operation years ago that made the problem better but he dedicated himself to work so he neglected caring for his own sight. Even so, he never complained. He was, though, regretful that he didn’t spend more time with his family. On the other hand, he was philosophical about his loss of vision.
In the week I was in the hospital only one woman came to visit this interesting man. She spent several hours with him that day. I gathered that she was his daughter or granddaughter — I couldn’t see her face well. During her visit, sometimes the two wouldn’t speak a word for an hour or so; they would just sit in each other’s presence and enjoy the time together. After she left, I could tell that he was so pleased that she made the effort to come visit. I was touched by this display of love.
The next two gentlemen I didn’t get to talk to very much. They came into our room about two days before I left. One was Mr. Kawasaki, the other was Mr. Nagashima. Mr. Kawasaki was a great, jolly old man, and seemed quite gregarious. I’d guess that he was about 70-years-old. He always smiled and I could tell he was the kind of guy who had fun at whatever he did. He didn’t talk too much but just sat there listening and smiling most of the time when the rest of us conversed. I do not know why he was hospitalized, but I gather it was because of too much drink during the holidays. He had no outer injuries that I could see. His wife came to visit him twice and he seemed thankful.
Mr. Nagashima, the last member to arrive in our hospital room, was 85-years-old and didn’t say ten words to us the entire time he was there and didn’t join in on our conversations. Perhaps he was in pain, I’m not sure. But I do know that when he had visitors, and he had more than the rest of us put together, I had the instinctive feeling that there was some sort of tension between him and them. They would often seem to be arguing — Japanese-style in very hushed tones. Either way, it was obvious he didn’t really want to talk to us, so we left him alone. I felt a bit sorry for him as I could tell he was upset about something as he was also often irritated at the nurses for seemingly trivial matters. (I’d like to add here, that the nurses and doctors in the hospital I stayed at gave us top quality care, respect, service, and food. I was quite pleased with the hospital.)
I spent time with these good old folks and shared many stories about many things. As was my past experience with senior citizens, I found all these gentlemen extremely interesting people to talk to and full of wise words of advice and points to ponder. It was through talking to them that I realized that I should be thankful to still be alive after my mishap and that, hopefully, I still had many more years to look forward to. They helped me to realize that living a life full of vengeance and guilt is no way to enjoy life.
Of course, in Japan, things are changing, but the family unit is still relatively strong. Generations still live with each other under one roof. Old folk’s homes are few and, as such, they are very difficult to get into unless one is very wealthy. In Japan, as with many other countries in Asia, especially Buddhist countries, being old means being wise. In fact the elderly are celebrated once a year in Japan with a holiday called Keirou no hi (Respect for the Aged Day). I believe that Japan is the only country in the world that has a national holiday dedicated to senior citizens.
I also believe that one of the biggest problems with America today is the lack of respect people show for each other and especially for their elders. There is no amount of government legislation that will ever begin to fix this problem. This problem is one that can only be addressed by each and every one of us as individuals and as a family. The elderly have so much to share with each and every one of us that it’s a shame and a waste for younger people not to take advantage of the knowledge and wisdom that their elder relatives can share.
Do yourself and your kids a favor, visit or call your elderly relatives soon and make sure to tell them that you love them. Or, if you don’t happen to be close to them, how about visiting a local Senior Citizen’s home? Show reverence and respect to the aged in your daily lives and you will be more than rewarded. Talking to these people will help you to understand the lives they have led and to respect the many contributions they have made to society. This, in turn, will help you to give pause and reflect on what is really important in this world and what you need to do to live a better, more rewarding, and more fulfilling life.
It is a good thing to get to know the aged, to hear their stories about living and life, and to respect them as real people.
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He is the president of a mass-media production company and also runs a talent agency in Japan. His first book, Schizophrenic in Japan, is now on sale.