Lifelong self-education – a tradition going way back to Edo era, when life expectancy was under 50

By Michael Hoffman
Photo: kumikomini/iStock

So much to learn, so little time. So we say - truly? There's plenty of time, if you can only mine it. Granted, the 40-odd years between college and retirement are largely spoken for. What your career doesn’t carve out of your day and night as its due, your family does as its. You’re lucky to get a good night’s sleep, let alone the leisure to pursue a hobby, skill or intellectual interest. But life is long. We’re lucky to be living in an age where that can be said without irony. The post-retirement decades beckon – an invitation, says Shukan Gendai (Jan 13-20), to learning. RSVP.

It’s an old Japanese tradition, the magazine finds – a staple of the Edo era (1603-1868), when the life expectancy was little above half the current 84.62 years. Senior citizenship came early and symbolized ascent rather than, as it tends to today, decline. One was happy, at 40, to pass life’s day-to-day burdens on to the younger generation. Senior life – serious life – was for study, meditation, poetry, music. The so-called prime of life tends to the body, the post-prime to the soul. Of course one needs the means. Relatively few had them in Edo. More of us do today.

Gain one thing, lose another. The word “study” has largely lost its ancient dignity, suggesting now a wearying struggle to pass exams to get into good schools to land a good job meaning, presumably, the good life, with doubts lying ahead, visible early in outline, as to whether it was all worth while. So much for study – the sooner done with the better; few, later in life, want to go back to it. Economist Yukio Noguchi favors the word “learning” (manabu in Japanese) over “study” (benkyo). Benkyo is grind, manabu fun. Benkyo aims at success measured in grades. Manabu “succeeds” if it gives satisfaction; if it doesn’t,you’re learning the wrong thing; switch to something else.

So much to learn, given the time. Senior citizenship is a vast horizon. Learn what? It’s surprising, or maybe not, how many people, reaching a certain age, think of writing their memoirs – if not for publication, for the children, the grandchildren, loved ones and friends, companions on the journey that craves to be written. Meiji University Professor Takashi Saito teaches writing to people who have never written anything other than business documents. Keep a notebook handy, he advises – or smartphone with notetaking app. Jot down phrases as they occur to you; one phrase suggests another; write as you speak, once you get the hang of it there’s nothing easier, not even speaking, much less silence.

Or handwriting – another pursuit Gendai proposes. Handwriting is a casualty of the computer age. When an odd occasion arises to send a handwritten note – for a formal invitation or acknowledgment or what have you – you’re embarrassed at the ugly scrawl you produce. “And yet as child I had such nice handwriting!” you recall wistfully. There are penmanship manuals you can practice with – or teachers of the art if you want to take it to the level of calligraphy.

Martial arts – another possibility. The elderly might hesitate. No need, says martial artist Tatsuru Uchida, 73. Most sports demand peak physical strength. Not martial arts. They stress spirit over power – and spirit deepens with age. A beginner at 60 won’t become a master by 80, Uchida says, but will be pretty good all the same – better still at 90, maybe.

How to tell truth from lies – there’s an art worth mastering, the more so as “post-truth,” “fake news,” lies and slander go unchecked online, where more and more people go for more and more of their information on what’s going on in the world. Traditional media, more respectful of traditional norms but under pressure to stay relevant, relax their traditional rigor and – suggests statistical economist Shinichi Yamaguchi – grow slack.

Which of the following statements is/are true? asks Gendai: (1) most traffic accidents are caused by the elderly; (2) youth crime has been rising for the past 30 years; (3) only one voter in four voted for the ruling LDP in the last general election.

Gut response tends to associate accidents with elderly drivers and crime with the young, and as for the LDP, can it really fare so poorly with voters, given its almost unshaken rule since 1955 and its current comfortable governing majority?

In fact, says the magazine, more car accidents are caused by teen drivers than any other age category, followed by those in their 20s. Drivers 80 and over rank third. And youth crime is one-sixth what it was 30 years ago. The LDP, it seems, remains powerful not because it’s popular but in spite of its unpopularity – for one vote for every four voters is all it garnered in the 2021 Lower House election.

“Japanese,” says Yamaguchi, “are not accustomed to reading figures and statistics. Japanese TV and newspapers are more impressionistic, provide fewer hard numbers, than overseas media. That strikes me whenever I appear on television. ‘As few numbers as possible,’ the staff warn me off-camera. ‘Statistics are difficult.’” And “difficult,” among media competing for volatile and transitory mass attention, is the last thing anyone wants to be.

“We consume more information in a day than the people of Edo did in a year,” says Gendai – “a lot of it mistaken or untrustworthy.” Sifting bits of truth from masses of junk demands experience, discretion, insight, and, it may be, leisure. Let not advancing age discourage you. Learning its virtues is the best late-life educational project there is.

© Japan Today

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I’m just too busy to learn more as the yen just keeps getting weaker and money making opportunities increase

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

Finding the time can be difficult. In retirement, time passes faster for folk. Puzzles will keep your brain working. But if you can go a step further, buy a coursework book and a notepad and run through a college course. Biology, history, economics. Push your mind a bit. It's better than sitting grumbling at the news. Works well for pre-retirement too. If all we focus on is work, we are digging ourselves a rut.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Important in old age to keep the brain active and learn new stuff. I play Sudoku several times a day which is very helpful. Also chess. Read about new stuff and stay active with hobbies and friends.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Healthy mind and body go together, hard to have one without the other - health's the most important wealth, just ask Rich $Warren Buffett!

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Playing a musical instrument is very good for cognitive memory.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Good to hear Wallace, need to exercise the old heart and brain to keep em working as efficiently as possible. I used to do crosswords when I was younger all the time, they was in newspapers, don't by these days, all that info is online now isn't it

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Study is vital. Knowledge brings about understanding. Knowledge doesn't come from a teacher. Anyone with a computer or smart phone has access to the biggest library on the planet. We are so lucky to have this.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Yukio Noguchi favors the word “learning” (manabu in Japanese) over “study” (benkyo). Benkyo is grind, manabu fun. Benkyo aims at success measured in grades. Manabu “succeeds” if it gives satisfaction; if it doesn’t, you’re learning the wrong thing; switch to something else.

That's the spirit. I get a lot of 学ぶ from my in-depth exploration of Japanese antiquity and culture between 平安 ~ 初期江戸時代 with special interest in the Chinese influence; direct or indirectly depending on the 時代.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

You’re lucky to get a good night’s sleep, let alone the leisure to pursue a hobby, skill or intellectual interest.

Indeed. I dont even have time to have a proper sleep for years. If anything i want to do at my senior age is to sleep as long as i want :D

But life is long. 

Not neccesarily :D

you can get hit by a car or get in an accident or get a terminal desease at any time. :D

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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