Growing number of people working into their 80s and 90s

By Michael Hoffman

“When I first came into this world” – at age 15 – “it was understood: your foot must not  tread on the master’s shadow.” A stern code governed the world of sushi. Kazuo Morita, now 91 and still active as one of Japan’s very best sushi chefs, learned two things under it: humor and modesty. As regards the first, “the shadow is short at noon, longer as the afternoon wears on.” He governed his steps accordingly.

Of modesty he says, “I begin every day with a feeling of gratitude – to my customers, my staff, the fish, the rice, the water. I  bow low to the knives, the cutting board.” It’s good to bow low; it keeps one humble, and humility, once mastered, is a master craftsman’s best ally.

“Eighty years young, 90 years young,” one typically said in toasting the very old when life was short and longevity rare. It no longer is. More than 90,000 Japanese are centenarians; 19.3 million are 75 or over; 36.27 million, nearly a third of the population, are at least 65. President magazine (Sept. 30) salutes them – with an inspiring cast of characters who really do seem to grow younger as they grow older.

 Morita is one – he actually retired in 2017, closing his Komatsu Yasuke sushi restaurant in Kanazawa, figuring no doubt he’d earned his rest. So he had, if he needed it. Within two years he decided he didn’t, and reopened.

We should have him meet Masako Wakamiya – they do in a sense meet in President’s pages. Morita labors in  a deeply traditional field (though he hardly seems the type to insist on his shadow’s inviolability). Not so Wakamiya – at 87 very likely the world’s oldest computer programmer. Elderly resistance to new ways is proverbial. The old days were better; progress sows only confusion; “if God had meant us to fly he’d have given us wings” – and so on.

Few ways have ever been more joltingly new than cyber-ways. Computers are broadening but hard to master. Unmastered, they master you. Hidden threats lurk: false friends, counterfeit lovers, sinister strangers. Sometimes you think you’ve summoned one genie only to find yourself confronting another – who may not take no for an answer.

Then came the smartphone, its tiny screen flashing instructions and  invitations at faster and faster speeds, discouraging many a senior from even approaching that brave new world. Wakamiya,  more tempted than daunted, defied the odds, and mastered them. “Make the iPhone more user-friendly for seniors,” she boldly exhorted Apple CEO Tim Cook. It was 2017, she was 82 and newly famous as the developer of the megahit game software Hinadan. Not bad for someone who’d never used a computer until well into her 60s.

 She’d worked at a bank and retired at 60, still a cyber-innocent. She might have thought, “It’s too late for me.” She didn’t, and proved it wasn’t. She bought a computer, made friends with it, made friends online, began teaching fellow seniors the ropes, started gaming, found too many games depended on the fast reflexes of the young, and wondered what could be done about it. Then she wondered what she could do about it. It was a bold mental leap. She was no programmer. “Well,” she thought, “I’ll become one.”

She read books, solicited guidance, learned slowly, developed patience, and, in her early 80s, gave birth to her idea: a game that depended on knowledge and experience rather than speed. This was Hinadan – from hina (dolls) arranged on dan (shelves) – a happy marriage of old and new, for the Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), celebrated annually on March 3, has roots going back to the 8th century. The dolls represent ancient courtiers, and their arrangement is meticulous.

“You’re never too old to learn,” Wakamiya tells President. Trite but true. When she says it it’s no cliché. Science has stretched the life span beyond anything conceivable 50 years ago. Society lags behind. The vast potential of old age is largely untapped – especially, it seems, in Japan, the world’s most rapidly aging nation. A 2015 international survey the magazine cites asked senior high school students, “Do you respect your parents?” Seventy percent of American kids did, and 60 percent of Chinese – as against 37.1 percent in Japan.

Respect is a form of humility, which brings us back to Morita. He followed in his father’s footsteps. His father too was a sushi master – though not, it seems, the one on whose shadow the young Morita dared not tread. The elder Morita was an easygoing sort. Like father, like son. “I was 15,” reminisces the son. “I saw how happy my father’s fare made his customers, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’” Seventy-five years later, he’s still doing it.

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I personally find it sad that people feel their jobs are their identity and only find emotional fulfillment through work. But, if that's their choice and desire, more power to them.

OTOH, if someone needs to work into old age for economic reasons, that is way more than just sad. That is a tragedy that shouldn't be allowed to happen. And, the so-called "leaders" in government should be ashamed of themselves for allowing such a situation to exist under their "leadership".

It makes me angry to see those old men standing all day in the scorching sun, directing cars in and out of parking lots. They should be enjoying a relaxing cup of coffee, reading the newspaper, in their pajamas, or some such, not waving a flashlight stick for 8 hours.

5 ( +8 / -3 )

If you're going through life solely relying on a state pension you're gonna be having to do that.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

hilarious how this article makes it sound like the elderly want to work into their 80s and 90s. Most are doing it because of mismanagement of funds by the LDP and a lack of a comprehensive immigration system that forced the nation to age and the aged to work.

4 ( +9 / -5 )

Some people really enjoy their work so it is perfectly ok to keep working into their late 80s. However sometimes I think some Japanese don't have very good relationships with their family so keep working to a late age to avoid them. Others are miserable in their job so the best thing is to retire as soon as possible. Others feel it's a bit like the rat race to keep working til your late 70s and want to start living. That could be traveling, having more time for their hobbies, spending more time with the family. Others want to spend more time with God so wish to spend more time with their church or engage in prayer. It's your life and you can do whatever you like to make it more fulfilling.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

One thing that always irks me is when in the news they interview an elderly person or an elderly person is involved in some incident, they label the person as "無職 (unemployed)". You therefore have "unemployed" people in their 70s, 80s, 90s. Well, if they've retired, obviously they do not work anymore and frankly from a certain age onwards you should be expected to have "retired" and not to continue to "job-hunt".

I would really appreciate the media to use a term in that sense implying "retirement" instead of "unemployment". (In case of people still in working-age (in their 30s, 40s, 50s), it would be appropriate though).

On another side, around me there are 2 couples with both husband and wife working who were to hit the 60 year-mark between last year and this year. Last decade, all four said they would retire at 60. Like myself, I would call them "middle-class" and not living above their income.

Well, they all since then changed their minds and all 4 are now targeting 65 as the retirement age. When asking them, they all said the same things: uncertainty around their elder parents' health, uncertainty around their own financial situation (less income over the last years and such) and uncertainty around their kids' future who graduated from university.

In none of the 4 above cases was there much pep talk around "feeling genki and still wanting to plough on", just a lot of depressed talk about finance, household expenses and health-related stress...

Politicians have cushy and well-paid jobs until their 70s, 80s and above and actually do have a choice. Blue and white-collar workers neither have cushy or well-paid jobs nor a choice.

4 ( +8 / -4 )

Where I live, there are older people, 70+ including myself. There are still 80+ women driving big tractors and working the fields. They probably do not need to work. Another is 70+ growing vegetables and fruits because she likes to. She gives away much of her produce.

There is a city gardening service with older retired people who work pruning all the trees at a cost lower than the commercial charge.

Many have at least part-time work.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

My husband and I would love to retire soon but, like most pension age workers, can’t afford to.

6 ( +6 / -0 )


One thing that always irks me is when in the news they interview an elderly person or an elderly person is involved in some incident, they label the person as "無職 (unemployed)". 

In the drop-downs for job description on JP website forms, they usually don't list "retired", only unemployed. In those cases, I always select "choose not to answer". I suppose there really is no shame in being unemployed, as various factors can cause it. But, still, it's an inaccurate descriptor for retirees.


My husband and I would love to retire soon but, like most pension age workers, can’t afford to.

You have my sympathies. I thought US Social Security (US national pension system, for those who don't know) was low. But, then I saw what JP Pension pays out. It's shameful that government of the "world's 3rd largest economy" treats its older citizens and residents so poorly, considering those residents, prior to retirement, are the ones responsible for Japan being "the world's 3rd largest economy".

We're fortunate that our combined SS payments are pretty decent, and were also able to save for retirement through US employer-based retirement savings plans. And, the favorable exchange rates have really been the icing on the cupcake for us.

I wish you the best, and hope you can enjoy a comfortable retirement sooner rather than later.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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