“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