If an old man falls down in Japan, and no one is around to hear it, does he make a sound?
Apparently not. The top story on Hokkaido Public Television this
evening was the unfortunate death of an elderly man who lived by
himself in Sapporo. Onodera-san collapsed in his home yesterday
morning, but managed to activate a safety beeper, which then placed an
emergency call to a rescue center. Tragically, no one at the center
noticed the call in time to save Onodera-san, who slowly perished, no
doubt while listening to an extremely polite answering machine. This
sad story reveals a lot about the current state of Japan: a rapidly
aging nation where economic success and stability have come at the
expense of traditional family values and the natural environment.
Japan is an old country, but not in the sense that most people seem to
mean when they mention Japanese civil wars that took place 500 years
before the Dutch bought Manhattan Island from Native American chiefs. In truth, modern Japan, post Meiji reform period, post imperial
expansion and post atomic defeat, is a far more recent creation than
many Western societies. The part of Japan where I live was settled
only 150 years ago. To put it as bluntly as possible, Japan is an old
country because so many old people live here. On a good day, life in
the Hokkaido countryside seems like a long vacation at a retirement
resort in Idaho. On a bad day, its more like those dreaded monthly
trips to visit Uncle Randy at the nursing home. The only baby
strollers I've seen in my town are in the hands of bent-backed crones
who use them as walkers during their pained shuffle down the sidewalk.
Despite the hard fact that Japan's population is the oldest in the
world, demographics are only half of the story behind Onodera-san's
unfortunate demise. There are a lot of old people in Japan, but there
are a lot of young people too – smart people who have made their
nation so rich, nearly every citizen can afford to own a house, car,
television, washing machine and…safety beeper.
As a child, one of my favorite picture books told the story of a
steam-shovel operator named Mr. Mulligan who accepted a bet: that he
and his machine could dig an entire foundation in a single day. Mr.
Mulligan rose at dawn, fired up his steam-shovel and set to work. The
engine ran smoothly, he didn't waste time with breaks, and sure
enough, the foundation was finished by the time the sun went down. In
his haste, however, Mr. Mulligan had neglected to make a way out of
the hole he had dug. The book ended with Mr. Mulligan forever stuck
in the basement of a modern sky-scraper, staring at the smooth walls
he had struggled so mightily to build.
In many ways, the industrious Japanese have worked themselves into a
similar trap. The New York Times recently profiled healthy young Japanese men and women who never leave their rooms, a phenomenon that is reaching epidemic proportions (article here)
. By sacrificing family, freedom and a healthy environment to the triple-headed gods of Prosperity, Security and Modernity, many people like Onodera-san find themselves missing the one thing they really need during their twilight years: a warm and caring family; someone to notice when they fall.
In his perceptive book "Video Night in Kathmandu," the masterful
travel writer Pico Iyer speaks of modern Japan as a child of the
atomic bomb, "that monster marvel that revealed, in a terrible flash,
how far progress can push us backwards and how much technology may outstrip vision."
"In that single nightmare moment,' Iyer writes, "the full breadth of
human possibility had been suddenly lit up, and it was a prospect that
brought as much horror as awe…It had revealed, exhilaratingly, how
much humanity can achieve, but it had also done so, perhaps, at the
expense of humanity."
"Whenever I looked at Japan," I could not help but think of the haiku
of the Zen poet Issa: "Closer, closer to paradise. How cold!"
But there is another, less apocalyptic, way to look at the news of
Onodera-san's death. Old people die and technology fails. Neither of
these events are particularly newsworthy, yet Onodera-san's
unfortunate end was, it seems, the most important thing that happened
in Hokkaido today. That in itself should tell us something. In a
land the size of Ireland, there were apparently no murders,
kidnappings, fires, scandals, car-chases, volcanic eruptions or
brain-worm infested moose wandering the streets. In most parts of
America, Onodera-san's demise might be headline material in the
nursing home newsletter, but it probably wouldn't even make the back
page of a city paper. More immediately, it seems unfair to call the
Japanese "cold" when Watanabe-san showed up at my door this evening with two plates of sushi and told me all the best places to pick wild mushrooms.
Indeed, I'm continually amazed and humbled by the warm-hearted generosity of my Japanese hosts. The society they have built for themselves is a marvelous creation, and it is no surprise that Japan boasts the highest life-expectancy of any country in the world. The challenge facing the next generation is how to maintain their economic success while nourishing their children, preserving their land and looking out for their elders.