IT PAYS TO KNOW: The Japanese Approach to Aging

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Judd for webBy JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.

Japan is the world’s “oldest” country, with 24.8% of its population over age 65 (2013 estimate). In addition, Japan ranks in the top three countries with the world’s highest life expectancy at a 2013 estimate of 84.19 years. If you’re wondering, the United States ranked 51st, with a life expectancy of 78.62 years. (Source: Central Intelligence Agency 2011, The World Factbook 2011)

Now, seniors in Japan face the same issues as in the United States and other parts of the world, including widowhood and declining health. It appears, however, that older Japanese have developed more positive ways to manage these challenges. Some researchers have speculated that lifestyle heavily influences the exceptional life expectancy of the Japanese.

“But Judd, what do you mean ‘lifestyle?’” In my research, I came across a little story that illustrates the Japanese concept of “ikigai” — the Japanese concept of value and self-worth — which is crucial to growing old positively:

In a small village outside of Osaka, a woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Voice of her ancestors. “Who are you?” the Voice said to her.

“I am the wife of the mayor,” she replied.

“I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.”

“I am the mother of four children.”

“I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.”

“I am a school teacher.”

“I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”

And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question.

“I am a Shintoist.”

“I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.”

“I am the one who wakes up each day to care for my family, and nurture the young minds of the children at my school.”

She passed the examination, and was sent back to earth. The next morning she woke at sunrise, feeling a deep sense of meaning and purpose. She tended to her children’s lunches, and planned fun lessons for her students that day. The woman had discovered her ikigai.

In Japan, ikigai is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning”; that is, a reason to enjoy life. According to the Japanese, everyone has a hidden ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is regarded as very important, since it is believed that discovery of one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life.

According to Yoshiko Matsumoto, Stanford professor and author of “Faces of Aging: The Lived Experiences of the Elderly in Japan,” the transition to retirement from a period focused on work and family often includes a re-evaluation of life’s purpose, or ikigai.

“Older people in Japan do seek to be useful,” Matsumoto says, “There’s a profound awareness in Japan that isolation is not good. If you have purpose in your life and people around to share your issues, that brings happiness. Older people are not hidden. Maintaining meaningful social connections is strongly encouraged by society.”

According to Matsumoto, older Japanese adults seem to rely on a different compass to assess their identity and social roles. “They base their idea of being useful on their life purpose, or ‘ikigai.’ It guides why they do what they do each day, from exercise to social engagement to productive contributions and engagement with their families and society.”

The effects of this attitude, and evidence of the role elders play in Japan, is visible throughout the nation. “When you walk around Japanese communities,” Matsumoto says, “you don’t just see young people walking to school or work. You see just as many older people on the streets. Aging is embedded in everyday life. You also see older people in the media.”

Now, if you were born in the United States, don’t make the mistake of believing that just because you have a Japanese face and Japanese name, you will live longer than your American neighbors. The research suggests the key to successful aging is a mind-set, i.e., a belief or attitude, rather than simply genetics.

The problem is that many Japanese Americans have become way too “Americanized.” We’ve adopted “Western” attitudes and belief systems (some beneficial, some not) at the expense of losing traditional Japanese values that our parents and grandparents tried to teach us. Perhaps this is why life expectancy in United States is 5.5 years less than in Japan.

In America, the notion of individual success and value is heavily tied to productivity. So, in the United States, once we retire and become “unproductive,” older people struggle to develop a strong sense of identity. Older people in the United States are so often stereotyped as lonely, frail and disengaged from society.

If you’re getting up in years and all of your lifelong friends are already gone, you have a choice to make: (1) You could either feel lonely, frail and disengaged from society; or (2) you can re-discover your Japanese heritage and find your “ikigai,” i.e., a reason to get up in the morning.

You may be fortunate to have loving family around — enjoy your role as matriarch or patriarch and enjoy the pleasure of watching younger generations grow and flourish. For example, many Nisei couples I meet bring their grandchildren with them into my office. They found their “ikigai”; they have a definite reason to get up in the morning — to help raise their grandchildren.

Even if you have no grandchildren to help raise, I am sure there is plenty for you to do, plenty for you to contribute if you look hard enough. Many seniors volunteer at their church or temple, local senior center, community center, hospital or at a nursing home. Remember, you wouldn’t be here today if God didn’t have a purpose for you.

Remember, finding your ikigai requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. In other words, it might not come overnight. If you would like some help finding your ikigai, there is one organization that I would recommend. It’s called the Asian American Christian Counseling Center (AACCS).

The AACCS is a non-profit organization that offers guidance for positive personal change and improved interpersonal relationships. Their clinical staff are available to provide bilingual services in several languages, including Japanese. They have offices in Alhambra, Torrance, Cerritos, Covina and Culver City. They can be reached at (626) 457-2900, or at www.aaccs.org.

Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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