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Challenging English at 65

by Janet Ashby

April is traditionally the time of new beginnings in Japan, at school and at work. Novelist Sae Shuichi, however, makes it a practice to embark on a new project every five years. At 55, for example, he took up kendo. And at 65, as detailed in his latest book, “65-sai Ojisan no Eikaiwa Benkyo ga Tanoshiku Naru Hon” (PHP L Shinsho), he resolved to master English well enough to use it on trips abroad and with foreign friends who come to Japan.

Like so many of us, Sae’s past efforts at self-study tended to fizzle out after a few months, so this time he decided to take classes and bought 100 lessons at an eki-mae (train station-area) school where he could go whenever he had free time to attend classes with different teachers and students. Although somewhat embarrassed to be in classes mainly with young women, he found his brain coming to life after a month and overcame his nervousness about talking face-to-face with foreigners. For the first time, studying English had become fun, unlike his school days, which were filled with hours of rote memorization and studying for tests.

One day, some posters at school caught his eye. They were advertising short courses for studying English abroad, one of his childhood dreams. Deciding it was now or never, he picked a four-week summer course suited to his level that would be held at a Canadian college midway between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies — Okanagan University College in Kelowna. Although Sae left Narita for Canada with some trepidation, he seems to have thoroughly enjoyed his time at Okanagan and adjusted to speaking English all day just two weeks into the course, staying with a professor and his wife and enjoying the lovely scenery.

Feeling he should strike while the iron was hot, Sae signed up for another study-abroad course the following March, this time for two weeks at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, where he hit it off with the semiretired husband of his host family.

With his two stays abroad, Sae had reached his goal of being able to get along in English early, impressing his wife, who joined him in New Zealand for a week of sightseeing at the end of his studies. But he was having so much fun studying English that he decided to do some final polishing up with a two-week course at the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2000.

Since returning to Japan, Sae has maintained his English by going once a week to his language school and listening to English lessons on NHK radio. He watches English-language movies that he likes twice, taking care not to read the Japanese subtitles more than once, and also enjoys reading English translations of Japanese manga. Sae says he also sometimes talks to his wife in English, even if she can’t respond in kind, to say things he has trouble with in Japanese, such as apologies!

But I was particularly struck by two things in Sae’s enjoyable account of how he tackled English.

The first was that almost all of his fellow students were women in their 20s and 30s. Are adult men learning English elsewhere, or do they simply take the need for English skills less seriously than the opposite sex?

The second thing that impressed me was Sae’s positive attitude toward trying new things and doing them at his own pace. Sae says having a five-year goal keeps you going even if there are no immediate results, and his experience has been that if you persist for three years, you’ll see results that keep you going for the next two.

He has been active in creating opportunities for himself, too. During his studies abroad, he would try to make the most of his situation by dropping by a hotel after class to talk with guests over drinks or by giving demonstrations of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

According to a recent article in the Yomiuri Weekly (Feb. 16), we are likely to see more active seniors like Sae in the future. Traditionally, the kanreki celebration held at the age of 60 marks the end of one’s life, but now it symbolizes a new beginning.

Tomoyoshi Ogawa, a professor at Bunkyo Gakuin Daigaku, who has studied the lifestyles of Tokyoites in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, divides them into four groups:

1) Those who enjoy life (11 percent).

2) Those who challenge themselves by being active outdoors and studying (19 percent).

3) Those who are old-fashioned (23 percent).

4) Those who are community-oriented (47 percent).

The first two groups, he says, are new in Japan and can be called korei shinjinrui (new generations of seniors). With the baby boomers due to hit their 60s around 2007, the image associated with seniors will inevitably veer away from adult diapers and helpless, bed-ridden people.

The Yomiuri Weekly recommends that people start planning for old age from their 40s and 50s by financially and psychologically preparing for the last 20 to 25 years of their lives. Men, in particular, have to prepare for life outside the company by building new ties in the community or perhaps starting businesses of their own.

To give the last word to Sae (from a speech in English he made to his UP classmates on Japanese ideas of time): “Especially, my generation, over 50 years old and retired people start thinking that we have to spend time for our own life and family, not for companies, not for money . . . We never think ‘Time is money.’ . . . Actually, Japanese traditional time and culture are like a calm flowing river. I want to say, ‘Let’s live slowly. Don’t hurry.’ “