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Forsake not the elderly, for they bear a great bounty

by Roger Pulvers

They are remodeling the station near where I work in Tokyo, and I marvel at the diligence of the security guards directing pedestrians inconvenienced by the building work. Virtually all the guards are seniors, most likely retirees from other forms of employment. I usually arrive at my station by 6 a.m., and there they are, crisply uniformed, saying “Good morning” to commuters and courteously pointing the new way up the stairs.

Many years ago, in Kyoto, we lived in a condominium whose janitor was a retired company president and landowner. He could have lived off the fat of his land, or, as the Japanese say, “with a fan in his left hand (hidari uchiwa de kurasu).” But he chose to look after the building, sweep the grounds and field complaints; and a jolly good janitor he was.

Traditionally in Japan, there has been no stigma about doing menial labor in most lines of work. To many in the West, a former executive who was doing the job of a janitor — and doing it with a personal sense of joy and fulfillment — would be viewed as having “come down” in life. Not so in Japan, where such honest work is considered respectable.

From the micro to the macro: It has been estimated that, within a few years, one in four Japanese will be aged 65 or older. Compare this with the mere 7 percent of Japanese who were aged 65 or older in 1970, and the sea change facing this country’s social makeup is plain to see. Can Japan continue to maintain its work ethic; and, if not, how will it affect those one in four Japanese, many of whom are still highly motivated to contribute to their society?

The rise of capitalism

Some in the West once also worked like the devil. In fact the German sociologist and economist Max Weber (1864-1920) unequivocally linked the Protestant work ethic to the rise of capitalism in Europe. However, the roots of that ethic are to be found in the thinking of the 16th-century French Protestant reformer John Calvin. To Calvin and his subsequent spiritual followers, every task or act committed by humans, however mundane, was an expression of faith. Pouring milk from a pitcher, weeding the garden, kneading dough for bread . . . these simple tasks were expressions of the spirit and required a stoic patience. There’s no fun connected with these tasks: All work is serious God-business.

Many of the migrants from Europe to New England during the 17th and early 18th centuries were Calvinists, and the notion of the Protestant (or Puritan, as it is also known) work ethic transplanted with shining success to the New World. Of course, this upstanding regard for an honest day’s work was based on the terrorizing and enslavement of indigenous and forcibly transported populations, the exploitation of women and children and the strictest control of anything smacking of free thought. This ethic, nonetheless, is one of the cores of what are now known as American values: the pretense of public virtue and respectability despite a surfeit of private vulgarity and vice.

But look at the Japanese attitude to work, and you will see that the essential seriousness of purpose and dedication to task is still intact. Japanese people, for the most part, do not horse around at work, as many in the West do as a kind of safety value or needed distraction. How many times have I been told in the midst of a job, “Jodan o iu ba ja nai! (This is no place for joking!).” On how many occasions have I said, “Let’s call it a day,” while my Japanese co-workers are just getting started as the sun goes down.

The Japanese certainly work as if there is no manana. (Maybe that’s why there are so many inane programs on nighttime television here; they’ve got to stuff in all the idiotic jokes and puerile pranks that people suppress during the working day.)

It used to be the case in Japan that people took pride in an ascetic material lifestyle: Less was more, and enough was really enough. (This did not apply to the luxuries of the flesh, however. Unlike their Christian cousins in the West, Japanese could be, without hypocrisy, ascetic about their material needs but free-wheeling when it came to sexual matters.)

Nowadays, this sense of pride in a life spent in frugality has considerably shriveled away, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wrote a book about Japan titled “Samurai Just Wanna Have Fun.” And yet, the strict work ethic remains largely extant. In Japan, people seem to have retained their love of work, even if they have scuttled the ascetic restrictions on the no-frills material lifestyle it often dictated.

How did they manage to do this, and what beneficial effects might this have on the country’s aging society?

Access to paid employment

According to data from the Japan Aging Research Center, in 2003, 94 percent of males and 59 percent of females aged 55 to 59 were in gainful employment, compared with 72 percent and 39.5 percent at age 60 to 64, and 33 percent and 14 percent at age 65.

In other words, one in three Japanese males age 65 is working, though fewer than one in seven females has a paid job.

It is essential that older Japanese men and women have access to paid employment if they have the desire for it. Work not only staves off senility, in many of its forms, but affords society the experience and skills of the elderly that we used to call “wisdom.”

This is being done in some places. The piano-making arm of Yamaha in the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, is famous for employing its older craftspeople, pairing them up with younger workers in a kind of master-apprentice relationship. In addition, many large companies regularly re-hire retirees as consultants for their experience and connections.

As for me, I am facing retirement in less than three years from the public university in Tokyo where I teach. Yet I feel that I am just coming into my own as a teacher. “Prime working age” is usually said to span the ages 25 to 54. Rubbish! And let’s scrap the term “compulsory retirement.” I also work in the arts, particularly in theater and film; and I can tell you that the biggest joy comes from working with the great veterans of their craft. The arts are one area where the verb “to retire” only means “to go home and head for bed.”

We are living at a time in Japan when old age is full of insecurities. There aren’t enough young people around to look after their elderly relatives. Banks pay almost no interest and no one can rely on the stock market or real-estate investments. And to cap it all, the pension funds that millions have been dutifully paying into for decades may effectively be unredeemable.

Japanese people, with their strong ethic of diligence and respect for a decent day’s work, derive pleasure from the earnest (often over-earnest) fulfillment of tasks. Invest in that. Harness that to the legions of energetic elderlies, and Japan’s culture will be all the richer, smarter and deeper for it.