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Bringing young and old together


GENERATIONS IN TOUCH: Linking the Old and Young in a Tokyo Neighborhood, by Leng Leng Thang. Cornell University Press, 2001, 209 pp., paper ($39.95)

As Japan’s traditional three-generation households go nuclear and fewer young couples have children, the care of the nation’s elderly has become an increasingly pressing public issue. While the cost and delivery of medical services tops the list of concerns, Japan’s changing demographics require solutions to problems stemming from the social effects of the changes as well.

Public administrators find themselves faced with questions of how to pass on cultural traditions, how to inculcate the young with empathy for the elderly, and how to prevent elderly people living alone from becoming isolated or abandoned. In response, municipalities — and private businesses — have proposed and carried out a number of community-building events and activities in pursuit of an often elusive goal: “fureai,” or contact and meaningful interaction between people, in this case, between the young and the old.

Several efforts are also going on at the institutional level, and one of these, the focus of the ethnographic study comprising this book, is Kotoen, the oldest age-integrated facility in Japan. Located in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, the 14-year-old Kotoen building houses a nursery/day-care center for 80 1- to 6-year-olds, a nursing-care facility and an elderly residence, all integrated into a single facility. As a case study with potential application in a variety of cultures and countries, Thang presents her investigation of Kotoen, where she spent 10 months as a “volunteer” and field researcher.

Depictions of the special events and daily schedule at the facility fill most of the book. Thang presents snapshots of the daily life at Kotoen by describing the ways elderly residents help at the nursery, children’s visits to the nursing floor, and regular and special events organized to encourage fureai. These are accompanied by discussion of anthropological theories underpinning social phenomena identified there, and of the ideological themes on which Kotoen runs its programs: the importance of fureai and the ideal of a large, multigenerational family (“daikazoku”).

The book’s strengths are in Thang’s analysis of the many details that make up life at Kotoen. She has identified an important concept in defining “event grandparenthood,” a role through which elders are encouraged to interact with children on specific occasions, but are prevented from developing long-term or deeper one-to-one relationships. At their best, such analytical terms pinpoint significant themes that can be used to talk about other, similar facilities.

Another compelling and critical point the author raises is the tension inherent in the role of administrative planners — their agency in making such programs work and their role in limiting interaction — and the extent and limits of their activity. More broadly speaking, the question of the middle generation — including parents, Kotoen employees and volunteers — and what role they play in tying youth and the elderly together is one that, although briefly addressed, deserves more attention.

What kind of training is necessary to plan for fruitful interactions in such a setting? What are the advantages/disadvantages of placing the responsibility for planning and carrying out events with administrators vs. elderly residents? What role do parents have in encouraging children’s receptivity to engaging with the elderly? How much is Kotoen’s practice specific to a Japanese setting? As arguably the most critical issue in deciding whether similar facilities could be established in other countries, this last question would have benefited from deeper exploration.

The book’s weak points are characterized by the following comment: “We learned that the ideal of alternate-generational interactions — the romanticized image of fureai in a daikazoku — remains ideal in practice,” a statement so widely open to interpretation that its significance is lost.

The reader follows the author as she opens box after box, introducing anthropological theory or describing daily events at Kotoen. Unfortunately, the larger point she is aiming for — the significance of the box itself and what the contents will be used for — is often lost in all the detail.

As she unpacks each box, she describes what she is looking at. Sometimes the reader is forced to wonder if she would see the same thing. In introducing her research protocol, for example, Thang explains that most of the people in the facility referred to her as “sensei” or “san.” “The directors,” she adds, “sometimes jokingly called me Ling Ling-chan; ‘chan’ is normally used for young children and reflects intimacy.”

Why the spelling of the author’s name differs here from the version on the cover may be a minor point, but it is nonetheless an unexplained mystery. More important, Thang seems unaware that the use of “chan” is not uncommon in a work setting, especially to refer to women in lower job positions. “Ling Ling-chan” is just as likely, if not more so, to have been used in this situation as an expression of authority, not joking camaraderie. Coupled with the inconsistent use or explanation of Japanese terms in general, such characterizations erode the reader’s confidence in the author’s judgment.

Additionally, confusion stems from Thang’s habit of stressing that she is not acting as an advocate of Kotoen, while countering any criticism of the facility she introduces. She clearly feels an emotional debt to the people who assisted her fieldwork there.

Thang has gathered a lot of information, but often fails to clarify her own stance regarding it. At its worst, the text is a showcase of anthropological theories of aging and snapshot scenes from daily life at Kotoen with little to tie these facets together into a narrative or theoretical whole. Finally, Thang was so ill served by her editor — the text is littered with unclear sentences and outright errors — that at times the reader doubts one ever read it. As a result, the book is a slow read, the overall structure and direction hard to follow.

One is left with the impression that the book would be better read in reverse. The final chapter does bring into focus the larger picture in Japan, and thus the significance of this single facility. It also offers important suggestions for those interested in developing similar institutions elsewhere. To the extent that the scope of “Generations in Touch” is rare in English literature, it is an important document. Unfortunately, the uncertain presentation is a handicap to the interested reader.