Yasujiro Tanaka

Yasujiro Tanaka, aged 65, is a turnaround expert and volunteer guide in the city of Nagasaki, in Kyushu, where walking is often the only form of transportation. Born and raised in this beautiful port city famous for its steep hills and the winding steps that weave through its houses, Tanaka has always been passionate about his hometown. During his 35 years working as a bookkeeper at the Nagasaki Aquarium, he felt his main job was to save the place from going dry. With his coworkers he helped to keep the aquarium open by bringing in the crowds to events they designed such as penguin parades and character shows. Although not much of a cook, he turned a French restaurant into a thriving beer hall to the cheers of everyone in town. An expert on all things Nagasaki, it is Tanaka’s contagious energy and positive view on life that make him such a great person to follow around.

One hour is the same 60 minutes regardless of whether you are worrying or feeling happy. I choose to be excited and cheerful, no matter what happens.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It doesn’t matter: Always blame yourself and say that you are sorry. In any situation, even if the other person seems to be at fault, I apologize first. I mean it too, because probably I did something unknowingly that created the unpleasantness. This is very Japanese, and it works because once I say I am sorry, almost always the other also asks for forgiveness. The key is to do it quickly so that we can make up fast — then we can become good friends and spend our time together having coffee and ice cream.

You can get a job anytime if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. Our father was always working, but even though he made so many wooden bath buckets that they were piled up to the ceiling in our home, it never amounted to much money. We were poor, and when I was 20, he suddenly died. I’m the oldest of my siblings, so I had to immediately find work and take care of my mother and little brother and sister. I got a job at Japan National Railways, where I was sent to scrape chewing gum off train seats. I was very thankful to have a job and gave all the money to my mom.

Unless you can drink alcohol, it is hard to be a salesman: One needs an iron stomach to sell things. I kept looking for a job that paid more than cleaning did. I was 22 when I got lucky and a travel agency hired me. I was thrilled until I realized that my job was to take teachers out on the town, wining and dining them to make sure they would buy school-trip packages from our company. I was in trouble! I don’t drink, so I only survived there for a few years.

When I wake up, I imagine that something wonderful will happen that day. It’s already a great day because I am alive, my wife is next to me, we are both healthy enough and we can go out to meet many people. I feel so thankful to be alive!

Analog life is better than digital. My old radio’s voice gets weaker, but it never breaks down suddenly like my computer does.

Watch your face because kids are watching it. Children were asked to write down examples of when they saw their mothers happy. Their answers were all similar: They said their moms looked happiest when they went to dinner at a sushi bar or some other type of restaurant. I was shocked that it was not when they saw their child.

Kids are powerhouses — I run on the same fuel as they do. Every morning, I stand at the gate of an elementary school near my house to greet students — 600 of them! — and to wish them a great day. I get so much energy from them.c

Only those who know the bottom can be good leaders. Most on top either forget where they come from or they were always up high.

One word can make a connection between people. A “Thanks” or a “Ganbaro- (Let’s try harder!)” brings people together.

What you want to get, give it first. What you need done, do it. My wife and I do everything together or in turns: cleaning, shopping — everything except cooking, because she is great at that and I am not.

Humans are so lucky to be able to show their weakness. When we are sick, we admit it and get treated better than when we are healthy. Animals pretend that they are well because the moment they show that they are weak, they get attacked. At the aquarium we sometimes noticed that one of our residents was acting strangely, so we would bring it to our veterinarian. Sure enough, something would be wrong with it. For example, one deer — yes, we had deer, too, even though it was an aquarium — had this strange expression when it walked. An X-ray showed that it had a broken leg. Imagine how much pain it was in, yet it would not show it.

Give your time to others — the rewards are priceless. I visit 18 people a week who are living alone, all between the ages of 65 and 98. I don’t have a set schedule: I just go when I feel like it or whenever I am near their house. They are thrilled to get a visitor, especially unannounced. I don’t need to talk much: I just listen to them. They feel safe knowing that someone cares.

You can do anything if you put your mind to it. My friend walked from Nagasaki to Tokyo to mark his 70th birthday. He did 40 km a day and arrived in Tokyo in perfect health.

I’m alive thanks to you. I never feel alone. So many people have helped me through my life, and now is my chance to give back to society. Think of a single sheet of tissue paper: so thin and weak. But once we put many in layers, they get thick and strong. That is how my life is: an accumulation of small events.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at:

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