National | GENERATIONAL CHANGE

Kanagawa computer programmer, 82, recognized worldwide for efforts to keep seniors digitally engaged

by Hiroko Nakata

Staff Writer

People say it is never too late to start new things. No one would object to that. But in reality, not many people have the guts to tackle things that are totally unfamiliar to them as they get older.

This can’t be said, however, of Masako Wakamiya, an 82-year-old computer programmer and one of the world’s oldest iPhone app developers.

“For a long time I’ve been involved in projects to support those who have problems dealing with digital equipment,” Wakamiya said in an interview with The Japan Times. “I’ve earnestly felt I should persuade people to understand how important digital skills are (for the elderly).”

Throughout the interview, held in the living room at her house in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, Wakamiya sat upright on a tatami mat — in the polite manner to which older generations in the country are accustomed. But clothed in a vivid pink sweater and surrounded by two laptop computers, an AI speaker and an electric piano, Wakamiya challenges common perceptions of Japanese women in their 80s.

Her activities also go far beyond what one imagines people in their 80s can achieve. Two years ago, she decided to develop a game app for senior iPhone users, although she knew nothing about programming. After six months, her app hinadan (tiered doll-display stand) was released in the App store. That accomplishment led to her being invited to Apple’s annual meeting for software developers — called the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and held in San Jose, California, in June — where Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced her to 5,300 attendees from 75 countries together with 10-year-old Yuma Soerianto from Australia, one of the youngest iPhone app developers.

Since then, her life has changed drastically.

The retired banker received an avalanche of interview requests from domestic and foreign media, starting with CNN before the WWDC, followed by Forbes, Fortune and others from France, Switzerland, Singapore and Taiwan. Sometimes she had three interview appointments in a day. In September, she was appointed to become a member of the Japanese government committee Jinsei Hyakunen Koso Kaigi (the committee for planning a life of 100 years). Last month, she was invited to the United Nations headquarters to deliver a keynote speech at an event on the sidelines of a session of the U.N. Commission for Social Development.

“I thought it was exactly my theme,” Wakamiya said, explaining her first reaction when she received an email from the U.N. asking her to make a speech on how crucial it is for older people to acquire digital skills. “I wanted to stress the impact of ICT (information and communication technology) literacy on mental health since it is a very good thing for lonely seniors to be capable of communicating with others through the internet.

“I’ve also believed Japan should express its opinions more actively at the U.N. and other organizations,” she said, adding that Japanese are often too shy to express themselves in English. Wakamiya, who started to work soon after graduating from high school, said she hopes her efforts to speak at the U.N. without a high-level academic background will encourage other people to raise their voices in the global arena. “I was lucky I got the invitation, so I didn’t think about anything but doing my best,” said Wakamiya, who often calls herself an “evangelist of ICT,” cracking a smile.

Her charm has attracted a group of supporters. Wakamiya said expressing her own thoughts at the U.N. was not very hard, especially because she was helped by volunteers — some of them accompanied her to New York, another picked her up at the airport, and others translated her speech into English, designed PowerPoint slides, made reservations via Airbnb and made arrangements with a tourism venue in the Big Apple.

“As you know, Miss Wakamiya is a rock star in Japan, or should I say a tech star?” said Bradley Schurman, head of the American Association of Retired Persons, when he introduced her at the U.N. conference as a moderator. Wakamiya read a 12-minute speech prepared in English explaining the wonderful moments brought to her by her digital life. “I hope you can encourage more seniors to be active members of society. I also hope that we, the community, the nation, and the U.N., will be able to join hands and think about how we can create a society where senior citizens feel empowered and can continue to play an important role,” she said in the speech.

Wakamiya sees an increasing need to support senior users amid the rapid development of new revolutionary technologies in recent years.

“Currently, PCs and smartphones are about the only digital gadgets we have, but everything from speakers to watches will become computerized,” she said.

According to a recent report by the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the global population aged 60 or older totaled 962 million in 2017 — more than double the number seen in 1980 — and is expected to reach nearly 2.1 billion by 2050.

In societies with such rapidly aging populations, and with people’s life spans expected to reach 100 years or so, there is no doubt that measures are needed to ensure elderly people are not left behind by digital developments.

However, the reality of older people’s digital capabilities is far from optimistic. A 2016 survey by the internal affairs ministry found that 53.6 percent of Japanese in their 70s, and just 23.4 percent of those in their 80s and older, use the internet at all.

Wakamiya thought mobile games for the elderly should be created so they can familiarize themselves with the internet, but at first she didn’t think she would be able to develop one herself. Her eventual development of the hinadan app was supported mostly through Skype and Facebook Messenger by a computer programmer in Sendai, with whom she had become acquainted through volunteer activities to help the disaster-hit region after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Seniors are at a physical disadvantage when it comes to the quick swipe actions often required by digital games. To resolve that issue, players of hinadan can tap the screen instead of swiping, to place male and female dolls in the correct positions on the red-carpeted tiered stand — which is traditionally decorated and displayed in the home for Girls’ Day on March 3.

“I explained to Mr. Cook that smartphones are not designed for senior users, some of whom have trouble hearing and seeing,” she said, adding that Cook listened to her carefully. Wakamiya said the CEO might have noticed growing demand in an iPhone market for older people, and that the market potential may be one of the reasons she was invited to the developers’ meeting — in addition to the purpose of celebrating developers’ diversity, not only by gender and ethnicity but also by generation.

Many may wonder about the source of her passion. She said the secret is probably her insatiable curiosity and love of communicating. “I have a strong curiosity about the unknown,” she said. Wakamiya, who has currently more than 1,300 friends on Facebook, also said that her digital literacy had helped her make new friends from overseas. She said she had a chance to speak at a software education festival in South Korea in April, and she received a huge applause from young Koreans even though Japan’s diplomatic relations with its neighbor are sensitive.

Wakamiya’s digital life wasn’t always plain sailing. She didn’t have a computer at home until she retired from what was then-Mitsubishi Bank, now MUFG Bank, in her early 60s. Since Wakamiya, single without children, had to care for her mother alone at home, she was worried she might be isolated from society and have fewer chances to socialize or chat face-to-face with her friends and neighbors. She decided to buy a computer, but it was pricey — at ¥400,000 two decades ago — and it took her three months to get it connected. It was years before the broadband internet enabled users to enjoy net surfing easily. “It was as if I developed my own wings by learning to communicate through the internet,” she says in a book published last month, expressing how she felt when she finally got online.

In the 1990s she had joined a community, now called Mellow Club, where older people chatted with each other in an age before online communications. Later, with the advent of the broadband internet, she became one of the founding members of a community that has succeeded the group. This helped her communicate with other people of her own generation. She also enjoys engaging in what she calls “Excel art” by coloring cells and lines in Excel to create geometric patterns — and pictures of flowers. Before she became so busy recently, Wakamiya held computer classes at home about twice a week.

Asked if she has ever felt the fear of aging that haunts many in Japan’s graying society, she said she is too busy to worry about negative things about her future. English and Chinese versions of her hinadan app have been released recently, and she wants to launch it in more languages. She is planning to write a book about programming. Also, she likes to travel to other countries as she did in the past, once a year. She is also eager to learn more about the Swift computer programming language and develop more game apps.

“I have many things I want to try,” she said. “It’s sad that I don’t have enough time.”


Key events in Wakamiya’s life

1935: Born in Suginami Ward, Tokyo
1999: Jointly founded the Mellow Club online community for seniors
2016: Decided to develop iPhone game app
2017: Hinadan released in App store
2017: Invited to Apple’s WWDC in San Jose, California
2017: Appointed to government committee Jinsei Hyakunen Koso Kaigi (the committee for planning a life of 100 years)
2018: Invited to U.N. conference as a keynote speaker

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society.