From septuagenanan mountaineers to nonagenarian CEOs,
Japan's greatest generation refuses to quit
NEVER SAY DIE
33 years after sking Everest, Miura climbed to the top of at the age of 70
A LPINE CLIMBER YUICHIRO MlURA knows something about rapid descent-in 1970
he became the first person ever to ski Mount Everest, hurtling more than
a mile down the peak's icy flank in less than two minutes, and barely surviving.
But handling the downhill slope of his own life proved trickier. Miura
retired from climbing at age 60, deciding he was too old to haul himself
up mountains anymore, but after five lazy years of Japanese beer and Korean
barbecue, he had an epiphany: "I was only talking about my past, not
my future. I wanted to challenge my dreams again." Miura decided that
it was time to retire from retirement, and what better way to reverse his
downhill slide than to go back to the top of Everest? Friends thought he
was nuts, but in 2003, afier five years of training, Miura-then 70-became
the oldest person ever to reach the roof of the world.
The remarkably buff septuagenarian is now planning another Everest ascent
in 2008 at age 75. "When you're getting older, you think about the
things you can't do and all the reasons."@he explains. "But
if I have to die in a hospital, I might as well die on Everest."
Nearly one out of five Japanese-close to 25 million people-are over 65,
a statistic that inspires endless fretting and political debate over social
stagnation, overburdened pension plans and inadequate health care.
But being one of the world's grayest nations, with a median age of 42.6
years and rising,
doesn't mean Japan is turning into a vast nursing home.
Led by spirited adventurers like Miura, aging Japanese are refusing the
rocking chair and choosing to remain contributing members of society long
after they've qualified for senior discounts.
Although the mandatory retirement age at most companies in Japan is about
60, the@Intemational Labor Organization says that @71% of Japanese men
between 60 and 64 are still working,@compared with just 17% of Frenchmen
in the same age group.
Many of those who arern't drawing a paycheck remain active as volunteers
for charitable causes.
"You have to keep taking on challenges." says May Ushiyam,@who
at 94 still runs the Hollywood Beauty Salon in Tokyo,@which she helped
start three-qharters of a century ago,
"If you lose that, it's the end of you as a human being."
For mountaineer Miura, every day brings a fresh challenge.@In between
planning trips to the top of Everest, he operates a high-tech alpine training
center in Tokyo and works out daily, walking nearly everywhere with more
than 20 kg of weight strapped to his back and ankles-even if he's coming
home from a drinking party in Ginza. "It's good exercise, and I get
he says. Miura's enthusiasm for vigorous activity isn't rare among Japanese,@who
have the longest life spans in the world.
Seniors there regularly break records. @In 2002, Tamae Watanabe became
the oldest woman @to scale Everest at 63, and 71-year-old Minoru Saito
recently became the oldest person to sail solo@around the world without
"I thought my life after 70 was finished," says Saito,@as weathered
as a tugboat and as trim as a battleship.@"But I could still keep
doing things my way,@with complete freedom." During his 244-day voyage,@the
modern-day Ulysses scared off a pirate with a flare gun and subsisted on
rations, the occasional flying flsh, blood-pressure tablets and rainwater.
"It was no problem." he says. "Better than Tokyo city water."
Then there's 95-year-old Kozo Haraguchi, who in August broke the 100-m-
dash record for 95- to 99-year-olds with a
time of 21.69 seconds-0.35 seconds faster than
the record he'd set just two months earlier.
A former craftsman of paper doors, Haraguchi didn't take up running until
the age of 65,@which still left him 30 years to prepare for his record-breaking
sprint. Haraguchi, who also holds the record for 90-to 94-year-olds,@says
he hopes his run will inspire fellow seniors to unleash their energy. "There
are a lot of people who are capable of doing what I did." he says.
"It's such a waste to have the elderly do nothing."
Indeed, the more Japan ages as a society, the more the country needs its
seniors to remain active-and not just as entries in the Guinness W'orld
With the country's low fertility rate (1.28 births per woman) and its 5.2 million baby-boomer workers due to reach retirement age beginning in 2007,
there won't be enough young people to replace retirees in the labor force,
let alone support armies of idle pensioners.
Salarymen who reached mandatory retiretnent age used to be dismissed as@"industrial
waste." but aging Japan will find itself increasingly dependent on
its elderly to maintain productivity.
"How seniors will be able to contribute to society may change the
direction of Japan." says Shigeyoshi Yoshida, the executive director of the Japan Aging
"How seniors wll be able to contribute to society may change the direction of Japan. We'll need these people in the comig years. "
Research Center "We'll need these peaple in the coming years."
Fortunately, Japanese senior citizens are ready and eager to work overtime.
A 2001 goverment report found that 72% of Japanese believed the ideal retirement
age@was about 65 or 70. In contrast, Americans, Germans and Swedes most
often cited 60 to 65 as preferred ages to call it quits. "Peaple think
work has a value, that a job gives you important self-idenfication,"says
Atsushi Seike, an economist at Tokyo's Keio University, who studies the
aging issue. Seike believes that the work ethic among the elderly stems
from the fact that retirement is a relatively new phenomenon for Japan.
Seniors watched their bodies gave out. "Many retirees, especially
the older ones,haven't accumulated the experience of how to enjoy leisure,"he
Mitsuo Utsumi wanted to combine leisure and work in his reitirement years,@and
farm living was the formula he found.@After 30 years at Roche, the salaryman
and his wife Setsuko moved back to Kasegawa City in central Japan three
years ago to build their own farm, where they grow figs. "This was
my dream," says 58-year-old Utsumi, happily sweltering inside one
of his two greenhouses. @"I wanted to estabhsh a way to live when
I retired, not just survive off a pension." As retirements go, it's
not that retiring-Utsumi often puts in full days that start at
5 a.m.-and the farm only brings in half their pre-retirement income."As long as I can make a living, it's fine," he says."It's still better than putting the money in the bank."
Retirees who aren't self-employed like Utsumi can struggle to find decent
work-most companies still prefer to hire younger people, because they generally
cost less under Japan's rigid, seniority-based salary structure. But the
sheer demand for workers is encouraging companies to be more flexible.
Top temping company Adeco plans to double its number of registered workers aged
50 and older by 2008. Employment agency Pasona is forming a Japanese version of the
American association of Retired Persons-not to lobby for prescription drug plans,
but to help retiree job seekers find work.
Even if they aren't punching the clock,@however, many Japanese seniors
find alternative ways to contribute.@Salaryman Masamichi Hagiwara wasn't
ready to become a "window-sitter" when he reached his company's
mandatory retirement age of 57.
" I was still able to work every day," says Hagiwara, who spent
30 years developing better feed for fish farming. So he enlisted with the
Japan International Cooperation Ageny(JICA), which sent him for a two-year
stint to teach fish farming in the mountains of Honduras. When that was
finished, he re-upped for a tour in Malaysia and then Egypt. "I thought
it would be good if I could use my experience and work for someone else,"
says the dapper 67-year-old.
"It's a different culture, with different stakes. I felt a kind of
enjoyment I couldn't get from regular work."@There are thousands
of other Japanese like Hagiwara, and more coming every year.
JICA has seen a sharp increase in seniors volunteering to work abroad over
the past decade.
The elderly represent Japan's greatest generation, responsible for lifting
the country@from the postwar ashes and building the world's second biggest
economy-and they're not done yet, as May Ushiyama shows. The bright-eyed,
thoroughly perfumed 94-year-old-who spent several year after the war working
in Hollywood, and has the black and white photos with Grace Kelly and Debbie
Reynolds to prove it-grew her beauty salon from a small family company
to an upscale operation that now occupies several floors in Tokyo's tony
She has no intention of retiring. "If you live long, with intensity,
you see all kinds of interesting things," Ushiyama says. "It's
stupid to die before you're 80."@She lets out a throaty laugh, quivering
with vitality. "I Iived longer than Bob Hope !"