Learning early to revere elders in Japan
In one of my earliest columns published in the Beacon, “A Pal Because of a Pen,” I discussed the benefits of having a pen pal. When one of my close friends, Sakiko Miyazaki, moved to Japan from the U.S., I decided to take my own advice, and for two years have been keeping in touch with her via email.
From comparing school days, to discussing summer plans, to swapping book recommendations, our correspondence has been a blast.
One topic that we have particularly enjoyed exploring is one of the most significant differences she noticed between Japan and the United States: the way that older adults are viewed in society. I recently interviewed her to learn more about this cultural distinction.
In a country that is as technologically and medically advanced as Japan, individuals are able to live exceptionally long lives. In fact, Japan has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. In large part, this contributes to Japan’s notoriety for respecting their elders. Another reason for this cultural value is Japan’s rich history.
“Japan,” Sakiko explained, “has a really interesting history because it has been influenced by so many countries over hundreds of years. It has been influenced heavily by China, and in China, respect for the elderly is viewed as something all children should have.”
This emphasis on respect for older adults has thus become integrated into the Japanese culture. It continues to manifest itself today, for example, in Japanese teenagers, who view the elderly as wise and experienced.
Teens respect elders
“Many teens go through a rebellious phase,” Sakiko admitted, chuckling, “but I feel like when it comes to the elderly they take a step back.
“The unconscious action [of treating our elders with respect] has been ingrained into us from a young age as we watch our parents and others in our community. So, doing things out of respect for the elderly is almost in our blood.”
A perfect example of this “unconscious action” is one that is outrageously simple and yet has a profound impact on the elders in the community: giving up one’s seat on public transportation for use by an older adult.
“What I love about Japan is that in public transportation, there are actually sections on the bus or train designated for the elderly,” Sakiko said. “Younger people can sit there, but if an elderly person enters the train, we will stand up for them to sit. It creates a culture of not just respect, but kindness.”
Teens in particular, according to Sakiko, are enthusiastic about showing respect for their elders. “On the public transportation system, teenagers will go out of their way to ensure that the elderly have a seat. I knew that [practice] existed since I was little, but I don’t think I ever appreciated how much it meant to the people on the trains until I moved to Japan after living in the U.S.”
Besides random interactions both literally and figuratively on the street, Japanese teens have ample occasions to connect with seniors in their communities. “For example, some schools visit elderly homes, and the teens involved are passionate about showing that they care,” she said.
Strong family ties, too
In addition to the platonic bonds between teens and elders in Japanese society, the familial bonds between grandparent and grandchild are strong.
“Japanese grandchildren are often very close to their grandparents, sometimes even closer than to their parents!” Sakiko revealed, laughing. “Parents tell you what to do, but grandparents’ rules are a little looser…kids will sometimes suck up to their grandparents to get something like an ice cream.”
Sharing one of her personal experiences with her grandparents, Sakiko remembered fondly: “Whenever I go to visit my grandparents’ house, I play the piano for them.
“Playing for them has become a tradition, seeing that my maternal grandparents love music and have passed that love down to me. I always enjoy seeing them; they have all these stories and values, and we’ve created our own culture within our family.”
This family culture is quite common in Japan. It is almost universal in Japan for families to get together during the holidays and celebrate. Many times, adult children will move to Tokyo to work, but then come back home for New Years to spend time with their elderly parents.
Another example: “It could be as simple as me holding the door for [an elder]. They are really appreciative and say ‘thank you,’ and it’s just our own really special moment. It makes you feel good because you know that you did something to make someone’s day.”
Have your own special moment with a teenage friend. You can compare and contrast similarities and differences between the attitudes toward and societal values regarding older adults in American and Japanese culture, as well as look into how the elderly are viewed in other countries. Maybe even plan a trip to Japan to see for yourself!
Bentz is an 11th-grade student at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Md.