Time for Another Start

In commemoration of reaching 60 years of age, our old middle school class recently held a reunion in my hometown of Beppu. About 30 of the 58 students in our class showed up. After a moment’s silence for two former students who had passed away, the gathering proceeded, and at the end we sang the school song together.

What does it mean to reach the age of 60? Perhaps the milestone marks a counting back from the average life span and another battle in the ways of the world. When the average life span, or a person’s life, are measured in terms of the Chinese zodiac, the figure “0,” the starting point, comes twice – that is, at 0 years of age and 60 years of age. Its next appearance comes at 120 years of age, but reaching that milestone is probably a little difficult.

At the age of 0, when we are babies, it all begins with red faces and white clothing. At the age of 60, white clothing signifies the journey to the next world, so, learning from the start of the cycle at birth, people put on red clothing to signal a fresh beginning.

Meanwhile, there is also the custom or system in the world of mandatory retirement. Although you might feel quite healthy and are ready to go on, the line is drawn here. Whether you like it or not, you are made to feel your age. After passing this threshold, you receive all kinds of notification from public organizations about old-age benefits, and the golf club informs you that you are now eligible for senior citizen status. The world sweeps you into the old-age bracket without asking for your permission.

My attitude has been just to ignore all of these notifications, unless of course they are especially important. It is indeed a kind of battle. If the world did not have this custom or system, people would remain full of youthful vigor forever – although in terms of the generational change, that would perhaps be a bit inconvenient.

Come to think of it, looking at the faces at our reunion, they were quite different from the faces of the older generation that we looked at when we were young. Everyone looked about 10 years younger and was full of vitality. One of our teachers who had reached the age of 60 about 12 or 13 years ago spoke at the beginning like the old generation of elderly. “After I reached the age of 72,” he said, “ailments began popping up everywhere, and now it’s all I can do just to stand up. You are all going to get older from now on, so please take good care of your health.” Although only a little, nevertheless I sensed a kind of obsession here.

When I was asked to make a toast, I countered with a kind of obsession of my own. “Teachers,” I said, “please do your best and keep up your spirits. I know a lot of people in their seventies who play golf for four days running.” After he had had a few drinks, even the teacher who I mentioned just now became unexpectedly vivacious. I felt strangely relieved.

Anyway, compared to the past, people in their sixties are younger these days. In a few years’ time the baby-boomers will be reaching the milestone of 60 as well, and a large market of people of that age group is going to emerge. At the same time, because of the declining birthrate and other factors, the future of Japan is cause for concern. The skillful utilization of the large and spirited generation of people in their sixties is going to be extremely important for the Japanese economy and, in a different sense, will lead to a kind of generational balance. Of course, it’s easy just to say so. The problems of how to develop yourself and, socially, how to create more jobs are going to become increasingly important.

To change the subject, the mountains and rivers of my hometown were just the same as ever. The bright sunshine poured down, and the early spring breeze gently caressed one’s cheeks. Spring is sure to come, and the years are sure to pass. My attitude these days is that this cycle must be seen as a blessing.