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June 23, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Embracing old age in Japan


(March 14, 1991)    

I’m sure I should be flattered when someone tells me “You don’t look your age,” but often I feel like saying “I hope I do!”

After all, it’s been a long, hard and rocky road getting here – I’d at least like credit for the time.

What’s so great about being young anyway? I wouldn’t want to be 17, or 20 or even 25 again for anything in the world. Youth seems to me to be characterized by indecision, confusion, and non-acceptance – of one’s body and looks, for example. It’s a time when you’re always wishing you looked like someone else, perhaps your favorite movie star or some top model.

At my age you look in the mirror with the clear knowledge that what you see is yours for keeps, and you’re grateful you look at good as you do.

Of course, these days you don’t have to keep or show so much gratitude to that face in the mirror, since surgeons stand with scalpel in hand ready to remove those lines, pull up your cheeks, take a roll or two off your chin, widen your eyes, or give you the bust line you never had. They also stand ready to help you empty your bank account for these alterations to face and form.

We live in a world that admires youth so much that an older person is not considered to look good unless they look young. The elderly are often treated unfairly and discriminated against simply because of their age.

One of my best friends in America, a woman over 70 years old, is the director of a large New York City government agency. She is so busy and in such demand she can hardly manage to take a vacation. Yet if her true age were known she would be on permanent vacation, having been compelled to retire.

Rejecting the myth that all those no longer young are no longer sound in mind and body, many people like my friend, who would otherwise have to stop working, simply dye their hair and lie about their age – and continue to do what they’ve been doing, and do well. My father used this ploy and was employed at age 80.

During a recent visit to the U.S. I found that gray hair is, if not exactly “in” perfectly all right. Compared to Japan, where it appears most men and women over thirty steadfastly refuse to let Mother Nature take her course where their hair is concerned, it was nothing less than astounding to see the number of men and women who are letting their hair turn gray, and the many older people with completely white hair. This is true in Europe too.

It seems we’ve all learned to fear aging and accept all the stereotypes we hear about the elderly. One writer on aging says, “If a young man forgets where he left his coat someone will help him find it. If an old man forgets, people tend to assume he’s senile.”

Evidence shows the contrary. Experiments comparing 300 old people (average age 72) with university students found that on measures of senility – like confusion, forgetfulness, self-neglect – students were more senile than the old.



Well, now that my hair is almost completely gray, maybe I should be changing my tune. But in fact, I’m still glad I decided (not really that much of a ‘decision’ – I  just never thought about it) to let my hair gray naturally, gradually. Judging from my friends who do it, it’s apparent that once you start dying your hair, you can’t really stop. Most people are not interested in going gray overnight.

It can be just plain weird to see someone who is obviously part of the older set, with pitch-black hair. I mean, everything else about them (skin color and tone, teeth, eyes, posture, etc) is aging – but their hair is the color of a newborn baby. Well, not really – since it always looks phony – especially when you see the scalp (more visible because of hair thinning) — the contrast with the dark hair is just startling. I commend those who choose less stark dye colors that are not quite as jarring.

Now Botox is the road to the Fountain of Youth. Some movie stars, well into their last decades, have the wrinkle-free, line-less skin of babies. Like I said – it’s weird. But it does make you appreciate that much more those in the public eye who have aged gracefully.

Whenever I see mature women, with their natural gray hair, dressed with style, I truly admire them. I saw one such woman in a department store in the Ginza recently. She was just stunning. Her long gray long hair was twisted in a bun that was both simple and elaborate. Her kimono-styled coat had a bold print. I gave her a look clearly showing I appreciated her style. She smiled back – as though she appreciated mine.

As for forgetfulness. Forget it.

I work hard at remembering why I left my desk and went to the kitchen. I know I’m there for a reason – I just don’t know what that reason is.

These days I hear more top managers say it makes smart business sense to utilize mature employees. They feel they’re getting a bargain hiring (or keeping) someone who has experience and takumi (skill, cleverness).

Still, in Japan, discriminating against someone because of age is just a fact of life. While most industrialized countries have laws to protect against age discrimination, with stiff penalties for breaking those laws – Japan has penalty-free ‘guidelines’.

My 70 year-old friend in New York died recently. At age 100.


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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