Conversations with Japan’s Elders
By Kyle Von Lanken
On September 23, 2015
It’s no secret that Japanese people tend to avoid talking freely about their opinions. It should however be noted that they do in fact have them, and the older of the population have the gift of experience from a different generation and can give us a lot of insight as to where Japan is now as compared to where it was several decades ago.
During one of my various opportunities to work at my part-time agriculture job, there were many things I heard during my break times that surprised me that I heard from the older people in our group (all ages 55 and older). First let’s talk about the conversations we had about the Japanese language.
One conversation I had in this topic was with a veteran of the agriculture trade, a man in his 60’s that is one of the many people in charge of the department. As we went back and forth getting pallets for laying out more pumpkins, he decided to chat me up about my main job, which is an assistant language teacher at a local eikaiwa (English conversation school).
I told him about our policy to speak with the kids as much as possible in English, to which he replied that they pick up things like grammar a lot easier than adults (at which point he mentioned that he himself will never have any hope to learn English.) This led to a conversation about the grammatical order of Japanese as compared to English.Photo by Vintage Japan-esque
“When speaking Japanese, you almost always have to wait until the very end of someone’s sentence before you know exactly what they’re talking about,” he said. Very true, I thought to myself. I’ve known for quite a while that Japanese is subject, object and verb and English is subject, verb and then object.
However, it was something I’d scarcely thought about that this dynamic drastically changes the flow of the conversation. “But for English,” he continued, “you learn what the other person is saying much sooner and have a couple extra seconds to think of a reply.”
“That part of Japanese isn’t so good, I think,” he said. “I think English is better in that it gets to the point more quickly.”
“I guess that’s true,” I said. “I suppose it fits right along with western ideals in getting straight to the point, doesn’t it? I think Japanese also has culture embedded in it in that way as well.”
“I think so too,” he said.
Many of us younger people in our 20’s and 30’s often think of people in their 60’s as past their prime and no longer in the know, so it is good to see that stereotype dashed to the rocks because of people like him. It is also interesting to see that he sees English, at least in terms of grammatical practicality, as a better language.
The other conversation I had with him was actually about a more societal problem, one that I was only vaguely familiar with up until my conversation with him.
“You know that Japan’s elderly population is rising at an incredible rate, right?” he asked me. “Yes, of course,” I replied. “Japan’s young people are less interested than ever in marriage and having kids so the birth rate is low as well, and Japan’s senior citizens live very long,” I confirmed.
“And that has a direct effect on social security. Think of it like an upside down triangle, with Japan’s young working people on the bottom point and the large aging, retired population on the top. How will there be enough money to pay them? This is a huge weight on the shoulders of our country’s young people, and it’s already starting to take effect on the economy.”
While I didn’t ask him myself, I wondered if he was saying this because he himself must continue working even into his old age. After all, he looks well into his 60’s and he is still doing a fairly labor intensive job working in agriculture. There is also the possibility that he loves this job and he isn’t doing it for the money, but even if he does I doubt that’s all there is to it.
These and many other conversations reminded me why I wanted to learn the Japanese language in the first place. Being interested in Japan wasn’t enough, so I wanted to learn the language so the country would open up to me and I could communicate with its people. Being able to speak with smart, experienced people reminded me that it was so worth it.