This past Monday, September 19, the Japanese celebrated Respect for the Aged day. It is called “keiro-no-hi,” chosen as the third Monday in September. The celebration recommends sharing a special meal for the elderly, providing perhaps a musical presentation, and giving presents. The ecommerce website Rakuten, for example, suggests giving a kumquat tree or a hydrangea wreath.
The older I get, the more it seems we need this day. In America, we celebrate holidays that glorify the military, the labor force, religion, harvest, love, our country, our country’s dead presidents, our country’s dead inspirational leaders, the change of the season and the calendar—as well as the day that people are born. But we have no celebration aimed at the 1/6 of our population who are the wise elders. We celebrate “Grandparents,” but as an event the way that we celebrate “Secretaries” or “Administrative People” – primarily as a limited commercial boon for florists and card shops. We don’t respect the aging. We don’t celebrate getting older – we run and hide from it.
We want to live longer. But we love youth. We enjoy the nostalgia for the good ol’ days, but also desire the hustle and bustle, the New York State of Mind – what is the Next thing? What is the New Thing? We want to be where the action is. And yet we long for vacation, which is often depicted as laying on a beach with nothing to do. We are a schizophrenic bunch.
The Japanese are well-known as a culture that promotes and respects longevity. Setting aside a national holiday started in 1947, linked most likely to a post-war desire to appreciate long life, when they had just suffered the premature death of so many. But they also include traditions for birthdays beyond the sweet 16 or 21 that are such a focus in the US. For example, one tradition says you should wear red on your 60th birthday, hearkening to a cultural ideal that you become a baby again. In 1963, the country started awarding those reached the venerable 100 with a silver cup.
Nutrition experts have long pointed to aspects of the Japanese diet that help promote long health. Focus on fish and vegetables with modest portions promotes the right balance of food. They appreciate good food and cooking – the whole iron chef phenomenon that dominates the Food Network after all originated in Japan. They just eat food with fewer calories per bite and reasonable portions. Modest exercise is also engrained in their culture; Americans used to smirk at images of the workers at auto plants doing morning exercises together, but who wouldn’t benefit from that? Their healthy lifestyles have led them to the population which is longest lived, with living on average to over 83 (estimated by World Health as of 2015). In contrast, the US life expectancy is around 79, and not in the top ten worldwide.
While many viewpoints hold up these healthy practices as virtuous, other articles take a “sour grapes” frame of mind. For example, in a Quartz article about the national holiday, the aging of the Japanese population is framed as a huge problem. Quartz points out that there are 34.6 million Japanese over 65 years old and 65 thousand over 100. “There are now 10.5 million octogenarians in Japan—more than the entire population of Sweden or Portugal.” The Japanese birth rate has been dropping for years, and is now close to 1.5, distinctly below the Zero Population Growth of 2. As a result of the lowered birth rate, the country’s older population has been growing as a percentage and is now 27% over 65. The alarming consequence is that “more and more old people are forced to stay in the labor force….” I’ll come back to that notion in a minute.
Remember the silver cup that the country hands out? Because the number of centenarians has risen to such a high number, Japan decided to make the cup smaller as the expense was becoming more costly. This was the focus of several American articles about “Respect for the Aged.” Not that the Japanese celebrated the day or gave out a nice incentive to their venerated elderly, but that it was a shame they had to make the cup smaller to cut cost. A Washington Post article in 2015 was entitled: Japan has so many super old people that it can’t afford to give them special sake cups anymore.
Because somehow it seems important for Americans to have the biggest cup if we’re going to celebrate something like aging. Which, by the way, we don’t.
I am weary of heroism. I am tired of doing. I am tired of great projects and frenzied efforts. I have left the busy land of the middle-aged for a realm of deep inner stillness, quiet and sacred being.
– John C. Robinson
My wise friend Nancy, who left the corporate world a few years back, recently posted that above quote in her public feed. What struck me was not so much the quote, but the reaction of some of her observers. Friends and colleagues seem to be surprised, unhappy, a little taken aback—you’re too young to leave the world yet! If you state that you are going to step outside the frenzy, you have declared that you’re planning to be the hermit on the mountain, and will spend your coming days in meditation, in the hammock, sleeping, away somewhere, cut off from the “real world.”
Since I left the 60 hour work week, this double attitude has struck me as strange as well. Everything in the culture of our working lives gears towards the Big R, Retirement. Everyone wants to Retire. Everyone says hooray, you Retired. And then seems surprised that you would be doing anything besides laying in a hammock or on the beach, sipping tequila, as people do in the vacation ads.
We’re a rapidly aging population. We’re a rapidly Retiring population. Even if our birth rate (which by the way is 1.88, also under 2) keeps us able to thrive and stay stable as a population, we are going to need to cope with this fact.
The “problem” with the Japanese isn’t their healthily aging population, if it is a problem. The problem isn’t that some may need to continue working, since working isn’t necessarily bad. It’s only bad if you think the only goal in life is not to work. The problem conceptually is that their population might not have enough working people to support the non-working people, although that is in part culturally because they have not typically allowed foreign workers into the labor force. There are solutions to their problem that don’t require them to have more babies or force great-grandfather to dig ditches.
The problem is that Frenzy is seen as the be all and end all, and work is equated to Frenzy. Frenzy leads to stress, to poor health and anxiety. But if you express the desire to leave that Frenzy, there is something wrong with you. What we need is to learn how to transition out of Frenzy without assuming that the only other options are laying on a beach, being a hermit on a mountain, playing golf all day, or going into a coma.
We know that happiness itself derives from working towards a goal and interacting with other people (see blog from March 24, The Key to Wealth & Happiness). We don’t need to stop “working” – we just need to stop doing it with unbridled agitation. We don’t need to stay on a metaphorical treadmill, loping at an unpleasant pace while staring only at a computer simulation of the world – we need to go outside and walk the paths in the real world. Quiet and sacred for some, steady and social for others, enthusiastic if need be, but with a spring in the step rather than a manic sprint.
We need to Unfrenzy more. To Unfrenzy is not to stop but to take it in measure. Not to just go slow, but slower.
I would like to declare next Monday, September 26th, as Respect for the Unfrenzied Day. You don’t need to be over any particular age or to be retired to take part. You don’t need to take the day off work.
In fact, you can start preparing right now. Take a breath. Have a cup of tea or beverage of your choice. Think of a favorite friend or family member – when are you going to see them next? Hum a little tune under your breath – one secret to Japanese longevity is supposed to be singing – it doesn’t matter if it’s Mozart or Metallica. Think about everything you’ve already gotten done today.
Now get back to work.