20. Elderly Yokohama
From Patchwork Yokohama by Pencil Louis

"Old age is something that we all have an investment in," Vince Patchwork had said more than once, "even if we are destined never to get there."

Getting old was certainly something that he hoped to put off till tomorrow, but it was also true that he found a certain fascination for evidence of decay in his own body. The bubble economy had hit his hairline and his face had paid the price for avoiding wrinkles by becoming fleshier. He could, indeed, run up a flight of a hundred stairs faster than when he was twenty, but it took him ten times as long to recover in order to stagger up the next one hundred.

His own aging process aside, Vince, the life traveller, was interested in what happened to the elderly as clearly as Vince, the conservationist, was interested in what happened to his rubbish. The Japanese clearly believed that life was for the young. Middle aged and elderly women stood up for their children or grandchildren on the buses or trains. All manner of misbehaviour short of mass murder was encouraged in anybody under six years old, smiled upon in someone under 14 years old and tolerated in someone under 19 years old.

Vince firmly believed that life should get better as a person got older, in benefits if not in well-being. His own Australian culture hardly realised this belief, but the Japanese seemed to be hell bent on reversing it. Life was a struggle full of suffering, with little place for fun, and the older you got, the more fully you should understand that, thank you very much.

Of course, there was Keiro no hi, Respect for the Aged day on 15th. September. It was a public holiday, but as far as Vince could work out, children did not visit their grandparents on that day so much bearing gifts as expecting to receive gifts. In one court case, Vince had read about in the newspaper, some grandchildren had refused to visit their grandma and grandad on Keiri no hi. It was a sign of the times when so many people were so lonely that you could hire your own grandchildren. Indeed, you could hire actors to play the parts of grandchildren, children, wife, husband, mother, father, Auntie Betty, Uncle Ted. The elderly couple had hired three grandchildren and were now on trial for assault. They had evidently used the hired grandchildren as surrogates for the originals and beaten the living daylights out of them.

In the traditional family, the care of the elderly as well as for the children was the role of the yome-san, wife of the eldest son. It was not a highly revered position in society and Vince knew enough yome-san to know that it was hardly a sought-after role nor one relished by those who undertook in the traditional sense. Nozomi was one such yome-san and Osamu's parents, particularly his mother, took great pleasure in putting Nozomi down whenever she could. Nozomi was expected to cook all the meals, clean the house. Her mother-in-law had married into the family as a farm-worker not a housewife and could do none of this work. Her own mother-in-law had raised her children and she refused to have anything to do with Nozomi's daughter and son.

The first son had originally inherited the house, property and wealth of the parents until General MacArthur had come over and meddled with the constitution. In return, he lived with his parents and his wife took care of the household under the strict eye of her mother-in-law. Vince had never got on well with his own mother-in-law and such was the trend in Western culture. The son-in-law inevitably fought with the mother-in-law. In Japan, if there were troubles to be had, they were usually between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law.

The yome-san system made a number of assumptions about the lifestyle of Japanese women. Firstly, they didn't have jobs outside the home. Indeed, it was assumed that every household must have a fulltime worker in it. Secondly, the yome-san was, in fact, capable of caring for her husband's parents when they did get too old to look after themselves. Thirdly, every elderly person in Japan had his or her yome-san. And Vince naturally wondered what happened to these others, especially those like Connie and himself who had no children of their own. He had heard that old folks homes were very expensive and he was right.

One exception seemed to be Seibo No Sonno, a former Franciscan mission, which he visited one autumn day. Evidently, the Franciscan Mission of the Holy Mother had sixteen such hospitals all over Japan. The director of the hospital, Mr. Nagano, whisked them through the short stay rooms, the bathing area, the recreation area, the day service area. There were also rooms for long term patients and a live-in area for older people. Seibo no sonno offered a 'meals on wheels' service as well.

The place was staffed by eight nurses and 26 male employees. Two doctors and one surgeon visited once a week, but the service was supplemented by 4300 volunteer staff. Patients were billed according to their income, so that different people from various walks of life could use the facility. Vince was impressed that several of the patients were over 100. The oldest was 105 and there was a German woman who had just reached her century. He was interested to discover that bread was served at meal times instead of rice. This was by popular demand. They surveyed all the elderly patients and only sixteen had wanted rice.

Seibo no sonno was one of 38 similar old folks' homes in Yokohama, but it was one of the best and it had a waiting list of four to five years. Nozomi worked at another institution called Silver Palace and she continually brought home stories of undertrained staff and bizarre medical procedures. The sad truth was, Nozomi told Vince, that 25 percent of Japan's population would be over 65 by the year 2000. Vince didn't doubt this. Accounts of Japanese men and women reaching 100 appeared in the daily newspapers on a weekly basis. A pair of centarian twins, Gin-san and Kin-san, were even television celebrities and appeared on talk-shows.

Vince had always enjoyed walking through cemeteries in Australia where he could read the gravestones. The ones in Japan with their marble stones and celebratory wooden slat were equally fascinating. There was a difference in Vince's own mind. Australian graveyards had always seemed so final. In Japan, they appeared less menacing, more like a stopping off point, a viable alternative to a lengthy old age.

Even more fascinating were the Butsudan. Vince had first witnessed these Buddhist home altars in the home of Nozomi's mother in Kyoto. Mrs. Hiroshima kept her Butsudan in her main tatami room to honour the memory of her husband. Mr. Hiroshima looked very dour indeed as he stared at you from the framed picture that sat on one of the shelves of the altar, the tablet with his name in death to one side. He should have looked a lot happier, Vince thought, as Mrs. Hiroshima left food on the altar, every morning. A bowl of rice, a mikan mandarin and some strong coffee, one of his personal favourites.

Mr. Hiroshima, according to Nozomi, had been a very stoic man, who might not have died at such a young age had he gone to a doctor earlier. He had spent five years as a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp, The ultimate insult to the Japanese as the Soviet Union hadn't declared war on Japan until after the second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki. Mrs. Hiroshima admitted to Vince that she often sat down in front of the altar when she was lonely and talked to the Butsudan.

"What a great idea?" Connie decided.

"I thought you weren't religious," Vince replied.

"But it helps the living if not the dead. Instead of having to travel to a cemetery, you can sit and talk to your loved ones in your home. I might even buy one of the butsudans for you if you die."

"So, you can sit and chat to me after my ashes have been scattered."

"Why not?"

As morbid as the idea might have sounded at first to Vince, the thought of Connie sitting in front of his photo chatting to him after he was gone carried some appeal. Some sliver of immortality. He thought of the Seibo No Sonno and the fact that he would never have a yome-san of his own. And then he asked himself the very real question, were things much better for the elderly in Australia. There was just as much Alzheimers there, people watching themselves lose control over their own bodies. Maybe, there were some benefits in dying young.