Aging Japanese pen heartfelt notes to heirs

Aging Japanese Pen Messages to Posterity
Heartfelt ‘Ending Notes’ Give Elderly a Voice in Traditionally Reticent Society

By Anthony Faiola, Washington Post Foreign Service, Monday, April 11, 2005; Page A13

TOKYO — Living alone in a tidy little house on the outskirts of Tokyo, 75-year-old Tomohiro Ishizuka spends hours dwelling on things unsaid. There are, he recalls, the stories he never told his two adult children — such as the horror of finding the charred remains of boyhood friends after the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. And then there are stories half-told — such as the depth of his pain after the sudden death in 2002 of his wife of 45 years.

In a society where the expression of innermost thoughts is considered awkward or self-indulgent, Ishizuka was never able to find the right moments to share such personal things with his family. So last month he joined the growing ranks of elderly Japanese who are writing down what they cannot manage to say.

Tomohiro Ishizuka, 75, works at home in Tokyo on his “ending note,” an account of his life and thoughts for family members to read after he dies. (Anthony Faiola — The Washington Post)

“Ending notes” is what the resulting works are called. An estimated 200,000 seniors have taken to composing these often candid autobiographical reflections, in the hopes that family members will read them after the authors’ deaths. A few of the works have gone on to be published posthumously and sold in bookstores. Ranging from synopses a few pages long to book-length epitaphs, they all serve as records for posterity of things too important to be lost at death.

The advent of ending notes, experts here say, reflects changing notions of old age and death in Japan, which has the longest average life expectancy on Earth — now 81.9 years, more than four years longer than the average in the United States.

Seniors are living longer even as centuries-old family traditions are eroding. Many grandparents no longer live with their children or grandchildren, for instance, as housing becomes more affordable, due to a protracted recession in the 1990s, and society places greater emphasis on privacy. In 2003, almost half of Japanese over 65 lived alone or with a spouse, compared with only 37.7 percent in 1991.

“For years, senior citizens in Japan let their emotions and histories be known to younger generations through everyday gestures or simple words around the house,” said Haruyo Inoue, who last year published an updated version of her best-selling book on how to write ending notes, now one of about a half-dozen available in Japan.

“But as many are no longer living with their families, it has reduced the ways in which they can share their feelings or pass on their personal histories to their children or grandchildren,” she said. “That is one important reason they have turned to writing ending notes.”

Ishizuka is composing his note in his straw-matted living room, writing in a lustrous purple notebook. “When my wife died, I realized that there was nothing tangible for me to remember her by. . . . I lost so much, all her stories, all her memories,” he said. It would have been different had she left an ending note.

Indirectness is highly prized in Japanese conversation; to avoid embarrassment, husbands and wives or parents and children often use the word “like” instead of “love” to express their affection for one another.

“It is easier for me to write it down so they can read it when I am gone,” Ishizuka said of his grown children. “That way they will know what their father and mother were really like . . . and understand why we made the choices in life that we made.”

In his draft, he writes of his deep depression after his wife succumbed to a brain hemorrhage in 2002 and his hopes that his children will someday come to understand his eccentricities.

“You often tell me, ‘Father is greedy,’ ” he says in the draft. “But the truth is I love you all dearly. I want to be with you forever and see my grandchildren grow, to feel your kindness, a kindness that has been handed down to you from your late mother.

“I want you to understand that, when I spend time alone, to draw, to go listen to music, to go watch a movie or go for a drive in the mountains, it is to confirm the bond I had with your mother. To reflect on my life, and understand what it means to be me.”

Living so long — often while remaining in extraordinarily good health — can force older Japanese to confront death often. In the five-year period ending in 2003, for instance, Ishizuka lost his wife, his mother and his son-in-law.

For Ishizuka, writing his autobiography proved cathartic, a way to come to grips with such massive loss. “There was so much death around me that I felt I needed to write about life,” he said.

The many changes in what it means to be old have led to a surge of so-called late-life crises in Japan. Analysts say more senior citizens are making pilgrimages, often mostly by foot, to the 88 holy sites on the island of Shikoku, for example, or engaging in metaphysical experiences such as standing under bitterly cold waterfalls in search of enlightenment.

Tomohiro Ishizuka, 75, works at home in Tokyo on his “ending note,” an account of his life and thoughts for family members to read after he dies. (Anthony Faiola — The Washington Post)

Japan’s record-low birthrate, a result of women choosing to stay single or couples deciding not to have children, has meant that many elderly people here do not have grandchildren, which in Japanese culture poses practical problems for the aged.

New generations — almost always eldest sons, but sometimes daughters — are expected to financially maintain hereditary tombs, mostly inside Buddhist temples. If, after the sons and daughters die, there is no grandchild to assume the responsibility, cremated remains are often removed and placed in common rooms, a fate that is now troubling many older Japanese.

One study conducted by Inoue showed a massive boom in so-called independent cemeteries, where people can make an advance payment ensuring that their bodies will be kept indefinitely in a marked burial compartment. In 1989, there were only four such cemeteries in Japan; last year there were more than 500.

“Japan is not like the United States, where the aged have a culture of self-dependency,” said Sumire Nohara, who offers seminars on aging and wrote a how-to book on ending notes. “The Japanese have long depended on their children. But lifestyles are changing here, and that is no longer possible, or desired, in many cases. So the elderly, especially as they live longer and longer, are searching for new ways to leave their legacy.”

Enter the ending note. The practice began, experts say, in the 1990s, part of a similar trend in the United States and Europe for people to write extended wills or leave detailed instructions regarding funerals or medical care in case they become mentally or physically incapacitated.

But in Japan, the concept took a broader form because of traditional inhibitions about sitting down and talking intimately. “There are some things that are just easier for me to write than to say,” said Juniko Kuriyama, 62, who began writing her ending note last year. She is older than her husband, Junichi, who is 57, and admitted she was writing it as much for him as for her childless adult daughter. “There are so many things that he and I have never spoken about,” she said — and, she added, probably never would.

Inside the cozy uniform store that the couple runs near Yokohama, their third attempt at a business after two previous enterprises failed, her husband shook his head as his wife spoke.

“We’ve made it this far precisely because we don’t talk so much,” he said. “There are things I don’t want to know. It would only make me feel worse to know that I did or did not do something and I can’t make up for it anymore.”

“You say that now,” she replied. “But there are still things I want you to know. . . . And this is also about what I want. I feel as if I need to leave behind evidence of my life.”

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply