Are “Old” People Old?

I don’t think the word “old” in “old people” is nice…or kind.

You are probably thinking “It’s because you are getting old and you don’t like to be called old.” I decided some time ago I would never get old, so that’s not it. I had felt something not quite right about the word, and I realized in Japanese the word “old” 古い ‘furui’ was not used referring to people. You could say ‘furui hon,’ (old book), ‘furui kuruma,’ (old car), but you never say ‘furui hito’ (old person) or ‘kare wa furui’ (he is old). The word in Japanese 老人 ‘rojin’ means 高齢者 ‘koureisha’ which means literally a “high-age person.” Another word for “old people” in Japanese is 年寄り ‘toshiyori.’ ‘Toshi’ means “year,” ‘yori’ means “gathered,” or “layered; so,’ toshiyori’ is a person who accumulated years.

When I point this out, people normally say, that’s because Asians respect “old” people. I don’t know that’s actually true. Do young people in Japan always respect the elderly and treat them well?Japanese language has a polite form and casual form, and you have to use the polite form when you talk to someone “older.” If you are raised in Japan, you are expected to behave differently towards the elderly, with 礼儀 ‘reigi’ (manners, politeness). Language is more than just words; it does shape us and the culture, but I doubt how people behave according to what they are supposed to (and expected to) is genuinely how they are feeling inside, like respect. Respect to me has two meanings: the first is showing basic, universal dignity, which I’d like to see everyone doing towards everyone else, regardless of age. The second meaning is earned, toward someone who achieved something or who is virtuous. Again, it doesn’t have anything to do with age; I might admire someone of any age.

The social structure in Japan is much more hierarchical than in America. Age is one major factor; the elderly dominate in politics, business, organizations and the Academics. In most organizations, the “oldest” person is assumed to be the leader or the head of the group. The board members of business or NPO are pretty much all senior citizens. Some elderly people in Japan are even tyrannical; making all decisions without anyone’s inputs, ordering younger people around, yelling at subordinates. It’s pretty much impossible to talk back or express different opinions to the elderly in an organization if you are much younger. That’s not so much because you respect “older” people, but because it is expected and imposed by some social force.

One of the big appeals for me when I came to this country and stayed, was Americans in general were much more egalitarian. “Older” people do not talk down to younger people as if they are superior. It is rather refreshing for a Japanese person to use the same form of language when talking to people both younger and older. I like relating to everyone as equal, on the same level. I don’t believe in hierarchy in the fundamental sense, as we are all humans. My experience living in the U.S. has been mostly fairly positive. I feel “older” people generally treat me with respect and as equal. In fact, I have actually felt that sometimes younger people are more arrogant or somewhat impolite. It can be the Japanese in me feeling slight resentment when younger folks are not acknowledging that I have a few more years of life experience under my belt. It does feel nice when younger people show a bit of extra politeness towards those of us who are a few years senior. Still, just because I have lived on the planet a bit longer, I don’t feel demanding of more respect.

My observation is, Americans in general worship the youth, or being young—everyone wants to be youthful, to look young; getting old is a curse. We all seem to make a big deal out of a 20-30 year age difference, but in the big scheme of things, we homo sapience have lived on this planet for 200,000 years. The fact that we, young and “old,” are all living in this incredible transitional time and sharing the moments in history is much more significant; a few dozen years of age difference is so miniscule in 5.4 billion years of the planet’s history. Who knows someone 15 years of age might be 10,000 years old in terms of her soul. I never feel “old” and sometimes a much “younger” person seems more

mature. I don’t buy another cliche of “you get wiser as you age.” There are plenty of unwise “older” people running around, and I have met many wise people who are much younger.

I notice people here are much more segregated by age groups. I would love to see people of different generations mingle and relate to each other much more, and treat one another with basic respect and genuine kindness.