|Living It Up
From septuagenarian mountaineers to nonagenarian CEOs, Japan''s greatest generation refuses to quit
BY BRYAN WALSH | TOKYO
Alpine climber Yuichiro Miura knows something about rapid descent?in 1970 he became the first person ever to ski Mount Everest, hurtling more than a mile down the peak''s icy flank in less than two minutes, and barely surviving. But handling the downhill slope of his own life proved trickier. Miura retired from climbing at age 60, deciding he was too old to haul himself up mountains anymore, but after five lazy years of Japanese beer and Korean barbecue, he had an epiphany: "I was only talking about my past, not my future. I wanted to challenge my dreams again." Miura decided that it was time to retire from retirement, and what better way to reverse his downhill slide than to go back to the top of Everest? Friends thought he was nuts, but in 2003, after five years of training, Miura?then 70?became the oldest person ever to reach the roof of the world. The remarkably buff septuagenarian is now planning another Everest ascent in 2008 at age 75. "When you''re getting older, you think about the things you can''t do and all the reasons," he explains. "But if I have to die in a hospital, I might as well die on Everest."
Nearly one out of five Japanese?close to 25 million people?are over 65, a statistic that inspires endless fretting and political debate over social stagnation, overburdened pension plans and inadequate health care. But being one of the world''s grayest nations, with a median age of 42.6 years and rising, doesn''t mean Japan is turning into a vast nursing home. Led by spirited adventurers like Miura, aging Japanese are refusing the rocking chair and choosing to remain contributing members of society long after they''ve qualified for senior discounts. Although the mandatory retirement age at most companies in Japan is about 60, the International Labor Organization says that 71% of Japanese men between 60 and 64 are still working, compared with just 17% of Frenchmen in the same age group. Many of those who aren''t drawing a paycheck remain active as volunteers for charitable causes. "You have to keep taking on challenges," says May Ushiyama, who at 94 still runs the Hollywood Beauty Salon in Tokyo, which she helped start three-quarters of a century ago. "If you lose that, it''s the end of you as a human being."
For mountaineer Miura, every day brings a fresh challenge. In between planning trips to the top of Everest, he operates a high-tech alpine training center in Tokyo and works out daily, walking nearly everywhere with more than 20 kg of weight strapped to his back and ankles?even if he''s coming home from a drinking party in Ginza. "It''s good exercise, and I get sober," he says. Miura''s enthusiasm for vigorous activity isn''t rare among Japanese, who have the longest life spans in the world. Seniors there regularly break records. In 2002, Tamae Watanabe became the oldest woman to scale Everest, at 63, and 71-year-old Minoru Saito recently became the oldest person to sail solo around the world without stopping. "I thought my life after 70 was finished," says Saito, as weathered as a tugboat and as trim as a battleship. "But I could still keep doing things my way, with complete freedom." During his 244-day voyage, the modern-day Ulysses scared off a pirate with a flare gun and subsisted on rations, the occasional flying fish, blood-pressure tablets and rainwater. "It was no problem," he says. "Better than Tokyo city water."
CNN.com: Top Headlines
Then there''s 95-year-old Kozo Haraguchi, who in August broke the 100-m-dash record for 95- to 99-year-olds with a time of 21.69 seconds?0.35 seconds faster than the record he''d set just two months earlier. A former craftsman of paper doors, Haraguchi didn''t take up running until the age of 65, which still left him 30 years to prepare for his record-breaking sprint. Haraguchi, who also holds the record for 90- to 94-year-olds, says he hopes his run will inspire fellow seniors to unleash their energy. "There are a lot of people who are capable of doing what I did," he says. "It''s such a waste to have the elderly do nothing."
Indeed, the more Japan ages as a society, the more the country needs its seniors to remain active?and not just as entries in the Guinness World Records. With the country''s low fertility rate (1.28 births per woman) and its 5.2 million baby-boomer workers due to reach retirement age beginning in 2007, there won''t be enough young people to replace retirees in the labor force, let alone support armies of idle pensioners. Salarymen who reached mandatory retirement age used to be dismissed as "industrial waste," but aging Japan will find itself increasingly dependent on its elderly to maintain productivity. "How seniors will be able to contribute to society may change the direction of Japan," says Shigeyoshi Yoshida, the executive director of the Japan Aging Research Center. "We''ll need these people in the coming years."
Fortunately, Japanese senior citizens are ready and eager to work overtime. A 2001 government report found that 72% of Japanese believed the ideal retirement age was about 65 or 70. In contrast, Americans, Germans and Swedes most often cited 60 to 65 as preferred ages to call it quits. "People think work has a value, that a job gives you important self-identification," says Atsushi Seike, an economist at Tokyo''s Keio University, who studies the aging issue. Seike believes that the work ethic among the elderly stems from the fact that retirement is a relatively new phenomenon for Japan. Seniors watched their own parents and grandparents work until their bodies gave out. "Many retirees, especially the older ones, haven''t ac*****ulated the experience of how to enjoy leisure," he adds.
Mitsuo Utsumi wanted to combine leisure and work in his retirement years, and farm living was the formula he found. After 30 years at Roche, the salaryman and his wife Setsuko moved back to Kasegawa City in central Japan three years ago to build their own farm, where they grow figs. "This was my dream," says 58-year-old Utsumi, happily sweltering inside one of his two greenhouses. "I wanted to establish a way to live when I retired, not just survive off a pension." As retirements go, it''s not that retiring?Utsumi often puts in full days that start at 5 a.m.?and the farm only brings in half their pre-retirement income. "As long as I can make a living, it''s fine," he says. "It''s still better than putting the money in the bank."
Retirees who aren''t self-employed like Utsumi can struggle to find decent work?most companies still prefer to hire younger people, because they generally cost less under Japan''s rigid, seniority-based salary structure. But the sheer demand for workers is encouraging companies to be more flexible. Top temping company Adeco plans to double its number of registered workers aged 50 and older by 2008. Employment agency Pasona is forming a Japanese version of the American Association of Retired Persons?not to lobby for prescription drug plans, but to help retiree job seekers find work.
Even if they aren''t punching the clock, however, many Japanese seniors find alternative ways to contribute. Salaryman Masamichi Hagiwara wasn''t ready to become a "window-sitter" when he reached his company''s mandatory retirement age of 57. "I was still able to work every day," says Hagiwara, who spent 30 years developing better feed for fish farming. So he enlisted with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which sent him for a two-year stint to teach fish farming in the mountains of Honduras. When that was finished, he re-upped for a tour in Malaysia and then Egypt. "I thought it would be good if I could use my experience and work for someone else," says the dapper 67-year-old. "It''s a different culture, with different stakes. I felt a kind of enjoyment I couldn''t get from regular work." There are thousands of other Japanese like Hagiwara, and more coming every year. JICA has seen a sharp increase in seniors volunteering to work abroad over the past decade.
The elderly represent Japan''s greatest generation, responsible for lifting the country from the postwar ashes and building the world''s second biggest economy?and they''re not done yet, as May Ushiyama shows. The bright-eyed, thoroughly perfumed 94-year-old?who spent several years after the war working in Hollywood, and has the black and white photos with Grace Kelly and Debbie Reynolds to prove it?grew her beauty salon from a small family company to an upscale operation that now occupies several floors in Tokyo''s tony Roppongi Hills. She has no intention of retiring. "If you live long, with intensity, you see all kinds of interesting things," Ushiyama says. "It''s stupid to die before you''re 80." She lets out a throaty laugh, quivering with vitality. "I lived longer than Bob Hope!"
From the Oct. 17, 2005 issue of TIME Asia Magazine