Even in this age of smartphones, octogenarian Wakamiya Masako feels older people in rapidly aging Japan are kept out of the tech loop.
Retired from bank management for about 25 years, she has spent a lot of her time helping older friends and neighbors learn to use smartphones, and she’s developed the theory that they have a hard time because there aren’t games and apps aimed at their age group.
One possible solution, she thought, was to create a gaming app to encourage and enchant older people into more comfort with their smartphones.
“My friends were very much forward to such an app and looking forward to me,” says Ms. Wakamiya.
So she got some help from an expert, and her idea has made her famous at home and abroad for being one of the oldest app developers in the world, lauded by Japanese leaders and global technology executives for transcending age barriers.
“Ms. Wakamiya asked me to develop a gaming app in which seniors can beat young people,” recalls Koizumi Katsushiro, president of Tesseract, a company that teaches computer programming and app development in the northeastern city of Shiogama.
But he suggested she create the app herself, and that he would help her. The energetic Ms. Wakamiya took on the challenge, struggling for six months to create the game.
“It was especially very difficult to organize the whole structure of the app,” she says of the challenge of learning to code.
In 2017, at the age of 82, she launched Hinadan. The game features Japan’s traditional Hinamatsuri festival, a celebration of Girls’ Day. On the Hinadan app, which takes its name from a tiered stand for displaying traditional Japanese dolls, users must move dolls – puzzle-like – into appropriate positions according to roles: the emperor and the empress, court ladies, and court musicians with instruments. It has now been released in five languages.
“I was pleased with the launch. But I did not think it was such a major achievement,” says Ms. Wakamiya, surprised at the global interest in her work.
Hailing her as the world’s oldest app developer, Apple chief executive Tim Cook invited her to the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, in 2017. “The CEO hugged me!” recalls Ms. Wakamiya, blushing because Mr. Cook’s enthusiasm for her achievement broke Japanese custom. (Japanese people traditionally do not hug.)
Ms. Wakamiya, who serves as vice chair of the Mellow Club, a Japanese online group for older people, soon found herself on the global speaking circuit encouraging older people to overcome discomfort technology.
In 2018, she delivered a keynote address at a United Nations conference in New York on “Why are digital skills critical for older persons?” And she has published several books on aging and technology in Japan, including one titled “Life Becomes More and More Interesting After 60.”
“Masako is an inspiration to all people, but especially to those individuals who want to live a long, rewarding, and purposeful life,” says Bradley Schurman, a former AARP official, author of the book “The Super Age,” and the moderator of the 2018 UN event at which Ms. Wakamiya spoke. “She has shown the world that curiosity does not need to wane in later life.”
In Japan, her advocacy for the use of technology at older ages is particularly notable. Japan has struggled with difficult problems associated with its declining birthrate and aging population, including labor shortages and slow economic growth.
Those age 65 or older account for 29% of Japan’s population. That’s projected to rise to 38% by 2065, estimates the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo.
Ms. Wakamiya began using computers a few years before she retired in 1997 in hopes of socializing online while looking after her aging mother at home. She says she found that, more than just a new way to expand her circle of friends, computer literacy enriched her life with opportunities to broaden her perspective and satisfy her intellectual curiosity.
The deficit of online material for older people made her get creative: Using Excel spreadsheets, she saw patterns that she translated into art – designs for fabric and paper fans. She calls it “Excel art.”
“Excel looks difficult for seniors. But I came up with an idea of drawing designs using its functions. Then, I got so excited as I was able to produce one new pattern after another,” says Ms. Wakamiya, who wore an orange-and-green checkered shirt she designed with Excel to her Monitor interview.
She acknowledges computers made her become artistic where she was not before.
Ms. Wakamiya has taught other seniors how to produce artworks online, using the Excel software as a design tool. “It’s very important for seniors to be creative and produce something original,” she says.
Ms. Wakamiya, who sits on Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s digital policy committee, is known as an information technology evangelist with a mission to get seniors to acquire digital skills. The message carries weight, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people place importance on older people connecting online to avoid social isolation.
On her own initiative, Ms. Wakamiya flew to Estonia, which is pioneering the e-Residency concept of digital nations, in 2019 to see how seniors are able to fit in its e-government systems. She also made a speech and held workshops on Excel art during her stay.
Many older women note Ms. Wakamiya’s uplifting effect.
“We all feel uncertain about the future,” says Notake Yumiko, an architect and Mellow Club member. “But the way she lives sheds light on it. Ma-chan [an affectionate honorific for Ms. Wakamiya] is very smart. But she is still a humble person, which is so attractive.”
Hashimoto Kayoko, retired from her career at a major trading house, stumbled upon Ms. Wakamiya at an Apple store in Tokyo, where she was giving an inspirational speech.
“It was as though rain in the dark sky suddenly turned into a brilliantly sunny day. Ma-chan lights up my heart,” she says.
“Ma-chan shows me a can-do attitude.”
Ms. Wakamiya, who lectures across Japan, encourages older people to be involved in volunteer work especially because many, particularly men, do not know what they are going to do in their post-retirement life.
“While you contribute to society, volunteering can help broaden your perspective by meeting and working with those in different age groups. Some of them have high aspirations,” she says.
Breaking age stereotypes
“Older populations have many contributions to make to society, and they can play a big role as innovators, investors, and consumers in the economy too,” says Mr. Schurman. “Masako is helping to break age stereotypes”. She’s showing that there is a life post traditional retirement that can last five, 10, or 20 years or more.”
Ms. Wakamiya’s life after retirement made her see things differently because, throughout her four-decade career at a bank, most of her acquaintances were in the same business, she says. She recently realized that often, in Japan’s culture of perfectionism, many people are simply so afraid of failure they won’t try new.
“You should not worry about failures. There are no such things as failures,” she says. “To just start something new is deemed a success because you still learn in the process.”
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