In greying Japan, even grannies go high-tech

by AFP/Miwa Suzuki, Aug 27, 2007 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Tokyo, Aug 12, 2007 - "My husband isn't home tonight. Would you like to..." reads the suggestive e-mail on the computer screen.

Obviously, the sender has no idea that the recipient is 78-year-old grandmother Kikue Kamata.

"What does she want me to do?" an amused Kamata says. "I know I shouldn't open spam but sometimes I do because it's fun."

A high-tech granny used to be considered an oxymoron. But in Japan, with its love of technology and a declining birth rate, a growing number of elderly are learning to surf the Internet, finding it to be a crucial lifeline.

"I turn on my computer the first thing in the morning. It's a pleasure to see the e-mail that came overnight," says Kamata's friend, Roko Shinohara.

The two women are members of the Computer Grannies Society, launched in 1997 to nurture a new breed of net-savvy elderly.

The group, which accepts men as well, now has 200 members, mostly in their 70s, across the nation. The oldest member is a 97-year-old woman who lives alone in the western city of Kyoto.

The members exchange messages and photos, and show each other their creative work -- paintings, novels, poems and music. They organise off-line gatherings such as tours of big electronics stores.

They also shop online. "Bookstores are becoming bigger these days and it's hard to find a book I want. It's quite easy online," Kamata says.

The group set up a temporary Internet cafe to offer computer lessons to fellow senior citizens at the end of July in Sugamo, a part of Tokyo known for its large elderly population.

The event, held in cooperation with chipmaker Intel, drew more than 400 visitors over four days.

Hisao Megumi was one of a handful of men who came to learn.

"I'm a novice. It's a little bit late to start but I want to get accustomed to personal computers," the 84-year-old former editor said as he patiently waited in a queue for a lesson.

The place was equipped with touch-panel computers newly developed by Intel and other companies for the elderly, enabling beginners to operate the machine with a single finger.

The absence of keyboards is a great relief for Japanese seniors who grew up in a culture that values handwriting rather than typing.

The packed one-room cafe reminds 77-year-old Kayako Okawa, who founded the group, of how things have changed over the past decade.

"Computers for old women? No way!" was the initial reactions Okawa encountered when she was trying to launch the group.

"No companies wanted to lend me computers," she recalls.

But she proudly declares, "The elderly are not the socially weak."

A steep learning curve

Armed with expertise and technology, the elderly are finding new frontiers in their lives.

"Washing machines and dishwashers give us convenience. There is no match for computers. We are now connected to the world," Okawa says.

Electronics companies are well aware that seniors are important customers, and have thus launched a range of senior-friendly products, such as the RaKuRaKu Phone mobile series by NTT DoCoMo.

The basic model of the line -- whose name is a colloquial phrase for 'easy' -- tells the user the name of the person sending a call or e-mail.

It also features the "Slow Voice" function which enables the user to press a button and slow the pace of the caller's speech for better understanding.

According to communications ministry data, Internet use among seniors is surging, with nearly half of Japanese in their late 60s now surfing online.

The number of people between the ages of 70 and 79 who used the Internet jumped from 15.4 percent to 32.3 percent over two years until the end of 2006. The ratio rose from 6.9 percent to 16.0 percent for those aged 80 or above.

The number of new young Internet users is nearly flat in Japan, which has a declining population and where more than 90 percent of people under 40 surf online.

Reiko Chiba, who teaches seniors how to use computers, says she has come across unexpected reactions from her students.

"A man once tried to lift the computer screen when I told him to click up higher. Another time, I told a man that his trash bin was full, prompting him to ask: 'Why are you able to see my home from here?'" she says.

But fewer and fewer people were asking offbeat questions.

"It started decreasing a few years ago. I think it's because many elderly people already have experience with cellphones and digital cameras before they advance into computers," she says.

A final comfort

Chances are high that elderly Japanese women are widows, given that they live an average 85.81 years -- longer than anyone else in the world.

"Many of us are left alone. As more and more of us live alone, computers are our lifeline connecting each one of us to friends," Okawa says.

The hardest thing for Okawa is to drop deceased members from her mailing list.

"I know it's impossible to get anything from her once she passed away. But I can't help thinking to myself, 'Just maybe ...'," she said.

Okawa has enclosed 'sayonara' e-mail from society members in other members' coffins.

She has also been contacted by the children of deceased members, who had no idea that their mothers knew how to use a computer and were surprised to find e-mails and photos when sorting through personal belongings.

"Children may regret they didn't care about their mothers much, giving the excuse that they were busy with work and the chores of everyday life. But we, mothers, are living our own lives," she says.

A comforted son once sent an e-mail to Okawa that read: "I realised my mother had these joyful, bright days in her last years of life. I'm glad to know that."

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