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For seniors in Japan's tsunami zone, a full circle of hardship

Many of the elderly grew up during WWII and are facing large-scale tragedy once again.

March 22, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Chiya Yamane, 84, recounts the afternoon the tsunami hit. A rescue worker carried her to higher ground in her Miyako neighborhood.
Chiya Yamane, 84, recounts the afternoon the tsunami hit. A rescue worker… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Miyako, Japan — Chiya Yamane shuffles down the hall of the evacuation center, an old lady seeking refuge in a children's school.

She is wearing an oversized sweater, her shoulders hunched against the late winter chill that penetrates the Miyako Elementary School where she was brought after the March 11 tsunami tore through her home. She remembers hearing the tsunami warning; then the desperate attempt to get away.

"But I'm 84," Yamane said. "And very slow."

It was a rescue worker who appeared in time to carry her on his back, up the mountainside to higher ground and safety. "A great, great blessing," she says, though she knows too that being saved meant her ordeal was just beginning.

Japan is an aging society, a country characterized by a low birthrate and long life spans. More than 1 in 5 Japanese is over 65 — roughly double U.S. levels — with the ratio closer to 1 in 3 in rural areas.

But if those statistics dictate that a high number of the dead from this tragedy must be elderly, so too must be the survivors, now struggling to get essential medicines, stay warm against the cold, find their pets and salvage waterlogged mementos.

Japanese soldiers found 128 elderly people abandoned by medical staff at a hospital six miles from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Most were comatose and 14 died shortly after.

Eleven more reportedly froze to death at a retirement home in Kesennuma six days after several dozen of their fellow residents were killed by the tsunami. Morimitsu Inawashida, the facility's owner, characterized those who survived as "highly stressed."

Nowhere is Japan aging more visibly than in the rural, northern prefectures struck by the quake. This part of the country is characterized by towns and villages now the preserve of the elderly, many of their children gone to live and work in Tokyo and other big cities, leaving them without the family support that was an anchor of traditional Japanese society.

"I've lived here 60 years and you're seeing fewer families all living together," said Yamane, whose son lives in Tokyo and married daughter works several miles away. "And without jobs, more young people are moving away."

Even farming has become an elderly profession in many cases. Yaegashi Takashi, 74, said his house had survived the quake and its aftermath, but his tractor was lost, a huge blow. He only heard from his children, living in Tokyo, a week after the earthquake.

"They were worried about me," he said. "Without my tractor, I can't farm. There's no insurance for it."

In the absence of sons and daughters, much of the care has been meted out to caregivers outside the family who themselves are getting on in years, a phenomenon known as rorokaigo.

Evidence of this senior tragedy could be seen in those who had retreated to the Miyako school where Yamane sought shelter. More than half appeared to be in the 60s-to-80s range. This is a generation that grew up in the devastation of postwar Japan, saw the country modernize into a place synonymous with high-tech comfort and now see their lives bookended by disaster.

"I can't really compare this to World War II," said Kiyoshi Kikuchi, 80. "Both are hard times, but I never saw my house so damaged like this during the war."

Until a few years ago, Kikuchi was a community safety official responsible for looking out for his elderly neighbors. Now he stood outside his family-run shoe store using a flat shovel to scrape mud off a glass door that had been pulled from its hinges.

"This work is very hard," he said, wearing a white towel around his neck while shifting broken furniture. "My son moved away. Women can't do it. So it's up to me."

There is much talk here of the toughness of the older generation. Having spent a childhood amid postwar deprivation, they see themselves as resilient, self-sufficient, not soft like today's youth with their electronic gadgets.

But Japan's elderly are catered to as well. Electronics companies are developing robots that talk to and do chores for them, including Riba, an electronic nurse that lifts people out of bed. Car companies have crafted large-print dashboards and easy-exit swivel seats, while toilet-maker Toto is working on medical commodes that transmit daily urine and stool analysis data from isolated communities to distant medical centers. A tea kettle with wireless technology can warn distant offspring if a parent doesn't use it every morning, a warning to call in.

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