Sometime a long time ago in September when I meant to write this, it was Respect for the Aged Day in Japan. The trouble with writing with the aim of making a Thing is that it has to follow the rules set by the voices in your head, and usually people with head voices don’t have the most stability, so those rules are always changing and taking lunch breaks and reading pornographic periodicals and such. But no more of that; today is the day that the Thing takes shape, so help me God. So help me.
Asking children and teenagers what they did for Respect for the Aged Day, I received the answer “nothing” every time with two exceptions. The first exception was “My sister gave our grandparents flowers.”
“What about you?” I delved.
The second exception was “I told my grandpa ‘Thank you for various things.'”
This was no surprise to me, for in Japan, as in America, the reality is that everyday is Ignore the Aged Day, especially when you’re age six through forty-five.
One of the few arguably positive side effects of my recent obsession with death (which by the way I have) is that it’s given me a lot of sympathy for the elderly. What I irrationally fear every single day and stay up late pondering every single night is, for them, a very real possibility and threat. Every time you’re on the road and an old person cuts you off or won’t let you pass, every time you find yourself stuck behind one in a corridor or on a narrow footpath or standing on the wrong side of an escalator or moving walkway and you feel your blood start boiling and you start thinking “What’s the holdup, grampa?!” or “Wheres your head, Grannie May?!” don’t forget that the answer to both these inquiries is that they’re most likely pondering their own death and wondering if it’ll come in the next five minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months, confident that it’s sure to be at least one of the above. Either that, or they’re filling the blanks in what, for you, is the daily mental mantra of who’s who: when you’ll see Barbara next, how Jane and Langdon’s open relationship is getting on, when and how friend Benjamin is ever going to find a girlfriend, who’s gonna show up at the pub tonight; filling the blanks with lengthy threads of death. I’ll never see Barbara again, after sixty confounded years of wonderful girl talk. Jane’s long dead, too, and Langdon’s on a respirator. Billy outlived the one girl who ever loved him and then died himself. That, and all the best pubs are pet stores, Korean ice cream parlors, and lousy pubs now.
The fact is that the elderly are the most down-trodden of all demographics. A KKK guy, a thirty-year-old black man, and an eighty-eight-year-old white man are called upon to participate in a three-legged race. Assuming two legs will ultimately be bound together to act as one and that all those summoned have two legs each, that still leaves two legs too many. As the most outspoken, the KKK guy is made captain. Who do you think he’s going to select as his teammate? The guy he hates, or a regular–though old–guy who very well may even share his skewed ideology? Well, depending on the intensity of his hatred and standing within the Klan, he may very well choose the old man based on sheer principle alone, but there’s just as likely a chance that he’ll go with the black guy anyway; a three-legged race is a three-legged race. In a related sense, life is a three-legged race. And it’s most people’s instinct to keep old folks as far over on the sidelines as possible.
The Japanese are as famous for upholding strict hierarchies all over the place as Americans are for being fat and arrogant, and while both of these are often the truth, abuse of the elderly and child abuse are just about neck-and-neck statistically in Japan, while in most other places child abuse’s reign is absolute and unchallenged. Furyôs, or “not good” people (which is what they call punk kids) and “Yankees” (which is also what they call punk kids) have developed a reputation over the last two decades for seeking out old men, many of them homeless, and beating them to death for fun. Granted this may be because old men are frail and most Japanese bad boys are spineless pussies, but it certainly betrays the Japanese reputation for constantly kowtowing to their social superiors (elders). On the contrary, it points to the notion that modern Japanese youth are lashing back at the traditional ways of Japan, where seniority alone–not one’s personal merits–dictates authority. As an American, I can certainly see their point. But they don’t have to be such assholes about it. The elderly have enough problems as it is. Irritated prostates and so forth. Does it mean they should get to boss us around? Maybe not. But it probably does mean we ought to respect them a little more than we do. Especially if there’s already a day designated for it.
Next third Monday of September, do something nice for some old people! Better yet, don’t wait. They might not have that long.