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Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001


Old before their time

Staff writer

From the mummies of ancient Egypt to the philosophers' search for the legendary Fountain of Youth to modern-day cryogenics, humankind has always longed for eternal life and everlasting youth. But has our fear of aging gone too far?

Psychiatrist Rika Kayama found that many teenagers don't feel "young."

What are we to make of 15-year-old girls who say they are no longer young?

After talking with female students at several junior high schools, psychiatrist Rika Kayama, was surprised that more than 70 percent of them felt they were no longer "young."

"These girls were elementary kids until only recently," Kayama says at her office in Tokyo's Ebisu district, recalling her recent experience of delivering a lecture to the students. "I have no idea what age they mean by 'young'.

"They seem to think the period of time when they can simply have fun and enjoy life has already ended," she said.

The episode reminded the psychiatrist of a remark by a member of the now-dissolved popular teenage girl band, Speed. The singer had said that she felt like an "obasan" (middle-aged woman) upon entering junior high school at age 12.

Obviously, the students weren't using the word from an adult perspective, to express nostalgia for the days when their inexperience or impetuousness were excused in the name of youth.

Instead, Kayama believes, they are voicing negative feelings toward growing up and becoming an adult.

It could be argued that young people have always thought this way. But Kayama emphasizes that nowadays the age at which these sentiments are first voiced is becoming lower. Also, she points out, youths stay longer "in the period in which they regard themselves as neither young nor grown-up."

Seeking to explain this change, Kayama suggests that the adult world doesn't hold much appeal for young people. Another contributing factor, she believes, is the ongoing sea-change in Japanese ideas about aging.

In Japan, people used to value the maturity associated with aging, and certain goals or qualities were to be achieved by the milestone ages of 30, 40 and above.

Thirty was considered the age by which you had formulated your life goals; at age 40, you were supposed to have attained the Confucian state of fuwaku (being free from vacillation).

A reaction against this social model has evolved over the past decades, says Kayama, leading people to pay more attention to staying young.

"Dreams of ageless youth and longevity used to be the preserve of those who had already aged and wanted to arrest the process. But nowadays Japanese people want to look 30 when they are 40."

Of course, you can't stop biological aging, even if you use surgery, creams or a healthy diet to achieve a less wrinkled face. But with a younger appearance, you lessen the fear of getting old, Kayama says.

Ironically, however, people who are more appearance-conscious invariably find more defects -- and may even feel anger about the inevitable process of aging.

"A person's evaluation of their body appearance can all too easily become warped," Kayama warns.

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