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Saturday, May 30, 2009


Islands of and for the old

"Rikimatsu-san, I'm cleaning the fishing boat today," I tell the old man as he passes in front of my house on the port. I am referring to the small fishing boat with a heap of green seaweed and shellfish sticking to the bottom of it — stuff you'd usually find on a Japanese dinner plate. But at least I know my boat will never go hungry.

I point out to him my intentions today because I am a little embarrassed that I haven't cleaned my boat for a while. I am sure he has noticed the growth of seaweed attached to the bottom, peeking out from underneath as if a dozen fish were doing rhythmic gymnastics with green ribbons.

"You never use that boat," he said. "Why don't you get rid of it?"

"But of course we use it," I said, thinking he must be joking.

Rikimatsu-san is one of my favorite old guys on the island. He is 80 years old now and he gave me the fishing boat, the Fujimaru (named after his wife), five years ago. He taught me how to fish for mamakari, aji, ayu, sardines and tachiuo. He still has a fishing boat of his own, but he rarely uses it. His sight has gone bad and he can't hear very well anymore. But that's not why he doesn't go out fishing. His wife won't let him.

"You have so many boats that just sit around here," he complains.

He's partly right. It's a bit cold to use the boats in the winter, so we use the ferry. For three to four months of the year none of our boats get used.

"And that sailing boat," he says, gesturing to the docks where it is tied up among some derelict fishing boats.

"But we have sailing reservations every day till July!" I protest. The sailing season is a very busy time for us.

"And that fishing boat," he says, pointing to our bigger 6.3-meter boat.

"We just went to Awashima and back on that boat last weekend."

"You never use your boats. You ought to get rid of them," he says, waving his hand in disgust. He mounts his bicycle and rides away.

I was dismayed. For a few seconds anyway. Welcome to senility!

And the island seems to be going through quite a bout of it recently. Last autumn, one of the old people complained that the neighbor, a classical pianist, played her piano too loud. Another person brought up the fact that my neighbor's potted flower garden wasn't actually on her own property but was flowing over into a national park, so she should remove the garden. So, she did.

Everyone is getting older. And everyone is going crazy.

With Japan having one of the highest aging populations in the world, the Inland Sea islands are turning into the world's largest chain of old folks' homes. On our island of 664 people, most of whom are over 60 years old, the island doctor prescribes talking to the sea and convening with the tides for most ailments.

Japanese people often move back home to take care of their aging parents, but no one comes back to the islands. The elderly must fend for themselves. And most of them do it pretty well.

It has occurred to me that the islands may be a modern form of obasute-yama, the mountains of Japanese folklore where old people were taken to "live out" their dying days alone with nature. Perhaps the islands have become obasute-shima. But I think most old people would be happy to come here: fresh seafood every day, electric obaa-chan carts, cool sea breezes and beautiful sunsets.

Makes you want to age a little faster, doesn't it?

Perhaps we should take out the Shiraishi lighthouse and instead erect a Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your retirees huddled in nursing homes. . ."

These people may be old, they may be crazy, but they'll never give up their island. This is the place that allows them to continue living on their own.

The other day an old woman wandered into the ferry port office. She had lost her way home. The ferry port manager called her by name, came out of his office to calm her down, then took her by the arm and walked her home.

I feel glad that these older people live on a small island where they can still get by on their own. Because even if they can't fend for themselves, there's always someone else who can fend for them.

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