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Aging Japanese Pen Messages to Posterity

Heartfelt 'Ending Notes' Give Elderly a Voice in Traditionally Reticent Society

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page A13

TOKYO -- Living alone in a tidy little house on the outskirts of Tokyo, 75-year-old Tomohiro Ishizuka spends hours dwelling on things unsaid. There are, he recalls, the stories he never told his two adult children -- such as the horror of finding the charred remains of boyhood friends after the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. And then there are stories half-told -- such as the depth of his pain after the sudden death in 2002 of his wife of 45 years.

In a society where the expression of innermost thoughts is considered awkward or self-indulgent, Ishizuka was never able to find the right moments to share such personal things with his family. So last month he joined the growing ranks of elderly Japanese who are writing down what they cannot manage to say.

Tomohiro Ishizuka, 75, works at home in Tokyo on his "ending note," an account of his life and thoughts for family members to read after he dies. (Anthony Faiola -- The Washington Post)

"Ending notes" is what the resulting works are called. An estimated 200,000 seniors have taken to composing these often candid autobiographical reflections, in the hopes that family members will read them after the authors' deaths. A few of the works have gone on to be published posthumously and sold in bookstores. Ranging from synopses a few pages long to book-length epitaphs, they all serve as records for posterity of things too important to be lost at death.

The advent of ending notes, experts here say, reflects changing notions of old age and death in Japan, which has the longest average life expectancy on Earth -- now 81.9 years, more than four years longer than the average in the United States.

Seniors are living longer even as centuries-old family traditions are eroding. Many grandparents no longer live with their children or grandchildren, for instance, as housing becomes more affordable, due to a protracted recession in the 1990s, and society places greater emphasis on privacy. In 2003, almost half of Japanese over 65 lived alone or with a spouse, compared with only 37.7 percent in 1991.

"For years, senior citizens in Japan let their emotions and histories be known to younger generations through everyday gestures or simple words around the house," said Haruyo Inoue, who last year published an updated version of her best-selling book on how to write ending notes, now one of about a half-dozen available in Japan.

"But as many are no longer living with their families, it has reduced the ways in which they can share their feelings or pass on their personal histories to their children or grandchildren," she said. "That is one important reason they have turned to writing ending notes."

Ishizuka is composing his note in his straw-matted living room, writing in a lustrous purple notebook. "When my wife died, I realized that there was nothing tangible for me to remember her by. . . . I lost so much, all her stories, all her memories," he said. It would have been different had she left an ending note.

Indirectness is highly prized in Japanese conversation; to avoid embarrassment, husbands and wives or parents and children often use the word "like" instead of "love" to express their affection for one another.

"It is easier for me to write it down so they can read it when I am gone," Ishizuka said of his grown children. "That way they will know what their father and mother were really like . . . and understand why we made the choices in life that we made."

In his draft, he writes of his deep depression after his wife succumbed to a brain hemorrhage in 2002 and his hopes that his children will someday come to understand his eccentricities.

"You often tell me, 'Father is greedy,' " he says in the draft. "But the truth is I love you all dearly. I want to be with you forever and see my grandchildren grow, to feel your kindness, a kindness that has been handed down to you from your late mother.

"I want you to understand that, when I spend time alone, to draw, to go listen to music, to go watch a movie or go for a drive in the mountains, it is to confirm the bond I had with your mother. To reflect on my life, and understand what it means to be me."

Living so long -- often while remaining in extraordinarily good health -- can force older Japanese to confront death often. In the five-year period ending in 2003, for instance, Ishizuka lost his wife, his mother and his son-in-law.

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