The aging of the Japanese Family meanings of grandchildren in old age

SuSan orpett Long

One of my favorite feel-good stories after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan was that of the rescue nine days after the quake of eightyyear-old abe sumi and her sixteen-year-old grandson abe Jin. Not only was their survival seen as a metaphor for the ability of Japan to come through the disaster and begin to rebuild, but also the story had a happy ending for the abe family. After five days recovering in the hospital, Mrs. Abe was reported to be out looking for missing acquaintances, carrying her own bags, and claiming that she was fine. She told a reporter, “'i am eighty years old, and i had a good life,' . . . Laughing with a glint in her eye. 'i guess it just wasn't my time'” (Johnston 2011).

The story is also one of my favorites for the questions it raises but does not answer. What was the relationship like between this grandmother and teenage grandson, her son's younger son? Did they live together? Family members having shopped for groceries the previous day apparently allowed the two to survive for nine days on yogurt and water in the rubble of her home. How did they help each other survive? Did they talk? What were grandmother and grandson doing in the kitchen together that afternoon anyway, when the quake hit? What did they mean to each other?

183 The answers, of course, are individual, yet they are also bound up in the social changes of Japanese society in recent decades. What the grandmother and grandson mean to each other must have to do not only with their own interpersonal history, but also with the cultural meanings of grandchildren and grandparents, with the increasing life expectancies of Japanese seniors, and with the decline in the proportion of elderly who live with their children and grandchildren. Because of the tremendous changes that have occurred, earlier scholarly work on Japanese families provides few answers as we attempt to understand the relationship between the rescued pair in 2011.

This chapter addresses the question of the meaning of grandchildren from the perspective of very old people in Japan in the first decade of the twenty-first century.1 in what follows, i draw on previous descriptions of grandparent-grandchild relationships and on a series of interviews conducted between 2003 and 2007 among a largely working-class sample of thirty elderly people, mostly women, eligible for long-term care insurance in tokyo and akita.2 the interviewers focused on changes in the respondents' health, daily life, and family relationships over the course of the five-year study, returning to each family every year as long as the family members were able and willing to talk with them. The interviews were not done for the purpose of studying the relationships with extended family. Respondents in general seemed to think of “family” as members of the co-residing household or relationships with spouses and children and sometimes children-in-law. However, the topic of grandchildren sometimes came up naturally in the course of conversational interviews, and the comments and responses to occasional follow-up questions provide suggestive information with which to begin exploring the meaning of these ties in the lives of very old people at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I begin with a brief look at the changes in the Japanese family over the twentieth century. I then turn to the relationships with grandchildren and great-grandchildren the respondents described and discuss their meanings and significance for these elderly Japanese people.

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