Portrait of a Granny

Minami-Sanriku woman with her great-grandson. Photo by Kawai Satoshi.

Strawberries have been on sale all week at the local grocery-two dollars a box, which is ridiculously cheap in Japan. My daughter adores strawberries, and I bought several boxes for her without giving it a second thought….until my mother-in-law mentioned how good those berries look, and how much she’d like to buy a box herself, except….except….they’re from Ibaraki, the prefecture directly south of Fukushima. I hadn’t even checked the label. After she mentioned that, I recalled seeing a whole box of spinach, unsold and already starting to wilt in the heat, outside that same grocery….probably from the same area, and even more worrisome, since leafy green vegetables are supposed to absorb more radiation than root veggies or fruits. The local grocery (called a “hyaku-katen”, or department store, but really a large grocery with some cosmetic and kitchen items and Yugioh trading cards for kids) is a happening place for folks over sixty ( that’s a good percentage of my neighborhood ), and those “hyaku-katen” strawberries started me thinking about my mother-in-law and her generation’s response to the quake and its ensuing complications.

As the nation struggles to pull together to conserve energy and aid in the reconstruction of the northern prefectures, my mother-in-law’s generation plays an interesting and not highly-publicized role. First, let’s look at the money issue. Tohoku needs donations of food, clothing, texbooks, and such, but the bottom line is cash. Folks who did not keep money in banks (countless elderly people) lost their entire life savings, as their heavy metal safes were carried away by the tsunami. Farmers lost their livestock, and the farms themselves, as their land was declared radioactive; they no longer have access to their own homes or animals. Factories have been swept away, homes have been swept away, families have been torn apart, and insurance companies, aid groups, and government efforts to provide compensation and a new start for families in the North have so far been only a drop in the bucket. Never mind the cost of the clean-up, which will take–it is estimated–years in some areas. So fund-raising is an ongoing, nation-wide (world-wide!) effort, and eye-popping amounts of money are being generated on a daily basis. Interestingly enough, my mother-in-law’s generation (many of them have real money!  tons of it!  squirrelled away! ) is probably on the outside of all this,  perhaps not even looking in.

So let’s look at a portrait of a very familiar type of Japanese granny (for there are, of course, many variations), and see how her generation has responded to the crisis. And let me also boast that I am well-qualified to speak on the subject, being surrounded by grannies on a daily basis: my mother-in-law, the ladies at CURVES ( average age is of the patrons is much older than you’d think! ), my neighbors (nearly all are elderly, and living with their sons’ families), the shoppers at the “hyaku-katen” grocery (I wouldn’t shop anywhere else), and my own Silver students, who study in my school on Friday mornings. I have no wish to reveal the identity of individual grannies, so I will create a fictional granny  based on my own experiences. Her age will be seventy-five, since you don’t really qualify as a granny  in Japan until around seventy or so; women in their sixties are extremely active and youthful, and hardly fit the image of what Americans think of as a granny. Her name will be….Satoko, since I actually know no-one with that particular name, and since women of her generation often used “ko” as the last syllable of their names. She lives in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of the quake epicenter, but close enough to get fairly shaken up. What was she doing on the day of the quake, and how did she respond??

Well, she was, of course, at home. Satoko lives with her  husband Satoshi, her son, his wife, and her two grandchildren, Yuusuke and Atsumi. The kids were at elementary school when the quake struck and her son was at the office in Tokyo, but she and her daughter-in-law were home, in the kitchen. Having experienced countless quakes since her childhood, Satoko was unruffled when the tremors began. But as they grew suddenly stronger, rather than tapering off, she became alarmed in spite of herself. Despite the pounding of her heart, she ran to the kitchen cabinet  rather than diving under the table; after all, she thought, this will pass and I must save the china. While her daughter-in-law (thankfully unflappable) rushed to open the outside door and shut off the gas valve under the stove, Satoko stubbornly held onto the cabinet as pots and pans rattled,  the house itself shook horizontally, and the floor moved under her. It seemed to her a very long time before the quake abated but at last it did, and the china was saved!  Both her husband and daughter-in-law scolded her afterwards for her “foolishness” in not taking cover, but she paid no mind, and was secretly pleased with herself for some time afterwards. Her husband Satoshi promptly attached the too-high cabinet to the wall with screws and chains–unsightly, but safe.

Once the first strong aftershocks had passed and the grandchildren had arrived home safely ( her daughter-in-law had rushed to the school to pick them up, and walked home with them; both were unusually quiet but dry-eyed, wearing their earthquake hoods and weighed down by their  heavy leather backpacks), Satoko and her husband sat in the heated table, watching in disbelief as a chain reaction of events began unfolding: skyscrapers swaying wildly in Tokyo, fires in the oil refineries in Chiba, the tsunami–brown and monstrous–roaring over coastal villages and rice fields, and (later, but most ominous of all) mysterious flames, smoke, and noises generating from the Fukushima No. 1  power plant. Satoko began to realize the scope of the disaster, and (again) was secretly pleased that her bag was at the ready. Who knew what might happen next?  Her daughter-in-law , who had scoffed at the cans of emergency biscuits, bottled water, flashlights and batteries she kept in a hand-sewn bag at the foot of her bed, would spend the next few weeks scouring stores and frantically searching the net for batteries (sold out everywhere in two days), while she sat smugly at home.

Satoko refused to stockpile, refused to panic, bought whatever was available after the quake  (every day, what was available was different), and carried on as usual. So what if there was no bread?  She had lived through the war, literally eating weeds and grasses from the mountainside. Even after the war, she and Satoshi had been so poor they practically lived on cabbage those first few years. Interestingly enough, instead of coming to hate cabbage, they had both developed a fondness for it that continued to this day. No bread?  No big deal. No rice?  Well, that might be a different story, but (again) she had been well-stocked since before the quake, and was not immediately worried.

“Bokin-bako” or “collection boxes” began to spring up everywhere, and high school students were lined up outside every train station calling “Give to the victims of Tohoku!” in loud, cheery voices. Satoko was able to walk past them without putting in a cent, and likewise able to look directly over , rather than at, the Red Cross boxes set up at the store cash registers. She was not mean, but she was very, very careful with her money. She must be able to live off her pension money without troubling her son, and was determined to pay for her own funeral as well. Three weeks after the quake, she put ten dollars in a “bokin bako” outside the train station (quite spontaneously), and was pleased with and surprised at herself for doing so. That said, it was over and done with, and she would not donate more. The electric bill would go up as a result of the Fukushima crisis, there would undoubtedly be some new tax to help pay for the reconstruction, and she must be prepared for the coming year. If the finances were left to her husband Satoshi? Hah! He would fill up the collection boxes while his own grandchildren went to school in “boro-boro youfuku” (beat-up looking clothes). Thank heavens she held the purse strings. Tightly.

Ah, but saving energy….that was something she could do, do well, and do for the benefit of herself and the country . No sweat!  Or rather, a whole lot of sweat. She didn’t mind-sweat was healthy, and that’s why she spent her summers with a towel tied around her neck: to mop up sweat on a regular basis. Air conditioning was only turned on for guests, and this year, even guests would be subject to “setsu-den” (saving electricity), and given paper fans to create their own breezes. She didn’t mind the heat (that doesn’t mean she enjoyed it , either.  No-one is that masochistic ), didn’t mind the dark train stations and stores, didn’t mind the black-outs (had them in the war, and for far longer periods of time), and didn’t mind that elevators and escalators were shut down. She was still genki enough to use the staircase, and it was better for her, anyway. She owned both a clothes dryer and dish-washer, but rarely used either, hanging laundry either inside or out on the veranda depending on the weather, and washing dishes carefully by hand after each meal and snack-time as well. With the energy crisis, she determined not to use either appliance at all, though getting through the rainy season without the dryer would be dreary. All in all, “setsu-den” was already part of her nature, and she thought (again, maybe a bit smugly) that folks did not need to make such a fuss about it, really.

And what about the strawberries?  Well, though the daughter-in-law bought them as a gesture of solidarity with the farmers of Ibaragi and Fukushima, Satoko would not touch them. The NHK news report was reassuring, promising that any possible  health effects would not show up for twenty years down the road, but even so…why deliberately expose yourself to risk, when there were strawberries available in the same grocery from Kanagawa Prefecture? She bought the Kanagawa berries, and even went so far as choosing “foreign fish” ( first time ever, but with the radioactive coastline, she thought it wise).  Again, she was not mean, but she intended to stay healthy, for the sake of her children and grandchildren. She was (secretly) pleased with her daughter-in-law’s practicality and calm demeanor on the day of the quake, thankful that her husband was still active and a help, rather than a hindrance in the house, and proud as a peacock of her first son, who commuted all the way to Tokyo every morning to his job in a bank. Lastly, she was devoted to her grandchildren, and could not imagine life without them. At seventy-five, she still had much to live for, and was not about to lose her health by being careless, or her best china by being fearful.

My fictional Satoko is from Kanagawa Prefecture, but my guess is (after watching the countless Tohoku grannies who appear on TV nightly and listening to stories from friends with family up north) that she could very well have been from Fukushima. Or Iwate. Or Sendai. One friend’s mother (a widow, living alone in Sendai) lost power and running water after the quake. No matter; she calmly collected rubble from the yard to build a bonfire outside for her cooking. When her phone lines were up again, she called her grandson in Kanagawa to say she was doing fine, and that she thought he’d enjoy her “outdoor cooking”–just like camping!

Satoko and other women of her generation  may not stuff the donation boxes full of money, but perhaps that is because their perspective is family-oriented, rather than global. They are strong, and able deny themselves much for the sake of the family without feeling an ounce of self-pity. The Satokos of Japan are clever and practical (could you do as well in a pinch as the Sendai granny?), they are brave (would you duck for cover, or save the china?), and self-reliant. Although most never learned to drive, they do not beg rides, but walk everywhere, or ride the busses and trains. They live for their families, giving up jobs, hobbies, and tea-time dates with friends to raise their grandchildren. Their daughters-in-law work full-time, so many of these grannies cook for the entire family as well. I see them every day, carrying babies on their backs, pulling rolly-carts home from the hyaku-katen, and sweeping the narrow streets in front of their houses (a thankless job, I always thought! Who sweeps the street?!) .

My guess is that the summer campaign to save energy will be resoundingly successful, largely due to the efforts of grannies like Satoko, who make up a large portion of the population of Japan.  They will be vigilant during the summer energy crisis, using fans rather than air conditioners, keeping the lights low, and forgoing “zeitaku” (luxuries). They have already prepared themselves for the next big quake, and are undisturbed by continuing aftershocks from March 11th. Meanwhile, the Satokos of Fukushima and Iwate have set up housekeeping in shelters, marking their sleeping areas with dividers made from cardboard boxes, folding their blankets neatly at the foot of the futon every morning, hanging their laundry on chair backs, doing their “radio exercises” faithfully, and eating whatever is brought to them. They are grateful for small gifts that make their lives easier  (one foreign aid worker brought boxes of reading glasses, and was immediately the most popular guest of the day), and wait for the day when they are allowed to return home (in the case of the Fukushima grannies), or the day when their new home can be built (in the case of tsunami and quake victims). In their own way, I am sure that the Kanagawa grannies feel for those grannies in Fukushima, though they do not broadcast their feelings. The Tohoku grannies have become dependent and helpless, and while the Kanagawa grannies can still fend for themselves, they can easily imagine the situations reversed.

When my son was younger, we used to get up early on Saturday mornings to watch the “Super Centenarians!” on TV. This is a weekly program spotlighting Japanese grandmas and grandpas who have reached the age of 100 and are still contributing to society,  making life pleasant and interesting for those around them. There are so many, and each with a different story; not one has reached the age of 100 without enduring hardship.  The bent-backed, wrinkly old women from Tohoku are survivors, and I look forward to seeing them one day in the future, on the “Super Centenarians!” program. Though my son is now off at college, I will be watching, and cheering them on. Well, better yet, I’d love to be one of the feature stories when my day comes. Hope that program is very long-running.


2 thoughts on “Portrait of a Granny

    • Thank you, thank you. This one was easy and enjoyable to write, as I am surrounded by lovable and opinionated grannies in my daily life. I don’t think of you as a granny….but then I don’t think of myself as “middle-aged” either. We’re just women, enjoying and living our lives.

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