Computer programmer from Kanagawa, 82, recognized around the world for his efforts to keep seniors digitally engaged


People say it’s never too late to start new things. No one would oppose it. But the reality is, few people have the courage to tackle things that are totally unknown to them as they get older.

The same cannot be said of Masako Wakamiya, an 82-year-old computer programmer and one of the oldest iPhone app developers in the world.

“For a long time, I have been involved in projects to support those who have problems with digital equipment,” Wakamiya said in an interview with The Japan Times. “I really thought I had to persuade people to understand how important digital skills are (for older people). “

Throughout the interview, which took place in the living room of her home in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, Wakamiya sat upright on a tatami mat – in the polite manner in which the country’s older generations are used to it. But dressed in a hot pink sweater and surrounded by two laptops, an AI speaker, and an electric piano, Wakamiya challenges common perceptions of 80-year-old Japanese women.

His activities also go well beyond what we imagine the 80-year-old can achieve. Two years ago, she decided to develop a gaming app for senior iPhone users, although she didn’t know anything about programming. After six months, its application hindan (Multi-Tiered Doll Display Stand) has been released in the App Store. This accomplishment led her to be invited to Apple’s annual meeting for software developers – called the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and held in San Jose, California, in June – where Apple CEO Tim Cook , presented it to 5,300 attendees from 75 countries with 10 -Yuma Soerianto from Australia, one of the youngest iPhone application developers.

Since then, his life has changed dramatically.

The retired banker received an avalanche of requests for interviews from the domestic and foreign media, starting with CNN before WWDC, followed by Forbes, Fortune and others from France, Switzerland, Singapore and Taiwan. Sometimes she had three maintenance appointments a day. In September, she was appointed a member of the Japanese government committee Jinsei Hyakunen Koso Kaigi (the committee to plan for a 100-year life). Last month, she was invited to United Nations Headquarters to deliver a keynote address at an event on the sidelines of a session of the United Nations Commission for Social Development.

“I thought that was exactly my theme,” Wakamiya said, explaining her initial reaction when she received an email from the UN asking her to give a speech on the importance for older people to acquire. digital skills. “I wanted to highlight the impact of mastering ICT (information and communication technologies) on mental health, because it is a very good thing for single elderly people to be able to communicate with others. via Internet.

“I also thought that Japan should express its opinions more actively in the UN and in other organizations,” she said, adding that the Japanese are often too shy to speak English. Wakamiya, who started working soon after graduating from high school, said she hoped her efforts to speak out at the UN without a high-level academic background would encourage others to speak out. their voice on the world stage. “I was lucky to have received the invitation, so I only thought about doing my best,” said Wakamiya, who often calls himself an “ICT evangelist,” smiling.

Its charm attracted a group of supporters. Wakamiya said expressing her own thoughts at the UN was not very difficult, especially because she was helped by volunteers – some of them accompanied her to New York, another came to the picked up at the airport and others translated his speech into English, designed PowerPoint slides, made reservations through Airbnb, and made arrangements with a Big Apple tourist site.

“As you know, Miss Wakamiya is a rock star in Japan, or should I say a tech star? Bradley Schurman, head of the American Association of Retired Persons, said when he introduced her to the United Nations conference as a moderator. Wakamiya read a 12 minute speech prepared in English explaining the wonderful moments his digital life has brought him. “I hope you can encourage more seniors to become active members of society. I also hope that we, the community, the nation and the UN, will be able to join hands and reflect on how we can create a society where older people feel empowered and can continue to play a role. important role, ”she said in the speech.

Wakamiya sees a growing need to support senior users in the rapid development of revolutionary new technologies in recent years.

“Currently, PCs and smartphones are pretty much the only digital gadgets we have, but everything from speakers to watches will become computerized,” she said.

According to a recent report by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the world’s population aged 60 and over was 962 million in 2017, more than double the number in 1980, and is expected to reach nearly 2, 1 billion by 2050.

In societies whose populations are aging so rapidly and whose life expectancy is expected to reach a hundred years, there is no doubt that measures are needed to ensure that the elderly are not left behind by digital developments. .

However, the reality of the digital capabilities of the elderly is far from optimistic. A 2016 survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs found that 53.6% of Japanese people aged 70 and only 23.4% of those aged 80 and over use the internet.

Wakamiya believed in making mobile games for the elderly so that they could familiarize themselves with the internet, but at first she didn’t think she would be able to develop one on her own. Her eventual development of the hinadan app was primarily supported through Skype and Facebook Messenger by a computer programmer from Sendai, whom she had met through volunteer activities to help the disaster-stricken region after the Great Earthquake. land of 2011 in eastern Japan.

Seniors are physically at a disadvantage when it comes to the quick swiping actions often required by digital games. To resolve this issue, Hinadan players can tap the screen instead of swiping, to place the male and female dolls in the correct positions on the red-carpet tiered stand – which is traditionally decorated and displayed at home. for Girls’ Day on March 3. .

“I explained to Mr Cook that smartphones are not designed for senior users, some of whom have difficulty hearing and seeing,” she said, adding that Cook had listened to her carefully. Wakamiya said the CEO may have noticed growing demand in the senior iPhone market, and the market’s potential may be one of the reasons she was invited to the developer meeting. – in addition to the goal of celebrating the diversity of developers, not only by gender and ethnicity but also by generation.

Many may wonder about the source of his passion. She said the secret is probably her insatiable curiosity and love of communication. “I have a strong curiosity for the unknown,” she said. Wakamiya, who currently has more than 1,300 friends on Facebook, also said her digital literacy has helped her make new friends abroad. She said she had the opportunity to speak at a software education festival in South Korea in April and received a huge applause from young Koreans, even though the Japan’s diplomatic relations with its neighbor are sensitive.

Wakamiya’s digital life hasn’t always been easy. She didn’t have a computer at home until she retired from what was then Mitsubishi Bank, now MUFG Bank, in her early sixties. Since Wakamiya, a single child with no children, had to care for her mother alone at home, she feared being isolated from society and having less chances to socialize or chat face to face with her friends and neighbors. . She decided to buy a computer, but it was expensive – at 400,000 two decades ago – and it took her three months to connect it. It was years before high-speed Internet made it easy for users to browse the Internet. “It was like I was developing my own wings learning to communicate via the internet,” she says in a book published last month, expressing how she felt when she finally connected.

By the 1990s, she had joined a community, now called the Mellow Club, where older people chatted with each other at a time before online communications. Later, with the advent of high speed internet, she became one of the founding members of a community that succeeded the group. It helped her connect with other people of her generation. She also enjoys engaging in what she calls “Excel art” by coloring cells and rows in Excel to create geometric patterns and images of flowers. Before getting so busy recently, Wakamiya taught computer classes at home about twice a week.

When asked if she had ever felt the fear of aging that haunts many in Japan’s graying society, she replied that she was too busy to worry about negative things about her future. English and Chinese versions of her Hinadan app were released recently and she wants to launch it in more languages. She plans to write a book on programming. In addition, she enjoys traveling to other countries as she did in the past, once a year. She also wants to learn more about the computer programming language Swift and develop more gaming applications.

“I have a lot of things that I want to try,” she said. “It’s sad that I don’t have enough time.”

Key events in Wakamiya’s life

1935: Born in Suginami Ward, Tokyo
1999: joint creation of the Mellow Club online community for seniors
2016: decided to develop a game application for iPhone
2017: Hinadan released on the App Store
2017: Guest at Apple’s WWDC in San Jose, California
2017: Appointed to government committee Jinsei Hyakunen Koso Kaigi (the committee to plan a life of 100 years)
2018: Invited to the UN conference as keynote speaker

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews featuring people in various fields who play a leading role in bringing about change in society.

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