Look Who’s Teaching Smartphone

July 4, 2013 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — My 77-year-old mother taps out e-mails on her iPhone no sweat, but she still asks me, “Will my e-mail address work on that computer?” Instead of admiring her resolve to master the smartphone, I become snarly as I try to explain the concept of portability.

She happens to be the same age as Teruko Miyata, another woman who is part of a growing group of Japanese seniors who yearn to keep up with popular technology but face the humiliation of struggling to learn how to use the gadgets from people their children’s or grandchildren’s age. “It’s hard to ask young people questions,” she says. “They already assume you know a lot.”

But recently Miyata was sitting at a SoftBank Mobile store counter showing customers how to use the company’s latest smartphone. SoftBank, Japan’s third-largest mobile phone operator, released a smartphone in May geared for seniors — with large icons and simple features — and decided to capture the gray market by training and hiring a “senior crew” to sympathetically explain the know-how to their peers.

Preventing older people from digital isolation is a small but significant endeavor in a country experiencing an unprecedented and frightening pace of aging. Almost one in four people are over age 65 — and that share is expected to approach one in three by 2030.

A friend recently observed that when you see a Japanese couple pushing a stroller, there’s usually a tiny dog inside instead of a baby.

How the dwindling population will support its pensioners and their medical care remains the country’s most pressing issue, but these days attention is shifting to how to ensure that seniors remain happy and active.

Japan is in the process of raising the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65, and beginning this year businesses are required to keep employees on their payroll through age 65 if they request it. But with a life expectancy of 83 years, people still have nearly two decades on their hands. Last year a cabinet-appointed study group urged the nation to stop using 65 as a benchmark and instead to plan for “an era of life into the 90s.” The majority of people over 65 consider 70 the start of old age.

Kumiko Yanagi, who runs a gerontology research group and who proposed the senior teaching concept to SoftBank, was surprised at the number of her elderly contacts who signed up to be trained as instructors. “They are looking for chances to learn something new and to feel useful,” she observed.

“Open your books to Page 13,” Miyata tells two female students at the SoftBank shop who flip through an 80-page glossy instruction booklet with large, colorful illustrations. “Push in,” she says, explaining one of the main features of SoftBank’s “Simple Smartphone.” Tapping on sensitive touchscreens is usually the first hurdle for older fingers, so the Simple Smartphone is designed to respond to a firm press. A bright blue pulsating circle signals that the command was received.

Other special features include a magnifying glass that can be dragged around the screen to enlarge what is on view. There’s an emergency button on the side of the phone that when pushed sounds an alarm and sends an e-mail to registered recipients telling them the location of the owner. Designated e-mail addressees, usually family members, also receive what SoftBank calls an “I’m fine e-mail” the first time the phone is used each day. The message notes that the phone was turned on and reports the number of steps — recorded by a pedometer application — taken by the owner on the previous day.

Japan’s largest mobile-phone operator, NTT DoCoMo, was the first to come out with a senior-oriented smartphone with technology developed by Fujitsu. Fujitsu recently developed an international model that went on sale in France in June. Unlike in Japan, where the phones are clearly marketed for the elderly with names like DoCoMo’s “Raku-Raku” or “Easy-Easy,” the French version dials down the gray aspect, advertising it with men and women 10 years younger than its targeted clientele.

DoCoMo will soon unveil a version for the Japanese market with an enhanced screen and an improved social media app. The online community accessed from the phone is monitored round-the-clock by Fujitsu staff who protect the site from spamming and delete any personal information elderly members may have inadvertently posted. The close to 70,000 members exchange stories about their pets and grandchildren and chat about going to medical appointments.

Fujitsu says that the percentage of repeat use of the app by many of its members rivals that of Facebook, suggesting that Japan’s elderly are eager to venture into virtual communities. See you in the cyberworld, Mom.