Retired Salarymen, ‘Garbage’

Of Japan, Clean Up Their Act




TOKYO—In a giant kitchen at an adult-learning center, Morinosuke Kano, wearing an apron and a white headband, is diligently boiling a pot of greens. The day’s lesson: steamed cabbage with pork.

Until last year, Mr. Kano was a finance executive. Now, the 65-year-old is among 20 retirees in this beginners’ cooking class for men. In addition, he attends pottery class, English-language class, watercolor-painting class and private violin lessons. “It’s a pity if you don’t enjoy life,” he says, sampling his cabbage. “If I stay at home all day, my wife will call me ‘big-scale garbage.’ “

‘A Pain to Get Rid Of’

Or sodai gomi, as it is said in Japanese. It’s a term more literally applied to old refrigerators, tattered sofas and the like. When used to describe people, it refers to retired salarymen who “have no value, but are a pain to get rid of,” according to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words.

Japan for years has wrestled with the question of what do with its salarymen after they retire, typically at age 60. They work so hard for so long that once they leave their jobs, many find themselves with all the time in the world, but few friends or hobbies. They hang out a lot at home. They bug their wives.

But increasing numbers of them are fighting to beat the “garbage” rap. The Better Home Association cooking school Mr. Kano attends has 4,500 male students, mostly retirees, up from about 350 nine years ago.  Hundreds of retirees are joining tours to undertake projects such as climbing Japan’s 100 most-scenic mountains, or walking the 340 miles between Tokyo and Kyoto in 37 separate excursions.

Others are mobbing computer classes, then detailing their voyages of self-discovery on the Internet. “This ‘no-hobby person’ has become immersed in computers and photography,” writes 63-year-old retiree Yoshito Endo, on a site called Second Life Organization Web.

‘We Must Win’

The struggle for fulfillment fits the style of the “driven” generation, as today’s 60-somethings are called. They helped pull off Japan’s economic miracle, were nicknamed “corporate warriors,” and favored songs with lyrics like, “We must win, whatever it takes.”

They also may be the last generation to live out Japan’s social contract of lifetime jobs and comfy retirement packages. Companies are shedding workers before retirement age, and the strapped government is moving to dole out pensions at age 65, up from 60, all of which points to future generations of retirees who will lack the financial security of today’s crowd.

For now, though, retirees are seizing the day. Shinji Kitamura says he won’t call anything a hobby unless “I put in my entire heart and soul.”

Because he always liked to use his hands, the 67-year-old retired brokerage executive says, he recently joined a woodworking class. That required skill at drawing the designs, so he took up painting. Mr. Kitamura also packs his calendar with a cooking class and ski trips. “People who are putting 100% into something look so lively,” he explains.

At a recent woodworking class, Mr. Kitamura’s devotion startles his 12 classmates, mostly middle-age housewives. To meet his ambitious goal of finishing one piece of work in two sessions, he has labored for hours at home on an intricate rose design on his latest creation, a cheese board.  Oblivious to the music blaring from a nearby karaoke class, he peppers his teacher with questions on how to add realism to the shape of the rosebud.

“He’s just burning with passion for this thing,” says instructor Yachiyo Shimizu. Eventually, Mr. Kitamura says, he wants to teach woodworking to other retirees and fill his home with his own work.

Some of the less-focused require spousal pressure to jump-start their quests. Akira Yokoyama, 63, spent his working life at Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., a company long run by a gung-ho president who once declared it a waste of time to use the bathroom. Having a hobby was seen as a sign of goofing off. Three years ago, as retirement day loomed for the hobbyless Mr. Yokoyama, his wife, Masako, suggested that he take a course to learn how to enjoy nature.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do with his time, and I didn’t want him wandering around on his own,” says Mrs. Yokoyama, who works part-time.

Outnumbered by Women

Mr. Yokoyama soon found himself wading into a world of leisure pursuits still dominated largely by women, many of them housewives. On a recent morning, he accompanies 22 female classmates on a hiking trip conducted by Tokyo’s NHK Academy of Distance Learning, a popular activity center for middle-age Japanese. As the women take their seats on the bus and chat loudly about the sunny weather, Mr. Yokoyama and four other men sullenly seat themselves at the back. They eye each other uneasily, then quietly discuss the worrying trend of wild animals straying into Japan’s big cities.

Lunching on a rice ball atop a scenic peak with vistas of snow-capped Mount Fuji, Mr. Yokoyama concedes that he is rather overwhelmed. “The women are so much more active” in enjoying themselves, he says.

The men don’t have much of a choice but to grin and bear it. If they skulk back to their homes, “then they’re called ‘big garbage,’ “ whispers 67-year-old Nakaji Yamashita, a fellow male hiker. “You know what I mean?”

Mr. Yokoyama wishes there were more men in the class, but is nonetheless glad he signed up. He hikes at least once a week now, either with the class or solo. “The most boring days are rainy days,” he says, “because then, you can’t go out.”

Some younger Japanese, witnessing retirees’ last-minute rush for new kinds of stimulation, are trying to plan ahead. Yoichi Hirai, a 52-year-old Tokyo resident, says he decided five years ago that his postretirement hobby will be hiking, and he will do it with his wife. The couple now attends an evening mountaineering class to learn how to scale rocks and use ropes.

“It’s too late to try to learn something after you’re retired,” says his wife, Takako Hirai. “I don’t want to have to rush into something.”

Time to Admire Flowers

Rushing in can have its rewards, though. Mr. Yokoyama, the overwhelmed hiker, says that before his retirement, his attempts to spend time with his wife tended to be strained. Going hiking together was no fun because they kept getting into arguments. “Here I am trying to make it to the top by noontime, and she’s talking about how pretty the flowers are,” he says. “It was irritating.”

“He would set a goal, and then it’s full-speed ahead,” Mrs. Yokoyama says. “What’s the fun of going if you don’t look at anything?”

But now that Mr. Yokoyama is learning all about alpine vegetation and is being trained to enjoy the scenery, he has won new acceptance from his wife, and he plans to take her on some of the hikes he made with the class.

“At last,” he says with a grin, “my wife has agreed to go hiking with me again.”

Write to Yumiko Ono at