Silver Surfers: Japan’s Senior Citizens Go Online

Could “Sereno Saloon,” a small computer school in a Tokyo suburb, be a hint of what lies in store for Japan? Since the school’s opening this April, it has been garnering media attention not just for its unusual curriculum, but for its students. Of the school’s first class of five women, three are in their 70s and two in their early 80s. Their lessons consist of computerized “brain training” exercises; numerical and verbal puzzles to stimulate the brain and ward off senility. Hidden speakers play recordings of bird song and trickling water. Computer cables are carefully tucked away under the floor of the bright spacious classroom, for neatness and safety. It’s a place for senior citizens to relax and socialize, says Chizuko Nagatomi, a manager from computer school chain Home Computing Network, which operates Sereno Saloon.

Japan has one of the fastest aging populations in the world and one of the lowest fertility rates (fewer than 1.3 children per woman). Much of Japanese industry is now realigning to face the demographically inevitable, and the computer and Internet industries are no exception. If UN Population Division predictions are correct, by 2050 more than 40 percent of Japanese could be over 60. Next year the first of seven million baby boomers, born in the early post-war years, will reach the Japanese retirement age of 60. With time and money on their hands, they are predicted to go online in droves. In Japan, the new generation of Internet users could well be the older generation.

There are already signs of a shift. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ 2005 white paper reports that 26 percent of people over 60 were using the Internet in 2005, up from 10 percent in 2001. Along with an increase in the number of children going online, it’s a sign that surfers have become a more diverse group than the men in their 20s, 30s and 40s who caught the first Internet wave.

In particular, the Internet is attracting men in their 50s and older, says Souichiro Nishimura, marketing vice president of market research company Net Ratings. “It’s not just that the number of men over 50 using the Internet has increased… the amount of time the group spends online has increased greatly, too.” He points to a survey last year by the Japan Advertisers Association which found that, for the first time, 50-something and older men made up the largest segment of net users in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

Perhaps some of those middle-aged Internet users have been attracted by Japan’s active and growing blogging community. As of April 2006, there were more than 8.7 million blogs in Japan, almost twice as many as just six months before, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Providers have been quick to accommodate older bloggers. Nifty, one of Japan’s largest Internet providers, has set up a special blog service for seniors, called Golog. It is a counterpart to their popular Cocolog service. Sixty percent of Golog’s users are men; 22 percent in their 50s and almost 10 percent in their 60s. “Blogs are popular with middle-aged and older people,” says Hajime Inoue of Nifty’s Promotion Department. “The reason is that they are easier to set up and update than HTML webpages. If someone explains how to do it carefully, it’s easy for users to start on their blog.”

Printing company Toppan has also set up a blogging service for seniors, called Re:log. The site’s top page reads: “Of middle-aged men, by middle-aged men, for middle-aged men. A hobby-orientated blog community.” Below are links to featured blogs on photography, travel and food. Re:log Product Manager Hidetaka Yazawa explains that they have “narrowed down” the service’s functions to make it easier for older readers to use. Most users are in their 50s and the oldest in their 80s. The site provides a pared-down selection of blog templates and concentrates on the core functions of posting text and photos. Toppan is also cooperating with Mamion, a chain of computer schools, to produce manuals for senior citizens explaining how to set up blogs.

Ninety-five percent of Re:log’s users are men. “We started with the assumption that men don’t have much of a social network compared to women,” says Yazawa. “Especially in Japan, when men leave their company they don’t have anyone to socialize with.” The blogs provide an opportunity for retirees to make friends online. Eventually, Toppan plans to fund the service with advertisements targeted at their middle-aged and elderly male users, probably for photography, travel, adult learning or financial services.

Japanese providers have also set up general portal sites for senior surfers. One, NEC’s Station 50 includes news, travel and financial information. In mid May one front page item was a nostalgic feature article on the events of 1974. Another portal site, Yahoo Japan’s Yahoo Second Life, had articles on baby boomer retirement, on how to use Internet search engines and on shopping for fishing equipment.

But market research company Net Ratings’s Nishimura points out that such sites have not been particularly successful so far. “Users have become much more Internet-literate recently. A single portal site with all the information assembled in one place isn’t necessarily what’s needed.” He argues that it is more important to provide content in a friendly way for senior citizens, such as using larger fonts.

Computer helplines also find themselves affected by the changing demographic of users. DIS Technical Service Co.Ltd says that they are getting more calls from senior citizens in the past couple of years. They now provide special training to their operators. “Older customers aren’t used to explaining precisely what they want to do with the computer,” says Manager Takeshi Fujioka. “[We train employees to] listen carefully to the customer and ask questions to find out what the problem is.”

For those senior citizens completely new to the keyboard and monitor, a large number of computer classrooms have popped up in Japan in the last decade. They have followed the first Internet wave, then the recent increase in broadband connection rates. (Japan now has one of the highest broadband penetration rates in the world at 16.4 percent). Home Computing Network (HCN) has opened more than 300 schools since 1996. The average age of their students is 60, and about three quarters are women, mostly housewives.

It was HCN that decided to open “Sereno Saloon,” the experimental school that aims to reach out to a different group than the chain’s regular customers. The students are in their 70s and 80s, rather than 50s and 60s, and in addition to learning basic computer skills, they use special “brain training” software developed by Kanji Akahori, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The software is similar to popular software sweeping Japan at the moment, particularly software available for the Nintendo DS hand-held console.

The school also uses more analogue “anti-brain aging techniques.” In a small classroom with a semicircle of desks laid out in front of a digital whiteboard, students begin each class with finger exercises and performing tasks such as counting from 1 to 120 as fast as they can. One special class called “face exercise English” uses English pronunciation practice to rejuvenate facial muscles. The school also has a relaxation room with a massage chair and a virtual reality boxing game for light exercise.

“Normally, at a computer school you try and learn the skill as soon as possible,” says Nagatomi. Although students at HCN’s other schools typically progress though six-month beginner, regular and advanced courses then leave, HCN hopes that students at the brain training school will stay longer.

“Basically we want students to keep coming. There is no graduation,” says Nagatomi. They hope that students will see the classes more as a hobby or social activity than as goal-based study. The school is also more expensive than HCN’s other schools. A year’s worth of classes (about 70 to 80) starts from 220,000 yen [a little under $2,000]. HCN plans to introduce brain-training classes to other schools in their chain, too.

In Japan, where some older people have been enthusiastic technological early adopters, maybe it’s not so surprising that senior surfers are catching up with their juniors. “It’s a practical thing, that you can use in your daily life,” says Michiyo Onouchi, a 55-year-old housewife who has been studying computing in a small private class with a group of friends for a year. “I couldn’t do anything at first, I hadn’t touched a computer. We began from learning how to switch it on.” Now she couldn’t do without it. Among other things, she has learned how to surf the Internet, check the weather forecast and train timetables and make Japanese New Year’s greeting postcards. “My son lives in Germany, so the most useful has been learning to send e-mails and use chat programs like Skype,” says Onouchi cheerfully.

About Tony McNicol


  1. It’s very encouraging to see active seniors blogging and skyping.

    In Asia, there is a Singapore private firm that specially designed a computer known as easyPC for senior citizens. It is available in English now.
    I am one of the developers in this project.

    We provide the hardware with the operating system pre-installed, a basic training and phone support.
    Many computer shops are only in the business of selling macines, but for us we also want to provide an experience of using PC with no fear.

    Features include Internet browser, Email Editor, Writer, Photo Viewer, Multimedia Player, Skype, Msn/yahoo chat and basic games for brain training.

    Large font size of at least 13 pts with minimum 19″ LCD monitor. Simple button commands to launch applications.

    Hopefully a community can be born out of it to support and learn from one another.

    In due time we can see senior citizens together with their family surfing the Internet in fast food joints and sharing of pictures and videos.
    Building intergeneration bonding.

    The world is pretty much influence through national education. Hope to see a greater awareness for seniors so as to leverage on the benefits of technology.

    you can read a recent review by CNET Asia :,39056105,39369740,00.htm

    easyPC website is (Mee Swa is longevity noodles in mandarin)