The Internet Gave Me Wings

With no degree in IT, I developed a fun app for seniors and spoke at the TED conference—in my 70s

Masako (in yellow) has no intention of slowing down.

I loved my job at a Tokyo bank, where I had worked since graduating high school in 1954. There was a constant flow of faces and conversation, which suited my highly social personality. I admit, I'm a chatterbox! Most people look forward to retirement. I dreaded it. My last day of work in 1977 would be my first day of being homebound, caring for my elderly, senile mother.

In the early 1990s, when I could barely venture out and had lost contact with my friends, I heard that a computer would enable me to interact with people without leaving my home. Sensing that this could be my window to the world, I immediately bought a notebook computer, in spite of the expense. I am not a tech-savvy person. Every day, I sat in front of the blank screen, perplexed. How does this thing work?

After three months of trial and error, one morning I looked at my computer screen and it said, "Hello Masako!" I screamed with delight. Suddenly, I wasn't alone. I joined a "silver club," an online chat room for seniors. Their motto appealed to me: "The best part of life is after 60." My online friends became the treasure of my life. We didn't just discuss superficial things. We had deep conversations about serious matters, which, for me, included caring for my mother. Being single, I also chatted with lots of "guys."

Ten years later, my mother passed away at 100. My homebound days were over. I started taking piano lessons, going for daily walks and visiting with friends. I also volunteered to help other seniors learn how to use computers. I quickly discovered that the available teaching materials were too boring. That's when I decided to write my own fun PC text. No, I didn't have a degree in IT. I just had a playful mind and a creative spirit. You could say I became a technology evangelist. The internet had given me wings and I wanted to share my enthusiasm.

The internet was the first big change in my life. The iPhone was another. I remember when a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo showed me an iPhone he got in the UK in 2007—I was really surprised. Once iPhones became commonplace, I noticed young people playing games on them. In the supermarket, cafes, even while crossing the street. I wanted to play too! But it was impossible to win playing against people half my age. My fingers just aren't as fast as theirs. That gave me an idea. What if I created a fun app especially for seniors, one that would give us the edge? Just one problem. To create an app, I needed to learn code. Although I was in my 70s, I didn't let that stop me. I spent six months studying programming with a teacher. It wasn't easy, but I persevered. Learning to program computers is like learning to cook. It takes more time than buying takeout or dining at a restaurant, but it's actually fun and worth the effort.

I based my app on Japan's traditional festival Hinamatsuri, or Girl's Day, which is celebrated in March. On this day, display stands are decorated with dolls dressed in Heian-era clothing in a specific order. I named my app "Hinadan." ("Hina" is a type of doll and "dan" means tier or level.) Players have to correctly position 12 dolls on each of the four levels of a display stand. A buzzer sounds off if a doll is placed incorrectly. For those who are not familiar with the festival, voice guidance is available. Once all the dolls are in place, a congratulatory message is displayed.

Since we seniors have more knowledge of this tradition than younger people, my app levels the playing the field. With "Hinadan," not only can we compete against our children and grandchildren, but we can win. (You don't need to know Japanese to play. "Hinadan" is now available for download on the App Store.)

When I bought my first computer, I was 60 years old and didn't have a clue. Not only did I learn how to master the technology that had confounded me, but I was invited to speak at the 2014 TED conference in Tokyo. What an honor! Now, at 82, I have no intention of slowing down. I give computer classes and blog regularly in Japanese (and English with the help of Google's translation tool). "Hinadan" was my first app. But it won't be my last.

—as told to Stacia Friedman

Tags: technology