Generations Together

Since my arrival in Japan in January I’ve wanted to do an Intergenerational Dialogue here.  It finally happened last month.  On a beautiful Sunday in the middle of November, nearly 70 people gathered in a lovely building on the Tokyo University campus for the first intergenerational dialogue here.  The youngest was just a month old and spent most of the day in a impromptu care center organized in a room in the building.  The oldest was in his mid sixties.

Susan and Annie and I arrived as the intergenerational family with some experience from other parts of the world with these sorts of dialogues.  Bob Wing, freshly arrived in Japan, joined us as well. The Japanese design and hosting team had spent a couple of months planning the event.  Their conversations, themselves, were a rich exploration of the intricacies of generations in Japan.

There are some clear distinctions between the generations in Japan right now.  The dankai are Japan’s babyboomers.  Born after the war, they were the generation that turned Japan into a modern world power.  For many in Japan there’s a mandatory retirement at 60.  Most of the dankai have reached that age and have gone off into retirement with good savings and pensions from years of prosperity.  At the other end of the spectrum are those in their 20s and 30s.  They come of age since the legendary collapse of the Japanese economic bubble almost 20 years ago.  They know the old days are not coming back.  They’re scrappy, more entrepreneurial, willing to work in the existing system when it suits them — but not really invested in the existing order.  In the middle, and somewhat trapped, are the folks in their 40s and 50s who haven’t generally thought of another way to live and are in the middle of businesses and governments that are working less and less well.  Then, on top of this, toss in some interesting phenomena, like dokushin josei (bachelor women)an increasing number of women who are choosing to remain unmarried.  This maybe, in part, a way of beginning to reclaim the full participation in community women had until about 100 years ago when the Emperor Meiji declared that the key function of women was to bear children.

Back to the dialogue….

We met and talked all day.  Using circle and world cafe and open space, we talked with each other about the gifts and the needs of the different generations.  We talked about what might become more possible if we worked together in new ways.  There was a richness there.  A paying attention. One of the younger participants talked about how he spent 7 months bicycling through all 47 provinces of Japan — from Okinawa in the far south to Hokkaido in the far north.  He had held 40 World Cafes as he traveled with more than 1000 people.  When he finally returned to Tokyo, 200 people he had been with across Japan came to Tokyo to continue the dialogue with him.  Another

The day began with people finding their way into a circle of ages — from the youngest to the oldest, making our way around the circle until everyone was in their chronological place.  Then we broke into smaller groups, five or six people close to each other in age, to remember the gifts their generation brought to the whole.

The day continued in different configurations.  The members of the Japanese team hosted the World Cafe and Open Space — the first time for both two person teams.  They did beautiful and inspiring jobs — clear evidence of how smooth it can be to host dialogue in a purposeful field. People talked about what it might mean of the generations worked together differently.  In some ways, more important than the content of the conversations was the sense of connectedness.  There was a quiet intensity as people engaged each other.

Hours passed and soon we were harvesting the dialogues from open space.  The single comment of the day that stuck with me most was when one woman, in her 60s said with a look of wonder on her face:  “I never knew they wanted to be connected to me,” speaking of the younger people who had been in her session.

We had a closing circle and a couple of people talked about how they would go back into the “real world” the next day and how they would regret not being in this space.  In my closing comments, I challenged that definition of “real world” and suggested that what we had been creating that day was, in fact, the real world.

I left the day remembering something simple.  I’ve remembered it before, and forgotten.  Real communities are intergenerational.  Resilient communities are intergenerational.  If we are going to build communities that work again, we need to engage all the generations.  When we come together with respect, curiosity and friendship, all sorts of things become possible.

The time is now.

More photos at:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/49166333@N07/sets/72157625292193067/

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  1. Annie Virnig says:

    Ironically enough, participating in Tokyo’s intergenerational dialogue offered me a chance to connect to my own generation in Japan. My first intergenerational dialogue took place over five years ago at Shambhala’s Global Village Square Workshop. I was eighteen, had just graduated from high school, and had never been a part of this type of workshop or dialogue before. I fell in love with the people there, the fleeting but true sense of community, and the whole new range of possibilities that opened for me there. Sitting at the younger edge of the circle, I remember being shocked by the genuine respect of the older generations and their willingness to listen to my story and my questions. This time was different. I love living in Japan, but it can be quite isolating, especially from people my own age. I live with the eighty and eighty-two year old grandparents of my heart, and their daughter’s family, in a series of houses in Momoyama area of Kyoto; I run to the emperor’s tomb in the morning; I work from the house and explore Kyoto on my own. Often my only interactions are with the ojisans (uncles) and obasans (aunts) who I encounter daily at dawn on my morning run and with my Japanese grandparents. So I have very little interaction with those my age – part of this is my fault, shy due to the burden of my awful Japanese, hesitant to approach those my age, part of this is just a lack of places to meet people and form true connections. So this time sitting in the circle at Tokyo University, I found myself surrounded by other twenty-somethings (and my trusty friend Kyoko, assigned to translate for me and steadily add new words to my vocabulary. One new word: Fukakujitsu! Uncertainty). We started out the day talking in groups of four with our own generation and though the smaller cultural details were different – when the national economy had begun to crash, what television shows we remembered from our childhood – it was incredibly refreshing to talk with those at similar places to me, finishing college, just graduated from college, learning to dance with uncertainty (though our similarities were probably aided by our common desire to participate in an intergenerational dialogue beginning at 9 am on a Sunday). Conversations between the generations in World Café and Open Space throughout the day also offered a powerful place for connection, but it was this grounding within my own generation that was particularly potent for me.

    As a participant, but also as a member of the hosting team, I too felt the power of the vision and months of planning contributed by the Japanese hosting team at the center of the workshop. They held the whole throughout the whole day in a subtle yet influential way, allowing design and dialogue to flow – a contrast to our experience at Kiyosato a week later. My parents and I slipped in at the end, added a bit of reflection from other parts of the world, but it was the Japanese hosting team that truly held us in the space with a traditional sense of beauty and omotenashi (hospitality).

    At the end of the day, it is this sense of being hosted with beauty and grace into connections with those of my generation that I take away with me.

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