'I'm as sharp as a razor, but I can't hear a thing'

Richard Lloyd Parry discovers how it feels to be deaf and infirm in a suit that simulates the effects of advanced age

I'm walking very slowly down a little street in Tokyo, trying not to get run over by the push-chair, and discovering all the things I can't do any more. I can't walk very fast because my knees don't bend properly, and an impatient queue forms behind me as I negotiate the ramp up to the supermarket. I can't get the change out of my pocket, either, and when the girl at the till tells me the price I can't hear what she's saying. I'm hot and irritable and increasingly itchy. Just a minute, that's the last straw - I can't even pick my nose.

From the outside I look like a cross between a skateboard champion and one of Darth Vader's stormtroopers. Inside, I feel the opposite: slow, heavy-limbed and vulnerable. A couple of kids suddenly whiz across my narrowed vision, nearly knocking me over. Young punks!

In the past half hour I have come as close as you can to ageing 50 years. I am wearing something called the "Senior Simulator". It's described as a suit, but it's more like a collection of dastardly accessories, each designed to reproduce one of the effects of advanced old age. Plastic and Velcro splints stiffen your ankles, knees and elbows. The pockets of the jacket contain weights that drag down your shoulders and back. You wear plugs in your ears, and goggles that dim and narrow your vision. There are three sets of gloves - skin-tight latex, then thick cotton to dull the touch (hence the nose-picking problem), and elastic to arthriticise the fingers. The parts are purpose made by a surgical supplies company; an entire suit costs about pounds 2,000.

In Japanese, the suit is called "Taro Urashima", after a character from folklore, a fisherman who discovered a secret underwater kingdom where he spent years among the sea princesses and water spirits. When he left, he was given a mysterious box with the strict order never to open it. Inevitably, he disobeyed; suddenly, like Dorian Grey, Taro was transformed into an old man.

It's an uncomfortably appropriate parable. In Japan, people live longer than anywhere else in the world; yet Japan has one of the lowest birth rates. By some estimates, more than a quarter of the population will be over 60 by the year 2000. "That means there will be fewer people to look after the elderly, and fewer taxpayers to pay for the cost of their social security," says Shukichi Gonjo, who invented the Senior Simulator. "The government doesn't realise how serious it is, but it'll be a genuine crisis. In a few years, the pension system could collapse."

The Japanese who will retire in the next 10 years are a different breed from the present generation of elderly. The post-war boom broke up the traditional extended family, in which elderly parents would live with their sons and daughters-in-law as children moved away to the cities. The economic miracle had another effect: many workers, mostly men, were robbed of any sense of leisure time. Hours were long, holidays short, weekends typically spent sleeping, golfing (often with clients) and watching television. "You get these men who have devoted their lives to their company, who have no hobbies, no idea of how to enjoy themselves," says Mr Gonjo. "Their wives are lively, but they just lie down at home in front of the TV. In Japanese, they're called 'wet leaves'. When leaves are wet, they just lie there, even when you brush them."

Mr Gonjo's organisation is called the Wonderful Ageing Club (WAC), and one of its functions is to blow-dry the wet leaves. He organises outings, meetings and voluntary activities, the most popular job of which is acting as "instructor" on the simulator. Armed with the suits, gangs of WAC members pay visits to schools, companies and government offices. They are hilarious occasions, as proud branch managers are reduced to shambling octogenarians in front of their giggling employees. "But people are very moved, too," says Mr Gonjo, "especially those who have elderly parents. We get letters from people saying that they feel guilty now about being so intolerant, that for the first time they understand what it's like to be old."

Taking off the suit is a relief: I have been a horrible old man. Surprisingly, it's not the deafness or the immobility that are most alarming but the isolation. I ask Mr Gonjo a question and the people around us smile and wince because I'm shouting, unable to judge the volume of my own voice. After that I whisper, but they keep having to repeat the answers, so my colleagues ask the questions on my behalf. I may be a bit of a wreck, I want to say, but between the ears I'm still as sharp as a razor. Someone else, though, is conducting my interview, and writing in my notebook. I sit at the side, ignored.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

    £22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

    Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

    £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones