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Technology

Meet the 84-year-old Japanese app developer who inspired Tim Cook

Masako Wakamiya says it's never too late to learn about IT and finance

Apple CEO Tim Cook chats with Masako Wakamiya about her iPhone app in San Jose, California, in June 2017.

TOKYO -- Masako Wakamiya obtained her first personal computer at age 58, just ahead of her retirement from a bank. Little did she know that she was beginning a journey that would make her the world's oldest known iPhone app developer, at 81.

Now 84, Wakamiya calls herself an IT evangelist and encourages other seniors to use digital technology to enrich their lives. She writes books while spreading her message on the lecture circuit in Japan and abroad. Recently, she sat down with Nikkei to tell her story -- from that first PC to talking shop with Apple CEO Tim Cook -- and explain why we're never too old to learn something new.

"Few households had computers back then, but the PC seemed interesting to me. I taught myself how to use it. At the time, my mother needed nursing care, so I was constantly looking after her. There were days when I could not go out at all. But the PC took me into a wider world.

"Twenty years ago, I became a promoter of the Mellow Club, a website for exchanges between seniors. Now I'm the vice chair. When I joined the club's predecessor, I received a welcome message, which said: 'Life will become more and more interesting when you are past 60. What you have accumulated in your mind until then will blossom. When you are past 70, you will have a fuller life.'

"At first, when I would post messages, other members would criticize them. People would say things like, 'You have no manners,' or, 'You should not write such a thing here.' But at this stage of life, even being reproached is precious. I tell people that nothing comes too late in life."

Just as Wakamiya familiarized herself with PCs, she learned to use early smartphones, even though seniors tend to shy away from new technology. Soon, she had an idea: a game based on Japan's annual "hinamatsuri," or doll festival.

"There were no apps that old people found amusing. I decided to make a game in which old people could beat young people. I thought that arranging dolls for the hinamatsuri would be a good concept.

"I drew up a plan and asked the president of an app development company in Miyagi Prefecture to produce the game. I had become acquainted with him through volunteering in the area hit by the March 2011 earthquake. He said, 'May I suggest that you do it by yourself?' I wrote the program at home in Kanagawa Prefecture, while learning from him over Skype.

"The smartphone game, called Hinadan, was completed just before the hinamatsuri in 2017.

"The Asahi Shimbun newspaper ran a story about the app. CNN found it and sent me an email in English with about 20 questions, which they wanted me to answer within two hours. I sent a reply using Google's translation app. Then they sent me more questions and said they would run a story that evening if I replied in 20 minutes. They ran an article online. It seems that the story was translated into more than 40 languages."

"After some time, someone at Apple's Japanese subsidiary contacted me. About a month later, the person suggested, 'Let's go to the U.S. together.' I refused at first, but the person stressed that somebody really wanted to meet me. 'Who is it?' I asked.

"'It's CEO Tim Cook.'

"I did not want to be rude, so I went."

Wakamiya was invited to Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference. Traveling was nothing new for her -- she says she has visited more than 60 countries, and likes to go alone -- but meeting the chief of one of the world's biggest tech companies was certainly out of the ordinary. She met Cook the day before the event in San Jose, California.

"I thought we would just say 'How do you do?' and exchange greetings, but he said we should talk and have a look at my iPhone. I was bewildered. Other people were just watching us from a distance.

"I explained my app. 'Since senior citizens are not good at swiping,' I said, 'I made it possible for them to play by tapping.'

"The CEO asked about the font size. I noted that 'since the iPhone screen is small, the balance between the text and the pattern would be lost' with larger characters. We also talked about adapting the app for the iPad and its different aspect ratio. It was as if we were chatting in a programming class.

"The CEO said he found me 'inspiring,' and as we parted he surprised me with a hug.

"At the conference the next day, Cook introduced me as the world's oldest programmer. Then a 10-year-old boy from Australia came onto the stage with me. They wanted to highlight the diversity of app developers, I suppose. There was diversity in race, gender and so on, but I am sure that an old woman in her 80s was a big discovery."

Apple's Cook speaks under a picture of Wakamiya at the Worldwide Developers Conference in 2017. He introduced her as the world's oldest app developer.   © Reuters

With the era of 100-year life spans approaching, Wakamiya stresses the need for seniors to start learning again. Finance and IT are especially important, she says.

"In June, I made a keynote speech at a symposium on aging and financial inclusion in Tokyo, related to the G-20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors. It said that educating seniors on finance can help to reduce the ratio of people who develop dementia.

"Trading stocks over the internet may be difficult. But I have proposed an investment fund for seniors. People would contribute 500,000 yen ($4,600) each to the fund, and the money would be invested in a young person who aims to start a business. The investment might fail, but it would be better than falling victim to telephone fraudsters pretending to be their sons or grandsons.

"Collecting money from 100 people would bring the total to 50 million yen. The young entrepreneur would invite the investors to visit his or her business, so that they can understand it. This would bring young entrepreneurs and elderly investors closer together.

"I think it is important for seniors to be in sync with the times, society, science and IT. We should not simply say, 'We do not use smartphones because they are difficult.' We should tell younger developers why we cannot use smartphones -- they will want to hear it."

Wakamiya with an entrepreneur in Tokyo: Together, they have studied e-government projects in Estonia, known for its advanced tech sector.

Wakamiya has an artificial intelligence speaker in her home and makes full use of it.

"I think AI speakers are helpful to the elderly. Once the initial setup is complete, we can use them even if we become bedridden.

"What we need are features that support people from the AI side. One example would be a function that informs users that evacuation instructions have been issued due to heavy rain. Or when you feel a pain in your chest, a function that dials 119 (Japan's emergency number) would be helpful."

On IT education for seniors, Wakamiya thinks it unlocks a host of new possibilities -- such as expanding the capabilities of aging carpenters. But she also warns there might be some misunderstandings about how older citizens use and perceive technology.

"Millions of people work in construction in Japan, but many of the workers who can repair roofs blown off by a typhoon are aging. It is important for them to hand down their know-how to younger generations, but they can also enhance their abilities if they learn IT themselves.

"They can lift materials onto the roof with a drone or see the inside of a wall with an endoscope. We are blessed with efficiency, compared with people who passed away without ever knowing the digital world.

"Still, statistics may show that half of people in their 70s have smartphones, but they might leave the phones in a bag at home or fail to charge them. Statistics are meaningless unless we consider how the smartphones are used. Manuals are not easy to understand because they are written by specialists.

"In my view, for seniors, the Line (chat app) is not so much a communication tool as a 'living room' where family members and close friends feel at ease. By comparison, the wider internet is Ginza or Harajuku (in Tokyo), where crowds of unfamiliar people come and go. I am writing and will soon publish a book that explains this point, though it may displease some experts."

Wakamiya also teaches "Excel art," which uses the spreadsheet software to create designs. She says she discovered it was an engaging way to show seniors what they can do with a computer. On a trip to Estonia, she found it appealed to young and old alike.

Estonian children show off "Excel art" fans they made with Wakamiya, second from right, in Tallinn in June 2019.

"In Estonia, in order to meet local people, I held a workshop for elderly women and children on using Excel art to make uchiwa paper fans. At the end, the children waved their fans and said, 'Goodbye, Dear Madam!' Tears welled in my eyes.

"Last year, I was invited to the (Japanese) Imperial couple's autumn garden party. I wore a long dress and carried a handbag, both with Excel art patterns. The bag glittered with LED lights. Her Majesty the empress (now the empress emerita) spoke to me and said, 'Oh, it glitters.' Her Majesty said to me, 'Please keep active in good health.'"

As the years pass, Wakamiya says she retains the same goal: "I want to be creative."

"Creation is the most human activity -- it is impossible for artificial intelligence and animals. An elementary school teacher said: 'Many adults who are doing remarkable things these days were problem children in their elementary school days. Those who were good students are unimpressive.' We live in such times.

"I have turned 84, and I feel I am more intelligent than before."

(Translated excerpts from an interview with Hiroaki Ito, manager at Nikkei's Economic Commentary Department. They have been lightly edited for clarity)

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