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Mon, Aug 13, 2007 - Page 11 News List

Elderly Japanese developing yen for Internet

AFP , TOKYO

Members of the Computer Grannies Society enjoy surfing the Internet at a cafe for elderly people in Tokyo on July 26. The group set up a temporary Internet cafe to offer computer lessons to fellow senior citizens, sponsored by US chip giant Intel.

PHOTO: AFP

"My husband isn't home tonight. Would you like to ..." reads the suggestive e-mail on the computer screen.

Obviously, the sender has no idea that the recipient is 78-year-old grandmother Kikue Kamata.

"What does she want me to do?" an amused Kamata said. "I know I shouldn't open spam but sometimes I do because it's fun."

A high-tech granny used to be considered an oxymoron. But in Japan, with its love of technology and a declining birth rate, a growing number of elderly are learning to surf the Internet, finding it to be a crucial lifeline.

"I turn on my computer the first thing in the morning. It's a pleasure to see the e-mail that came overnight," said Kamata's friend, Roko Shinohara.

COMPUTER GRANNIES

The two women are members of the Computer Grannies Society, launched in 1997 to nurture a new breed of net-savvy elderly.

The group, which accepts men as well, now has 200 members, mostly in their 70s, across the nation. The oldest member is a 97-year-old woman who lives alone in Kyoto.

The members exchange messages and photos, and show each other their creative work -- paintings, novels, poems and music. They organize off-line gatherings such as tours of big electronics stores.

They also shop online.

"Bookstores are becoming bigger these days and it's hard to find a book I want. It's quite easy online," Kamata said.

The group set up a temporary Internet cafe to offer computer lessons to fellow senior citizens at the end of last month in Sugamo, a part of Tokyo known for its large elderly population.

The event, held in cooperation with chipmaker Intel, drew more than 400 visitors over four days.

Hisao Megumi was one of a handful of men who came to learn.

"I'm a novice. It's a little bit late to start but I want to get accustomed to personal computers," the 84-year-old former editor said as he patiently waited in line for a lesson.

TOUCH PANELS FAVORED

The place was equipped with touch-panel computers newly developed by Intel and other companies for the elderly, enabling beginners to operate the machine with a single finger.

The absence of keyboards is a great relief for Japanese seniors who grew up in a culture that values handwriting rather than typing.

The packed one-room cafe reminds 77-year-old Kayako Okawa, who founded the group, of how things have changed over the past decade.

"Computers for old women? No way!" was the initial reactions Okawa encountered when she was trying to launch the group.

"No companies wanted to lend me computers," she recalled.

But she proudly declared: "The elderly are not the socially weak."

STEEP LEARNING CURVE

Armed with expertise and technology, the elderly are finding new frontiers in their lives.

"Washing machines and dish-washers give us convenience," Okawa said. "There is no match for computers. We are now connected to the world."

Electronics companies are well aware that seniors are important customers, and have thus launched a range of senior-friendly products, such as the RaKuRaKu Phone mobile series by NTT DoCoMo.

The basic model of the line -- whose name is a colloquial phrase for "easy" -- tells the user the name of the person sending a call or e-mail. It also features the "Slow Voice" function which enables the user to press a button and slow the pace of the caller's speech for better understanding.

According to communications ministry data, Internet use among seniors is surging, with nearly half of Japanese in their late 60s now surfing online.

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