TOKYO (Reuters) – Great-grandmother Setsuko Takamizawa is determined to prove that it is never too late to learn as she bids to conquer the English language before the Tokyo Olympics, having been prevented from learning what was considered the “enemy language” in her youth.
When Japan last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964, Ms Takamizawa was too busy raising a family to go to any events or pay much attention.
Ms Takamizawa will be 92 when the Olympics return to Tokyo in July next year and this time she wants to get as close to the action as possible.
She is one of more than 200,000 people who have applied as volunteers at the Olympics and Paralympics, hoping to be part of the army of people needed to help organise and guide thousands of foreign visitors around the city.
Although it is not a mandatory qualification, the ability to speak English is a crucial skill organisers are looking for and Ms Takamizawa is eager to finally take the opportunity acquire it.
“When I was a freshman at a girl’s senior high school, World War Two broke out,” Ms Takamizawa explained in an interview with Reuters.
“In my second year there, English was banned because it was the enemy language.”
Ms Takamizawa said her grandchildren had helped convince her she was not too old to learn.
“I don’t speak English at all, so I thought I wish I could speak English,” Ms Takamizawa said whilst visiting the under-construction Olympic Stadium in central Tokyo.
“When I talked to my grandchildren about my wish, they said, ‘it’s not too late. We will teach you one word a day. It’s going to be a good challenge for you’.”
“That was when everything started.”
According to organisers, less than 1 percent of the applicants to the volunteer programme are over 80.
However, she knows that novelty will not be enough and that an ability to speak passable English will help her achieve her chief goal – to share stories with people from around the world.
“When I taught her the word ‘world’, grandmother said: ‘that’s what I want to know about, the world and your country. I want to know about the world’,” said Ms Takamizawa’s granddaughter, Ms Natsuko.
Ms Natsuko speaks English well and has been her grandmother’s main teacher.
“What I want is not only a chance to speak English but also I want to encounter various people with various culture and values by using English as a tool,” added Ms Takamizawa.
“That would be the best.”
According to the EF English Proficiency Index, Japan ranks 49th among countries where English is not the first language, below nations such as Chile, Belarus and neighbouring South Korea.
This is slowly changing as younger generations embrace English and it is taught in schools from a much younger age.
However, Ms Takamizawa believes real change will not happen unless Japanese people become more open to the rest of the world.
“There are only few, or such a thin layer of people on the surface, very thin like cling film, who can speak English or who are interested in the world,” she said of her fellow Japanese.
“But they must look to step out of the country. We should live and act not only as a Japanese person but also one of the global members on the earth.”
Ms Natsuko sends her grandmother a new English word to learn every day on her phone and they also regularly sit down together to work on key phrases that Ms Takamizawa will need come the Olympics.
“Welcome to Tokyo, this is the Olympic stadium, how can I help you?” says a beaming Ms Takamizawa when asked to recite the English phrases she has learnt.
For her granddaughter, this curiosity is a source of true joy.
“My intention was that I wanted to give her a joy at her age of 90,” Ms Natsuko said.
“For me it’s simply fun to talk to her and to wait for her reply, (it’s not about) admiring her hard work or contributing to the Olympic Games.
“I can clearly see her English is getting better. It’s my joy now.”
With a little over 500 days to go until the Games begin, the whole Takamizawa family is eager to welcome the world to Tokyo.
“I am of course excited. I have never thought of seeing the Olympics in Tokyo twice in my life,” said Ms Takamizawa.
“It’s good to live long.”