Internet Use Amongst Japan’s Elderly in the Age of the Coronavirus

Author: Julia Nagai, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) alumna
Fieldsite: Sakai, a small city located just south of Osaka, Japan. Sakai is located in Osaka Prefecture and is part of the Kansai region of Japan.Much of the discussion about COVID-19 is centered around the Internet: how people are finding information, accessing resources, or socializing online. Millions of people check the number of cases in their country, order groceries, or catch up with friends by simply tapping their fingers across a keyboard. However, there is a large and vulnerable population that is often left behind when it comes to the digital world: the elderly.It is hard not to be surrounded by elderly people in Japan. 1 in 4 people are over the age of 65. 25% of the population is at higher risk of suffering complications from or dying of the coronavirus. Despite being an often forgotten about demographic,the elderly are a large portion of society that is comprised of individuals with decades of valuable knowledge and lived experiences. It is important to examine how they gain access to (or miss out on) digitally transmitted information that can help keep them informed and safe.While younger people flock to social media to share information, the elderly I observed preferred to communicate interpersonally online. One woman readily sent and received news articles via email or LINE (a popular messaging app in Japan), but expressed confusion when one of her friends shared a post using LINE’s timeline feature. “Should I like it? Should I just ignore it?”, she asked. Many older people are comfortable communicating online when the elements of conversation that they are accustomed to, such as turn taking, are available, but dislike the idea of broadcasting their opinions to a wider audience that may include people they “don’t want knowing about it”. Although the validity of news articles or information received directly from a loved one are rarely questioned, there are doubts about posts that can “be written by and seen by anyone”. Trust in online information was built in the real world when relationships were formed between people who have since moved more of their communication online.When discussing information about the coronavirus, the elderly in Sakai referenced politicians and their plans for managing the crisis much more frequently than doctors or infectious disease experts. While no one knows the doctor interviewed for a single feature on COVID-19, politicians are familiar faces. Everyone can recognize the prime minister or their prefecture’s governor. Once again, trust in information disseminated through the media stems from trust in its animator. Even if their economic policies or other responses to the virus are criticized, politicians’ information on the situation in their locale and how citizens should avoid infection is accepted. The advice to stay home more, ventilate indoor areas, and wear masks is generally followed and credited as coming from the government. Further, there was much more trust placed in local politicians, such as Osaka Prefecture’s governor

Hirofumi Yoshimura. Although the information presented by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or Tokyo Prefecture Governor Yuriko Koike was rarely doubted, Yoshimura’s explanations about the state of emergency, restrictions on local businesses, and social distancing were praised as direct and easy to understand.

However, there are occasional expressions of doubt about the information circulated by the government. While official information about the number of cases is typically regarded as the most authoritative and accurate, people say that the government must be covering some cases up. Frustrations about the strict requirements for obtaining a PCR test are also vented, but are more frequently directed at hospitals, rather than the government that set them. Politicians who talked about what could’ve been done to prevent the crisis (for example, not sending masks to China) are viewed as particularly untrustworthy: “they should talk about they’re doing to help people now rather than hiding behind talk about the past”.

Despite the presence of elderly people who engage with and share information online, there remain many elderly people who do not own a computer or smartphone and do not use the Internet at all. Tech-savvy elderly express concern about their friends who are not as adept at using the web and are less reachable: “I wonder if they’re alright but the most I can do is call [their landline]”. For a large number of Japan’s elderly, newspapers and television are the only way of learning about COVID-19. After reading a Yahoo News article about how people are having drinks and dinners together over video call, a woman said she wished that televisions had video call capabilities. Perhaps the technologies older people are already familiar with could be used to help them maintain relationships during the pandemic?