I often hear people, especially in their mid- and late-20s, say, “I’m getting old.” Well, on Friday, Japan’s oldest woman died at age 115.
Chiyono Hasegawa was born Nov. 20, 1896, in Japan, or 17 days after U.S. President William McKinley was elected to his first term.
She was 8 when her country won the Russo-Japanese War, 34 when it invaded China’s Manchuria, and 48 when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She was 72 when her country became the world’s second-largest economy behind the U.S.; she was 114 when it dropped to third, behind China, too.
Even more amazingly (to me) she was born 43 years after Commodore Perry opened Japan to the rest of the world and started it on its path of modernization. Early in her life, most of the people she knew had direct or very familiar knowledge with the feudal world of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had kept society and technology in Japan basically the same for about 200 years, ending only in 1868.
I was, previously in life, the sort of nerd who cared a lot about the history of glorious Nippon, so forgive me. But the idea of a woman still alive in 2011 who had experienced all of that and was familiar with all that more, it just absolutely blows my mind.
And now she’s dead.
The other day, a sports writer Michael Wilbon was talking about how NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb could go from a Pro Bowl caliber player with the Eagles to being unable to get a job even as a backup somewhere else. Wilbon’s explanation was just that McNabb had gotten older.
“Father Time is undefeated,” Wilbon said.
Which sounds very familiar to the point I think it’s a sports cliché, but it’s a good one. (That’s the thing about clichés: they don’t get worn out and overused unless they’re worth using.)
The writer George Orwell once said, and I wish I could find the exact quote, that the only real advantage of getting older is that you’re able to have seen things no one ever will again.
No matter what you’ve done in life, you become special for having endured and put Father Time off longer than most those around you. The tedious details of your early life became engrossing, your adventures become exaggerated and outsized without embellishment, because they’re peppered with the now-impossible and have the backdrop of that most exotic place: the past.
Young people tend to be stupid, shallow and self-absorbed, and that will never change, but occasionally you can get through. And when you do, it’s worthwhile because stories of human life are always worth retelling and worth remembering and almost all eventually forgotten anyhow.
So, Hasegawa is dead. She is no more. And Father Time remains undefeated, 100 billion-and-Oh. But, she put him off longer than all but a handful have been able to do and connected people to many disappeared worlds along the way, so that’s saying something.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Chiyono Hasegawa as the world’s oldest person; American Besse Cooper is older by several months. The Odessa American regrets the error.