Tamako Kondo says 10 minutes of exercise every morning keeps her fit.
But the 80-year-old doesn’t hit the treadmill or take aerobics classes. Instead, she sits at a desk, pencil in hand, and tackles simple arithmetic and other quizzes, part of a “brain training” program that has taken Japan by storm.
Bookshops now have separate sections for workbooks with the exercises and video game versions are selling like hot cakes among the growing ranks of older Japanese who hope the drills will reinvigorate their gray matter.
“I want to delay becoming senile as much as possible,” said Kondo, who lives in a Tokyo home for the elderly.
“I know someone who gets things that happened recently mixed up with tales from the war days. I don’t want to become like that,” added Kondo, after attending a weekly “Healthy Brain Class” course run by the Shinagawa ward in Tokyo.
At the class, 30 students — all over 70 — perform the drills for half-an-hour once a week and are given more exercises to work on at home, every day for six months.
Scientists say a daily dose of such exercises improves the memory and even the condition of dementia patients.
“I wanted to make a contribution to society through my findings, to tell the world that you can train the brain,” said Ryuta Kawashima, professor of brain science at Tohoku University, whose theory has been featured in many books and video games.
“But I didn’t think it would become this big.”
Brain train games
Nearly one in five Japanese is aged 65 or older and the ratio is expected to rise to one in four over the next decade due to a rock-bottom birth rate and improved longevity.
For video game makers eager to expand their clientele beyond youths as the number of children dwindles in Japan’s rapidly aging society, software featuring Kawashima’s brain-training program has proved to be a huge success.
Nintendo has sold a combined total of more than 3.3 million of its “Brain Training for Adults” released in May 2005 and a sequel that came out last December. Its portable DS consoles on which the games are played are constantly out of stock in shops.
“We see people who may have been to our store, but probably never to the video game section, come and buy them,” said a sales clerk at the game section of a major electronics shop in Tokyo.
Nintendo also said about a third of those who bought the games were 35 or older.
“We wanted to reach out to those who were not interested in video games ... But we did not expect such success,” said Ken Toyoda, a Nintendo spokesman.
“We were able to ride the ’brain craze’.”
Rival Sony Computer Entertainment, which has the “Brain Trainer” using Kawashima’s theory for its PlayStation Portable, or PSP, console, is holding “Video Game Workshops for Grown-ups,” in a bid to appeal to older generations.
At one workshop on a Saturday afternoon, 15 participants, aged between 30 and 63, listened intently as a 63-year-old instructor took them step-by-step through how to play games, including the “Brain Trainer,” on the PSP.
Sachiko Kumagai, who had come to check out the brain-training game, was impressed after the 90-minute class.
“My forgetfulness really got bad after I turned 50 ... With this, you can see the results right away, so it’s handy,” said the 55-year-old who works for a local government office.
The players are given grades on their performance on the PSP game, while on the Nintendo version, they are given their “brain age,” ranging from the optimal 20 to 80, the worst.
Elevate inner self
Other toys and puzzles seen as stimulating the brain have also benefited from the boom.
Sales of Rubik’s cube, the famous cube-shaped puzzle, increased by fivefold last year in Japan to around 500,000.
“The brain-training phenomenon has had an effect ... We purposely put ’IQ’ on the package so that it would appeal to grown-ups,” said Kazuo Usui, a marketing official at Megahouse Corp, which sells the puzzles in Japan.
Those involved in the phenomenon agree that the interest in brain training comes from a desire to minimize the inevitable effects of aging among Japan’s graying population, but cited differing reasons for it becoming a national obsession.
Brain scientist Kawashima said people were fed up with materialism and were eager to seek other means of fulfillment.
“There is the issue of aging society, but more than that, I think people want to train and elevate their inner self.”
Nintendo’s Toyoda said it was part of a health-conscience craze which has been around for years now.
“Health consciousness is branching out ... It’s a trend.”