Japan's dancing granniesTOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–Japan’s relations with China may be strained these days, but that didn’t stop eight elderly Japanese women from turning up at Shanghai’s World Expo 2010 earlier this month to perform one of their famous song-and-dance routines.

Dressed in pink T-shirts and traditional baggy work pants, the group is called GABBA, like the 1970s Swedish disco supergroup ABBA, except with a "g" at the beginning for "granny." The average age of the performers is 76; the oldest is 93.

In China, the group performed for 30 minutes and sang their debut song, "Ureshika Tanoshika Chagatsuka," which means happy, merry and modest. To demonstrate respect for their audience, they spoke in Chinese when they introduced themselves and wore Chinese tops with their traditional work pants.

GABBA’s leader, Eiko Nagamatsu, noted that the group gave the same performance in China as in Japan because people are the same everywhere. She thought the group connected with its Chinese audience as well as it does at home.

"I just want to show that old people in Japan are full of energy," Nagamatsu told Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese daily newspaper.

GABBA was formed in June 2007 when the mayor of Takeo City, Saga Prefecture, chose eight women to promote tourism after a popular TV series, "Saga no Gabai Bachan" (Gabai Granny), was filmed in the city. Saga is in the northwest part of Japan’s island of Kyushu.

Unexpected Popularity

"We never expected them to become so popular," said Meiko Yamasaka of the tourism department of Takeo City in an interview with Women’s eNews. "It’s because they are so rare. The grandmothers are approachable by everyone."

Yamasaka said the performers challenge the notion that older women are tired and retiring.

"They are excited about living. They encourage people, not only elderly people, but young people, too," she said.

The group has performed on TV shows and at more than 150 venues throughout Japan, including Tokyo’s ritzy Roppongi Hills and in schools.

GABBA’s performers have a certain ritual for energizing their school visits. First they talk about their youth and the difficulties they have overcome during their lives. Then they put all that aside and start singing and dancing with the students and teachers.

GABBA’s motto is, "We are in our heyday. We won’t ever retire." Many of them are still actively working. Kimie Ishibashi has a small factory that makes pickles. Miyoko Ogata runs a restaurant. Nagamatsu, the 84-year-old leader of the group, is a retired elementary school teacher.

"They are amazing," said Junko Mimura, a business executive here. She wishes the group would get her mother up and moving again.

"My mother is 81 years old and she used to ballroom dance like crazy and be a member of a chorus group. But now she neither sings nor dances. It’s as if she had never done that in her life," Mimura said.

Tamako Takamatsu, an English-Japanese simultaneous translator, has reservations about the GABBA hoopla.

She says the women are not startlingly talented; their voices don’t make one’s heart flutter. As with children, their primary charm is their age. Being older makes them unusual, she says.

A Different Standard

"Adults don’t hold children up to the same standards as adults, because they’re in a different category," said Takamatsu. "That’s how we regard these women. I’m just saying, is this all we can aspire to? To somehow make it through life and survive to finally be regarded with the same but ultimately condescending affection as small children?"

All the same, she hopes the group made a positive impression in Shanghai. GABBA performed at a time when international relations were strained by the collision of two Japanese Coast Guard ships with a Chinese fishing boat near a string of disputed islands known as Senkaku in the East China Sea. The collision left the governments trading accusations about what happened.

"If they can make even one Chinese person feel that maybe Japanese people aren’t so bad, then that would be great," said Takamatsu. "Please don’t misunderstand…It’s only if they are somehow being held up as role models, or sources of inspiration, that I must voice a slightly differing opinion."

While not all Japanese women may have the energy or desire to become pop stars when they get older, they still have plenty to celebrate, says Sandra Mori, a long-time Tokyo resident. After years of child rearing and caring for demanding husbands they finally have time for themselves.

"Age brings freedom in Japan," Mori said. She recalled a country-style wedding where it was perfectly acceptable for mature ladies–Obasans–to get up and dance and sing raucous songs for the fertility of the newlyweds.

"Nowadays though, whether widowed or not, Obasans have also extended their freedom to overseas travel with friends for exploring, shopping or looking for new taste delights in foreign cuisine," said Mori.

She says the so-called silver market is now highly profitable for travel agents and rivals the lucrative travel business provided by young office workers.

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Catherine Makino is a correspondent for Majirox News in Tokyo, Japan. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Time, the Japan Times, The Asian Wall Street Journal and Inter Press Service.