TOKYO — It's 9 a.m. in Tokyo, and for most Japanese, it's time for work. But for a little group of older folks swinging mallets on a stubbly piece of ground in the city's center, the morning is the time to think about gateball.
A commuter train rockets past them on one side - providing a rapid glimpse of travelers crammed in elbow to elbow - and a steady stream of traffic flows by on the other. But nothing breaks the earnest concentration of this small band of contestants, moving purposefully across their gritty urban court, casting long shadows in the mild sunshine.
Japan has one of the highest longevity rates in the world. Women on average live to 84, men to 77. Combined with a falling birth rate, many Japanese are looking with alarm at statistics that tell them that currently 17 percent of their population is over 65 (compared with 12.6 percent in the US and 7 percent in China) - and that the figure is expected to grow to 27.6 percent by 2025.
The passage of legislation last year creating a universal insurance plan providing long-term care for senior citizens in Japan - one of the most comprehensive plans in the world - served to further fuel public apprehensions about the cost of caring for so many older people.
But with all the negative attention being given to "the elder question," some say the social scientists have neglected to look hard enough at another facet of the Japanese elder boom: the large number of older Japanese - like these gateball players - who have forged a brand-new kind of old-age experience.
"The aging of society has been regarded as the No. 1 social problem in Japan," says John Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "But a little attention to the healthy and productive older people in Japan is way overdue."
In Japan, retirement often still takes place as young as 55, and social security begins at 60. Although there are concerns about a degree of poverty among the elderly, Japanese retirees are, in general, relatively affluent, often more so than their children.
Once upon a time, these older Japanese would have been likely to live with their children. But not today.
"In 1960 about 80 percent still lived with children," says Professor Campbell. "That percentage is about 40 to 45 percent now, and goes down 1 percentage point each year."
That's not necessarily a sad thing, points out Campbell, and sometimes it's even a choice the elderly desire. But it does mean that fewer Japanese seek their ikigai ("meaning of life" or "motivating activity") in the daily lives of their children and grandchildren.
Instead, some of the post-workforce Japanese have found themselves involved in a new phase of life that includes engaging in previously unknown activities and often creating a new sense of community for themselves, outside the ties of the biological family.
"It's incredible how much there is for older people in Japan today," says Merry White, professor of anthropology at Boston University. "There are singing clubs and cooking clubs. There are culinary tours of Italy."
There are also activity-based group homes for older people - not nursing homes, but communes focused on activities such as studio art or cooking. There is even one with a back-to-nature focus, for retirees who would like to practice organic farming.
But for many older Japanese - including the little band in Tokyo swinging titanium mallets on this winter morning - there is gateball. Developed in 1949 in the north of Japan, gateball is a highly strategic, team-oriented version of croquet.
Says George Psathas, professor of sociology emeritus at Boston University: "Gateball is a good example of what the Japanese do. They took something invented somewhere else [croquet], developed it further, and turned it into a means of connecting with other people."
Although originally created for young people, gateball quickly became a passion for the elderly. Today the Tokyo-based World Gateball Union estimates there are about 2 million players in Japan, the majority of them in their retirement years.
The half-hour games - played by two teams of five, often in a back-to-back series - afford the opportunity for gentle physical exercise, constant mental challenges, and social bonding.
For the little group that meets every morning at this particular improvised court near Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, gateball has become the activity that shapes their lives. Men and women both compete here, but the group that holds sway this morning is mostly female, with 10 women for each seven men - perhaps reflecting the gender imbalance in Japan's elder population.
But for these women - who have been on a gateball team together for 10 years - widowhood has not been marked by loneliness.
"It's always fun playing," says Naoe Horiguchi. "We think, discuss, strategize, work together."
Mrs. Horiguchi - small but vigorous, in a red sports suit, with a twist of fake fur at her neck and sparkly blue shadow daubed liberally on her eyes - is the one they call "the captain." Bossy and stern on the field, she turns twinkly and kind as soon as the match is done. Her afternoons are spent working with her son in a family-owned boutique nearby, but her mornings are entirely given to gateball.
"We have three hours of play, and then we go out for lunch - sushi, noodles, Italian, French, whatever," explains Hatsuyo Fujimoto, as she slips her mallet into its pink, quilted cover.
"I'm happy every day," says her teammate Teru Komatsu, who is known to her friends as "the worried one" - a moniker belied by her laughing eyes and smooth, spry gait.
"They think I worry because I'm not very good at this game, and I make lots of mistakes," she explains cheerfully.
Mrs. Komatsu has three daughters, but all are "grown up and gone," she says. Her chief pleasures now are gateball, travel, and her little band of friends. The best, she says, is combining all three by traveling to different gateball tournaments. "In Japan we go to play where there are hot springs. The travel is just great."
But the members of this group have not confined themselves to domestic shores. Spreading gateball around the world has become a mission, especially for the captain, who has been to Los Angeles, China, Australia, and Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, both to participate in tournaments and to help organize new leagues.
"We want to spread the game around the world because it's Japanese," explains Kazuko Omata, a former seamstress whose rimless glasses magnify a pair of intelligent, darting eyes. Mrs. Omata is especially valued by her gateball colleagues for the strength of her long shot and the depth of her knowledge of gateball's rules, gained from attending lectures and taking exams.
But it's not just gateball that keeps her happy and busy, Omata explains. She waves her arms at her friends and beams. "This is a time of much happiness for us," she says. "We are together, and we intend to enjoy this period."