Masako Wakamiya: World’s oldest app developer
Masako “Ma-chan” Wakamiya (若宮正子)
Octogenarian app developer
Ma-chan’s portrait in the Fearless Portraits project consists of an Ink drawing on a map of Kanagawa, the prefecture she lives in, just south of Tokyo. She’s seated on the floor next to a traditional Japanese short-legged table with a laptop open on it.
Masako “Ma-chan” Wakamiya got her first computer when she retired from a career in a bank in 1997. She found a whole new world available to her through her computer and relished the connection and community the internet offered, saying, “at the age of 60, my world expanded—I got wings!”
Ma-chan’s interest in technology continued from PCs to smartphones. As the resident tech expert in her circle, she spent a lot of time helping her friends and neighbors use their phones and she theorized older people have a hard time with smartphones and such because apps and games mostly catered to young people—either by using small print, requiring fast play, or using difficult swiping motions.
Sensing an opportunity, she thought a possible solution to help older people be more comfortable with their devices would be an app designed for them. So, at the age of 82, she set about creating an app for her peers. She settled on a game based on Japan’s annual doll festival (called Hinamatsuri).
“I wanted to make games that would allow us seniors to defeat even young people on the basis of our knowledge―games that are different from the competitive ones that require quick reflexes,” she says. “As we age, our eyesight gets worse, and we can't move our fingers the way we'd like to. This game is designed so that even people with these problems can enjoy it.”
She reached out to the president of an app development company she had met through volunteer work previously and presented her idea. He countered with a suggestion that she create the app herself and he would teach her over Skype.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Ma-chan dove into app development, persevering through a difficult six months to build the app.
“It was especially very difficult to organize the whole structure of the app,” she says of the challenge of learning to code. Plus most of the resources she found online to learn from were in English, adding a further level of difficulty to the project.
“It is never a waste to try something and fail,” Ma-chan said of the fits and starts she experienced while learning to code. “You will not die or get injured even if things don't pan out well. It's best to enjoy your failures. If you fail, you fail. What's wrong with that?”
The game, called Hinadan, was completed just in time for the doll festival in 2017.
In the app, players move dolls in a puzzle into their appropriate positions based on the dolls’ roles (emperor, empress, and so on). The app has now been released in five languages.
Given her status as perhaps the oldest app developer in the world, news of the app went viral.
Apple CEO Tim Cook invited her to Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference where Ma-chan got to meet him and the two discussed the app together. “It was as if we were chatting in a programming class,” she said of the experience.
Born in 1935 in Tokyo, the app is just the latest chapter in Ma-chan’s self-proclaimed role of “IT evangelist” where she encourages seniors to use digital technology to enrich their lives. She spreads her message through the lecture circuit in Japan and abroad, including a TEDx Talk in Tokyo and an address before a UN conference in New York. She’s also written several books, primarily around educating seniors with technology.
Another way she has taught tech skills is something she calls “Excel art.” Which is using Excel spreadsheets to create patterns. “Excel looks difficult for seniors. But I came up with an idea of drawing designs using its functions. Then, I got so excited as I was able to produce one new pattern after another,” she says.
This episode contains music by Geovane Bruno, OB-LIX, FreeGroove, and Solbox.
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