Yokohama, Japan. Photo by the author.

As the March sun descends, the air around a hospital near Yokohama acquires a chill. An elderly group of volunteers has already gone past their scheduled two hours of tending to the flowerbeds. Mr. Ōtomo, the club’s leader, rattles, “It’s time to finish. All done.”

Mr. Taira considers a pile of thorny lantana branches and says, “Let’s take care of that next week.” The women of the gardening club keep working, mouths still aflutter with conversation:

Did you hear about Mrs. Fujita?

No, what happened?

She fell in the middle of her living room and couldn’t get up. A neighbor knocked on the door, but she said she was fine. On the second day, the neighbor could tell her voice was weakening. She came in and found Mrs. Fujita in the middle of the floor and called an ambulance.

Doesn’t Mrs. Fujita have a cell phone?

It was on the counter. Her son didn’t check on her either.

Aaahhh, that’s no good.

How’s your husband?

Don’t ask. He just watches TV and takes naps. Useless.

Did you hear what Prime Minister Abe was saying in parliament again?

I don’t bother anymore.

I’m sure we’ll be fighting wars because of the US.

Do you—

“Time to finish up,” Mr. Ōtomo interrupts.

“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Shirase says but starts on another row of pansies, plucking and tossing away faded blossoms. Mr. Ōtomo gives up and pedals his old bicycle toward a squat building that houses the hospital’s volunteer groups. To watch Mr. Ōtomo ride is to witness a tense miracle of balance. He always seems ready to tip over but somehow never does.

Yokohama, Japan. Photo by the author.

Inside the office, a volunteer pauses her work and brews a pot of green tea. We sip from blue and white mismatched porcelain cups until Mr. Ōtomo says, “Should we write?”

Mr. Taira retrieves a binder from a bookshelf. Inside are forms to record the day’s activities. Parkinson’s disease makes writing difficult for Mr. Ōtomo, so Mr. Taira serves as scribe. The women appear. With nary a pause in their conversation, they gulp hot tea, wash the cups, and leave. Mr. Ōtomo and Mr. Taira linger, sipping until the volunteer refills their empty cups. Silence spreads, broken only by the taps on a keyboard. The men depart. Unlike the women, they leave their cups for the volunteer to wash.

Outside, I cross the street between enormous trucks stopped in a line of traffic. The air stinks of diesel. The women are back in the flowerbeds, pulling weeds and plucking withered blossoms.

“Can’t get enough of gardening?” I ask.

Mrs. Shirase replies with sass in her voice, “There’s more to do, but Mr. Ōtomo wanted to stop. Join us.” She smacks her gum.

“There’s more work,” Mrs. Chidori chimes in.

I join.

Despite their lamentations of sore joints, high blood pressure, weak vision, tingling fingers, forgetfulness, and lethargy, the women have plenty of energy.

As the sky turns colorless, the women chat warmly, their hands energetic in cold earth. The gloaming is calm, too early in the year for the hum of biting insects. Released from school, children walk past, joking and whispering secrets, but they soon vanish behind closed doors, shifting to worlds of pixels. Kitchens warm; scents of fish and soy and ginger escape through cracked windows. Even nearby factories seem to slow in a twilight swoon before laborers once again batter metal with heat in the night shift.

Darkness pools like rain in the lowest spots. The cinnamon-colored earth darkens to black. Now things move quickly as factory buildings steal swaths of light. In sticky shadow, hands and conversation move at a hurried clip.

Like a candle snuffed by wind, we finish.

Plucked blossoms dot heaps of weeds, luminous against the growing dim as if the petals gather the waning light for themselves.

After nightfall, the wives of Mr. Ōtomo and Mr. Taira will cook dinner. Mrs. Shirase will prepare a meal for her husband. Mrs. Chidori will eat by herself. A widow with no children and far from her village of origin, she is alone. When darkness embowers, loneliness often accompanies solitude. Passing hours becomes an unnerving burden. A radio or television may lessen loneliness, but neither replaces the sounds of a human voice or the clink of someone else’s dishes. After tucking themselves into futons, lights switched off, some women will sing. Mrs. Chidori does, but she will never share her singing voice with us, nor which songs she sings.


Aaron Hames is a medical anthropologist and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. His research examines how the elderly in Japan encounter an aging society and work through cooperative medical organizations to meet their social and health needs.


Cite as: Hames, Aaron. 2023 “Songs of Solitude” In “Flash Ethnography: Dusk” Aaron Hames and Derek Pardue, eds., American Ethnologist website, June 20 2023