Having created her first app at age 82, Masako Wakamiya and her programming prowess have attracted significant attention in the tech world recently. Earlier this year, the former banker and Kanagawa native published “Hinadan,” an iOS app, just months after picking up an iPhone for the first time. A game designed with seniors in mind, Hinadan challenges players to correctly arrange a hina doll display – a customary part of Japan’s traditional Hinamatsuri festival. In June, the app earned Wakamiya a special invitation to Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, where she was introduced as the conference’s most senior attendee by none other than Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Rakuten.Today caught up with the rising tech star during the Rakuten Technology Conference in Tokyo, where she was presented with the Silver Prize of the Rakuten Technology & Innovation Awards.

First of all, congratulations on your award!

I have no idea how I managed to win such a prize. I’m so embarrassed I want to crawl under the rug!

Recently you have been flying around the world giving speeches at all sorts of events.

I’ve just been blathering away in my jumbled English. I hope I’m making sense! People tell me it gives them courage to see me speak such bad English in front of everyone!

The app you created, “Hinadan,” is getting quite a bit of international attention. How did you come to develop it?

I help out at a non-profit organization called the “Broadband School Association” running computer classes and other activities to encourage seniors to start using smartphones and computers.

A lot of seniors can’t work up the courage to ask their children and grandchildren silly questions about technology. I wanted to do something for those seniors, so I asked a young developer I knew to make something like that, but he said he didn’t know how.

Masako Wakamiya is presented with the Silver Prize of the Rakuten Technology & Innovation Award.

Wakamiya is presented with the Silver Prize of the 2017 Rakuten Technology & Innovation Awards.

One day a friend said, “Why don’t you do it yourself?” I hadn’t a clue how. But he said, “Just start studying. If you don’t understand, I’ll help you.” I had nothing to lose, so that’s just what I did.

I bought enough books to fill an entire bookstore window. They had titles like “Programming so easy that even grade schoolers can understand,” but I thought that was a bit misleading. I didn’t find them easy!

Every March, the Broadband School Association holds an event called the “Digital Hinamatsuri,” where participants gather on Skype to discuss various topics related to the Hinamatsuri Festival that’s held around Japan at that time. Someone suggested we do some sort of presentation introducing the festival, and the idea for a smartphone app came up. It seemed like a good opportunity to teach the younger generation about traditional Japanese culture, since the Hinamatsuri festival represents some of its most colorful elements.

What was the hardest part about developing “Hinadan”?

The programming itself was difficult, but using English was even harder. The programming languages all used English, error messages were in English and communication with Apple needed to be done in English too. Many of us seniors are “allergic” to the English alphabet.

It might be a bit difficult to imagine, but during the war in Japan we weren’t allowed to use English. Even when the war ended and we started using English words, we would be scolded for being “rude.” I think not having this “allergy” to English gives you a significant advantage in this world.

Screen capture of Wakamiya's award-winning Hinadan app.

Screen capture of Wakamiya’s award-winning Hinadan app.

Is there an advantage to being a senior in the programming world?

Being a senior myself, I know what my target audience needs. With most apps, for example, dragging and dropping things is a very common concept. But I know that seniors have trouble with this – a lot of people, including myself, have trouble just swiping. Some seniors can’t even swipe to answer when the phone rings, and they give their children a fright because they don’t answer the phone. Apparently it happens for biological reasons, like the temperature of the user’s fingertip and things like that.

What new technologies would you like to learn next?

I am actually interested in robots. At my age, it’s only a matter of time before someone needs to take care of me, but Japan doesn’t have enough caregivers so I would like to learn more about caregiver robots. I am excited to see how they will develop in the future.

That said, what with becoming a little famous recently, I don’t have as much time as I’d like to study.

You are pretty busy, it seems.

I am! After today’s award ceremony, I’m catching a bullet train straight to Osaka. Busy days.

Don’t you ever need a break?

I’m so busy that I don’t have time to be tired. Hopefully everyone will get tired of me eventually.


Read more posts from the Rakuten Technology Conference here.