Coloring books for seniors: keep your hands busy and your brain will thank you

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2013/10/15 Column

Coloring books for seniors: keep your hands busy and your brain will thank you

by Saku Masui

Japanese has many idioms and sayings that refer to te—the hands. Back-scratchers, for example—those long skinny devices typically made of wood that allow us to scratch itchy spots we could not otherwise reach—are known as mago no te, "grandchild's hand." The expression neko no te mo karitai—literally, "we'd like to borrow even the hands of cats"—implies things are so busy that there aren't enough workers to keep up. On the other hand, if you're an idle senior with neither grandchild nor cat, you might have to take things into your own hands. If this turns out to be good for your health as well, so much the better.

Coloring books, which have traditionally been regarded as strictly for children, are gaining traction as a pastime for adults—especially among the elderly. The spark for this new trend came from a series of coloring books for grown-ups put out by major Japanese publisher Kawade Shobo Shinsha. When the first book in the series, Otona no nurie: Utsukushii hana hen (Coloring Books for Adults: Beautiful Flowers), appeared in April 2005, it launched a boom in such books. Eight years later, the series has grown to more than 100 titles, with combined sales of over four million copies.

Compact and simple, and high quality to boot—all at a low price: Japanese manufacturing is known for being able to make these seemingly contradictory elements coexist. The Beautiful Flowers volume serves as a case in point. The first half of the book presents a collection of 11 paintings of flowers—roses, daisies, camellias, etc.—by the Belgian painter and botanist Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), reproduced on gorgeous polychrome plates. The quality of printing is top-notch. These provide the models. The latter half of the volume is the coloring book, presenting the same compositions in simple monochromatic line drawings rendered with delicate detail. Too much detail, and perusers might never get past gazing in delight, so care has been taken to offer just enough suggestion to point the way, while still leaving room for the artist to exercise his or her own creativity. The brief introduction explains that the book is designed to be used with colored pencils, watercolor pencils, or watercolors, but since the expectation is that the majority will most likely choose the first of these, the editors expended considerable time and effort selecting a paper stock that would be optimal for that medium while also remaining suitable for the others. The printing and binding were entrusted to Japan's largest printing firm, Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd., and as one might expect from an industry leader, they leave nothing to be desired. Yet even with all this care lavished on the production, the cover price still comes in under 1,000 yen. It is this combination of high quality and low price that gave rise to a bestseller—with indications that an unusually large portion of the sales were for gifts. Since the publication of that first title, the series has continually expanded into new subject areas, with subsequent volumes featuring everything from the masterpieces of major world artists like Van Gogh and Vermeer, to scenic views from across Japan as well as overseas, to Peter Rabbit.

Healthy sales of the books themselves have given rise to a range of tie-ins, including annual contests (eight contests and counting as of 2013), touring classes that offer free trials, instructor training seminars, and combo packs that bundle colored pencils or high quality watercolor pencils with the books. The success of the series has been a shot in the arm for art supply houses, which have been on the defensive in recent years as computers extend their reach.

Perhaps the strongest impetus behind the lasting boom has been the claim that these coloring books offer valuable stimulation for the brain. Though no rigorous scientific verification has been presented, the prominent place given the volumes at hospitals and eldercare facilities has served as an endorsement and helped spur sales. Not only is movement of the hands and fingers controlled by the motor cortex of the brain's frontal lobe, but one can well imagine that the entire brain might come into play in the process of looking at the model paintings, taking in the forms and colors represented there, and reproducing them with the proper balance in a copy. Just as children have their handheld gaming devices and teens and young people their smart phones, the middle-aged and elderly now have their colored pencils and coloring books . . . Our hands have served us in many ways over the course of time, with prehistoric people first learning to use them to grasp stones and bones, later applying them to the growing of crops, and so forth; perhaps we are now in the process of discovering a vital new role for our hands to play in our declining years.

Also behind the boom is Japan's position at the leading edge of rapidly aging societies across the developed world. By 2025, the first wave of Japan's post-World War II baby boomers will have reached 75, and the over-65 set is projected to exceed 35 million*, comprising roughly 30 percent of the Japanese population as a whole. Approximately 3.2 million*, nearly a tenth of this contingent, are expected to suffer from some form of dementia. We have no time to waste in finding ways to meet the challenge. In fact, one could even say that Japan is in the midst of a grand experiment in the aging of society, and that what happens here can soon be expected to follow in other countries as well. When viewed from this perspective, products that have become a hit among the elderly in Japan seem virtually certain to strike a chord with the same demographic elsewhere. The concept of Coloring Books for Adults is of particular interest on this score because there is no language barrier to get in the way. 

Coloring 1Coloring 2nurie cover_1

Otona no nurie: Utsukushii hana hen (Coloring Books for Adults: Beautiful Flowers)
Kawade Shobo Shinsha, ed.; original art by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2005, 40 pp., ISBN 978-4309268347

Official website:

* Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare figures:'2025%E5%B9%B4%E5%95%8F%E9%A1%8C'


Saku Masui (1967–) was born in Kobe and graduated from Kyoto University. In 1991 he joined The Nikkei, Japan's leading economic daily, where he reported on business and stock market developments for a time before transferring to the cultural pages to take charge of book reviews and editorial duty for the serialized novels published in the paper. He left in 2004 to work for a publisher, and has since gone independent as a freelance writer and editor. He also teaches creative writing classes.