February 8, 2023

by Vago Damitio
obasuteyamaIt’s never easy to become old. Whether one is looking for a job at Walmart to supplement social security in the USA or attempting to define one’s self within a new social context in another society, the process of aging is one that comes with a slew of changes, discomforts, and fears. This is as true in Japan as it is in every other human nation. The process of aging and becoming old in Japan is a cultural experience that exerts pressure upon the individual social constructs which seniors have spent a lifetime building. Aging in Japan is a process in which social pressures upon the elderly manifest as a fear of becoming obsolete and being discarded. This fear and social pressure are visibly represented as the attempts to stave off boke, a condition similar to dementia, and within the trepidation the elderly in Japan feel while living “in the shadow of Obasuteyama.”

The film Narayama Bushiko is a film adaptation of a legend that has been told for many generations in Japan. In the film, a village woman ages and in the process forces family members to deal with issues of responsibility, fear, and changing social status. The protagonist, Orin, is a woman who has reached the age where villagers either die or are taken to the mountain of the Gods, Obasuteyama, where they are abandoned. The problem is that Orin is too healthy to die on her own and her son is not enthusiastic about abandoning his useful and healthy mother in the wilderness. In this situation, a healthy woman is forced into a societal role that doesn’t really fit her and in the process a caring son is forced to come to terms not only with the life of his mother, but also with his own inevitable aging.

Among the more interesting facets of this rich film are the attempts that healthy Orin makes to fit with the societal standard surrounding a woman of her age. Villagers, among them her own grandson, mock her for her healthy teeth and so she brutally knocks her teeth out so that she can fit within the societal expectation of an old person having bad teeth. One could easily point to gateball, a leisure pastime reserved for the elderly in Japan, as another societal expectation. Gateball, like bad teeth, is something that the elderly are expected to have in their lives.

…most people who participate in gateball are over the age of sixty-five.
(Traphagan. 2000 pp. 125)

In fact, like having bad teeth, those under the age of sixty-five often express embarrassment at playing a game that is for the elderly. The obverse of this is also true in that the elderly in Japan are embarrassed at not fitting within the expected societal roles that have been culturally laid down for them.

In the film Aging in Japan: When Traditional Mechanisms Fail there is an old woman that reminded me of Orin. This woman is healthy and probably performs a variety of functions for her children and their families at home, but since she has become old, she feels that she is more of a burden than an asset. As a result of this feeling of loss of social position, the woman removes herself from her home life and essentially moves into a 24-hour bath house. This action is roughly comparable to Orin forcing her son to carry her to the mountain because of her fear of being physically alive but socially dead. Orin is insistent that she be taken at the proper time because of the shame that she was forced to bear when her husband refused to take his own mother to the mountain. This fear of being elderly and obsolete in Japan seems to be pervasive within the society and thus in his book Taming Oblivion, John Traphagan refers to older people who are devalued for becoming aged as if it is the result of a personal failure. Traphagan’s work is primarily aimed at the active attempts that modern day seniors make at remaining engaged within the adult framework through using activities such as gateball to maintain social roles and thus retain the right to social and economic support from their children as a legitimate reciprocal relationship.

The process of becoming disengaged from this framework involves ‘taming oblivion’, in this case the oblivion referred to is boke. Boke is similar to other mental and/or physical dementia but is seen to be within the control of the individual suffering from it, at least to some degree. By being active, one can stave off its effects.

The moral content of boke is tied to an individual’s social responsibility to bea n active, contributing member of society by taking care of one’s physical and mental health, to avoid situations that burden others, and to return the obligations one incurs through relationships of interdependence with others. (Trapahagan 2000. pp 4)

It would seem that the mental and physical elements of boke are thus to stay busy and active both socially and physically. Traphagan says that those suffering from boke are “ a liminal being who has lost control over the values that make one a moral person.” (Traphagan 2000. pp 5)

Of course, there would seem to be some very real differences between the senior citizens that Traphagan is describing and Orin in Narayma Bushiko. Orin is anxious to be taken to the mountain so that she can leave all of her societal roles and responsiblilities behind. Orin has been through the female life changes, she has been married, had children, and become an old woman. She has experienced the kounenki, or female life changes associated with aging (Yano. Classnotes. 11/08). And now, she is trying to convince her son and her village that she has become an obsolete old person, just as she has presumably seen other old people become. This is very different from the old people whom Traphagan talks to and about who seem, for the most part, to be afraid of being taken to the mountain, i.e. they are afraid that they are becoming old and obsolete. While Traphagan’s people all seemed to have a dignity that came with their senior age, they would seem to be more in the role of a villager’s father in Narayama Bushiko than of Orin. The father has become old and bothersome to his family so he is kept locked up in a back room and then finally taken to the mountain where his son throws him off a cliff. I think that the distinction between Orin and the father is important to make. Orin approaches her destiny and insists on leaving before she can become a burden while the father insists on staying and being a burden. Thus, Narayama Bushiko functions as a morality tale in which people in Japan are encouraged to ‘go to the mountain’ willingly. Thus, they really are ‘living in the shadow’ of the mountain.

Taming Oblivion, Narayama Bushiko, and Aging in Japan: When Traditional Mechanisms Fail are all three about fear of losing one’s place and esteem within society. Older people in Japan don’t want to be abandoned and rather than placing an expectation upon those around them to take care of them, they have an understanding of the legend of Obasuteyama that when they are unable to contribute in a positive and productive way, they are no longer necessary and in fact are likely to become a burden to those they most value. They do not want this. Instead, they strive to stay active, productive, useful, and fully embodied.

To become boke is to have failed in one’s responsibility to care for oneself and thus, to remain a member of the social world. (Traphangan 2000. pp182)

In a culture which places such a heavy stress on social relationships, it must be unbearable to think of becoming a burden and a failure.

…one should always be making efforts to be a good individual and, thus, contribute to the social whole, and the fatalistic reality that decline and entrance into the oblivion of senility may rob one of the agency needed to do so. (Traphagan 2000.pp 184)

Rather than allowing such a thing to happen, seniors in Japan are more likely to make a trip to the mountain whether it is in the form of gateball, 24-hour bathhouses, or the modern day equivalent of going to the mountain, senior suicide.

%d bloggers like this: