Several months ago, as people across the United States were rallying against the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns, one protestor held up a sign that read: “Sacrifice the Weak.” Some of the demonstrators were prepared, at least rhetorically, to put the economy above the lives of the elderly, who have been the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. 

While the protestors’ graceless ire may appall us, we are not entirely immune to the unspoken rationale built into their claim: that it is a tragedy for a child to die, sad for a 30-year-old to die, and merely unfortunate for an 80-year-old to die. 

Earlier this year, I attended an opera that brought this issue into high relief. Blood Moon, with an original libretto written by Ellen McLaughin (best known for her role as the angel in Angels in America), tells the story of a nephew’s return to the mountain where he once abandoned his aging aunt, the woman who had raised and cared for him. 

He’s engaging in a mythical Japanese practice called ubasute, in which an elderly relative is carried to a mountain and left there to die. There is no evidence that this was ever a common ritual—in fact, it’s quite clear that this is the stuff of legend. And still, references to ubasute have cropped up through the ages: in the 15th-century Noh play Ubasute, on which Blood Moon was based, in the Japanese mountain called Ubasute-yama, or in Shohei Imamura’s 1983 film The Ballad of Narayama, set in a village where senicide is routine. 

As the death toll from COVID-19 sloped upward, my memories of these encounters with ubasute resurfaced. I wanted to know more about this reputed practice: Where did the stories about it come from? Were there origins in Buddhism? Why has the legend persisted? 

I wrote to Professor Edward Drott, scholar of Japanese religions at Sophia University in Tokyo and author of Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan, to find out more about ubasute and what this myth can tell us about our relationship with the elderly. 

***

What can you tell me about the Noh play Ubasute? Who wrote it, and why did they write it? The play has traditionally been attributed to the medieval Japanese playwright Zeami, who is regarded as Noh’s most influential playwright and theorist, although that attribution has come into question recently. Whoever wrote the play, the question of why they wrote it probably cannot be fully answered. However, there are a few things about Ubasute-yama and the legends associated with it that make it good raw material for a Noh play. First, there is a rich poetic tradition referring to the mountain and its legends. Noh plays are full of allusions to, and quotations from, elegant poetry of centuries past, which enhanced Noh’s prestige as an art form and added to its high-culture ambience. This was one of Zeami’s major contributions; he helped elevate Noh at a time when it was still regarded as lowbrow entertainment.

Second, Noh aesthetics borrow from the Mahayana concept of the ultimate nonduality of samsara and nirvana, suffering and liberation. Zeami and other Noh playwrights believed that the height of beauty was to be found in the depths of pathos or despair. For this reason, five plays featuring elderly female protagonists were regarded as possessing the highest dignity or rank (kurai), because, it seems, old women were seen to embody the miseries of samsaric existence more aptly than any other human form. 

I have not read the play in many years, but I remember that it involves the ghost of an abandoned old woman and ends with her dancing and reliving her memories under the full moon. The moon often symbolizes enlightenment in Noh. In this and the other four plays featuring old women, the ending is ambiguous—the women seem to remain lost in their dreams of the past. 

ubasute
Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Aunt and Takemi Kitamura as
Puppeteer/Dancer in Blood Moon | Photo by Maria Baranova

In his theoretical writings, Zeami argues that, at its best, Noh is able to give the audience an experience that transcends dualities, uniting ugliness and beauty, suffering and liberation, delusion and awakening. Again, very Mahayana; he was inspired, in part, by aesthetic treatises that tried to find esoteric Buddhist truths hidden away in classical Japanese poetry. 

Are we sure ubasute was never (or rarely) practiced? First of all, we should distinguish between a very narrow definition of ubasute as the practice of carrying your elderly mother up a particular mountain and leaving her there (paradigm 1), and a broader definition of ubasute that would involve less specific and less labor-intensive forms of abandonment (paradigm 2).

We cannot be absolutely sure that something like ubasute was never practiced. In fact, given that there continue to be cases of elder abuse, even patricide and matricide, or abandonment in the present day—not just in Japan, of course, but everywhere you find human beings—it stands to reason that there would have been instances of this in the past as well, especially in times of famine or extreme hardship. That said, it seems highly unlikely that someone would have made the effort to carry their elderly mother up a mountain to leave her there (paradigm 1). So whatever forms of abandonment that took place would almost certainly have been of the latter type (paradigm 2).

But let’s return to paradigm 1. There are probably many people in Japan, including, possibly, some scholars, who believe that because there were numerous legends describing ubasute it must have been a real practice. However, outside of legends, works of poetry, fiction, and drama, there are to my knowledge no reliable sources attesting to this practice.

Kamuriki-yama is the first mountain known to have acquired the name Ubasute-yama. It is featured in a poem in the Kokinwaka-shu, an early anthology of Japanese waka poetry. But the poem makes no mention of the practice of ubasute. It is just a place name. We might think that the existence of a place called Ubasute-yama suggests that there must have been a practice of ubasute, but that might not be the case. Place names often start out as one thing and then through a process akin to the game of telephone get transformed into some set of similar sounds with a different set of associations. For instance, there is a shrine in Osaka literally called Ha Jinja, or Tooth Shrine, and people go there to pray to prevent or cure problems with their teeth. But at the entrance is a plaque (no pun intended), which describes how the shrine originally venerated a giant stone, which stood as a divine barrier to curb (hadome suru) the Yodo river and prevent it from overflowing its banks. The rock was known as the hadome no kami, or the “god that curbs [floodwaters].” The “ha” in “hadome” actually means “tooth” in Japanese. So, at some point, people started calling the god (perhaps by mistake, perhaps as a joke) the “ha itami dome no kami”—the god that stops toothaches. Thus, today we have the Tooth Shrine.

All of this is to say that the explanations given today about the reason that mountain is called Ubasute-yama, based on legends, or its shape, or whatever, might be nothing more than attempts to retrospectively rationalize or make sense of a name that might have come about by accident.

Old women were seen to embody the miseries of samsaric existence more aptly than any other human form.

The first reference in Japan to the legend of ubasute comes in the 10th century Yamato monogatari, or the Tales of Yamato. It tells of a man whose wife bullies him into abandoning his aged aunt on a mountaintop. Once he returns home, he feels remorse and heads back up the mountain to rescue her. There is a possibility that this story was inspired by the Kokinshu poem, which speaks of unease seeing the moon above mount Ubasute. But the bulk of the narrative actually bears resemblance to an Indian tale, found in the Storehouse of Sundry Treasures Sutra (Jpn: Zappozokyo or Zohozokyo Taisho Tripitaka no. 203), which had been in Japan since at least the Nara period (8th century). The fact that this and later legends bear a striking resemblance to the Indian story from the Zappozokyo makes it seem all the more likely that these are works of fiction or morality tales, not descriptions of real practices.

So, I conclude that there were most likely individual cases of abandonment, but there were no widespread, socially accepted or normalized practices of abandonment.

The first time I came across ubasute was in Imamura Shohei’s 1983 film The Ballad of Narayama. Although it’s most certainly dramaticized, can you acknowledge any accuracies in the depiction of the 19th century village? I saw it about 15 years ago, and I remember being impressed by the film’s seeming realism—its frank portrayal of the grittiness, precarity, and brutality of rural life during that period. Most Japanese films tend to romanticize the past.

On the other hand, the film gave the impression that ubasute was a common practice. When the protagonists reach the top of the mountain, it is littered with skeletons, presumably of other elders who had met the same fate. Here, I thought, the film seemed to stray from realism into the genre of horror.

My research focuses on early and medieval Japan (ca. 900-1600) so I am not really sure about how true to life the film was. But we have much better records from that period (late Tokugawa and early Meiji) than from earlier times. If ubasute was such a pronounced phenomenon, surely some provincial official would have left some record of it, especially given that Neo-Confucianism was the governing ideology of the day. We know, for instance, that Buddhist temples were encouraged by the central government to preach to local parishioners in an effort to end the practices of abortion and infanticide. I know of no similar efforts to stamp out the abandonment of elders. But again, I am not a Tokugawa or Meiji specialist, so I cannot say for certain.

As Japan confronts the problem of a rapidly aging society (koureikashakai) and lack of caregivers, have you seen the concept of ubasute resurface in any artistic or cultural context in Japan? I have come across a few instances in contemporary fiction and in ethnographies where elders refer to nursing homes as Ubasute-yama. People are certainly aware of the legend, and the trope has been pulled out repeatedly by the media as a way of talking about the dangers facing the elderly as we move deeper into this demographic crisis. I did a Google search and found that a TV drama was released in 2018 titled Ubasute about a young person who thinks elders have nothing to offer and should be gotten rid of. This person then strikes up a friendship with someone online named Diana. I have not seen the drama, but I am guessing the shocking reveal is that Diana is an old woman. 

Incidentally, in 2018 I wrote an article on representations of senile dementia in Japanese film. In Japan, symptoms of deterioration among the elderly are still commonly framed as boke—a folk-medical category associated more with a loss of social graces than with cognitive decline. Whereas senile dementia has most often been depicted in North America as a condition entailing a horrifying “loss of self,” or even a loss of humanity, responses in Japan point to a different range of concerns. I conclude that Buddhism might have had some influence on Japanese understandings of the condition.

In your research for your book Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan, what did you discover about ubasute? Ironically, I found that although we have little evidence of people abandoning their parents, we have abundant historical evidence for another form of abandonment in premodern times: elders abandoning their families. In diaries, court histories, and other kinds of documents we see that, starting in the Nara period and then becoming ever more widespread in the Heian and medieval periods, it became customary for elders to live out their final years as Buddhist monks, nuns, or lay-recluses. This evolved out of the practice of rinju shukke—taking the tonsure on the death bed to gain merit in hopes of recovery or to aid one in attaining a positive rebirth. Gradually people started taking the tonsure earlier and earlier in order to prolong the period of merit-making prior to death.

Although we have little evidence of people abandoning their parents, we have abundant historical evidence for another form of abandonment in premodern times: elders abandoning their families.

This practice started out with aristocrats but gradually spread to all levels of society. Their degree of disengagement from their families or the rest of society varied from case to case. Some who could afford it would retire to a separate cloister located on their family’s estate or on the grounds of a temple. Some would leave home and spend their final years on pilgrimages or as wandering mendicants. Some would head out to wilderness areas and live in a hut. Those who could afford it would take formal vows, administered by an ordained member of the Buddhist clergy. Most, however, simply shaved their heads, donned black robes, and made their own vows. Today, we refer to these “self-ordained” types as “lay monks” or “lay nuns.”

These practices fit with the common view, especially in Nara and Heian periods (“early” or “classical” era Japan) that elders needed to remove themselves from social and political life and retreat to the periphery. In this way, the legends of ubasute are in keeping with the classical-era tendency to portray old age as a time of misery, alienation, and marginalization.

Elders seemed to have felt a great deal of ambivalence about this custom. Many sources show elders reluctant but resigned to take what they understood to be this necessary step. Even in cases in which the elder would continue to live with their loved ones, cutting their hair was a potent symbol of separation. Other sources, however, show elders eager to retire from the world, undertaking the ceremony joyfully, and speaking of it as the fulfillment of a long-cherished wish. Many seemed pleased to be able to finally focus all of their energies on Buddhist practices.

In the medieval period, representations of retirement shift toward these more positive valences. This is part of the “transformation” that I discuss in my book. To put it in the simplest possible terms: in the classical period, elders were portrayed as no longer fully part of the human realm—a miserable fate; in the medieval period, however, this liminal status could lend elders an air of the “otherworldly.” The figure of the old man, or okina, came to be regarded as a symbol of the beyond—the human form in which avatars of buddhas, bodhisattvas or kami were most likely to appear. Old women, for the most part, continued to be seen as samsaric beings. 

As discussed above, however, this made the figure of the marginalized elderly woman a particularly excellent protagonist in literary or dramatic works, such as Noh. The fact that old women could represent the extreme of human suffering and social isolation meant that their salvation could be all the more radical and dramatic.

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