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Interview: Older Japanese Find Comfort in Ritual


Jason Danely is the author of Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan.

Aging populations affect nations and peoples around the globe. By 2030, one in every three Japanese will be 65 or older. People in Japan live longer, on average, than anywhere else in the world. So what can we learn from the Japanese experience?

Anthropologist Jason Danely has spent nearly a decade capturing the everyday lives of older Japanese. Exquisitely written, Danely's book Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan opens another window on to the many landscapes of aging. The author shows us how older Japanese embrace contradiction, experience loss and grief and – at the same time – feel connected and hopeful.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Danely at Oxford Brookes University, in Oxford, England.

Ruth Dempsey: Aging and Loss takes us on an aesthetic voyage. Why is aesthetics necessary to understanding the quality of Japanese aging?

Jason Danely: I think that if we can think of aging not as something that happens to us but as something more like a story that each of us weaves, then what is most interesting to me is not the literal content of the story, but how it is invigorated or inspired by the choice of images, metaphors and rhythms.

When I first went to Japan, the first thing that struck me was the feeling of being transported to an entirely new sensory world. People seemed to have very different ideas about what made the world beautiful, whether it was gardens made out of rocks, or the delicate flavours of the tofu or the smells of sweet roasting potatoes. Like age, these sensory worlds get under the skin, even taken for granted, but they allow older people to find meaning in their lives when grief can make life feel smaller.

The best examples of this were everyday rituals and small acts of thoughtfulness that allowed feelings of care to flow through the lives of older people. So by describing how people carried out these rituals, I could highlight some key aspects of Japanese aesthetics, like transience and emptiness, and ground them in things that I saw older people doing every day.

RD: Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of the people in your study?

JD: Of the 30 older people I interviewed, I chose a core group of 12 that I felt illustrated the diversity and similarity of older people living in urban Japan today. The book is about them most of all.

Half were women, half were men. They lived in different areas of the city. They had different family structures, religious backgrounds, education and careers. The youngest was 67 and the oldest was in her 90s. They opened up their homes to me, took me to visit their graves and introduced me to their families. They helped me tremendously with creating this book to them.

RD: Throughout the book, you draw on the cultural tale of Ubasuteyama. What is the story, and why is it important today?

JD: The story of Ubasuteyama has been told in different forms for centuries. That right there is interesting.

But this is not just a folk story. It usually doesn't involve magical creatures and other things one sees in many Japanese tales. The central conflict of the story revolves around a man in a small mountain village who must take his old mother deep into the mountains and abandon her there to die. What must he feel? And what about the mother? Would she feel comforted by her son's compassionate hastening of her death? Would she be upset or grief-stricken?

What is most interesting to me about Ubasuteyama is that if one looks at the many versions of the story, you can see that it is a profoundly emotional tale – about aging, dying and living on.

RD: Let's turn to some of the people in your study. Hasegawa-san, 75, likes to create haiku poems. You often met him at the senior community centre. Is that right?

JD: Yes. Hasegawa-san is a retired civil servant and feels a strong sense of betrayal from the government he devoted his career to. He believes that the state has abandoned older people. He points to shrinking pensions and rising health and care service costs.

While he does attend political rallies on occasion, he is also very creative and transforms his feelings into poetry. Hasegawa-san was not that interested in spiritual matters, but I think this sort of creative expression of loss was similar to the other kinds of personal rituals I write about in the book.

RD: When Nishida-san retired from her weaving business at age 60, her son wanted her to take an overseas trip. Instead, she decided to purchase a new butsudan. What reasons did she give for her decision?

JD: The butsudan is a piece of furniture about the size of a small cabinet, used to give a place to memorialize the family who have passed away. These can be very ornate and gilded in gold leaf. They are passed down through the family.

As a woman, the ancestors in the Nishida-san's butsudan would not have been those of her parents' household, but the household she married into. Even so, she was very affectionate and caring towards them, in part because her husband died very young and his family took good care of her as she raised their young children.

So for her, part of retiring and imagining herself as an elder in the household meant honouring this chain of care. At the same time, getting a new butsudan showed her sons the importance of caring for the family. Nishida-san is now 94 years old. I am sure her sons will remember her commitment to family, when she is no longer with them.

RD: Sato-san has been coming to the cemetery to visit his wife's grave for three decades. He says his visits are a source of strength . . .

JD: Sato-san lost his spouse when he was in his early 30s, and it was devastating at the time. He never remarried, and his mother-in-law helped raise his three sons.

Sato-san was not a religious man, but I think it wouldn't be outrageous to say that he found a higher power through his devotion to his wife. I don't think he was unusual in this among Japanese people. Returning to her grave year after year, and several times throughout the year, he slowly became aware there was a “power,” as he called it that was responsible for allowing him to live even though she died.

Sato-san often complains that his sons don't pay attention to him, that he is lonely and that he has regrets that he will likely take to the grave. But he feels strongly that the spirit of his wife can see him for who he really is and loves him.

His case underscores the importance of love in people's lives as they grow older.

RD: Nakamura Ichiro and his wife live in a 200-year-old traditional style wooden machiya in the center of Kyoto. Nakamura, 67, spends his day fulfilling obligations to the ancestors of his household. The couple wonder if they will be remembered after their death.

JD: Nakamura-san and his wife loved the local traditions, including the festivals and religious events. Some might think of them as nostalgic, but this is only because the pace of change in their neighbourhood has been so rapid.

As the eldest son, Nakamura-san was taught by his parents and grandparents to carry on the household traditions. These sorts of traditions do not come with a manual, and they are not strictly Shinto or Buddhist. These traditions may have developed over a dozen generations. It is hard for him to see them being lost. Neither of his two sons appear interested in carrying on most of the traditions.

Nakamura-san will most likely have to sell their centuries old house in order to pay for long-term care costs. I think the major project for him in old age is deciding how to best pass on his legacy so that he does not have to feel shame in front of the ancestors. And at the same time, he does not become a burden on his children.

RD: In your closing chapter, you write: “Living out one's natural life means having the agency, the creativity and the resources to endure loss and maintain positive bonds to others.” These are challenges that we all face. What can we learn from these older adults?

JD: There is a lot to learn from Japan about mourning and memorial. I think one of the more fascinating aspects of Japanese culture is the way they embrace contradiction. One can experience loss, grief and worry but, at the same time, feel alive, connected and caring all at the same time. This is what memorial is about.

Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, this is not something I learned. You didn't talk about death. And visiting the dead for a chat would have been reason to call for a therapist, but this is the everyday world for many Japanese people.

When I lived in the United States, I met an older woman who told me about a vision she had of her late spouse who died suddenly in a hospital. He was surrounded by a white light and let her know that she did all she could. She was weeping just thinking about it. But she couldn't tell her family, and it wasn't something she felt matched the religion she was brought up in.

In Japan, these kind of stories are passed around all the time among older people. It is through them that old age can become something not to be avoided or feared, but a time of developing a new aesthetic sensibility, a sense of wisdom and warm-heartedness.

I have learned a lot by doing this research. Currently, I am examining aging in Japan through the eyes of the carer. I am sure I will continue to learn for a long time yet.