‘Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan’ reviewed by Chisaki Fukushima

‘Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan’ by Jason Danely (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Aging and lossJason Danely has produced a moving account of the contradictions of ageing and loss in contemporary Japan. He intentionally eschews a heavy handed theoretical approach, in favour of one that prioritises the stories of the people with whom he worked. One of the more poignant examples of how he allows his book to be a vehicle for other’s voices is in his choice of cover for the paperback edition of the book. He has chosen a painting by one of his informants, Ono Sayaka, entitled ‘Roba [old woman] wasn’t built in a day’. The haunting gold leaf image captures both the celebratory and loving relationship of the artist to her grandmother as well as the inevitable decay and loss that comes with ageing. Perhaps Danely’s principle contribution to anthropology lay in his attempt to deal with the ways in which ‘everyday spiritual life in Japan, draw[s] together seemingly contradictory elements and perspectives’ (p. 5). As a Japanese anthropologist who is fully immersed in many of the contradictions addressed in Danely’s book, I found his delightful exploration engaging and insightful.

Japan’s status as a ‘super-aging’ population seems to be well known around the world. The almost mythical longevity enjoyed by the Japanese, coupled with a birth rate that appears to be declining at an alarming rate have clearly triggered important debates in contemporary Japan. Sustained economic sluggishness has placed ever greater strain on the working age population to generate the revenues required to support aging populations. According to Danely, the Japanese state, like most states around the world, has sought to off load the economic responsibility for caring for elderly citizens to families. Elderly people are encouraged to work longer and provide for their own insurance. Families are expected to provide primary care for vulnerable parents and grandparents (and sometimes even great grandparents, such is the Japanese longevity miracle!). This book provides a rich tapestry of vignettes of how that off-loading is taking place. He has identified some of the most important sites for memorialisation and ritualisation of ageing and death. It is in these sites where he shows the ways in which the contradictions that run throughout the book are ‘bridged’.

Throughout the book there are examples of the ways in which elderly Japanese people are celebrated and respected, but also that as they grow older and weaker they are increasingly treated almost as revered children. Danely talks about initiatives throughout the Kyoto area which seek to connect different segments of the population, particularly the elderly and youth. One such initiative involves life histories which explicitly attempts to link youthful volunteerism with older people, who Danely says are reportedly fond of story-telling (pp. 116-117). As part of such a community building exercise, Danely was advised on best practice when interviewing people in the stage he refers to as ‘late-old-age. He was told, among other things, to smile, maintain eye contact without staring, refrain from joking about possible tall tales and also to avoid correcting the elderly. The message seems clear. Old people have wisdom, but deliver it in ways that are more familiar to the immature and inexperienced. One must approach the elderly as some hybrid form of both child and adult.

My only regret when reading this book, was that I saw hints of important symbolic aspects of ageing and loss that Danely skirted over. This is a mild rebuke, because of course it is not possible to include every aspect of any topic in a single book. Nevertheless, it might have been nice to read a bit more about the importance of the connections between nature, Shinto and Buddhism in relation to the elderly. Danely mentions that his participants talked about old people becoming Hotoke (Buddha/god/ancestor), but it might have been useful to see more detailed descriptions of the beiju ceremony which marks a person’s 88th year of life, a significant milestone in Japan, which is illustrated on the cover of book. It is largely at this point when Japanese families symbolically mark the point at which an individual returns to a childlike state. While the book has many other examples of the kinds of bridging that interests Danely, this ritual anniversary event seems rather ideally suited to his argument and therefore its absence is unfortunate.

I approached this book as an anthropologist with a particular interest in the environment, rural agriculture and education. Not being a specialist of ageing or social gerontology, I found myself relying more on my personal experiences growing up in a small town in western Japan (not far from Kyoto). His accounts of the rhetorics of ageing and wisdom resonated in tangible ways. At the end, I realised that I had ceased to read this book as an ‘anthropology of’ book and had instead begun to read it as a voyage of personal reflection. It gave me a chance to ponder some of the contradictions embedded in my own ritual and social existence that so often go unseen and unacknowledged. This is not to say that the book doesn’t have much to say to the anthropology of gerontology, the anthropology of super-ageing societies and of course the anthropology of Japan, but thanks to the warm and humane way in which Danely has chosen to frame his ethnographic evidence, this book speaks far beyond the narrow constraints of the usual academic book.

Reviewed by Chisaki Fukushima, an independent researcher who holds an MA in Environmental Anthropology (University of Kent at Canterbury), BA in Social System (Shiga University, Japan), and has previously worked for the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and Japanese supplementary schools.

Correspondence to Chisaki Fukushima

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