Aging through the ages

From being accorded the highest Confucian respect to being left to die, the historical lot of Japan's elderly makes an eye-opening tale

by Michael Hoffman

“If only, when one heard That Old Age was coming One could bolt the door Answer ‘not at home’ And refuse to meet him!” (Anonymous, “Kokinshu” Imperial poetry anthology, 10th century)

Once upon a time there was a ruler who hated old people. Any of his subjects who lived past 70 he banished. A minister of the country loved his aging mother and could not bear to be parted from her. When she turned 70, he dug a secret underground chamber in his house and hid her in it. Years passed. One day a neighboring state sent two nearly identical horses — not as a gift but as a threat, for failure to answer a riddle connected with the horses would result in a deadly attack. The riddle was, Which of the two is the parent, which the offspring?

The ruler appealed to his minister, who promised to think of something. He knew who might have an answer — his mother, still in her secret cell. “She is old; she may have heard of something like this.” Indeed she had. “Place grass between them,” she advised. “The one who steps back and lets the other eat first is the parent.”

Other riddles followed. Each time the minister presented a solution, until at last the aggressor, his arrogance deflated, agreed to cease hostilities and become an ally. The ruler summoned his minister: “How did you do it?” The minister broke down and confessed. Years before, he said, he had hidden his old mother away, and it was her wisdom that had saved the kingdom. The ruler’s heart melted. He saw the error of his ways and resolved from then on to accord the elderly the honor due them.

The tale is Indian. It came to Japan, along with Buddhism, via China in the sixth century. Many Japanese versions evolved. A single thread runs through them: obasute — literally, “throwing grandma away.”

The best-known obasute stories concern a mountain in present-day central Nagano Prefecture, 1,252 meters high, known as Obasuteyama — Mount Throwing-Grandma-Away. Here, legend has it, old people in ancient times were carried — some against their will, some in the spirit of a joyful meeting with destiny — and abandoned to starve. There is no evidence anything of the sort actually occurred; no evidence it never did, either. We know this much: Chinese historical chronicles of the third century, recording a diplomatic mission to Japan, noted, “They (the Japanese) are a long-lived race, and persons who have reached 100 are very common.”

Obasuteyama today is a famous moon-viewing site, the moon casting beautiful reflections in the terraced rice paddies of the foothills.

Japan is now the most elderly country in the history of the world. Its average life span, 82 years and soaring, is creating an entirely new kind of society, the vast implications of which, during its embryonic decades, few seemed to think very much about. Now it is upon us. Twenty-three percent of the population is 65 or over, as against a mere 13 percent under 15. Care for the elderly consumes half the national health budget. By 2055, the government predicts, half the population will be pensioners.

Sept. 20 is Respect for the Aged Day. In honor of the occasion — a tale.

It’s a familiar story in Japan, and, fittingly, a very old one. It forms a segment of the 10th-century classic known as the “Tales of Ise,” an anonymous chronicle, in poetry and prose, of the amorous adventures of a dashing ninth-century courtier named Ariwara no Narihira. And so it came to pass that “a certain lascivious woman thought: ‘I wish I could somehow meet a man who would show me affection!’ It was, however, impossible for her to express this desire openly.”

Of course it was — she was “a year short / Of a centenarian, / Hair disheveled and white.” The son in whom she at last confided took pity on her and considered what to do. “Other men are coldhearted — I wish I could bring her together with Captain Narihira.”

The captain proved approachable and, indeed, amenable. The episode concludes: “It is a general rule in this world that men love some women but not others. Narihira did not make such distinctions.”

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) said: “A youth who does not respect his elders will achieve nothing when he grows up, and he will even try to shirk death when he reaches old age.” Was it this teaching that governed Narihira’s conduct? Certainly it would have been familiar to him. The Confucian classics arrived in Japan a century or so before Buddhism, and in the eighth century the Empress Koken decreed that every household in Japan should have a copy of the “Classic of Filial Piety.”

For vigorous and beautiful youth to obey, revere and humble itself before infirm, doddering age does not come easily. It is a discipline one must strive to acquire. The Heian Period (794-1185) was a flighty time, however, and Confucianism by then, though destined for a revival centuries later, had come to seem stuffy and old-fashioned.

The court lady Sei Shonagon in her “Pillow Book”(circa 1000) tells of a young palace official who, ashamed of his ugly old parents, tossed them into the sea. This is beyond obasute; this is outright murder. But Sei seems more amused than appalled. She says nothing about punishment. The man in fact proceeded to honor his deceased parents at the Bon festival of the dead. A contemporary monk wrote a mildly disapproving poem: “A man who has pushed his parents into the ocean’s depths / Now celebrates the festival of Bon — / Alas, what a grievous sight!” The commentators speak of a mischievous pun that suggests a smile on the poet’s face — “Bon,” the festival, and “bon,” the splash as the old people hit the water.

Early in the Edo Period (1603-1867), under a stern Tokugawa Shogunate that valued obedience above all else, Confucianism became a veritable state religion.

Filial piety, declared the samurai scholar Nakae Toju (1608-48), was “a spiritual treasure unique under Heaven. . . . You can make this treasure your guide, protecting it with your spirit and activating it with your body.”

Few did so more wholeheartedly than the artist and scholar Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841). A high-ranking samurai from a remote and impoverished domain, a brilliantly talented painter of portraits and landscapes, he bore that perennial burden of the gifted — a tortuously complex character. His deep Confucianism coexisted with a restless skepticism that could not but put him on a collision course with a government determined to freeze Japan in time against a rapidly changing world. His subversive passion for Western learning somehow made him no less Confucian — especially where his aged mother was concerned. “If by any chance something should happen to me while my mother is still alive,” he wrote, “my soul would not go to heaven.”

Something did happen to him — an incautious essay got him thrown into prison. Criticizing the government was a capital offense. A petition from an influential party, citing Kazan’s irreproachable filial piety, won him a reprieve — a commutation to house arrest in Tahara, his backwater domain in present-day Aichi Prefecture.

“Although concern for his mother’s welfare is almost obsessive in Kazan’s writing,” notes his biographer, Donald Keene (in “Frog in the Well,” 2006), “he painted her portrait only once. This work . . . may disappoint Kazan’s admirers: she is sitting ramrod straight, and nothing about her expression is in the least gentle or motherly; she is unmistakably a samurai wife and mother, a woman who has endured hardships and will not tolerate weakness in others.”

Kazan’s letters written in exile suggest his state of mind: “The one thing I keep recalling is the capital . . . And when I think how much my mother must yearn to return there, you can imagine how I am oppressed by feelings of being an unfilial son. . . . Because of my habitual fecklessness and instability I have endangered my mother . . . My mother is approaching her 70th year and has not much longer to live. . . . This evening I shall kill myself out of shame. . . . I have no way to apologize to Mother. I shall leave behind in the world the reputation of having been disloyal and unfilial . . .”

Kazan took his life in a shed near his house in November 1841, first disemboweling himself, then finishing himself off with a dagger slash to the throat. His mother, writes Keene, “found him in a pool of blood. At first supposing that he had died from the wound in his throat, the mother cried out, ‘For shame! Why did you cut open your throat instead of your belly? That’s the way a woman kills herself!’ But when she pulled back the outer kimono and saw that he had first disemboweled himself, a smile crossed her grieving face, and she declared, ‘You are truly a son of mine.’ “

In 1947, the novelist Fumio Niwa published a short story titled “The Hateful Age.” Its first readers must have gasped. It is a venomous, pitiless, all-out assault — on Confucianism, on age, on the poor demented old hag who is the story’s main character. “That old woman is a real cancer,” fumes her grandson-in-law. No one reproaches him for harboring unworthy thoughts. He is merely expressing what everyone feels — the author included. She is a cancer, her loathsome personal habits exacerbated by a streak of malice that may or may not arise from her senility. Unaware of, or simply indifferent to, the fact of postwar food shortages, she accuses her family of trying to starve her. She threatens to put a curse on them — and “when I curse people,” she declares, “they die!”

That’s the last straw. A plan is hatched to dump her on another branch of the family in the country. What follows is reminiscent of obasute. The youngest of three granddaughters, 20-year-old Ruriko, straps the withered crone to her back for the long journey by train and on foot. On the train Ruriko and a similarly burdened passenger strike up a conversation. “They’re rice-eating spooks!” said the woman . . . “Just rice-eating spooks!”

That’s what she is, and that’s all she is. The country people are aghast when Ruriko explains the point of her visit, but they grimly resolve to endure. The country grandson-in-law, a kind-hearted man, loses patience at last. He “suddenly remembered the Confucian teachings on filial piety and respect for one’s elders. Was it possible that the Master had had sly, wicked old women like this in mind when he expounded his noble precepts? . . . People had been complaining for years, but the traditional family system still lingered on, with all its inefficiency, hypocrisy, sentimentality and injustice.”

But neither he nor the author suggests an alternative. “Surely,” the grandson-in-law muses, “people should fade out like music, leaving a beautiful melody in the air.”

Surely they should, and yet we are not always in control of such things. We sometimes are, of course. There is the case of a 12th-century recluse named Kamo no Chomei. The vicissitudes of life proved too much for him, he tells us in his little memoir titled “The Ten-Foot Square Hut.” “So when I arrived at the age of 50 I abandoned the world and retired. . . . And so it is that I have come to spend I know not how many useless years hidden in the mists of Mount Ohara. I am now 60 years old, and this hut in which I shall spend the last remaining years of my dew-like existence is like the shelter that some hunter might build for a night’s lodging. . . . Like a drifting cloud I rely on none and have no attachments.”

Or consider Niwa’s fellow novelist, Yukio Mishima. His last novel, “The Decay of the Angel” (1970), contains this cryptic observation: “Just before the pinnacle when time must be cut short is the pinnacle of physical beauty.” Those able to “stop time,” he wrote, are privileged to “enjoy endless physical beauty.” Niwa’s old woman failed to “stop time.” Mishima succeeded. In 1970, aged 45, he disemboweled himself. Niwa, ironically, lived to 101, dying at last in 2005, 20 years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

As we age, we tend to fall out of step with the times. It’s always true to some degree, most poignantly so in times of rapid change. No era in history equals our own in that regard. One measure of the bewilderment of today’s senior citizens left behind is the ease with which glib con artists prey on them, most notoriously in the recent ore-ore (it’s me, it’s me) scam, featuring, for example, a fast-talking youngster pretending over the phone to be a relative in deep, scarcely comprehensible trouble, from which only a cash transfusion from granny’s account into his or her own can bring extrication.

Another measure is the awful phenomenon of elderly people dying alone — some 32,000 a year, the magazine Shukan Diamond reported in April. Sometimes weeks go by before anyone notices. (Sometimes no one ever does notice, as this summer’s revelations of “missing” centenarians, numbering now in the hundreds, made clear.) One image this suggests is of people desperately barricading themselves at home against an outside world grown alien and unintelligible.

Japan’s first experience with accelerated change was its Meiji Period (1868-1912). Never before had an isolated, agrarian, stagnant country flung itself so furiously into a whole new dimension — industrial, cosmopolitan, relentlessly progressive, insatiably acquisitive. In an obscure village called Notsuda, southwest of Tokyo, lived a man named Shoko Ishizaka. He was no historical personage, but he was well enough known in his own time and place. Historian M. William Steele discusses the family in an essay titled “The Ishizaka of Notsuda: A Family in Transition” (in “The Human Tradition in Modern Japan,” edited by Anne Walthall, 2002).

The story is of a man’s past dissolving under him. In vigorous youth he bids it good riddance; in old age he counts the cost. Born in 1841 — the year Watanabe Kazan died — into a rural landowning family, he assumed at 16 the hereditary post of village headman. He was an able administrator and something of a Confucian scholar. He married and had three children. Without ever having questioned the old order of things, he eagerly embraced the new when, in 1868, the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor to power brought it into being. Soon he was active in the nascent People’s Rights movement, agitating for freedom, constitutional government, party politics and other liberal notions far in advance of the time. His home became a hotbed of political activism. He was briefly arrested once. “Thanks to the activities of local freedom fighters such as Shoko,” writes Steele, “Kanagawa Prefecture became one of the most politically active areas in Japan.”

But age, it seems, has a logic all its own. Traditions disdained in youth become a comfort. They seem beautiful in a world grown ugly, sensible in a world gone mad. Imagine this reformist firebrand devastated by a daughter spurning a respectable arranged marriage in favor of a love match to a penniless poet — and then turning Christian to boot!

Once upon a time, age was power. Authority waxed as physical vigor waned. Age conferred wisdom and virtue. So Confucius had taught, and so people believed. The respect paid it might be grudging, but it was real all the same. In government, a council of elders (genro) was a power behind the scenes well into the 19th century. At home, the patriarch ruled the roost (and the matriarch the kitchen, to the distress of many a young bride).

Ishizaka’s falling-out with his daughter marks a kind of watershed. Deference to age is the first casualty of change when change is seen as “progress.” What do the old know of new times? They grew up in a different world, slower, simpler, less advanced. Their knowledge is irrelevant — or is seen to be, not least by the elderly themselves. Few of them today claim special wisdom. Their craving is for lost youth, not lost authority.

In some, a fortunate few, youth seems eternal. Keizo Miura in 2008 celebrated his 99th birthday by skiing down a glacier in the French Alps. His son, Yuichiro, at 70 became the oldest man to climb Mount Everest.

Then there is the physician and writer Shigeaki Hinohara, still indefatigable at 99. He has practiced internal medicine at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo since 1941 and in the past 25 years has written some 150 books, one of which, “Living Long, Living Good,” has sold more than a million copies.

All three men are courted by the media. They represent the bright side of aging in Japan, their very existence a source of encouragement to millions. What are they asked about, and what do they have to say to us? Very little about wisdom or what their long lives have taught them; much instead about the secrets behind their vigorous longevity — a homemade concoction of raw eggs, green tea leaves, vinegar, yogurt and raw rice in the elder Miura’s case; spare eating, positive thinking and unremitting activity in Hinohara’s.

In his inaugural address to the Diet in 1996, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto spoke at length about Japan as an aging society. Never before, he said, had a nation’s demography shifted as seismically as Japan’s was shifting. Here, he warned, was a nascent crisis requiring “unique” solutions.

Bold, challenging, provocative, unheeded words. Little was done. So-called age shokku (age shock) followed age shokku. In 1997 the number of people over 65 overtook the number of people under 16; by 2007 they made up a fifth of the population; by 2020 they will comprise a quarter.

Wherein lies the “shokku”? The milestones were visible decades in advance. Increasing longevity plus fewer people marrying and having children equals a society aging at such-and-such a rate. If any crisis can be planned for, it is a demographic one. Somehow, Japan took its eye off the ball. The “unique” solutions never materialized.

Blame Confucius — or his blinkered latter-day disciples. The romantic notion, eagerly embraced by a deeply conservative government and bureaucracy, was that Confucian virtues ingrained in Japanese hearts would ensure loving, family-centered care, with little government involvement and expense. Shadows on that sunny tableau provoked petulant fretting that Japan was becoming an “obasute society.”

Elderly abuse soared as caregivers — family members and professionals alike — cracked under the strain. Of Japan’s 400,000 certified nursing-care specialists in 2007, only 230,000 were at work in the field. The fact that many qualified caregivers soon give up is easily explained. Caregiving ranked as one of 26 “nightmare jobs” listed by Spa! magazine in 2008. A 31-year-old caregiver at a senior citizens’ home said, “I’m on duty from 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. We’re two staffers in charge of 50 residents. Never mind breaks — there’s no time even to go to the bathroom!” It’s hard labor undignified by a living wage — his salary was a miserable ¥2.4 million a year. That’s no way to attract people to a vital occupation.

Can Indonesian and Filipino caregivers fill the breach? Can robots? Language barriers on the one hand, and doubts on the other as to how “human” even the best gadgetry can ever be, are not conducive to soaring optimism.

I rony, never far to seek, is playfully at work here, too, in the form of “parasite singles.” Sociologists began noticing them in the 1990s. As increasing numbers of elderly fall dependent on a dwindling number of young, the young, stricken by a comatose economy and an unraveling society, are depending in greater and greater numbers — and with less and less embarrassment as time goes by — on their aging parents. As of 2007, says the communications ministry, 2.6 million single men and women aged 35 to 44 — nearly 15 percent of the age group — were living with their parents.

“For my parents’ sake, I suppose I should get a job,” a 33-year-old “parasite” told Spa! in 2007. “But I’ve been saying that to myself for years now. The fact is, I’m fed and clothed whether I work or not.”

“I’m retiring in September,” said his father. “But with my son in this situation, how can I not work?”

With more resignation than enthusiasm, he was looking for a postretirement job.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW Publishing, 2010). His website is www.michaelhoffman. squarespace.com