Ubasute, the mythical Japanese practice of leaving an older relative to die on a mountain, speaks to society’s troubling attitudes toward aging.
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.
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…