The Story of the AGED MOTHER: A REFLECTION on Society
Long ago in Shinano, there lived at the foot of the mountain a young farmer and his old mother. They belonged to a village governed by a despotic daimio. He decreed that all the old people who are unarguably slow and feeble shall be executed. The young farmer upon hearing the news crept in the night and carried his old mother to Obatsuyama, where the aged are left to die. With a heavy heart, he trudged the narrow and steep mountain sides passing through thick bushes and tall trees. While the son was focused on getting to Obatsuyama, his mother reached for every twig they passed by to provide a trail. When they reached the top of the mountain, the son made a soft cushion for his mother. It was then that his mother bade goodbye and told him to be safe and that he shall follow the trails she left for him. The son's heart was crushed as he was touched by his mother's kindness. He then carried his mother back to Shinano and hid her in the walled closet beneath the kitchen floor. Time passed and the son continually supplied her mother's needs without anyone suspecting. The daimio on the other hand feeling confident about his power ordered another decree commanding the citizens of Shinano to make a rope of ashes. The village was faced with a terrible dilemma but the young farmer's mother came up with an idea. They must burn a long line of twisted straw on a windless night. The son told the villagers what to do and with their success the daimio was pleased. He was told that it was the young farmer's old mother's idea. From then on the decree of executing the aged was lifted. __________________________________________
The Story of the Aged Mother is a Japanese folktale by Matsuo Basho. Reading the story ignited the curiosity within me as to whether or not this tale has been told from generation to generation. The story somehow relevantly displayed the action of the son carrying his mother to Obatsuyama, where she will be left to die. However the action of the mother making a trail of twigs for the son intensifies the tale. I thought that somehow this has a connection to a Japanese tradition. It could also be that this is an allusion to Japanese societies in the past and even in the present.
This blog will talk about the origin of the said tale and how it affected the Japanese community. This would also include my opinions and reaction about this tradition. In addition, photos are provided to arouse interest if not curiosity and intrigue.
The story made mention of a daimio which according to Dictionary.com are feudal lords who are vassals to a shogun . They were the most powerful feudal rulers from 10th to the middle 19th century in Japan. They were large landowners and vassals who governed provinces of feudal Japan. They were known to hire Samurais to guard their territory and safety. This explains why in the story the villagers trembled in fear upon hearing the daimio's order thus giving them no choice but to follow. Another display of power of the daimio in the story is when he ordered a decree commanding the villagers of Shinano to make a rope of ashes. Shinano is an old province in Japan that is now Nagano Prefecture. A World War II aircraft was even named after it.
The part when the son carried his mother to the mountain of abandonment, Obatsuyama, was actually an old Japanese custom. An elderly parent is carried to a desolate place to die either by starvation, dehydration or exposure as a form of mercy killing (Euthanasia). This is most common during times of drought and famine. This was known as Ubasute. Obatsuyama may not refer to a specific place, however some accounts say that it could be the forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji. According to Thomas Shomaker in his blog, Japan's Haunted Forest, there is a dense forest called Aokigahara or Jukai meaning a sea of trees. It is believed that amidst the dense trees could be where the ubasute is performed. Since 1950's and until the present it is well-known as a suicide destination. According to spiritualists this might have happened because of the horrible past of the place. Most of the Obasutes are ordered by feudal lords as the aged may not be worthy of spending any amount of food when they could just die any time. So instead of giving the food and time taking care of them, it is much helpful if they just disappear. This is utmost cruelty, making us less than animals who may only fend for themselves when it comes to survival. We are created with superior intellect, therefore we use it to think of some other sane means to survive the odds. Come to think about it, when we were only infants we were fragile and feeble and required so much time but our parents never gave up on us. Never imagined just giving us to the lions because we were so much of a burden other than useless for manual labor. So what right do we have to do such a horrible act to our parents?
The decree of the daimio also translates to what happened in reality. According to Jason Danely's paper on "Aging and Abandonment: Obasute Narratives in Contemporary Japan", Japan's older adult population has climbed from less than 5% of the total population in 1950 to almost 22% today. The older adults are faced with the dilemma of struggling to understand how it is to grow old in a society of ethical guideposts of filial values, honorable elders and ancestor veneration have become so dramatically transformed. In the context of modern Japan, obasute indexes many of the anxieties of a growing number of older adults uncertain about their place in society when old age comes. They are frightened with the thought of becoming a burden. I never really thought of aging much as a burden hence I fear it because it only means I am at the end of the line. Others may despise even just the thought of it because they do not want to look wrinkled and ugly. However being a burden seems to be a very crucial stage though, I might deny it but it is reality. Once we're old, we may be “burdens'' if we don't prepare for such a day to come. If we have wasted our youth to hate and indifference; to idleness and greed then our old age could be our doom. But if we have lived to love and care in the end we would be loved and cared in return just like the old mother in the story.
The story left us with a very meaningful quote, "With the crown of snow, there cometh wisdom." It is true that the older we become the wiser we get however, it is not always true. We do not have to wait for old age to enlighten us about the things in this world because by then it might be too late. But the point of the quote is that everyone is useful, even the aged. They might have lost their strength but not their wisdom. Such wisdom shall not be put to waste. All we need is just to listen. I have come to a realization that this story is not anymore about the customs of the past but how those may have affected the present. An obasute could only be a legend, a myth but how we treat our elders may have proven it true. Though it is true that we have different traditions, cultures and beliefs but we all have one thing in common. That is our ability to love. Love begets love, they say.
References Danely, Jason 2012. Aging and Abandonment: Obasute Narratives in Contemporary Japan. www.researchgate.net Shomaker, Thomas 2012. Japan's Haunted Forest. www.huffingtonpost.com
This is a project prototype of a reflective writing for Afro-Asian Literature Grade 8 July 17, 2017