A young woman looks at her mother. The frail, old woman can no longer walk long distances and usually spends her days inside the house with the family. Her hair has turned white, and the foggy mist in her eyes indicates that she is losing her vision. Her daughter really loves her, but does not know how to continue providing for her. The daughter touches her mother’s face with her right hand, feeling the paper-thin skin devoid of elasticity. The old woman has become a burden. She knows it. Her daughter knows it.
The young daughter grabs her mother, and takes her outside. They walk together at a slow pace to enjoy the beautiful scenery that surrounds them. The trees have started to show their autumn colors, and the air carries the refreshing smells of the Japanese Alps. They make her way to the forest, climbing up a small mountain as they do. The air starts getting colder, a clear sign that the altitude is changing. After a while, they finally reach the spot the daughter had been looking for. She gives her mother a soft kiss on the cheek, and reminds her that she loves her. She then turns around and starts running, leaving her old mother behind. The frail woman stands there with tears rolling down her face, understanding that she has been left to die. She sits down, closes her eyes, and waits.
That is ubasute, the practice of leaving an elderly person in a mountain or other remote and desolate area to die. This type of senicide has been impacting Japanese culture for centuries, being featured in major works of literature and art.
Japan is a country with an aging population, and the government continues to see and implement policies to try to cope with the situation. As Japan scrambles with this, the rest of the world is observing. Japan is not the only country with an aging population. In fact, many countries in Europe face a similar situation, and the United States has what is seen as an aging workforce. However, since Japan is the first country to deal with this, the rest are seeing what things work and which ones don’t.
The aging of Japan mixed with globalization has already changed many things in the country that were once considered to be normal. In the past, families used to live together, but these days more and more elderly people live alone, and at times quite far from the rest of their families.
With Japan’s aging population and the continuing hardships of trying to lead a stable life while working inexplicably long hours, it’s easy to see why ubasute would be common. However, how prevalent is this practice? After all, there is even a mountain in Nagano named Obasuteyama.
The answer to that question has surprised many Japanese people who had not read more on the topic: according to researchers, ubasute is nothing more than a myth.
Despite being mentioned countless times in old poems and koans, the practice itself does not appear to have been common, making ubasute everything but a tradition.
However, there have been cases on the news of people who actually abandoned a loved one in a desolate place, each one reinforcing the idea that ubasute was once a common practice.
One of these famous cases took place in 2011, when a man of the name of Katsuo Kurokawa was accused of having abandoned his disabled sister in a forest. Another case took place more recently when it was reported that a woman had abandoned her father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, at a stop on the Chugoku Expressway.
In spite of the existence of some news that mention the practice, they still remain sensationalist and perfect for the tabloids.
While ubasute does not seem to have ever been a common practice, it is clear that Japan is facing some issues because of its aging population. It is not uncommon for old people to die alone. There are even times when their bodies are left undiscovered for days because of how isolated and lonely their lives had become. Additionally, there have been recent reports of criminals targeting the elderly, sometimes violently invading their homes to rob them.
It’s clear that ubasute, with its depressing and emotional tones, has been fascinating people for centuries. The practice has become legendary, even influencing great works of art and literature. However, ubasute does not seem to have ever been common. These days, whenever an event resembling the practice makes headlines, ubasute is immediately mentioned despite the little to no evidence supporting its ancient prevalence.
Nevertheless, Japan does have an aging population, and its effects can already be seen today. The elderly are severely affected since they tend to live far away from their sons and daughters. With Japan issuing new visas recently, they are expecting to bring in more caregivers from Southeast Asia who can help with the large number of older citizens.