Ubasuteyama (姥捨て山 grandmother throwing mountain?) was a practice formerly performed in Japan, whereby an infirm or elderly relative was carried to a mountain, or some other remote, desolate place, and left there to die, either by dehydration, starvation, or exposure. The practice was most common during times of drought and famine, and was sometimes mandated by feudal officials.
Ubasuteyama has left its mark on Japanese folklore, where it forms the basis of many legends, poems, and koans. In one Buddhist allegory, a son carries his mother up a mountain on his back. During the journey, she stretches out her arms, catching the twigs and scattering them in their wake, so that her son will be able to find the way home.
A poem commemorates the story:
- In the depths of the mountains,
- Who was it for the aged mother snapped
- One twig after another?
- Heedless of herself
- She did so
- For the sake of her son
This story made a strong impression on Albert Einstein during his visit to Japan in 1922. Shohei Imamura's film The Ballad of Narayama, which won the Palme d'Or in 1983, gave the practice international notoriety.
The practice is discussed in some detail in Radio Lab episode #305 Morality. The segment "Fountains of Youth" discusses the modern Japanese perspective on aging.
Ubasuteyama sometimes appears as a metaphor for contemporary Japan's treatment of the elderly, who are noted for their above-average suicide rates.
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