This book has many key points that make it ideal for highlighting issues in current anthropological discussions around care, well-being, generations, memory, and subjectivity. This guide offers some suggestions on how to elaborate these issues into lesson plans.


While writing this ethnography, I was surprised to find that even older people who appeared physically and mentally healthy, socially and civically engaged, and actively pursuing hobbies and leisure activities (in short, "successfully aging"), also insisted that their lives were marked most by loss. They had lost parents, siblings, spouses, and friends. They either experienced or anticipated the loss of health, independence, or authority. Most troubling, perhaps, were existential losses; dreams had to be given up, regrets would not be resolved, a lifetime's work would not be remembered, and in death, the lineage and ancestors would be abandoned.

While prolonged grief has become pathologized in the west to the extent that it has earned its own category designation in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V, 2013), Japanese people traditional perform formal memorial services for as long as 33-50 years after an individual's death. Memorials, often done privately in the home or at the grave, are cultural narratives of loss that restore a sense of existential good by opening up flows of meaningful exchange between those living and those beyond. In this way, memorial is what Erik H. Erikson (1986) would call a ritualization, based on the "mutuality of recognition" (47). I also refer to this as an expression of the "creativity of loss," whereby cultural symbols become a means of forming subjectivity suspended between hope and abandonment.

This research not only asks us to revisit Eriksonian thoughts on the role of culture and self over the developmental life course, but it also allows us to reconsider ways cultural narratives are adapted or contested in the process of growing older.

Learning outcomes

After reading and discussing the book alongside other sources, you should be able to

- recognize some ways older people are influenced by culture differently than younger generations

- understand how aging subjectivities shape cultural narratives about care, interdependence, and uncertainty

- understand how aesthetics and rituals attend to age-related grief and call our attention to personal symbols

Discussion questions

  1. Is there an ideal way to grow older? Does loss play a role in aging well?
  2. How might constructs such as “successful aging” actually compromise the ability of alternate cultural models of aging, especially those that reserve a place for loss?
  3. How do the biophysical circumstances of human longevity combine with the social and cultural context to help us construct our experience of old age?
  4. How does grief give rise to creativity? How does old age shape experiences of grief, and how might it open unique possibilities for creativity?
  5. What are the roles of narrative, landscape, and ritual in the process of mourning?
  6. Briefly review the three examples of Obasuteyama tales in the text (Zeami's Obasute, pp.35-38; Fukuzawa's Ballad of Narayama, pp.65-69; and Tatsumi's Abandon the Old in Tokyo, pp.134-138). How does old age raise questions about morality? How is this depicted aesthetically? Could you imagine a similar story in your own culture?
  7. Sharon Kaufmann's The Ageless Self popularized the possibility of a subjective experience of continuity of self across the life course (see pp.189). Is this the case in a place like Japan, where self is experienced as multiple, contingent, and marked by changing relationships (to living and the dead) over the life course?

Further Reading

On aging in Japan

Allison, Anne. 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lock, Margaret M. 1993. Encounters with Aging Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. London: University of California Press.

Long, Susan Orpett. 2004. “Cultural Scripts for a Good Death in Japan and the United States: Similarities and Differences.” Social Science & Medicine 58 (5): 913–28.

---. 2005. Final Days: Japanese Culture and Choice at the End of Life. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Plath, David. 1980. Long Engagements: Maturity in Modern Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Traphagan, John W. 2000. Taming Oblivion: Aging Bodies and the Fear of Senility in Japan. State Univ of New York Pr.

On death and memorial in Japan

Connor, Blaine P., and John W. Traphagan. 2014. Negotiating the Afterlife: Emplacement as Ongoing Concern in Contemporary Japan. Asian Anthropology 0 (0): 1–17. Accessed May 6.

Long, Susan Orpett. 2003. Becoming a Cucumber: Culture, Nature, and the Good Death in Japan and the United States. Journal of Japanese Studies 29 (1): 33–68.

Rowe, Mark Michael. 2011. Bonds of the Dead: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism. University Of Chicago Press.

Schattschneider, Ellen. 2004. Family Resemblances: Memorial Images and the Face of Kinship. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 31(1):141-162.

Smith, Robert John. 1974. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

On narrative, subjectivity, and grief in old age and over the life course

Becker, Gaylene. 1997. Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Cohler, Bertram. 1982. “Personal Narrative and the Life Course.” In Life Span Development and Behavior, 4:205–41. New York: Academic Press.

Hollan, Douglas. 2014. “From Ghosts to Ancestors (and Back Again): On the Cultural and Psychodynamic Mediation of Selfscapes.” Ethos 42 (2): 175–97.

Jackson, Michael. 2002. The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity. Copenhagen [Denmark]; Portland, Ore.: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen ; Distributor USA & Canada, International Specialized Book Services.

Kaufman, Sharon R. 1987. The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lamb, Sarah. 2014. “Permanent Personhood or Meaningful Decline? Toward a Critical Anthropology of Successful Aging.” Journal of Aging Studies 29 (April): 41–52.

Myerhoff, Barbara G. 1980. Number Our Days. New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.

Neilson, Brett. 2012. “Ageing, Experience, Biopolitics: Life’s Unfolding.” Body & Society 18 (3-4): 44–71.



The Age Bomb: Japan's Aging Crisis

Laura Carstensen at Nobel Week 2014 speaking about emotions in old age:

Charles Briggs on anthropology, psychoanalysis and mourning: