Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan

Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan

Edward R. Drott

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780824851507

Publisher: University of Hawai'i Press


This book examines the shifting sets of meanings ascribed to the aged body in early and medieval Japan and the symbolic uses to which the aged body was put in the service of religious and religio-political ideologies. In the Nara through mid-Heian periods, old age was used as a symbol of weakness, ugliness or pollution to contrast with the glories of the sovereign and his or her efflorescent court. Concurrently, governmental and Buddhist retirement practices called for elders to remove themselves from social, political and cultural centers. From the late-Heian period forward, however, various marginalized individuals and groups took up the aged male body as a symbol of their collective identity and crafted narratives depicting its empowerment. Although in early Japan the terms okina and ōna had been reserved for strange or foolish underclass old men and women, in the medieval period, Buddhist authors presented a great number of gods (kami), Buddhist divinities, saints and immortals (sennin) as okina, or in rare cases, as ōna. In these years literati came to enthusiastically employ the persona of the aged Buddhist recluse and early Noh theorists and playwrights sought to enhance the prestige of their art by linking it to performance traditions featuring mysterious but powerful okina. Although many of the divinized okina of medieval myth are today seen to inhabit a “Shintō” pantheon, they were, in fact, the product of Buddhist texts and arose within a Buddhist cultural milieu.