Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan
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272pp. May 2016
Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan
Author: Drott, Edward R.;
Scholars have long remarked on the frequency with which Japanese myths portrayed gods (kami) as old men or okina. Many of these "sacred elders" came to be featured in premodern theater, most prominently in Noh. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, as the number of Japan's senior citizens climbed steadily, the sacred elder of premodern myth became a subject of renewed interest and was seen by some as evidence that the elderly in Japan had once been accorded a level of respect unknown in recent times. In Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan, Edward R. Drott charts the shifting sets of meanings ascribed to old age in medieval Japan, tracing the processes by which the aged body was transformed into a symbol of otherworldly power and the cultural, political, and religious circumstances that inspired its reimagination.

Drott examines how the aged body was used to conceptualize forms of difference and to convey religious meanings in a variety of texts: official chronicles, literary works, Buddhist legends and didactic tales. In early Japan, old age was most commonly seen as a mark of negative distinction, one that represented the ugliness, barrenness, and pollution against which the imperial court sought to define itself. From the late-Heian period, however, certain Buddhist authors seized upon the aged body as a symbolic medium through which to challenge traditional dichotomies between center and margin, high and low, and purity and defilement, crafting narratives that associated aged saints and avatars with the cults, lineages, sacred sites, or religious practices these authors sought to promote.

Contributing to a burgeoning literature on religion and the body, Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan applies approaches developed in gender studies to "denaturalize" old age as a matter of representation, identity, and performance. By tracking the ideological uses of old age in premodern Japan, this work breaks new ground, revealing the role of religion in the construction of generational categories and the ways in which religious ideas and practices can serve not only to naturalize, but also challenge "common sense" about the body.

6 b&w illustrations

“In this original and innovative study, Edward Drott does what no other scholar to my knowledge has attempted before: He uses the social meanings of age to analyze and contextualize the figure of the okina in religion and drama. Also of great value is Drott’s conscious and consistent focus on Buddhist notions that were in accord or dissonance with other ideas about age and the body. His work will generate interest among a wide range of readers, including scholars and students of Japanese religion, Japanese literature, and Noh drama and related forms, as well as cultural historians and theorists engaged in aging studies.” —Hank Glassman, Haverford College

Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan is a groundbreaking work that is exceptionally important for both the study of Japan and the more general theoretical study of the body. In my view, it is the most significant contribution to the latter in Japan in the past twenty years.” —John Traphagan, University of Texas at Austin

Author: Drott, Edward R.;