Life-Cycle Patterns in Early Modern Japan

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Attention: This page reflects the state of 2013. It is meant for documentary purposes and will not be updated any longer.

Life-cycle patterns and the life course have always been core issues of the social-anthropological study of cultures. With regard to Japan, Ruth Benedict’s postulate of a U-shaped arc-of-life, with maximum freedom allowed to babies and to the old, in contrast to American society positing the apex of freedom and status in mature adulthood, has gained universal fame. Likewise, Japanese individuals have often been described as behaving in accordance to the norms governing their respective life stage, rather than according to personal values that remain unchanged over the whole life course. Historical studies focussing on the development of these and other norms governing the life course in Japan, however, remain as yet rare. Two research projects, on the cultural and social history of old age and on the history of childhood in early modern Japan, aim to fill in this lacuna.

A Social and Cultural History of Old Age in Pre-Modern Japan

Life expectancy in Japan is presently one of the highest in the world. By 2025 the country is expected to have a higher percentage of people over age 65 than any other nation. What were, then, the historically grown images of old age with which Japanese society entered this modern ageing of its population, unique in terms of magnitude and speed? To what extent is the conventional assumption of a traditional respect towards old age and the elderly in Japan corroborated by historical data? By means of a comprehensive analysis of important works of Japanese literature and fine arts, as well as of historical, juridical, and philosophical sources, the project aims at reconstructing the common notions about the nature of ageing and old age, and the norms that guide social relations with the aged in addition to the structuring of the last stage of life itself, as they evolved throughout the various periods of Japanese history. One outcome of the project has consisted in a documentation of relevant passages found in texts published in the series Nihon koten bungaku taikei and Nihon shiso taikei , supplemented by those collected in Koji ruien and Kobunko.

On the basis of the material thus gathered, two monographs have been published so far, one covering the ancient period (Formanek 1994), the other the Middle Ages (Scheid 1996). As the first systematic investigations into the topic of historical Japanese views of old age, they challenge the established view by showing that a stereotype of old age as a period of decay and misfortune was prominent throughout the epochs treated, and that the "authority of the aged" was often checked by the "power of the stronger," and thus the elderly without sufficient "resources" were often among the socially weak. A third monograph, which will cover the Edo period, emphasizes the emergence of new images of old age that correspond to the increased demographic weight the elderly gained during that era. Moreover, a further monograph, entitled Die „böse Alte“ in der japanischen Populärkultur der Edo-Zeit. Die Feindvalenz und ihr soziales Umfeld, which highlights the extremely negative and menacing image of the wicked crone in Edo period popular culture as well as its social relevance, is now in print.

Two international conferences have been organised in connection with the project that have resulted in two additional publications: Japanese Biographies focuses on the life cycle as a whole. Aging: Asian Concepts and Experiences Past and Present takes a comparative look at attitudes towards old age and the life circumstances of the elderly in various Asian countries.


Susanne Formanek, 2005
Die „böse Alte“ in der japanischen Populärkultur der Edo-Zeit: Die Feindvalenz und ihr soziales Umfeld. (BKGA 47.) Wien: VÖAW, 2005 (download [open access] or order online).
Formanek 2005.jpg
Susanne Formanek, Sepp Linhart, ed., 1997
Aging: Asian Concepts and Experiences. Past and Present. (BKGA 20.) Wien: VÖAW, 1997 (order online).
Formanek 1997.jpg
Bernhard Scheid, 1996
Im Innersten meines Herzens empfinde ich tiefe Scham: Das Alter im Schrifttum des japanischen Mittelalters. (BKGA 16.) Wien: VÖAW, 1996 (order online).
Susanne Formanek, 1994
Denn dem Alter kann keiner entfliehen: Altern und Alter im Japan der Nara- und Heian-Zeit. (BKGA 13.) Wien: VÖAW, 1994 (order online).
Susanne Formanek, Sepp Linhart, ed., 1992
Japanese Biographies: Life Histories, Life Cycles, Life Stages. (BKGA 11.) Wien: VÖAW, 1992 (order online).

History of Childhood in Early Modern Japan

Anthropology has often shown keen interest in Japanese child-rearing practices. It has underscored the nurturing behaviour that allows maximum freedom to the child and is characterized by a willingness to let grow rather than guide and direct. Japanese mothers thus only suggest to the child which changes in behaviour are expected, without threatening the child with punishment, patiently appealing to the child’s “self” and waiting for it to comply with the demands addressed to it.

Growing up in Japan has thus often been described with the metaphor of the natural growth of a plant. A Japanese text from the turn of the sixteenth century, for instance, compares child-rearing with the rearing of a bonsai tree, which requires wiring and trimming, thereby suggesting that the concept of natural growth has to be qualified with respect to the important fact that a highly domesticated concept of nature is implied. Nonetheless, sources such as this point to a substantially more “enlightened” progress as compared to earlier notions, still influential during the Edo period, that had interpreted a child’s bad behaviour as resulting from his bad karma inherited from earlier rebirths. Recent Japanese research in the fields of historical demography and social history has increasingly postulated a simultaneous general “discovery” of childhood during the later half of the Edo period, in the course of which a growing number of parents sought to provide their children with the best education possible, even if this meant that they had to limit the number of their progeny. This trend became an important basis for the modernizing process that, following the Meiji restoration, was soon to rapidly take place.

The project aims at analysing the nature and specificity of this later Edo-period “discovery of childhood” by exploring the changes in the notion of childhood as manifested in literature and the fine arts, legal regulations, documents and diaries. It is also planned to explore both the large corpus of pedagogical texts that were published during this period as well as the flourishing genre of Edo-period literary publications for children and youth, which has been increasingly well documented during the past decades, but has yet to be studied in the detail needed to be fully understood.

Shusse sugoroku

Between the mid 18th and the mid 20th centuries, a number of illustrated "sugoroku" boardgames of the so-called "shusse" ("career or success story") type appeared in Japan. This boardgame type thematizes life and depicts important sources for the history of mentalities, how life in general and/or in terms of gender is to be constructed. The long-term goal of this project is to historically outline the development of the genre, of the according life models as well as the pursuit of social upward mobility despite the basically strict hierarchical feudal system up until the end of the 19th century. In addition, an illustrated book will be prepared for the series Materials for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia.

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