Old age in the Japanese medieval period

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Attention: This page reflects the state of 1996. It is meant for documentary purposes and will not be updated any longer.

Part of the project on Life-Cycle Patterns in Early Modern Japan.

This study investigates the meaning of being and becoming old in the Japanese middle ages (12th-16th c.). It continues the research done in a previous study by Susanne Formanek (1994, Austrian Academy of Sciences) concerning the history of old age in the ancient period (7th-12th c.). Formanek has shown that a largely pessimistic view of old age obtained in antiquity, and it is thus no surprise that the middle ages, being heavily influenced by Buddhist thought, also saw old age primarly as a time of suffering and isolation. However, some sources seem to reveal a growing influence of the elderly in the newly emerging feudal structure of the period. We thus arrive, generally speaking, at a contradiction between intellectual sources on the one hand which stress the norm of worldrenouncement in old age rather than, say, the obligations of filial piety towards the old, and socio-historical sources on the other hand which suggest a significant role of gerontocratic principles like seniority or anciennity. This study approaches this contradiction from several different angles and shows that the common view of old age as being particularly revered in traditional Japanese society cannot be maintained fully with regard to the Japanese medieval period.

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