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  • The Practice of Concern: Ritual, Well-Being and Aging in Rural Japan
  • W. Andrew Achenbaum (bio)
The Practice of Concern: Ritual, Well-Being and Aging in Rural Japan. By John W. Traphagan. Carolina Academic Press, Durham, 2004. xviii, 229 pages. $30.00, paper.

The Practice of Concern explores "the manner in which Japanese people intertwine ideas about religion with those about health and well-being and how this is related to the behavior of older people and to the aging process" [End Page 455] (p. 25). John Traphagan, author or coeditor of two previous books and director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, weaves three distinct objectives in writing the book. First, this monograph builds on his earlier ethnographic studies of rural Japan. Second, The Practice of Concern contributes to the growing literature on medical anthropology, particularly the relationship between religion and health in crosscultural settings. Third, Traphagan's focus on age and aging in Japan is timely: gerontologists are keen to investigate the impact of the dramatic gains in that country's life expectancy on its population and the ways the Japanese reshape their culture and society. (Caveat lector: I am a U.S. historian who does research on continuities and changes in the aging of individuals and societies past and present; I am more qualified to assess Trapha-gan's success in grappling with his last two objectives than I am in evaluating the originality of his contribution to Japanese studies.)

"Concern," performed through ritual action as well as in the observation of (primarily) older people in ritual, is the critical concept that connects three keywords (ritual, well-being, and aging) in the subtitle of the book. Elderly men, according to Traphagan, manage the festivals and ceremonies in the public sphere, rituals designed to sustain the well-being of community in rural Japan. Elderly women by and large perform domestic functions aimed at maintaining the well-being of family members by transmitting ancestral concern to their kin. Hence, domain of activity, not the relative value of a person's particular role, demarcates the gender difference in enacting the practice of concern. Although the division of gendered responsibilities is porous—women occasionally serve as lay leaders outside the household, and men who so wish can participate in household rituals—the aged are the central actors in The Practice of Concern.

"Age," the author claims, defines the relative power, status, and position within and across cohorts. Acknowledging that the Japanese use different terms to identify the elderly in bureaucratic contexts and family settings (and some designations are contested by the old themselves), Traphagan mainly uses the term rōjin in The Practice of Concern. "To be a good person—and particularly to be a good rojin (old person)— is to be a socially engaged individual who is involved in activities that incorporate social interaction; failure to maintain activity and social involvement invites loss of well-being and, for the elderly, the onset of senility" (p. 9).

Whereas the successful engagement of older Americans is typically measured on the basis of their continued productivity and capacity to maintain independent living, the vitality and contributions of elderly in this ethnography seem intimately connected to the degree of their involvement in The Practice of Concern. Because Traphagan identifies a "generation gap" (p. 55), which reflects variations based on cognitive memories formed before and after World War II and on educational attainments, this U.S. historian [End Page 456] wonders whether the elders' roles described in this book will persist in rural Japan. The reported feelings of isolation, not to mention the incidence of suicide rates in late life, might suggest diminishing respect accorded to rōjin.

Anthropologists and gerontologists, of course, have long known that age-grading and age-based deference help to determine the shape and development of human identities and interpersonal relationships. They are enmeshed everywhere in interconnected facets of specific cultural norms and prevailing societal mores. To put "aging" in context of rural Japan, Traphagan gives high priority to his exploration of "health/well-being" and "ritual." The analysis enables him to illuminate how these keywords contrast in meaning and...


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pp. 455-459
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