- Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan by Jason Danely
In this timely ethnographic contribution, Jason Danely zooms in on what it means to be “aging” under the condition of Japan’s so-called “low-fertility, aging society problem” (3). Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan tells a story of old people, old things, and old places in a brand new light. It is a story of stories as well, orchestrating diverse narratives of aged subjectivity emanating from these people, things, and places. Arguing that “the sociopolitical and economic conditions of contemporary urban Japan are producing aged subjectivities suspended between abandonment and hope” (133), Danely’s powerful storytelling seizes this suspended subjectivity as it “haunts the ordinary” (71). He draws our attention to “shades of this death-in-life,” which “do not exist on the margins of Japanese society, but fill up its most intimate interstices of everyday experience” (142). Danely tells readers that the older Japanese adults with whom he worked say that old people like themselves are more closely associated with rituals of “memorialization” and “mourning” than are younger people (and their own past, younger selves). Seeing themselves closely aligned with the world of spirits and ancestors, they actively participate in these rituals of interstitiality, constituting themselves as an interface that mediates past and future, the living and the dead, the seen and the unseen. Capturing this interface through concepts such as the space–time of “waiting” (see 195n2 in particular), “structured indeterminacy” (91), and “aesthetic suspension” (190), Danely seeks to disclose a new perspective on the larger sociopolitical process by attending to “interstices” of everyday life. This is an old-school ethnography, and a fine one at that.
Danely’s ethnographic interlocutors carry out diverse everyday projects of memory and forgetting in which they generate signs of agency. To better understand these signs, Danely offers the concept of “creativity [End Page 319] of loss” as a crtical corrective to the hegemonic model of “ageless self” (189). Certainly in the West, as Danely suggests, this model relies on and reproduces our rather conventional view of loss as lack, a void that needs to be compensated for through creative acts (and becomes a basis of desire as post-Freudian discourses would have it). With the concept of “creativity of loss,” however, Danely pleasantly disturbs such a view. He draws our attention to the everyday project of aging in Japan as a question of how loss creates new possibilities of participating in “economies of care”: how to “actively perform…loss” (190). “This book approaches loss as something that is meaningful for older adults,” Danely declares (25). Here, we should take “meaningful” not merely in the sense of “symbolic” or “representational,” but precisely in the sense of “performatively creative,” “consequential,” or “transformative.”
In exploring this creativity, Danely uses Obasuteyama—an age-old legend of abandonment and care in Japan—quite effectively as a master narrative for understanding the intricacy of aged subjectivities that he has encountered in his fieldwork (for a discussion of the legend, see pages 35–38). But here, I would like to point to another set of themes that recur, like leitmotivs, throughout the book: ma and en. These are so straight-for-wardly everyday concepts that any attempt to overphilosophize them as rooted in some primordialized Japanese culture would look like a textbook Orientalist move. While these concepts have been featured in the anthropological study of Japan, I believe that Danely’s treatment here merits particular attention. There are several ways in which he glosses ma and en (and all are good translations), but the descriptions that I believe are most persuasive are “yielding” and “connecting.” If ma—an “empty space” or “openness” (e.g., 23)—is a space created by yielding (yuzuru-) to others (note also the symbolism of yuzuriha; see 163), then en—“bonds,” “connection,” etc.—might signal the eventfulness of social relations: events of self-fashioning and other-fashioning on the “verge” (190) of happening. One might also characterize these concepts as “gap-making” and “gap...