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  • Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan by Edward R. Drott
  • Rajyashree Pandey
Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan. By Edward R. Drott. University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. 272 pages. Hardcover $60.00.

Edward Drott's Buddhism and the Transformation of Old Age in Medieval Japan is, to my knowledge, the first book-length study of old age in medieval Japan. Drott charts the changing configurations of the meanings ascribed to old age in literary/historical/religious texts, arguing that in the Nara and early Heian periods, old age was used to signify an abject and denigrated status, and that it was only from the late Heian through to the Muromachi periods that the bodies of the aged came to be imbued with positive symbolic meanings.

Drott's approach is to read a wide range of texts in conjunction with their political, social, and religious milieu, focusing in particular on the political and ideological struggles that took place at the time of their production. His central argument is that both the denigration of the aged body in early Japan and its eventual elevation to the figure of the sacred okina in noh plays can only be properly understood if we attend to the ways in which old age was mobilized by different groups to further their own ideological interests and agendas.

Part 1, entitled "Making Elders Others in Early Japan," seeks to demonstrate that in Nara and Heian times the aged body was imagined "as a figure of powerlessness, social alienation, and marginality, but also as an important symbolic element in the construction and legitimation of the imagined center" (p. 3). The three chapters of this section engage with diverse sources to substantiate this claim. In chapter 1 Drott challenges the assumption that the elevation of elders to gods in pre-Nara and early Nara society was a mark of their exalted status. Through an analysis of the early myths found in Kojiki and Nihon shoki he argues that there was a clear hierarchy between heavenly and earthly gods. The ruling imperial line bolstered its legitimacy by seeking to establish its descent from the heavenly gods. The myths represented those gods and their descendants as embodying strength, vitality, and youth, in contrast with the earth gods, who were positioned as weak and marginal through their association with old age. The latter consolidated the power of those at the center by ceding to them their territories and offering their daughters in marriage.

Chapter 2 explores texts ranging from official retirement petitions (chijihyō) to poems in imperial anthologies to consider how writers "performed" old age to further their own interests at court. Drott argues that poets often used the topos of old age, signaling enfeeblement and decrepitude, to plead to withdraw from courtly life and worldly affairs. Such pleas were often rhetorical devices for expressing a deep affective bond with the imperial sovereign and the capital and served to register a profound loss at being estranged from life at court. Drott's material amply demonstrates how old age had little to do with actual age, but acquired its significance through performance. He concludes that regardless of the particular intentions and [End Page 278] outcomes of these rhetorical declarations, "the premise that elders were ugly, uncouth outsiders was rarely challenged" (p. 38).

Chapter 3 continues the line of inquiry in the previous chapters to argue that Buddhist authors in the early Heian period used old age as a negative sign, increasingly associating it with the pollution of illness and death and with the truth of the impermanence and decay of the body. The depiction of the body of the elder as a sign of decrepitude marked it as the abject "other" of the immortal and adamantine bodies of those reborn in the Pure Land. Drott reads the treatment accorded to roadside deities (dōsojin) and flesh-eating female demons (datsueba) in collections of Buddhist tales as examples of the marginalization of the old by Buddhists.

The thrust of these three chapters is to demonstrate that "early Japanese courtiers, chroniclers, poets, and priests employed representations of the aged body to further a variety of...


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