Ubasute: A Dark Page in Japanese History

Elderly Japanese Woman Art

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What Exactly Is Ubasute?

Japan is a country rich in history, with some of its most prominent history lying within art and luxury. The Japanese were incredible artists, and participated in many different forms of art. From paintings and poetry to Geishas and luxurious kimonos, they have fascinated many throughout the years. However, Japan has many dark legends and tales, as well as cultural practices, that have been less than supported by the rest of the world.

Ubasute is one of these many different tales that has survived through many generations of Japanese history. Ubasute means "abandoning an old woman", and it is usually referred to as "Ubasuteyama". This translation of Ubasute is exactly what the legend entails: to leave an elderly woman. The elderly women were to be carried to the top of a mountain, and left there to pass away. This legend interested me to write about it, as it seems to be fairly unknown to many people and it looked to be interesting hub material!

Artwork of Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige
Artwork of Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige | Source

What Do You Think About the Practice of Ubasute?

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What Is the Legend Behind the Japanese Leaving the Elderly to die on Mountaintops?

In the legends, elderly women were eventually chosen to be carried to the top of a mountain to die, yet the reasons are varied. These reasons will be covered next. The son of the elderly woman would carry her on his back, and hike to the summit of a mountain. Once there, he would leave his mother on the mountain's summit and make his way back into the village.

During the journey, the mother would break limbs and twigs from the tree, dropping them to the ground as she plucked them. According to legend, the older women would do this so that their sons could find their way back down from the mountain. Once left, the woman would then die, whether it be from the lack of food, dehydration, or the cold temperatures.

For the most part, the legend entails that women were left on a mountain. However, nearly any faraway, desolate area was acceptable as well. The idea behind the legend was for the woman to be located far from food, water, and shelter.

Why Would the Women Be Left?

During drought and famine, food production became low. The Japanese sustain themselves on a variety of grains and fish; but grain such as rice was a staple food in Japan, as well as other vegetation. Fish was not as common for many of the residents of the villages. Therefore, food became scarce during drought, inducing severe famines. This legend seems to depict that many of the Ubasute acts took place during these droughts and famines.

When observing this legend, it makes a bit of sense. If there are fewer people eating the limited reserves of food, there would be more to go around and it would last longer. In the legends the elderly japanese women do not seem to fight the act, but rather embrace it. The Japanese are a very proud and disciplined group of people; perhaps the elderly women would have considered this as a proper and just way to pass on.

"Garden at Osaka Castle"; Isn't it beautiful, guys?
"Garden at Osaka Castle"; Isn't it beautiful, guys? | Source

How Much Truth Is There to the Legends?

So far, I have only been able to find that these are mostly just legends. There is not much evidence that these dark events actually happened, much less that they became a custom within the Japanese culture. This made me feel quite a bit better about writing this hub, so hopefully not many of you are as creeped out as you were at the beginning of this hub.

It seems that this legend occurs in many different artistic pieces and folklore. In some paintings and drawings, there are elderly women resting upon their sons' backs; some poetic work describes the journey that the mother and son take. There are even movies, such as "The Ballad of Narayama" that depict the legend of Ubasute practice. Perhaps this legend was a popular wise tale of selflessness and the circle of life.

Does Japanese Folklore, Other Than this, Interest You?

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My Personal Opinion Regarding the Practice of Ubasute

Personally, I can see a tiny, nearly nonexistent bit of reasoning behind this almost fictional practice. However, the fact that it is one's own mother quickly squashes any reasoning for committing this cold and cruel act quickly for me. How could anyone drop off their mothers to die? After all of the pain a mother goes through, after all of the time she spent raising her children (and later helping with grandchildren), how could anyone bring themselves to drop their mother off in an uninhabited area to starve and die? Starving to death is generally a very, very slow death. Why anyone would even think to put their own mother through such agony is well beyond me. Almost everyone loves their mother deeply, including myself. The act of Ubasute is very well a slow murder, and deeply depressing.

I am very glad to notice that I cannot find any documented cases of this practice, but it is odd to find this as a tale. What do you think about this concept? Please feel free to share your opinion of this act and of my hub!

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Comments 14 comments

wilderness profile image

wilderness 3 years ago from Boise, Idaho

I'm not so sure that your tale is just myth. It is hard to understand today what our ancestors went through long ago just to survive, and one of the reasons for that difficulty is the changing attitude towards death. It used to be unheard of for an entire family to survive to old age; accident, disease and war took most of them long before old age did. Death was a common affair, accepted and expected if still grievous.

I've heard that American Indians had the same practice; in hard times old women were turned out in winter to wander off and die. Again, it was women, probably because they generally lived longer.

A recent TV documentary showed native tribesmen and women deep in the Amazon jungle explaining that they had to drown infants in a nearby river if the child was born deformed and unable to contribute to the tribe, or if food was scarce that year.

So I don't think it unlikely that ancient Japanese observed the same practice, or a similar one. Indian women are said to have accepted the practice as necessary and left of their own accord; it sounds like the Japanese women did much the same in leaving a trail to follow back. They gave up their lives for the good of the tribe; surely a noble act.


angryelf profile image

angryelf 3 years ago from Tennessee Author

Yes, I have heard of some of these in the past. However, I could not find any documentation so far regarding this act. Hopefully I can dive into it a bit more tomorrow, but there were not too many resources online. I find these types of dark cultural practices incredibly fascinating yet disturbing; kind of like death photos from the 1800's (when they were most common anyway). I knew they existed- but I was excessively shocked when I saw a legitimate photo in an old country general store that is undergoing restoration! Things that just shock today's world are usually the things that I will catch an interest in... Simply because I love to learn about things considered "taboo".


kidscrafts profile image

kidscrafts 3 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

Very sad custom it was practice. I am happy that you didn't find any documentation to confirm that it was happening.

Unfortunately, when customs are ingrained in a society since a long time, people don't even think why they do what they do. They don't see it as being wrong.

Very interesting subject! Well written! Thank you for sharing!


angryelf profile image

angryelf 3 years ago from Tennessee Author

This is very true! Thank you for stopping by again :) I'd have probably been a bit more hesitant about writing this piece, and it would have probably been much longer, if I had found actual documentation!


ladydeonne profile image

ladydeonne 3 years ago from Florence, SC

Very interesting hub. I believe in the old adage, "where there's smoke, there's fire." I believe that it is a noble act for old women to die in order that others might live, but what about the elderly men? Surely some or a few live to ripe old ages. I could never take my mother up a mountain to die for any reason. I believe that I would trust God to make a way for my mother to survive. I am going to do some research on this practice also as it has piqued my interest. Thanks for sharing.


TheYoungDad profile image

TheYoungDad 3 years ago from Canada

You have a knack for article writing and im assuming you don't have your own blog, coz with the quality of your research and the unboring way you present information, you could be making lots more than you probably are here on Hubpages. Admire your talent, and keep up the good work. And a word of advice from Robery Kiyosaki: Information is the new real estate. Real Estate used to be the way people built wealth. Now its through information. Take care and all the best, and please post more Japanese legends :)


angryelf profile image

angryelf 3 years ago from Tennessee Author

@ The Young Dad Thanks for coming by! I really appreciate your feedback :) I'd have no problem pulling up another take on Japan's legends, as history and culture really fascinate me! Perhaps I'll move to the women's feet in ancient China; if you've never heard of that, you'll either be incredibly sickened or utterly fascinated.

@ Lady Deonne very very true. It is noble, yet it's so unbelievable a son could bring himself to do that... These legends are just absolutely fascinating aren't they!? I'm definitely going to try to get 3 new legends up, from across different ancient religions/cultures/tribes, within the week. It's an INCREDIBLE opportunity to learn about some of my favorite topics. And perhaps an interesting read for you guys as well :)


Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Not so different from leaving the elderly to wilt away on a shabby retirement home. It's too sad that in so many places, so many cultures, so many people don't know how to treat the elderly in a more dignified way.

Very interesting hub, BTW.


Rocks 3 years ago

I've read some stories and seen some movies on this. It makes for an interesting tale but like primae noctis it's clear that in practice such things don't make a lot of sense. They cause too many problems.


lll 3 years ago

can uyou feel the beauty and the powerful meaning this has?, Our own life given for your now adult child? this is the highest form of love.


Katie Armstrong profile image

Katie Armstrong 3 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

In the depictions of ubasute I am familiar with, it is against the will of the son, but he must do it because it is his mother's wish (showing his treasured value of filial piety). It is depicted as a noble sacrifice that the elderly must take on in order to ensure that their grandchildren might survive (showing the selfless sacrifices that a mother will make for her children--also a treasured value). I can see connections to the well-attested practice of women moving to temples and becoming nuns in their old age, so they are no longer a burden on their families.

There's also a connection with the historical practice of infanticide in Japan during times of famine. Very young children and very old adults were considered to be in a precarious position in the cycle of life and death--a spiritual belief stemming from the observation that very elderly people and very young children tend to die more often than people in their prime (especially in a country with frequent plagues and famines). If a baby or an elderly family member died, it was because they were in a gray area between life and death to begin with. Check out LaFleur's book 'Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan' for a very sober, yet frank read regarding the traditional Japanese views on life, death, and the purposeful ending of lives.

I also seem to remember a similar practice in ancient India, where 'leaving for the mountains' was a practice one was expected to do once they reached an advanced age. Your family would bid you farewell and send you off into the wilderness, where you would either die or become a great yogi or guru. Even the Mahabharata describes the Pandavas doing this, with Draupadi and each brother dying as they climbed into the Himalayas until only Yudhisthira remained, and when he reached the top of the mountain, he was brought bodily into Heaven as a reward for his virtue.


angryelf profile image

angryelf 3 years ago from Tennessee Author

What an insightful comment Katie! All of this is incredibly fascinating and it is wonderful to hear even more! History has a lot of wild cultural tales and practices, each one opening our eyes to the drastic changes that have taken place, resulting in our modern culture. Thank you for stopping in!!!


Chris P 15 months ago

Based on the survival rule of 3s, I'd guess if this was done, they'd have died of deyhdration before starving, assuming they didn't find a water source. The rule of 3s says, basically (copied/pasted from another site):

In any extreme situation you cannot survive for more than:

3 minutes without air - 3 hours without shelter

3 days without water - 3 weeks without food.

And dying of dehydration is not a pretty thing. If family members had ever witnessed it, they probably wouldn't have been able to live with themselves.

Soylent Green, A Modest Proposal, etc. -- same idea--not enough food to go around; unpleasant solution.


Sani 9 months ago

Great article! Short, but I definitely enjoyed reading it. And as many here also think ... I believe this has happened in more countries than just Japan. I believe it to be a certain fact. As for why no records were found to prove it, it is quite simple ...

People and families who had money to feed themselves simply did not need to do this custom. Only the poor ones, farmers and fishermen and their families were ever at risk from famine or any other natural catastrophe. Also, let us not forget the taxes they had to pay no matter if they had enough to feed the village or not.

Since men were more needed for work, no matter the age, it is no wonder that the women were the ones to take the role needed for this. They were raised with expectation of doing that when the time comes.

And since farmers and fishermen did not know how to read or write, no record of that has ever been found.

I am assuming that you looked for online texts and scanned books as a reference for this article, but the only written proof of this custom would be in some shrines who I doubt had their records scanned for online use. And given how fragile those records are I believe many were lost during time itself.

So yes, I do believe this has definitely happened, we just don't know the definite number of people that died this way.

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