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Ubasute (姥捨て?, lit. "abandoning an old woman", also called "obasute" and sometimes "oyasute") refers to the custom allegedly performed in Japan in the distant past, whereby an infirm or elderly relative was carried to a mountain, or some other remote, desolate place, and left there to die, either by dehydration, starvation, or exposure. The practice was allegedly most common during times of drought and famine, and was sometimes mandated by feudal officials. According to the Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan, ubasute "is the subject of legend, but [...] does not seem ever to have been a common custom".
Ubasute has left its mark on Japanese folklore, where it forms the basis of many legends, poems, and koans. In one Buddhist allegory, a son carries his mother up a mountain on his back. During the journey, she stretches out her arms, catching the twigs and scattering them in their wake, so that her son will be able to find the way home.
A poem commemorates the story:
- In the depths of the mountains,
- Who was it for the aged mother snapped
- One twig after another?
- Heedless of herself
- She did so
- For the sake of her son
In popular culture
- The practice is discussed in some detail in Radiolab episode #305 Mortality. Ubasute sometimes appears as a metaphor for contemporary Japan's treatment of the elderly, who are noted for their above-average suicide rates.
- The practice of ubasute is explored at length in Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama (1958), Korean director Kim Ki-young's Goryeojang (1963), and Shohei Imamura's The Ballad of Narayama, which won the Palme d'Or in 1983.
- The Old Law, a 17th-century tragicomedy written by Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger and Anthony Trollope's 1882 dystopian novel, The Fixed Period also explore the concept of 'Ubasute' in a Western context.
- The characters of Christopher Buckley's 2007 novel Boomsday introduce the concept of 'Ubasute' as a political ploy to stave of the insolvency of social security as more and more of the aging US population reaches retirement age, angering the Religious Right and Baby Boomers.
- The concept of 'Ubasute' forms the basis of the storyline for the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Half a Life.
- Episode 19 of Folktales from Japan depicts this tale.
- Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo, 1993, p. 1121