There’s an old fable in Japan titled Ubasuteyama, or “Throw-Away-Grandma Mountain.” There are two versions. The one I know best is as follows:
There’s a mountain—Throw-Away-Grandma Mountain—where people from a nearby village abandon their aged parents when the parents can no longer help out with work in the fields or around the home. The children carry their frail mothers and fathers up the mountain, there to leave them to die.
One day, a man is ready to take his old father up the mountain. He asks his son to help him carry the boy’s grandfather on a litter. This is done. The old man duly deposited on the mountain they turn around to go back to their village. The grandson folds up the litter and begins to carry it away. The father stops him.
“Leave the litter here,” he says, thinking that there’s no point in carrying it back now that his old father has been cast aside.
“But father,” the boy replies, “we’ll need it when it’s your turn to be abandoned.”
The moral of the story is obvious: Don’t do unto others what you would not have done unto you.
I always thought this fable was wrought of ironclad logic: Don’t do awful things to old people, because one day you’ll be old, too, and will want the kindness you would deny them in your youth. Even if someone tells you to do something bad, listen to your conscience, and do the right thing no matter what.
But someone is challenging the fable’s moralizing. A Japanese person no less.
In recent weeks, Narita Yusuke, a 37-year-old man who teaches in the economics department at Yale, drew belated criticism for remarks he made over a year ago on a Japanese TV show . In a discussion about the country’s aging population, Professor Narita opined that the elderly should “commit group suicide” (koreisha no shudan jiketsu). This, he said, was the “only solution” to the population problems Japan faced.
Professor Narita must have realized that his remarks were appalling, because he soon attempted to qualify them by claiming he didn’t mean group suicide “in the physical sense.” He has tried to qualify them even further since he was quoted in a February New York Times story that subsequently went viral.
Even on the watered-down, hypothetical, allegorical reading that he now insists upon, however, Narita’s “group suicide” prescription implies a radical break between the elderly and the rest of Japanese society. Either Narita would have old people in Japan kill themselves en masse or, at best, be left to fend for themselves.
Notice what this means in terms of the old fable I recounted above. In the classic telling, it’s the children, or grandchildren of the elderly who come to their moral senses and stop the culling of the population. The weak, the fable teaches, need someone to defend them. Those who would shirk their duty to care for others are portrayed as selfish, morally stunted. Human society is envisioned as a chain, with younger generations caring for older. This social concatenation is what pulls people back from the brink and makes them think twice about committing gerontocide.
However, in Narita’s Japan, as in so many other wealthy post-industrial societies, there are not only more and more aging people in need of care, but also fewer and fewer younger people to speak up for them and see that they get it. There would seem to be no road on which all can walk in mutual support. Everyone is going his or her own way, or so goes the mainstream message. Everyone has to look out for number one.
Today, many middle-aged Japanese live in big cities, their parents left behind in rural villages, which in turn are quickly emptying as parents age and pass on. As of 2021, the percentage of Japan’s population counted as urban was a staggering 92 percent. When you think about it, that’s already a kind of Ubasuteyama. Narita’s comments were really just a frank admission that many of the country’s elderly have already been left to their own solitary fate, the rest of us waiting for them to do society the favor of disappearing forever.
Japan is hardly unique in this inversion of the old moral order. Other countries, in fact, would appear to be even worse. In Canada, for example, as well as in several American states and Europe, euthanasia is slipping its arms around the shoulders and whispering into the ears of those for whom life—their own, or perhaps that of their spouse or their child—has become an inconvenience. The social chain—social mail, really, a latticework of various links locked together to make the warp and woof of the human order—is snapping everywhere. If someone’s life is even slightly problematic, well, then, goodbye, and good luck.
As society disintegrates, some try to pretend that all is well, that things have never been better. The radical unraveling of our human bonds is being treated as liberating. I recently watched a video in which Chelsea Handler, who purports to be a comedian, exults in the free time she enjoys because she doesn’t have children. (Handler has been an outspoken proponent of on-demand abortion.) In it she spoofs trips to Paris, meditation sessions on airplanes, and casual hookups coordinated via text-message as ways in which she spends the ample leisure hours afforded her by not having to tend to crying, messy kids.
One wonders, though, how fulfilling her life really is, given that Ms. Handler, in posting the video to the internet, clearly hoped that other people would watch it. For someone so OK with being alone, she seems very interested in making connections with others.
(The lonely-but-happy pose is as unconvincing back in Japan, where an essayist and actor named Fukawa Ryo recently released a book titled Hitori de ikiru to kimetanda, or “I Have Decided to Live Alone,” in which he describes how he will linger over fleeting moments and explore things that might go unnoticed if he were married.)
Worldwide, social bonds are loosening, snapping. The Metaverse, an alternative online world, can be accessed only by individually donning a pair of bulky goggles. Remote work has separated us from office colleagues. When Roe v. Wade was overturned in the United States, vasectomies skyrocketed. More and more, atomization and sterility define our interaction with others. In such a thinly connected human world (despite—because of—the hyperconnectivity of our digital days), who will speak up for the dignity of the despised and neglected? When someone suggests that grandma be consigned to the mountaintop, who will care enough to refuse?
Still, there are some glimmers of hope. A woman in my own family in Japan works at a nursing home and is completely dedicated to her job. She leaves home early and stays late so she can provide better care for the aged ladies and gentlemen who are in her care. She takes time during her days off to run work errands. She spends her evenings coordinating with coworkers to further improve the environment in which the elderly people at her facility live. It is clear that the work exhausts her. To top it off, she is helping care for her own mother, and for her nephews too.
But the kindness this woman radiates is impossible to ignore. She gives of herself instinctively, caring even for stray cats in the neighborhood, which she takes in and feeds. Through her, the people in her community, those who know her, are brought into a circle of mutual regard. Human reaches out to human. Bonds are formed. The social chain is repaired.
As Japan’s elderly reach a point where they require constant attention, there are those among the younger generations who think that just getting rid of them—one way or another—is the best course of action. What doesn’t often make the news is that there are so many others, like my relative, who have volunteered to take on the difficult work that others refuse. As society coarsens, the hidden saints converge on the broken links, making them whole again.
We’re all part of the human family. All part of the chain gang of society. It is in human enchainedness that we find true happiness. This requires sacrifice, the willingness to suffer being tied down (not free to jaunt off to Europe for a croissant, as Ms. Handler cynically boasts in her parody). It requires embracing life, not death as Professor Narita callously suggests. The more people need us, the more we must draw them closer to ourselves.