Buddhist Light from Times of Despair: Death and Folklore in Japan

Buddhist Light from Times of Despair: Death and Folklore in Japan

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Japanese folklore focuses on an array of subjects, from the beauty of light to areas of extreme darkness. The subject area involving oyasute (the abandonment of a parent – or relative) and ubasute (the abandonment of an elderly female relative) encompasses all of this. This applies to the chilling reality of leaving a vulnerable elderly person to die in the mountains, to the utter care of the person being abandoned to die.


Historically, it is widely believed that abandonment took place during times of extreme depression. For example, during periods of severe drought in old Japan – or during the time of famine that plagued certain parts of the country.

However, while some feudal officials are believed to have set down regulations to allow this to happen, others counter that it never really took root to any major extent. Indeed, some authorities claim that oyasute and ubasute belong more to Japanese mythology and folklore. Therefore, it is fairer to say that truth, reality, mystery, and unreality are equally fused together.


Irrespective of the “real truth” of abandoning people in the mountains or other remote areas, a beautiful Buddhist concept of love came to the fore based on poetry. This adorable poem, based on utter simplicity, speaks more to the heart than a thousand words. The poem says:


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


Therefore, while the mother knew that soon a slow death would await her and this would take place all alone, her love for her son still shone brightly within her heart. Given this enormous love, the mother tentatively snaps twigs and scatters them on the ground so that her beloved son can find his way home in the fading light.

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