Family, Time, and Meaning toward the End of Life in Japan

Susan Long


In contrast to media images of lonely deaths, stereotypes of Japanese calm acceptance of dying, and the “naturalness” of dependency in old age or illness, this paper explores the complex ways that changing perceptions of time refocus people on the question of how to live.  Time both narrows to the level of medication schedules and bodily functions, and expands to more immediate engagement with others in the past and future.  The idea of a moral timeline of such changes builds on recent work in the anthropology of morality by recognizing these shifts in the  ideas and actions people take to retain agency through suffering.  People near the end of life in Japan commonly employ cultural idioms of effort, reciprocity, and gratitude to express their continued striving to be moral persons in a social world.  Ultimately such efforts determine not only how they see themselves and are seen by others through their final days, but whether theirs  will be judged to be a “good death,” and thus the nature of the person’s continued social existence in spirit and memories after death.  Ethnographic data on which this article is based come from a participant-observation study of adults of all ages with life-threatening illnesses and from an interview study of frail elderly and their family caregivers in the late 20th and early 21st century in urban and rural settings.


dependency; perceptions of time; moral timeline; striving; reciprocity; gratitude; "good death"

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