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


  • Susan Long John Carroll University



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


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.

Author Biography

Susan Long, John Carroll University

Susan Orpett Long is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.  She has conducted fieldwork in Japan and in the US supported by funding from the Fulbright program, National Science Foundation, Abe Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Northeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies, and John Carroll University.  Her book, Final Days:  Japanese Culture and Choice at the End of Life(University of Hawaii Press, 2005) was awarded the Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize by the Society for East Asian Anthropology.  Her publications include editing or co-editing four volumes and authoring numerous book chapters and journal articles.  Her writing about Japanese culture, elder care, choices about dying and memorialization can be found in journals such as Journal of Japanese Studies, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Social Science and Medicine, Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, and Mortality.


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2020-12-14 — Updated on 2023-04-05



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