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“Care Must be Taken”

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Defilement, Disgust and the Aged Body in Early Japan

image of Journal of Religion in Japan

In Nara and Heian-period Japan (710–1185), the aged body was commonly described in ways that suggest it was seen as a source of disgust, or even a potential producer of pollution (kegare 穢), a form of defilement that carried important religious connotations, often requiring the attention of ritual specialists to remedy. Court histories, literary and religious texts—especially Buddhist didactic works—portrayed old age as a type of embodiment characterized by stagnation and decay, which violated Chinese naturalist ideas that equated health with the flow of vital pneumas, or as a liminal state in which death was possible at any moment. These texts also devoted particular attention to the forms of effluvia the aged body was seen to produce, which gave rise to the kinds of “matter out of place” that were sources of deep anxiety in pre-modern Japan. In this paper, I analyze the ways in which concepts of pollution and filth colored representations of the aged body in the eighth through eleventh centuries and show how these three models served to reinforce an image of the aged body as a repellent ‘other.’

Affiliations: 1: Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan


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