Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

Narrating Gender Reality in Japanese Folktale Tradition

by Fumihiko Kobayashi (Author)
©2015 Monographs XII, 198 Pages
Series: International Folkloristics, Volume 9


A familiar, beloved, and yet misunderstood character in the Japanese folktale tradition is the animal-woman, an earthly animal that assumes the form of a female human. In order to articulate the characteristics that make Japanese Animal-Wife tales unique, this trailblazing book Japanese Animal-Wife Tales: Narrating Gender Reality in Japanese Folktale Tradition challenges long-held characterizations of them in folklore scholarship. By re-examining the gender-specific behaviors of both the animal-woman and her human spouse, the book recovers the sociocultural and historical contexts that underlay their behaviors to demonstrate the actual gender characteristics that shaped the original Japanese Animal-Wife tales, highlighting the assertive, rather than naïve, personality of women in early Japanese folktale tradition. This new approach to the study of Japanese folktales and culture will interest researchers and students in a variety of fields, including Japanese studies, comparative folklore studies, culture studies, Asian studies, and anthropology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1: Gendered Misconstructions of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 2: Japanese Animal-Wife Tales and Melusine Tales
  • 3: Demystifying Folktale Mystique behind Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 4: Scottish Selkie-Wife Tales versus Japanese Frog-Wife Tales
  • 5: Problems with the Performative Aspects of Storytelling–Gesticulations, Vocal Pitches, and Reactions: How to Gain Access to Folktales
  • 6: The Prophylactic Censorship of Folktales
  • 7: Removing Narrative Embellishments
  • 8: A Structure of the Following Chapters
  • Chapter One: Demystifying Misconstrued Genders in Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 1: Spotlighting a Haunting Mystique in Studying Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 2: Yūzuru’s Dominance over Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 3: Animal-and-Human Marriage Lore in Three Folk Narrative Genres: Myths, Legends, and Folktales
  • 4: The Japanese Animal-Husband Tale-Type Group
  • 5: A Difference between Japanese Animal-Husband and Animal-Wife Tales
  • 6: Everybody Knows of an Animal Woman, but Nobody Knows about Her Personality
  • 7: An Animal Woman as a Mystical Benevolent Woman
  • 8: An Animal Woman as a Mystical yet Oppressed Woman
  • 9: An Animal Woman as a Mystical “Great Mother”
  • 10: An Observation on an Animal Woman as a Mystical Benefactress
  • 11: Some Singular Aspects of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales Compared with Those of Melusine Tales
  • Chapter Two: The Theoretical Characteristics of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 1: Identify Forms of Gender-Specific Behaviors
  • 2: Is an Animal Woman a Benefactress or Not?
  • 3: Some Specific Features of Folktales
  • 4: The Characteristics that Make Folktales Unique
  • 5: “Memorabilia for Myths and Legends” versus “Attractiveness for Folktales”
  • 6: An Attempt to Understand Descriptive Manner
  • 7: An Examination of the Japanese Frog-Wife Tale-Type (IT 228)
  • 8: An Examination of the Japanese Crane-Wife Tale-Type (IT 229)
  • 9: An Examination of the Japanese Fox-Wife Tale-Type (IT 225)
  • 9-A: Fox-Wife Tales – The Separation Tale-Type (IT 225A)
  • 9-B: Fox-Wife Tales – The Special-Ears Tale-Type (IT 225B)
  • 9-C: Fox-Wife Tales – The Rice-Planting Tale-Type (IT 225C)
  • 10: A Review of Examinations of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • Chapter Three: The Search for the Main Theme of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 1: The Sociocultural and Historical Contexts behind Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 2: Cross-Cultural Comparisons of Animal-Wife Tales
  • 2-A: The Episodic Structure of Japanese Frog-Wife Tale-Type (IT 228)
  • 2-B: The Episodic Structure of Scottish Selkie-Wife Tales
  • 2-C: The Episodic Structure of the Korean Pond-Snail Wife Tale-Type (KT 206)
  • 3: The Opening Episode in Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 4: Gender-Specific Behaviors in the Opening Episode
  • 5: The Gender-Specific Behaviors of Goddess Izanami and Princess Toyotama
  • 6: “Matriarchal” versus “Patriarchal” Marriage Customs behind Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 7: A Challenge to the Patriarchal Domestic Gender Hierarchy
  • 8: Animal Women’s Assertive Behaviors as Described in Old Japanese Narratives
  • Conclusion: Narrating Gender Reality behind Japanese Folktale Tradition
  • 1: The Main Theme of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 2: The Opening Episode of Animal-Wife Tales
  • 3: The Forbidden Chamber Stories and Japanese Animal-Wife Tales: Similarities and Differences
  • 4: Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 5: The Principle “Gentlemen First and Ladies Second”
  • 6: Approaching the Main Theme of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • 7: Conclusion: Demystifying Gender Reality behind Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • Appendix I: Inada’s Tale-Types of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • IT 218: The Fish-Wife Tale-Type
  • IT 219: The Clam-Wife Tale-Type
  • IT 224: The Snake-Wife Tale-Type
  • IT 225A: The Fox-Wife Tale-Type –The Separation Type
  • IT 225B: The Fox Wife Tale-Type – The Special Ears Type
  • IT 225C: The Fox-Wife Tale-Type – The Rice-Planting Type
  • IT 226: The Bear-Wife Tale-Type
  • IT 227: The Cat-Wife Tale-Type
  • IT 228: The Frog-Wife Tale-Type
  • IT 229 A: The Crane-Wife Tale-Type – The Separation Type
  • IT 229 B: The Crane-Wife Tale-Type – The Solving-Riddle Type
  • Appendix II: Seki’s Tale-Types of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • JT 110: The Snake-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 111: The Frog-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 112: The Clam-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 113 A: The Fish-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 113 B: The Fish-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 115: The Crane-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 116 A: The Fox-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 116 B: The Fox-Wife Tale-Type
  • JT 117: The Cat-Wife Tale-Type
  • Appendix III: Korean and Chinese Pond-Snail Wife Tale-Types
  • The Episodic Structure of the Korean Pond-Snail Wife Tale-Type (KT 206)
  • Chinese Pond-Snail Wife Tale-Type (Eberhard Chinese Tale-Type 35)
  • Appendix IV: Olrik’s Epic Laws of Folk Narrative: The Opening and the Closing Laws
  • Appendix V: Feminism and Storytellers
  • Appendix VI: Marriage Customs in Ancient and Premodern Japan
  • Appendix VII: An Analysis of Bluebeard Story and Japanese Animal-Wife Tales
  • Introduction
  • 1: What Is the Household Bossism Motif About?
  • 2: The Household Power Game in Bluebeard Story and Japanese Frog-Wife Tales
  • 3: The Household Bossism Motif and Perrault’s Bluebeard Story
  • 4: The Household Bossism Motif in the Japanese Frog-Wife Tales
  • 5: Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 1: Anthologies
  • 2: Critical Studies
  • 3: Anthologies in Japanese
  • 4: Works in Japanese
  • Index
  • Series Index



My parents, Satoshi and Miyoko Kobayashi, always said to their children that our achievements were owed to many people’s help even though we did not know who they are. Keeping their saying, as a good child of theirs, I would like to express my thanks to those who directly and indirectly helped me give birth to this book. Without their valuable and warmhearted advice and help, I would have obtained little from the rich treasure trove of Japanese and world folktales.

My deepest gratitude must go first to Galit Hasan-Rokem and Ben-Ami Shillony, both of whom generously guided me through the long journey of this study from beginning to end. I owe a special debt to Wolfgang Mieder, who has always encouraged me to publish my work. Special mention is due, for their generous advice and sharing of ideas and resources, to Dan-Ben Amos, Cristina Bacchilega, Shuli Barzilai, Ruth B. Bottigheimer, In-hak Choi, Christine Shojaei Kawan, Bronislava Kerbelytė, Fumiko Mamiya, Elliott Oring, Toshio Ozawa, Marilena Papachristophorou, Francisco Vaz da Silva, Hans-Jörg Uther, and Jack Zipes. I also express my special thanks to Taganōsan Kōsanji (a Buddhist temple registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Kyoto, Japan, which permitted me to use parts of a wonderful twelfth-century picture scroll titled Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga in which rabbits and frogs happily play together (registered as one of the National Treasures of Japan) as my book cover art.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife, Hyunhee Park, who has always encouraged me to overcome hardships, and who cheers and entertains me with all kinds of fascinating stories from Korea. I am grateful for her steadfast support and encouragement for this book. ← xi | xii →

So, my Japanese animal women would be happy now to see my book. I again express gratitude for what I have received directly and indirectly from all of them. Thank you very much for all! ← xii | 1 →



1:  Gendered Misconstructions of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

One of the most familiar and beloved recurring female characters in traditional Japanese folktales is the earthly animal in female human form–in other words, an animal woman. However, this animal woman’s great popularity in Japan rests on a deeply ingrained misconstruction in which her character constitutes nothing more than an icon that symbolizes a meek, obedient form of Japanese femininity. Such a misconstruction has long circulated widely and deeply among Japanese people, thus ensuring a perpetual mystification of the animal woman’s actual characteristics as described in the Japanese folktale tradition. Indeed, this more recent misconception of Japanese Animal-Wife tales never articulates the character’s actions or behaviors in relation to her human spouse. Moreover, it obscures the real picture of the gendered relationship in matrimony, which Japanese folktales traditionally narrated. Accordingly, various misconstrued interpretations mystify people to grasp the main theme of the tales that lies behind gender-specific behaviors of the tales’ characters.

And yet, original versions of the animal woman character did not always display the kind of meek femininity that modern adaptations have imposed on her, however sensitively storytellers have tried to embellish. It is difficult to stop the perpetuation of this misconstruction. Whenever people tell, share, and retell animal-wife tales, they propagate a misconstruction that they help to spread everywhere it is retold, unaware of their own complicity in the act. The longer this kind of misconstruction circulates unchallenged, the more elusive the image of an animal woman becomes.

One widely popular interpretation circulating among the Japanese portrays the animal woman as the naïve victim of her human spouse because he breaches her sincere taboo against looking at her when she confines herself inside the room in her animal form. The popular misconstruction holds that ← 1 | 2 → the husband’s unfaithful behavior–by breaching her taboo–compels his wife to reluctantly quit their happy marriage life and leave the human world forever. Accordingly, general audiences and readers of Japanese folktale easily misunderstand an animal woman as a symbol of an oppressed woman who behaved submissively in the face of merciless male dominance in premodern Japan. However, a careful examination of the tales’ actual content shows that there is nothing in the behaviors of the two gendered characters that supports the image of the animal woman’s obedient and gullible femininity.

By releasing the animal woman character from its contemporary misconstruction, it becomes apparent that the plot developments of all eight tale-types (each of which is composed of several episodes) in the Japanese Animal-Wife tale group describe an unusual connubiality between an animal woman and a male human followed by their permanent separation, no matter what form of animal the tale uses. Indeed, storytellers freely color the basic plot structures or the episodic structures that create this unusual bond of connubiality in order to dramatically narrate how the relationship starts and then ends. However, despite these colorations, storytellers unfailingly maintain certain episodic structures: An animal woman first knocks on the door of a male human’s house, and this animal woman first bids goodbye to him or simply forsakes him, ending their relationship forever. While these episodic structures are not unlike those of animal-wife tales in other cultures, the behaviors of these two gendered characters sharply contrast those found in other cultures’ tales. These differences distinguish Japanese Animal-Wife tales as unique among their cross-cultural counterparts.1

2:  Japanese Animal-Wife Tales and Melusine Tales

Some folklorists point out similarities between Japanese Animal-Wife tales and European Melusine tales, which have long circulated through oral and written form over francophone regions, especially during medieval times. Indeed, both types of tales narrate a fantastic story of connubiality and permanent separation that happen between a female nonhuman and a male human. However, a careful examination indicates that some differences do exist between the two tales. ← 2 | 3 →

For example, the two tales differ over who bears responsibility for commencing the fantastic drama that unfolds.2 Melusine tales always begin with a nobleman who goes astray in the woods and there unintentionally encounters Melusine. Even though she first unexpectedly offers him a marriage proposal, on the condition of a strict taboo as a marriage condition, it is the nobleman who raises the curtain on the drama to tell about Melusine and whatever predicaments happen to befall him.3 Other versions of the Melusine tales do otherwise. Whether or not she first proposes to a man varies from version to version; however, one thing remains consistent: whatever the version, a nobleman who first enters her niche opens the whole plot development of Melusine tales. By comparison, the animal woman in Japanese Animal-Wife tales, whatever her species, invariably initiates a visit to an ordinary male-human living in a village or a town, and asks him to let her stay with him, although he is unaware of her nonhuman origin.4 Whether she imposes her taboo on him varies; however, she always lifts the curtain on her own drama, whatever the ending.

The above two different types of opening episodes–one in which a male character raises the curtain on the drama and another in which a female does so–are worth examining for their cross-cultural folkloristic value. Provided that the central aim of the opening episode seeks to engage people in hearing and reading the tales, the differences between them with regard to who opens the drama work as showcases of significant narrative settings in the tales, such as who visits or finds whom, where this visitation happens, and how each character reacts to her or his counterpart’s behavior at the moment when the first visitation unfolds. The narrative settings of the opening episode do not offend either audiences or storytellers, but instead successfully attract ← 3 | 4 → people’s attention to it. The opening episode must be able to draw people’s ears (and readers’ eyes) to the tale at hand. Moreover, it must work to imply any tale’s main theme in people’s mindsets. Accordingly, the examination of gender-specific behaviors of the characters as narrated in the opening episode helps folklorists to understand the foundation of the main theme that underlies the episodic structures of Japanese Animal-Wife tales. The main theme of Japanese Animal-Wife tales must be neither offensive nor esoteric to Japanese people; otherwise, the tales would have disappeared from the Japanese folktale tradition long ago. Despite similarities in the plot developments, the Melusine tales and Japanese Animal-Wife tales construct different opening dramas, which indicate the different ways that different people enjoy their culture’s version of the animal-wife tale for storytelling times.

3:  Demystifying Folktale Mystique behind Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

Some talk, while others listen. On various occasions, people tell, share, and retell amusing tales for pleasure. Some tales center on popular topics that relate to people’s wishes in their everyday lives. When they do, the people who tell them tend to garnish their everyday topics with fantasy in order to create a more gripping narrative. How to become rich even when born poor, how to get a lot of money without toil, and how to manage a bickering spouse at home–these are some of the topics that people have used in order to create stories, topics that are still widely known even today.

Surveying various cultures over the world, it is surprising how much they have preserved folktales as one of their oral traditions. In her examination of the Hungarian storytelling tradition, Linda Dégh states:

Evidences of the folktale can be found all over the world; they are quite ancient, and even if these narratives arise from different conditions, depending on place and time, they all have something in common: they have their origin in a social need. The oldest written records contain indications of the function of folktale narration. People everywhere have listened to storytellers with the greatest of interest. They brought news of exciting events, praised heroic deeds, and thus aroused interest in history; they provided models of religious and ethical perfection for the people to emulate. The narrators banished the drab monotony of everyday life by entertaining their hearers with exciting, adventuresome, and highly imaginative stories. It was from these premises, before the invention of written literature, that oral narratives forms originated.5 ← 4 | 5 →

As Dégh remarks, people take pleasure in attractive tales with intriguing episodes, which may or may not deal with theological or mythological themes. Whether laboring in their workshops, relaxing in their homes, or attending feasts, people enjoy themselves by telling, sharing, and retelling appealing tales for fun.

So, the main theme of animal-wife tales is neither inscrutable nor foreign to Japanese people, provided that the tales help people to amuse themselves ceaselessly in hearing, telling, sharing, and retelling them. Otherwise, such tales would have passed into oblivion long ago, and no one would know about them today as a part of Japanese folktale tradition.6

4:  Scottish Selkie-Wife Tales versus Japanese Frog-Wife Tales

Cultures in both the East and the West have produced many gripping tales that revolve around an unusual form of connubiality between an animal woman and her human spouse followed by their permanent separation.7 In Scottish Selkie-Wife tales, for example, a male human first approaches a seal (called a selkie in Scottish), which takes on a female human form, and then he forces this selkie-woman to become his wife. Thus, he knows about his wife’s nonhuman origin from the beginning of the tale. In Japanese Frog-Wife tales, by contrast, a frog-woman (a frog in female human form) first approaches a male human, and persuades him to let her live together with him in his home without telling him about her frog origin. The man accepts the offer without knowing anything about her animal origin. She keeps her frog origin a secret from him, until one day when he discovers the truth. Then, she does not hesitate to end her connubial relationship, leaving him forever alone.

While the opening episodes of the above two tales differ in parts, their ending episodes both narrate a form of permanent separation that takes place between an animal woman and her human spouse. Whatever their similarities ← 5 | 6 → and differences the above tales may have, both the connubiality and the separation in these tales work to create narrative emphases. These episodes never disappoint people; quite the contrary, they attract them. It does not matter how weirdly tales start and finish, but how attractively their opening and ending episodes sound matters very much. Whether they end with “happily-forever” or permanent separation, tales must amuse audiences and storytellers alike. Otherwise, those tales cannot survive long as folktales in the folk narrative tradition.

In his investigation of the folk-narrative tradition, particularly Volksmärchen or folktales, Max Lüthi describes their nature, saying:

Fairytales [Volksmärchen or folktales] have been told time and again not because they are so easy to tell, but because they have provided pleasure.8

He continues:

The designation “folktale” encompasses only such narratives as have over a period of time passed from teller to teller. When there are many and diverse renditions of a given story, we can be sure that it has been transmitted orally and, in process, changed.9

And he asserts:


XII, 198
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
human behaviors personality
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 212 pp.

Biographical notes

Fumihiko Kobayashi (Author)

Fumihiko Kobayashi received his PhD in Jewish and comparative folklore studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. His research applies cross-cultural perspective to the study of folklore of Japan and other cultures. He has presented research papers at academic conferences worldwide, including meetings on comparative folklore studies between the East and the West, culture studies, gender studies, and Japanese and global history, as well as the International Society of Folk Narrative Research (ISFNR), International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR), International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), and American Folklore Society (AFS). He currently serves as an assistant editor of the academic journal Crossroads: Studies on the History of Exchange Relations in the East Asian World.


Title: Japanese Animal-Wife Tales