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Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

Narrating Gender Reality in Japanese Folktale Tradition

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Fumihiko Kobayashi

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.
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Chapter One: Demystifying Misconstrued Genders in Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

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1. Demystifying Misconstrued Genders in Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

Japanese Animal-Wife tales are well known to everyone in Japan. The haunting, iconic image of a meek, battered animal woman and her brutal human spouse is universal there. Many folktale adaptations take pity on the animal woman as a naïve, gullible victim of a merciless man, as do more than a few scholarly articles and monographs. Accordingly, these studies are apt to help perpetuate a universal impression that an animal woman always represents an angelic form of femininity that stands in contrast to her human spouse, who epitomizes a guileful, crooked form of masculinity. So, almost reflexively, Japanese people tend to think of Animal-Wife tales as fantasy dramas about two characters–one is a weak female, the other a brutal male–that symbolize gender reality in Japanese society.

Studies seeking to detect the main theme of Japanese Animal-Wife tales generally focus on episodes that revolve around the animal woman’s taboo and her human spouse’s breach of it. However, as already noted in the Introduction, these episodes are less common to Japanese Animal-Wife tale-types than people think. In fact, the animal woman character in these stories does not always impose on her human spouse a taboo against looking at her when she confines herself inside the room in her animal form.1 This misconstruction of Japanese Animal-Wife tales confuses both folktale-lovers and researchers alike. It has resulted from many adaptations of the tales in popular ← 19 | 20...

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