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Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

Narrating Gender Reality in Japanese Folktale Tradition


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 Two: The Theoretical Characteristics of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales


2. The Theoretical Characteristics of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

When folklorists seek older, orally transmitted tales among communities, as Kunio Yanagita and other researchers have already indicated, they must undertake the important yet painstaking job of sifting through newer adaptations laden with unnatural embellishments that storytellers and other folktale-collectors have added, intentionally or not, to original tales.1 Japanese Animal-Wife tales are no exception.

Most adaptations of Japanese Animal-Wife tales interpret the animal woman’s proposal of marriage as a reward that she gives the man for the kindness he showed to her when she was still in her original animal form. The creators of adaptations have reacted to this remarkable opening episode by blaming the man for his animal-wife’s reluctant departure at the end of the tale. Moreover, they reinforce the impression that the animal woman represents a meek, obedient form of femininity and the man a stubborn, domineering form of masculinity. Whatever these adaptations say about the animal woman and her human husband, however, a careful examination of their behaviors as originally narrated describes gender characteristics that differ from these more recent, familiar, and sugarcoated adaptations.

Removing these accretions to Japanese Animal-Wife tales reveals the constituent episodes of the early tales, making it possible to analyze what the two principal gendered characters actually do. The opening and the ending episodes of Japanese Animal-Wife tales show how each of the two gendered ← 45 | 46 → characters reacts in gender-specific ways to each other at the...

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