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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 Three: The Search for the Main Theme of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales


3. The Search for the Main Theme of Japanese Animal-Wife Tales

Chapter Two described the four-pillar episodes that have helped to ensure the enduring popularity of Animal-Wife tales among Japanese people, and which make the tales unique among many of other cultures. This chapter initiates the search for the main theme of Japanese Animal-Wife tales by analyzing the sociocultural and historical contexts that shaped the characteristics of the four-pillar episodes. The understanding of the main theme will unfold the description of gender reality lying behind Japanese folktale tradition.

As the previous chapters of this book have already suggested, the iconic image of the animal woman as a naïve, meek benefactress developed from the emphasis that generations of storytellers placed on the ending episodes, in which, most commonly, the male human character breaches the animal woman’s taboo against looking at her whenever she has confined herself in her room. This act stigmatizes him as a malefactor, in stark contrast to his benefactress wife. A researcher’s shift in focus from the ending to the opening episodes of the tales removes the sugarcoated patina from the animal woman’s image, resulting in a very different understanding of Japanese Animal-Wife tales.

Repeatedly, the success of folktale storytellers pivots heavily on whether or not they can capture an audience’s attention in the opening episodes of their version of an animal-wife tale. Despite their many embellishments, storytellers adhere to certain basic narrative elements when describing the animal woman’s...

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