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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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Introduction

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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...

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