Rachel Staum’s Summer Research: Women from otherworlds

Read About Rachel Staum’s Summer Research on Women from Other Worlds in Japanese Literature

Women From Otherworlds: Otogizōshi and Their Influence on Japanese literature

by: Rachel Staum, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Ph.D. Student, East Asian Languages and Cultures

I began this summer with great enthusiasm but many unanswered questions about the direction of my future research. Thanks to the funding I received from the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, I was able to remain in New York and use Columbia’s resources to read, do research, and write proposals for grant applications. By reading both primary and secondary works related to my topic, I was able to learn more background information related to my topic, explore some of the critical and theoretical state of the field, and narrow and define my project’s scope.

            Although my summer of research was set in familiar New York, and the most exotic locale I visited was the depths of Starr Library, I had an exciting summer filled with encounters with dragons, foxes, man-eating ogresses, and other fantastical creatures! I also became a detective, investigating literary mysteries; for example, today, the story of Urashima Tarō, a fisherman who travels to the dragon palace under the sea and meets the daughter of the dragon king, is familiar to any Japanese child. Its origins, however, are ancient, as old as the history of written texts in Japan. What I learned this summer, through reading earlier texts containing versions of the Urashima story, is that nearly all of the iconic elements of the story are later additions; the name Tarō, the turtle, the dragon palace, the dragon king, and Urashima’s rapid aging all appear only in later versions. In some versions, the woman Urashima encounters is identified as a Taoist immortal, and in some as the daughter of the dragon king; in some she can change her appearance to be a turtle, and in others she is only a beautiful maiden. Most dramatically, in the earliest versions, there is love or marriage between Urashima and the woman; in later versions all traces of that are erased. This summer, I began trying to solve the riddle of why the story changed in these ways.

             While such stories are now part of the landscape of popular culture, seen in children’s books, cartoons, or video games, they can be traced back to a late medieval genre now called otogizōshi. Otogizōshi are popular (often illustrated) fiction of unknown authorship, with content ranging from war to romance, from wicked stepmothers to talking furniture. Significantly, a sizable group of otogizōshi are, like Urashima Tarō, stories about women who originate from other worlds. Appearing in different genres across many centuries, these female figures undergo dramatic changes. In my project, I intend to focus on five archetypal stories about women from the otherworld, tracing their evolution over a broad span of literary history: the woman from the dragon palace, the woman from heaven, the crane woman, the mountain ogress, and the fox woman. These five story types represent several different topoi (the sea, the sky, the forest) and different kinds of women, both benign and sinister; crucially, the stories continue to be told in some version today. I plan to divide my dissertation into four chapters: one focusing on the source texts and possible origins of otogizōshi, the second on the late medieval and early Edo otogizōshi themselves, the third on early modern popular print literature, and the fourth on the Meiji period onwards, including children’s literature and folklore studies.

            The complicated history of these stories raises broader questions about the figure of the woman from the otherworld and her variegated functions in Japanese literature: Why are women repeatedly linked to the otherworld? How do figures of these women function in various texts and genres, what do they tell us about the functions of those texts and genres, and how do these representations and functions differ according to genre and time? I believe that a systematic study of these stories and their changes over time has the potential to provide a deeper understanding both of literary genres in history and of those stories that continue to be told in Japan today. Most significantly, such a study could reveal changing views of gender, of marriage, and of the relation of humans to other worlds, the divine, and the demonic.


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