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Stepmother Tales in Japan

From: Children's Literature
Volume 9, 1981
pp. 61-72 | 10.1353/chl.0.0508

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Tales of wicked stepmothers can be found in almost every genre of traditional Japanese literature. Stepmother tales appear in the lyrical, symbolic nō drama, are alluded to in poets' handbooks, form a prominent part of the earliest recorded repertory of the Japanese puppet theater, and intrude as episodes even in such unlikely places as war tales. In one such tale, two youthful bravos on their way to an act of revenge come to the banks of a river. The stream is in flood, and one of them hesitates to cross. His brother urges him. "It is just as in the legend," he begins, and we are off into a wonderful tale of a distant land, where a pair of beautiful princesses are falsely accused by their evil stepmother, until the king, their father, half-believes that they are plotting against him. Then the princesses are sealed inside a "hollow boat" and set adrift toward the island of demons. All ends happily, for their prayers prevail and they come instead to the shores of Japan. Now they are goddesses enshrined at Hakone. Surely they will protect the two young travelers.1

From another war tale we learn the origin of the bodhisattva Kannon and the bodhisattva's all-embracing compassion. Long ago in India, there were two young brothers. Their mother became ill and died, and although their father mourned her deeply, he married a second wife, as was the custom. There was a famine; many men died. The father heard that there was a mountain where fruit grew that would satisfy hunger for seven days. He set forth to fetch the fruit, and in his absence the stepmother put the two children in a boat and took them out to sea, telling them that they were going to cut seaweed. She rowed and rowed and then abandoned them on an island. There they died; but before dying they vowed to save all living beings from poverty and distress and to free them from the ten thousand kinds of sin. By the power of their vows, they were reborn as the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi, and their own mother became the Buddha Amida, whom these two bodhisattvas attend.2

If we wish to examine archetypal story patterns in Japanese literature, there is no better place to begin than with a body of tales in which elements from folk culture and high culture mingle. The texts in which these tales were recorded were written over a period of five hundred years, beginning in the twelfth and ending in the early seventeenth century. Their purpose was the edification and entertainment of persons of very modest education. Much of this unsophisticated narrative literature may well have been read and enjoyed even by learned men—indeed, there is evidence that it was—but the audience it was composed for was made up primarily of simpler folk, women, and of course children. Stories on all sorts of subjects, from the piously homiletic to the indecent, were told by Buddhist preachers, who had a large repertory; moreover, this was an age of itinerant entertainers, including some who chanted to the accompaniment of an instrument like a lute and others who displayed pictures or used puppets to illustrate their recitations.3 Women and children learned to read a phonetic syllabary, and toward the end of the period there were illustrated chapbooks that they could consult. Many of these chapbooks drew their subjects from folklore, while others, largely the invention of their authors, in turn contributed motifs to traditional folk tales that have been collected in the present century. Within this vast medieval popular literature, scholars distinguish a number of different genres. Setsuwa, for example, are brief anecdotes, of a factual or purportedly factual nature; the vogue for collecting them, which had begun as early as the ninth century, lasted through the first decades of the fourteenth. Otogi zōshi, which succeeded them in popularity, are longer, more elaborate, more imaginative, and at the same time far more naive in spirit. Yet, in their different ways, both types of stories reflect the same underlying human concerns.

Stepmother tales in this popular literature vary widely in plot, as do tales...