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  • Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture
  • Mire Koikari (bio)
Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture by Christine L. Marran. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. $67.50 hardcover, $22.50 paper.

Christine Marran’s Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture focuses on Japanese female criminals whose stories became popularized in tabloid newspapers, pulp fictions, stage plays, and, later, films from the 1870s to the 1970s. Emerging in early modern Japan, the “poison women’s tales” (dokufumono) depicted alluring temptresses with such colorful names as Demon Oden, Night Storm Okinu, Viper Omasa, and Lightning Oshin who committed crimes ranging from robbery and theft to murder. The power of the tales did not stem from the nature of crimes themselves; not all of the “poison women” (dokufu), numbering approximately twenty and mostly of lower-class backgrounds, committed murder by poisoning their lovers, although such was the impression created by their appellation. What captured the imagination of the public, and what made these women truly infamous, was their allegedly voracious and excessive sexuality. Lower-class female sexuality and criminality became the subjects of intense public discussions, creating a dynamic discursive space where talks of gender, class, body, and sexuality flourished. By situating the poison women’s tales within the larger historical contexts, Marran recasts the narratives of female criminality as the indispensable component in Japan’s modernization process

More specifically, the book traces Japan’s nation-state formation, development of popular literary mediums, and adaptation of Western science, criminology, and psychoanalysis, all of which insisted on discovering, exploring, and proving the primitive, abnormal, and transgressive nature of lower-class female sexuality. As Marran agues, this had much to do with the political imperative of Japanese nation-state at the time—that is, the need to articulate the notion of modern Japanese female subject. The figure of the poison woman helped define through contrast what was proper and normal in women—a docile, submissive, and asexual femininity that was safely contained within familial reproductivity. Constructed as aberrant and dangerous, lower-class female criminals were Japan’s exotic others, who were to be read, consumed, and overcome so as to enable the emerging nation-state to enunciate its vision of the modern, orderly self. In illuminating Japan’s modernization process that so heavily relied on the presence of deviant women, the book focuses on the four representational moments: the emergence of the poison women’s tales in the 1870s and 1880s; the proliferation of confessional narratives by female criminals at the turn of the century; the entry of Western scientific discourses into the poison women’s tales in the 1920s and 1930s; and, finally, the shift in [End Page 264] focus from sexual transgression of female criminals to that of their male lovers/victims in the early postwar decades.

In the early Meiji period (1868–1912), the most notable poison woman was Takahashi Oden, who was known as Demon (yasha) Oden. Born in 1848, Oden went through an unfortunate marriage with a husband who became a victim of leprosy and whose need for medical treatment ruined the couple’s finances. After his death (rumored to be caused by Oden’s poisoning), Oden got involved in a business venture and began cohabiting with a man. To alleviate her lover’s financial difficulty, she attempted to swindle money from a merchant by luring him into a bedroom. After cutting his throat and stealing his money, Oden ran away, only to be captured and arrested, found guilty, and beheaded in 1879, without ever repenting her crime.

The story of Oden was immediately picked up by a number of male authors, the most popular rendition being The Tale of Demon Takahashi Oden by Kanagaki Robun, and transformed into a tale of scientific empiricism and pursuit of “truth.” According to this retelling, Oden was destined for criminality not solely because of her less than respectable origin—born out of wedlock to a promiscuous mother—which later manifested itself in her tomboyish, unruly, and unnaturally masculine behaviors. As the autopsy report of Oden’s corpse revealed, her body itself was “proven” to be the source of her abnormal and deviant...


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pp. 264-267
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