- Sexualization of the Disabled Body:Tanabe Seiko’s “Joze to tora to sakanatachi” (Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish)
How many heroines with physical handicaps have been depicted in the world of literature? The number is small, because conventionally, characters with disabilities are treated as secondary. They have always been characterized only by their physical differences and deficiencies,1 and been treated as “others” whose subjectivity or agency has always been denied. Greta D. Little states that “supporting characters who are disabled rarely have a role beyond demonstrating their handicap and providing a chance for the healthy hero or heroine to reveal his worth.”2
In juvenile fiction, occasionally we see heroines with disabilities. However, their disabled bodies are purposed only to convey didactic meanings. The frequently used motif of a girl in a wheelchair,3 for instance, functions to teach the audience the importance of overcoming obstacles. The fact that the characters are handicapped is regarded as a sign of their weakness and reliance,4 so that they must face and fight against their physical problems in order to grow up into strong human beings. Their ailments’ cure is their reward for being patient and persevering, so at the end of the stories, they all miraculously stand up and celebrate their lives with their friends and families.5
This essay examines Tanabe Seiko’s short story “Josee to tora to sakanatachi” (Josee, the tiger, and the fish), published in Gekkan Kadokawa (Monthly Kadokawa) in 1984.6 The story concerns a handicapped heroine, Kumiko, who was abandoned by her [End Page 33] parents when she was a child. The image of an orphan and a girl in a wheelchair gives us the impression that the work is a conglomerate of Western girls’ story motifs. Despite its similarities to these juvenile literary patterns, however, the story contains no didacticism or miracle. Nor does it follow the story convention concerning disabled characters, for Kumiko is a fully developed central character. The author portrays Kumiko’s transformation from a pitiful disabled girl into a powerful woman who rejects conformity in society. Although disabled women’s bodies are often viewed as pathological and asexual,7 Kumiko empowers herself by sexualizing her body. Tanabe’s story offers an example of a woman who denies the cultural myth and revolts against the society that gives her the stigmatizing label of “disabled person.”
I first examine how Kumiko’s body is viewed as a pathological one, both by society and through the eyes of her male friend, Tsuneo. Kumiko’s body becomes a site of conflict and negotiation between self and society. When Kumiko eventually changes her identity by taking on the fictional name Josee, it is a symbolic declaration of her independence from society, and represents the creation of her own world. I follow the process of this disabled orphan heroine’s self-empowerment, and finally discuss the story’s feminist undercurrents.
The Story of a Socially Marginalized Girl
“Joze to tora to sakanatachi” deals with a twenty-five-year-old woman named Yamamura Kumiko. In common with other female characters that Tanabe Seiko depicts, Kumiko, who speaks an energetic Osaka dialect, is a strong and independent-minded woman. The difference is that Kumiko is handicapped and uses a wheelchair.8 The story first delineates Kumiko’s family situation and upbringing. Her mother leaves home when Kumiko is a baby, and soon after that, her father remarries a woman who has a three-year-old daughter from her previous marriage. In order to be loved by her new mother, Kumiko starts to call herself “Atai,” a word that she adapts from her stepsister’s childish mispronunciation of the word for “I.” It becomes Kumiko’s habit to refer to herself this way even beyond childhood. Since “Atai” is actually semi-archaic slang with a rough and aggressive color, her usage of this word can be interpreted both as an indication of her desire to be loved by her parents and as her later challenge to societal normality.
When Kumiko reaches adolescence, she starts to have her period. Her body develops into that of a woman. As a disabled girl, Kumiko was helpless...