- The Dream of the Yamanba—An Overview
Born in 1937, Mizuta Noriko is a second-wave feminist, as illustrated by her vast scholarship on women writers from Japan and the United States. In contrast to secondwave feminism, which has drawn criticism for embracing a monolithic, universal, and "unified category of women,"1 more recent feminist scholars have incorporated queer theory and emphasize "diversity," "ambiguity," and "hybridity."2 In this 2002 essay, however, Mizuta underscores the hybridity that already exists in second-wave feminism. Specifically, she destabilizes the binary opposition of angel and whore used to evaluate women by introducing a third term, the yamanba—the old crone living in the mountains, far away from the norms of village life. Mizuta repeatedly describes the yamanba as "ambiguous" and "polysemous." She is not the first to excavate this folk figure and notice its feminist potential. As Mizuta herself demonstrates, Japanese women writers active during the peak of the women's liberation movement had already fruitfully employed the figure of the yamanba in their works and the yamanba polysemy permeates even their texts that do not explicitly allude to yamanba legends.
Mizuta characterizes the yamanba as "an anarchic existence who lives 'the female sex' as it is, in a way that is not marked by gender culture." Although Mizuta does not reference queer theory, the term "anarchic" suggests that the yamanba is queer, where queer refers to "processes or forces that exceed the systems of governance or power being diagnosed and critiqued."3 The yamanba therefore underscores the queer potential of second-wave feminist writers and their texts.
In fact, I would suggest that the yamanba can also function as a metaphor for the second-wave feminist. The association between the yamanba and second-wave feminism does not automatically relegate all feminists to the old and ugly. Rather, the term yamanba serves to acknowledge these negative stereotypes while also illustrating the disruptive power that resides in female senectitude. Mizuta thus offers a second-wave [End Page 182] counterpart to the "girl" at the center of third-wave feminist culture. Mizuta's essay becomes an invitation to reconsider the feminist essence of Japanese women's literature.
Yamanba. An old crone running through the mountains, her thick dry hair—gray, or yellowish straw colored—wildly fluttering in the wind. She is old, but strong, and the movements of her large body are swift. Wrapped in ragged cloth tied with hemp cord and barefoot, her eyes are sharp, her wrinkles deep, her mouth large, her demeanor frightening.
They say the yamanba preys on humans. They say she lures men deep into the mountains, catches them and devours them. They also say that she is after young women. The yamanba is a glutton, who conceals a large mouth on the top of her head. She even eats livestock and babies. To feed herself, at times the yamanba descends into a village to work and can also be helpful to people. She does not always eat humans. Fecund and boasting a large bosom, she is skilled at spinning thread. Legend has it that burning her dead body will enrich the land and endow a village with unusual fertility and abundant harvests. And it is also said that she can change her appearance at will into that of a young woman or an animal. Some stories tell of hard-working, beautiful wives who were in fact yamanba, and therefore the yamanba is also reminiscent of female protagonists in folktales about mixed marriages between a man and a nonhuman woman.
The yamanba possesses supernatural powers and, if mistreated will take revenge by bringing about natural disasters. She is a frightening being, who wields great power that cannot be contained when she suddenly becomes enraged. Rarely does she go down into the village, and villagers fear her far too much to draw close to her. Well aware of the saying "Let sleeping dogs lie," they do their best to avoid her. However, if for some reason they do not tolerate her, the yamanba may meet a cruel end.
Described in this manner, the yamanba appears mysterious and strange, yet unlike witches, demonesses...