ahorbinski: kanji (kanji)
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Youkai. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

I read this book as background material for my panel at Sirens 2010, and it's excellent. Foster, an assistant professor of folklore and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, wrote this manuscript as his dissertation; he tracks the history of youkai as a cultural phenomenon from their first taxonomy in the Edo period to their most recent haunting of media in contemporary urban Japan. Foster ascribes two different components to youkai as they are experienced culturally: the mysterious, which refers to "things that defy established regimes of knowledge" (2), and the weird, which "invokes strangeness of form but is also bound up with the eerie and the supernatural" (24).

Youkai are, broadly speaking, the monsters, supernatural creatures, and weird phenomenon that have haunted Japan since the emergence of Japanese culture in the Heian period, if not before; generally speaking, more and more youkai have come to be recognized over time, though a few major ones--tengu, kappa, kitsune, tanuki--have historically had the lion's share of the attention and have even shown up beyond Japanese borders, particularly the kappa (remember Harry's third-year Defense Against the Dark Arts classes?) and the kitsune. They are Japan's answer to fairies, and the popular attitude towards them reveals many of the same fluctuations in belief and fascination with fairies experienced in western European countries at similar stages of modernization and industrial development. Rather than offer an encyclopedic examination of youkai themselves, Foster concentrates on youkai as a broader cultural phenomenon, examining how youkai were considered at four distinct cultural moments and thereby illuminating, ultimately, how the Japanese nation at that moment considered itself. It is a well-written, frequently brilliant book.

The panel I'm on at Sirens is "Are There Faeries Outside Western Europe? Exploring Fey Folklore from Around the World," and on the basis of this book I'm inclined to think that strictly speaking there aren't "fairies" in Japan--generally speaking, the concept of "fairies" generally includes some powerful fey who are human-esque in form, if not in thought or motivation, whereas while some youkai have the ability to shapeshift (notably tanuki and kitsune), those forms are not necessarily human, and there is absolutely no emphasis on beauty as an intrinsic part of youkai transformations, whereas the Fair Folk are fair (and the double meaning of both beautiful and pale there is not accidental) by definition. Now, why the kitsune in particular has seen a lot of uptake outside the Japanese context, and why the kitsune is inevitably a foxy Asian (or not) woman in human form, says a lot more about the expectations writers outside Japan bring to kitsune than about kitsune and other youkai themselves.

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Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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