Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture
Christine L. Marran
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Based on the lives and crimes of no less than twenty real women, dokufu (poison women) narratives emerged as a powerful presence in Japan during the 1870s. During this tumultuous time, as the nation moved from feudalism to oligarchic government, such accounts articulated the politics and position of underclass women, sexual morality, and female suffrage. Over the next century, the figure of the oversexed female criminal, usually guilty of robbery or murder, became ubiquitous in modern Japanese culture.
In Poison Woman, Christine L. Marran investigates this powerful icon, its shifting meanings, and its influence on defining women’s sexuality and place in Japan. She begins by considering Meiji gesaku literature, in which female criminality was often medically defined and marginalized as abnormal. She describes the small newspapers (koshinbun) that originally reported on poison women, establishing journalistic and legal conventions for future fiction about them. She examines zange, or confessional narratives, of female and male ex-convicts from the turn of the century, then reveals how medical and psychoanalytical literature of the 1920s and 1930s offered contradictory explanations of the female criminal as an everywoman or a historical victim of social circumstances and the press. She concludes by exploring postwar pulp fiction (kasutori), film and underground theater of the 1970s, and the feminist writer Tomioka Taeko’s take on the transgressive woman.
Persistent stories about poison women illustrate how a few violent acts by women were transformed into myriad ideological, social, and moral tales that deployed notions of female sexual desire and womanhood. Bringing together literary criticism, the history of science, media theory, and gender and sexuality studies, Poison Woman delves into genre and gender in ways that implicate both in projects of nation-building.
Christine L. Marran is associate professor of Japanese literature and cultural studies at the University of Minnesota.
grave, the madhouse, or worse, to the brothel. This has only to do with dissolute behavior and not the crime of thievery and murder.22 The coinciding section in the original states regarding the woman’s “maiden stage”: “We refer to the disastrous consequences on soul and body to which young girls expose themselves by exciting and indulging morbid passions. Years ago, Miss Catharine E. Beecher sounded a note of warning to the mothers of America on this secret vice, which leads their daughters to
The story continues to relate in detail the struggle between Katō and Isa as they tumbled down the stairs and Isa held on even with one ﬁnger broken in the ﬁght. This dramatic tale of the capture of a runaway convict was followed by the second installment of “The Story of Female Bandit Otsune” (Onna tōzoku Otsune no den) that related how Otsune gained the trust of a foreigner for whom she was housekeeper. In this similarly action-packed story, Otsune learned through her employment that another
popularity of poison woman ﬁction and other serialized ﬁction within the context of the enlightenment, claims that poison woman literature signals an ideological conﬂict of interest—a popular literary response to contemporary political revisionism and progressivism. To illustrate his point, Rinbara introduces an exchange in the E-iri Chōya Shinbun (Illustrated Morning Newspaper) between a reader dissatisﬁed with the “old-fashioned” themes of the serials, and the editor who politely refuses to
contemporaneous discussions of it at the turn of the century. While Tayama Katai argued vociferously that his novella The Quilt was not a zangeroku narrative, which he identiﬁed as a speciﬁcally premodern narrative form, a critical book review of Kinoshita Naoe’s novel Zange was just as thoroughly convinced that zange was indeed synonymous with new writing by young male novelists. One review of the novel was dismissive of this new trend among “youth” (seinen) to write from the perspective of a
reactionary, sensational ruckus.”12 The sensation around the incident clearly was not conﬁned to the event of murder alone. Rather, the uproar was caused by the extraordinary “messiness” of the crime —the mingling of bodily ﬂuids, the spilling of the victim’s blood, the inscription of the assailant’s name on the victim’s skin with a knife, the dismemberment of his body. The blood ﬂowing from the various wounds of the corpse was messy. The dismemberment of his body was messy, as was Abe’s