A review of Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales (2015 [originally 1908], JMJ Publishing)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Filled with magic and wonder with supernatural beings and powerful animals, this is a fascinating volume of tales. However, reading through it, it is clear that it was meant for an anglo-American audience and the tales collected are highly modified for those intended readers. Although in some cases, Japanese phrases are used, much of the collection favours the words and phrases and telling style of Anglophone fairy tales. The volume reveals its age by translating even words which have entered common English parlance such as Samurai (instead translating it as “knight”) and “oni” is translated as “ogre”. Instead of Kami and Yokai, spirits in this collection are called “fairies”, a label that doesn’t quite fit them.
However, these are still powerful tales about human encounters with a complex and confusing world. The stories explore intergenerational issues and misunderstandings, jealousy, love, loyalty, and honour. The tales are populated with arrogant figures needing to learn their lessons, cruel-hearted people needing to transform, and acts of violence that need to be atoned for. They are tales where help appears in strange and unexpected places and where any stranger could be a spirit in disguise.