Seventh Asian Studies Conference Japan
    Saturday, June 21-Sunday 22, 2003
    Ichigaya Campus of Sophia University



ASCJ Executive Committee
Conference venue
Nearby hotels 

Inaugural conference 
1998 conference
1999 conference
2000 conference
2001 conference 
2002 conference
2003 conference

Contact the organizers: Asian Studies Conference (ASCJ) c/o Institute of Asian Cultural Studies, International Christian University 3-10-2 Osawa, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181


Session 15
"Poison Women" and Early Meiji Writing
Organizer / Chair: Matthew C. Stretcher, Toyo University

The notion of "poison women," or dokufu, was a prevalent topic among common readers during the early Meiji period. While the term itself comes from mid- to late-Edo period dramatic writing ­ particularly the Kabuki theater ­ in this context it refers to a group of women convicted in the first decades of Meiji of vicious crimes ranging from fraud and extortion to murder. Names such as Harada O-Kinu, Takahashi O-Den, "Torioi" O-Matsu, and Hanai O-Ume came to be widely known and associated with women of low birth whose chief characteristics were their unbridled sexuality, violent tempers, and greed. But the notoriety of the "poison women" was tempered by the fascination in which they were held by the public at large. This fascination was enhanced by a series of sensational stories that appeared in the popular press of the time. These stories were a mixture of factual reportage and fictional embellishment, and most (but not all) portrayed their criminal heroines in a negative light. At the same time, their depiction of the "poison women" as sexually promiscuous enhanced the attraction such women held for their male readershipin particular, making these stories instant bestsellers once they were converted to book form.

This panel will examine several critical aspects of the early Meiji female criminals and the stories told about them. Marie Söderberg discusses aspects of the early Meiji newspaper industry, and provides a general overview of the medium in which these stories were presented. Ulla Frisk examines the historical basis of the "poison women," delineating, where possible, fact from fiction. Eiko Norlander looks at the aesthetic, literary angle of the stories, particularly their structural similarity to Kabuki. Matthew Strecher wraps things up with a discussion of structure and genre, discussing the "poison woman" stories as hybrid fact/fiction, an early form of literary journalism, and an important forerunner to the serialized newspaper novel.

1) Marie Söderberg, Stockholm School of Economics. "A Comparison of Japanese and Swedish Newspapers at the End of the 19th Century"

The development of newspapers in Japan and Sweden follows radically different paths. The newspapers fulfilled quite different roles in the two countries and were to an extensive degree reflecting the societies in which they were produced. This paper will start by giving an overview of the development of the newspaper industry in Japan and in Sweden. A comparison will be made between the type of newspapers that were produced as well as to the content that they had.
As a case study, a Japanese newspaper of the koshimbun type, that is a small format paper produced for a larger audience largely containing news of a sensational type as well as entertainment will be compared with a similar publication in Sweden. Special attention will also be given to the type of series novel that were published by the papers of both countries at the time.

2) Matthew C. Strecher, Toyo University. "Poison Women, Tsuzukimono, and the Development of the Meiji Newspaper Novel"

Much has been written in Japan in recent years about the "poison women" of the early Meiji period ­ women who gained notoriety for crimes ranging from fraud and extortion to outright murder. Such cases were presented vigorously by early journalists in the popular press of the time, mostly (but not exclusively) in the "small newspapers" (koshimbun) aimed at a lower-class readership. These stories took the short-lived form of the tsuzukimono, serialized pieces that combined the diverse elements of factual news reportage, gesaku fiction, and wildly imaginative embellishment in which the female criminal/heroines were portrayed in particularly lurid terms. Generally speaking, such women were depicted as suffering from overactive sexual drives, mental instability, mild to severe psychoses, and even hereditary flaws. Most, though not all, were unsympathetically presented. This paper examines the structure of the tsuzukimono as hybrid fiction, and the impact they had on later writing, including journalism (both orthodox and "literary"), the serialized newspaper novel, and literary art in general.

3) Eiko Nordlander, Stockholm University. "On the Strolling Shamisen Player Omatsu's Adventures ­ Kabuki Plays and the Novel"

It is said that when Torioi Omatsu kaijo shinwa (The strolling shamisen player Omatsu's adventures) by Kubota Hikosaku was published in book form in 1878 it became a bestseller, so much so that the bookbinder could not keep up with demand which caused trouble between the publisher and the bookstores. Why was Torioi Omatsu kaijo shinwa so popular? There were historical and social reasons which scholars have discussed. However, I should like to look at the work as one present-day reader struck by Kubota's dramatic touch. When reading Kaijo shinwa one sometimes feel as if one was watching a kabuki play. It seems that Kubota clearly created a kabuki play in the form of a novel, consciously or unconsciously. Of course, there are parts of the novel which are not like kabuki plays. But Kubota actually began working as a playwright in 1863 for the family of Onoe Kikugoro which was important in the kabuki world. He was considered clumsy at writing dramatic scenes and building up to a climax in his plays. Nevertheless his interest made him start a kabuki theatre in 1889. During the Edo period, many Noh and ningyo joruri (doll theatre) plays were made into kabuki plays, so it is not odd that the kabuki style was tried in the form of a novel (which first was serialized in Kanayomi Shinbun). There was no kabuki play dealing with the Omatsu of
Kaijo shinwa. But Kaijo shinwa bears seven distinctive features of maruhon kabuki (kabuki plays of doll theatre origin).

4) Ulla Frisk, Stockholm University. "The Female Character in dokufu Novels in the Early Meiji Period"

I will discuss the historical background to the characteristics of the "poison woman"or dokufu in the popular novels Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari by Kanagaki Robun (1829-1894) and Torioi Omatsu kaijo shinwa by Kubota Hikosaku (1846-1898). These novels were first published as serial stories in newspapers in the late 1870s, and belong to the genre called gesaku. The plots are a mixture of fact and fiction, and were written at a time of political uproar which culminated in 1877, when Saigo Takamori with a rebel force in Satsuma challenged the Tokyo regime. The portrait of the street singer Omatsu, who was brought up by her parents in the Umegahara district in Tokyo, made her the most famous heroine among the so-called dokufu. Omatsu´s family belonged to the cast of hinin (non-humans), but due to her beauty, seductiveness and ambition, she had relations with people from various social classes.


list of panels