As a former resident of Japan and a lifelong lover of myths and folklore, I filled with glee when I got my hands on a copy of Where the Wild Ladies are by Aoko Matsuda. The truly remarkable characteristic of Aoko Matsuda’s work is the seamless way in which she blends the folklore of yesteryear with modern life in an urban city.

From a busybody aunt who disapproves of hair removal; to a pair of door-to-door saleswomen hawking portable lanterns; to a cheerful lover who visits every night to take a luxurious bath; Where the Wild Ladies Are is populated by these and many other spirited women—who also happen to be ghosts.

Aoko Matsudas novel is a witty and exuberant collection of feminist retellings of traditional Japanese folktales. Humans live side by side with spirits who provide a variety of useful services—from truth-telling to babysitting, from protecting castles to fighting crime.

Welcome to another Fireside Chat at Mith Books. I am pleased to have Aoko Matsuda with me today. We explore the storytelling tradition of Japan as well as dive into the folklore that inspired the colourful characters in her wonderful book.

Dipa: In Japan, folklore and urban life seem to coexist seamlessly, even now. In a vast majority of countries over the world, myths are stories relegated to the history books of yesteryear. Why do you believe Japanese culture has been able to carry this forward—change with the times and yet retain the continuity of its cultural tradition?

Aoko: This is a very interesting question. This phenomenon is so common that I myself even sometimes forget its strangeness.

Japanese people are taught to respect Japanese traditions and to believe that adjusting yourself to fit in with others is more important than being yourself. As you all know, Japan is still an unbelievably male-centric, aged society and people are forced to do what they are told without questioning it. So even if something is actually weird, many people wouldn’t doubt it, but just accept what they are told. All of these qualities have allowed tradition to survive for a long time.

I don’t like these tendencies, but I do love the way that old folklore still can exist within modern life. So I have kind of mixed feelings about this.

There is one interesting story I want to share. I had a baby two years ago, and I read a well-selling how-to book about giving birth and childcare which I found very strange. There was a section explaining about Inu no Hi (Day of the Dog), which encourages women who are five months pregnant to put a band around their bellies and visit a shrine to pray for an easy delivery. This custom is just a superstition and yet it is included in almost all of the how-to books along with all the medical advice.

Of course I didn’t visit a shrine wearing a belly band, but this is what it’s like in Japan.

Dipa: According to statistics by the Association of Shinto Shrines, some 2970 shrines are dedicated to Inari, the Japanese kami of foxes. Inari worship has remained unchanged by Meiji Restorations and continues to centre around folk practices. Could you tell us more about what the fox represents in Japanese culture? What is the significance of this folk practise in modern times?

Aoko: I’m not so familiar with this topic, so I might be wrong. As you mentioned, Inari is the kami of foxes, but it was originally a kami of agricultural industry, which then went on to represent all industry. And the word Inari carries the meaning ‘fox’. There are various theories, but it seems that foxes have come to be seen as the god Inari or its messenger because they eat the rats that ruin rice fields.

Foxes also often appear in folklore and most of the time, they try to deceive human beings. Foxes are sly and unreliable in the stories. I guess it’s similar to the tales of Aesop. And in Japan, people used to say that someone who became mentally unstable was “haunted by a fox.” My impression is that foxes are a kind of existence that stands somewhere in between the human and non-human, binding reality and fantasy together.

Dipa: In A Fox’s Life, you write, “Male employees had to pretend to be capable of doing things they couldn’t do, while female employees had to pretend to be incapable of doing things they actually could do. Over the years, how many women had seen their talents magically disappearing in that way?” All over the world, the power of women has been denied, diminished or forced into hiding. What do you think is the ‘source’ of a woman’s power and why do you think women are expected to downplay their strengths whilst men are expected to be more than they are?

Aoko: Women, men, and all other genders should have a right to be strong if they want to be strong and be weak if they want to be weak, but they are not allowed to live like that because what is valued in this world right now is controlled by patriarchy and capitalism, and that’s why women are expected to downplay their strengths. I think the ‘source’ of a woman’s power differs from woman to woman, but unfortunately, in the current situation, the individualities of each woman are not respected. 

Ultimately, I would like to see a society where women can be free from the values of capitalism, and whether they do their best or not being a matter of personal choice.

Dipa: Kazuha, the protagonist of in A Fox’s Life, undergoes a metamorphosis where she changes into a fox. Before this point, she had become “used to continually paring down her strength…(and) betraying herself.” Was this betrayal an active choice or was this betrayal the only choice that was available to her? Was there and are there any other options available to women?

Aoko: This applies to life in Japan, also. If you live in a male-centric society, paring down your strength is the best way to survive. So it easily becomes the only option.

The so-called ‘ideal’ model in Japan has always been the same: men and women get married and the men earn the money while the women take care of their children at home. The Japanese government is still obsessed with this old-fashioned model and refuses to accept diverse ways of living. You can choose to live not following this model, but doing so leads to financial instability and difficulties, especially for women.

Japan has not been built for women. This is a really heart-wrenching fact that needs to be changed urgently. There are inequalities in hiring and payment between men and women, as well as other countless problems.

Dipa: You write, “Women hadn’t risen up—rather the men had slid down.” What do you believe will be the repercussion of this trend in the future?

Aoko: The bubble burst and the recession has made men’s lives less good. I wrote this sentence because I wanted to believe in a future where men and women can support each other to create a better society. But I know it’s quite difficult. Since Japan is such a misogynistic country, not a few men pass on the cause of their “unhappiness” to women.

In the current situation, I can’t say I feel much optimism.

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