Professor Emerita, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

Month: July 2021

Yamamba: In Search of Japan’s Mountain Witch

Yamamba, Japan’s legendary mountain witch, always fascinates.  She springs to life across cryptic tales, dazzling art, and the majestic Noh theater. I remember how my students enjoyed discussing the yamamba in Japanese literature and theater classes. Was she a cautionary tale?  A sign of feminist bravura? How did the meanings of her persona shift with the various tales and performances?

Luckily, a new book co-edited by Rebecca Copeland and Linda C. Ehrlich guides us through these issues and more.  

Yamamba: In Search of the Mountain Witch (Stonebridge Press, 2021) takes a fresh, innovative approach.  There’s poetry, artwork, short fiction, and interviews with Japanese women who perform Yamamba roles.  Japanese literary and folklore scholar Noriko Reider offers an excellent cultural history of the mountain witch to set the stage.

Eager to find out more, I caught up with Copeland (RC) and Ehrlich (LCE) for a yamamba conversation.  You can also hear this amazing duo interviewed by Amy Chavez on the Books on Asia podcast.

Who is the yamamba?

This images shows an old hag in the mountains, created in Japan around 1737.

Yama-uba (the mountain hag) from Hyakkai-Zukan. Circa1737. Wikimedia Commons.

JB:  Some readers may be learning about the yamamba for the first time.  How would you introduce her?

RC:  Typically, the yamamba is a mysterious old woman. She lives in the mountains beyond the normalcy of human habitation.  She can be fearsome and destructive. But she can also be gentle and supportive.  In a way, she is a representation of the awesomeness of nature itself.

JB:  An intriguing character for sure.   And, as your book shows, she cannot be easily defined or contained.

LCE: True. The yamamba transcends standard definitions of freedom and, conversely, of control. Noriko Mizuta refers to her as “gender-transcendent.” It’s impossible to separate the yamamba’s spirit from the vastness of mountains.

Freeing the Old Woman from Social Constraints

JB:  How does the yamamba challenge views of older women even today?

Hokusai’s yamamba. Wikimedia Commons.

LCE: Good question.  Too often, we see the older woman either ignored or feared. This occurs especially in cultures where a multigenerational family is no longer the norm. Various representations of the yamamba put the older woman front and center, and they explore her potential.

RC: I absolutely agree. The old woman gets pushed to the periphery. Society expects her to fade silently into the background. The yamamba may be exiled in the mountains. But she does not relinquish her power.  If anything, she uses her role as a social outcaste to mock those who would shun her. Their fear of her only accrues to her power.

At Ease with Aging: To Be Old, Wild, and Free

Yamamba Series. North Carolina. 2021. Rebecca Copeland.

JB:  Speaking of fear, I notice that Japanese art featuring the yamamba tends to show aging as ferocious and frightening. Can we read these images from a feminist perspective?

RC: The yamamba shows how embracing age can be liberating.

During the pandemic lockdown, I think a lot of older women began to discover their latent strength. And we felt freer in our appearance, too. We stopped dyeing our hair and worrying about our clothes.  As we spent more and more time in our dark zoom caves, we began to rely increasingly on the power of our own voices.

The yamamba reminds us that it’s okay to be old and wild and free.

After all, people get out of your way when you’re tearing down a mountainside, white hair splayed about you, mouth agape.

Yamamba as Feminist:  “The Smile of a Mountain Witch”

LCE: A feminist approach comes across most strongly in Ōba Minako’s story, “Smile of a Mountain Witch.”  It was a stroke of good luck to get permission to include the full English translation by Noriko Mizuta in our volume.  Actually, it was this story that drew Rebecca and me, separately, to this topic.

Yamamba Series. North Carolina. 2021. Rebecca Copeland.

RC: Ōba’s story is a bold reimagining, and reclaiming, of the yamamba myth in modern times. She brilliantly captures the yamamba’s poignant mix of nurturing, inner strength and isolation. And the story intimates that the witch’s social position and her mind-reading ability may link modern mothers and daughters.

JB:  An evocative story. I also enjoy the new stories, poetry, and artwork that you include.

RC:  Linda and I wanted to show multiplicity of the yamamba.  She enchants, terrifies, and at times, even comforts.  Including creative responses in different formats helped us accomplish this.

The Yamamba Inspires Creative Responses

LCE:  Right.  We tried hard to incorporate a variety of writing styles and tones, and a wide range of approaches to the yamamba. We wanted to include contributions from practicing artists as well as scholar-artists.

A picture of the Noh character Yamamba. 1898. Japan.

Yamauba. 1898. Rijksmuseum.
Wikimedia Commons.

LCE:  We explored Yamamba through classical theatre, experimental theatre, the visual arts, literature—in her awe-inspiring aspects and in her grotesque aspects. Several of the contributors brought the yamamba story up to contemporary times.

RC:  For example, David Holloway’s enigmatic short story captures her horrific side.  On the other hand, my story, set in the North Carolina mountains, plays on this fear but also draws on Yamamba’s maternal nature and wisdom.

“Yamamba Shrine Box”

This image shows what a shrine box featuring the yamamba looks like; combines legendary and pop cultural characters.

“Yamamba Shrine Box.”  Dr. Laura Miller.
Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor in Japanese Studies and Professor of History, University of Missouri St. Louis. 2021.

RC:  Laura Miller’s essay about her creation of the retablo, which she terms a shrine box, gives yet a different picture.  She emphasizes the yamamba’s playfulness and irreverence. She also introduces those naughty ganguro girls with their dark tans, silver hair and yamamba swagger.



Yamamba Poetry and Performance

Utagawa Kuniyoshi  Wikimedia.

JB:  I like the way poetry in the volume pushes the reader to imagine the character’s motivations. We sense her grandeur. Linda’s lyrical poem, along with the imagistic poems by Noriko Mizuta convey the awesomeness of the yamamba and her association with nature.

JB:   I also liked your book’s inclusion of women who bring the yamamba to life on stage.  There’s Ann Sherif’s interview with Noh actors Uzawa Hisa and Uzawa Hikaru and Rebecca’s interview with avant-garde choreographer Yokoshi Yasuko.  You explore the yamamba from many angles.

Seeking the Yamamba

LCE: We entitle our introduction to the book “Beyond Place, Before Time—Why We Seek the Yamamba.” And indeed the sense of “seeking” is present on every page. In that sense, our book offers the excitement of exploration of an elusive figure. We’re not trying to “capture” the yamamba (an impossible task) but rather to celebrate her.

JB:  That sense of “seeking” certainly does come through in every contribution. You make it clear that the yamamba cannot be captured, but she can be contemplated, celebrated, performed, and even emulated.

Congratulations on your innovative book, Rebecca and Linda.  You’re bringing yamamba power to new readers across the world.

We would like to thank Katie Stephens, PhD student in Japanese literature at Washington University, who participated in a live conversation with Rebecca Copeland about Yamamba hosted by University of Missouri, St. Louis. The April 2021 event was sponsored by the Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professorship in Japanese Studies and UMSL Global. Katie’s enthusiasm for the book has inspired further conversations.

Jan Bardsley, “Yamamba: In Search of Japan’s Mountain Witch.” janbardsley.  July 29, 2021.

The Maiko Godzilla Face-Off

As Kyoto’s mascots, maiko often welcome VIPs to the Old Capital.  Maiko have greeted U.S. presidents, British royalty, and famed artists.  But Godzilla?  What’s behind this fantasy assignment?

Today’s post explores this Kyoto tourist campaign, its Godzilla goods, and ponders the imagined Maiko Godzilla face-off.  We also reflect on these two Japanese icons’ journey from victims in the 1950s to cute ambassadors today.

Godzilla Comes to the Old Capital: Godzilla vs. Kyoto

This eye-catching poster by Nakamura Yusuke promotes the 2021 tourist campaign Godzilla vs. Kyoto.

This Godzilla summer series of activities (stamp rallies; Godzilla film showings) takes one to various places in Kyoto.  Stamp rally collectors visit Kyoto Station, Tōji Temple, and six places in the Kyoto Tower.

The Godzilla Art of KAIDA Yuji
By YUJI KAIDA. Titan Books, forthcoming October 2021.

Godzilla vs. Kyoto also features exhibits of original Godzilla-themed art by monster illustrators Yuji Kaida and Nishikawa Shinji.  In April, the Kyoto International Manga Museum invited visitors to Nishikawa’s  “live drawing” event.

Although the series opened in April 2021, it paused due to the pandemic emergency.  Reopened, it has been extended through August. Organizers remind visitors to wear masks, practice social distancing, and avoid alcohol.


Godzilla Goods: Grooming the Monster Kyoto-Style

Image of Godzilla as an advertisment for a giant towelette

Towelette for Godzilla. July 2021.

The Godzilla towelette is just one of many goods devised by Kyoto businesses to sell during the Godzilla vs. Kyoto events.  The typical towelettes (aburatori-gami) are slim, delicate papers. They fit easily in the palm of your hand. One uses them to remove make-up and blot facial oil.

About 33 times the size of the usual ones, these giant papers perfectly suit Godzilla.  [Hard to imagine Godzilla feeling the need to get the shine off his nose, but he does have his close-ups].  Online at the Godzilla Store.

The towelette gives Godzilla hands-on experience with Kyoto tradition.

The Kyoto cosmetics store Yojiya claims to have sold the first towelettes in 1920. They quickly became popular with geisha and Kabuki actors who used make-up professionally. The Yojiya site remarks, “The circumstances of its creation could only have happened in Kyoto, the capital of Japanese cinema.”   How fitting that Godzilla, a cinematic star himself, would enjoy a Kyoto towelette super-sized for him.

The Maiko Vs. Godzilla Face-Off

In Nakamura’s poster, Godzilla looks ferocious. He’s ready to snap off Kyoto Tower.  Is he going to unleash his atomic breath on the maiko? Or ravish the beauty like King Kong? The maiko remains calm, meeting his gaze.



Nakamura’s poster suggests a sly Kyoto vs Tokyo competition.  Kyoto has the winsome but fearless girl who embodies the movement of tradition into a modern sphere. Tokyo has the hideous monster, specter of modernity gone amuck.  “No thanks!” the maiko seems to say. “Stay in your lane, Godzilla-kun.  Hands off our tower.”

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, postponed to July 2021, offer an intriguing background.  The Kyoto Tower, opened in December 1964, a couple months after the Tokyo Olympics.  Tokyo may have a delayed Olympics this year, but Godzilla is visiting Kyoto and its Tower!

A Comic Diversion amid Olympic Concerns

Adorable monsters and tourists stroll across the bottom of Nakamura’s poster. They create a lighthearted pop cultural moment, moving freely in public after isolation. Here, sadly, the poster’s optimism belies the unabated spread of the pandemic in 2021, the slow roll-out of the vaccine in Japan, and  opposition in Japan to holding the Olympics amid the pandemic. The monsters pose a cheerful deflection.

A Different Story of Godzilla and Maiko in the 1950s

Charming icons of cute today, the monster and the maiko represented quite different views of Japan in the 1950s.

Original movie poster of Godzilla

Godzilla 1954 Japanese poster. Wikimedia Commons.

The original 1954 Japanese film, pronounced Gojira, aimed for an adult audience. It carried a serious, anti-nuclear message.  Godzilla was a peaceable, deep-sea giant who was mutated by U.S. hydrogen bomb testing in the South Pacific.  The trauma causes him to rise and attack Tokyo (Tsutsui 2010). In 1954, Godzilla resonated in Japan with the traumas of war, defeat, occupation, and of course, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Also in 1954, Japanese fishermen aboard the Lucky Dragon suffered radiation poisoning amid U.S. nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll.

In the 1960s, however, in the era of Japan’s high-speed economic growth, Japanese Godzilla producers wanted to appeal to children. They tamed the monster’s image (Guthrie-Shimizu 59). Gerow observes that “Godzilla shifts from being a frightening beast to a fatherly hero defending Japan” (64).  Between 1954 and 2004, Godzilla appeared in 28 Toho studios films (Tsutsui  2010: 79). Today, like Hello Kitty, Godzilla has become “camp/cool”; both are globally famous as Japanese icons (Yano 153).

Godzilla, Cultural Ambassador

Movie poster of Godzilla, King of the Monsters advertises the 1956 film release

1956 movie poster. Wikipedia.

As Tsutsui observes, Godzilla served as many moviegoers’ first introduction to Japan (2006: 2).  The American adaptation, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, debuted in the U.S. in 1956, billed as another among a spate of monster B-movies (Guthrie-Shimizu 52-53).  Anti-American messages or serious reflections on nuclear issues were removed. Reflecting on Godzilla’s status as a long-time ambassador for Japanese popular culture, Tsutsui notes that a “1985 New York Times/ CBS News Poll famously found that the king of the monsters was one of the three best-known ‘Japanese people’ among Americans (2006: 2).

The Maiko’s Changing Representation

Gion Bayashi poster.

In the 1950s top-selling Japanese films about maiko represented her as victim, too. As I discuss in Ch. 4 in Maiko Masquerade, Mizoguchi’s 1953 film A Geisha (Gion bayashi), for example, depicts the maiko as harassed by clients and teahouse managers alike. Mizoguchi sees her world as beautiful and artistic, but also corrupt.

Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san, manga by Koyama Aiko. 2017

Maiko tales of the 2000s tell a different story. The popular manga, now anime, Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House imagines a girls’ world of friendship and comfort foods. Like Godzilla in Nakamura’s poster, she, too, stands for playful Japan.



Toying with the Maiko Godzilla Face-off .

Toy icons.  Chapel Hill, NC 2021


For all things Godzilla, see the work of William M. Tsutsui:

Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage. Co-edited with Michiko Ito. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Japanese Popular Culture and Globalization. Key Issues in Asian Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, Inc., 2010.

Just a few of the provocative articles in Tsutsui & Ito’s co-edited book:

Gerow, Aaron. “Wrestling with Godzilla: Intertextuality, Childish Spectatorship, and the National Body.”  63-82 in In Godzilla’s Footsteps.

Guthrie-Shimizu, Sayuri. “Lost in Translation and Morphed in Transit: Godzilla in Cold War America.” 51-62 in In Godzilla’s Footsteps.

Yano, Christine R.  “Monstering the Japanese Cute: Pink Globalization and Its Critics Abroad.” 153- 66 in In Godzilla’s Footsteps.

Jan Bardsley, “The Maiko Godzilla Face-Off,”  July 23, 2021.

A Maiko’s Party Manners: Taboo Behaviors at Ozashiki

A maiko learns the proper etiquette for parties (ozashiki) at teahouses (ochaya). But what behaviors must she avoid?

Cover, Maiko etiquette by Kamishichiken Ichimame. Copyright © 2007. Daiwa Shobō.

Maiko Ichimame describes some basics in her 2007 book, Maiko Etiquette. The book’s illustrator Katsuyama Keiko catches our attention with her comic of maiko taboos, featured here.

What do the taboos tell us about the maiko’s role at teahouse parties?  First of all, we see a concern for aesthetics: the maiko must move beautifully. We also see that attending parties is part of a maiko’s job. She is not there to have fun, but to ensure the guests enjoy themselves. She must remain alert to the guests’ needs. This way she shows respect and concern for her guests.

As I describe in Maiko Masquerade, etiquette training, along with dance lessons, mark the most important aspects of maiko training. Contemporary guides to the hanamachi in Japanese celebrate the maiko’s performance of Japanese etiquette. Although Ichimame explains many aspects of her maiko life in this personal account, she titles her book, Maiko Etiquette. Katsuyama Keiko’s lively illustrations keep the book’s mood light, making even a lesson about taboos fun to contemplate.

Do not pour backhanded.

Always face the guest to pour a beverage.  Ichimame explains that in the past when a warrior would commit seppuku, he would wield the sword backhanded.  (Not a good look at a party!)

When the client offers to pour your drink, do not offer your cup with one hand.

Hold your cup with both hands when offering it and when drinking from it.

Hold the sake cup in your right hand and support it with your left hand. Do the same thing with cups or glasses for other beverages.

If you absolutely must use one hand to pass something to the guest who is somewhat distant from you, say, “Onīsan (Elder brother), I apologize for passing with one hand.” お兄さん、片手ですんまへん。

[Male clients are generally addressed as Onīsan (elder brother), female clients as Onēsan (elder sister). Ichimame’s reference implies that clients are typically men].

Rest your hands on your knees when talking with clients.

Don’t rest your hands on the table.  Of course, never rest your elbows on the table either.

Do not rest your hips directly on the tatami.

Even when sitting formally (seiza) makes your legs sore, do not move so that your hips are directly on the tatami floor.  Rather, move your feet into the ハ position and rest on them.  Sit up straight. Push your weight to the front.  If you feel like your legs are going to fall asleep then make an excuse so you can stand up and move.  You might say that you need to get more sake or something like that.

An interesting article on how to sit in the formal seiza style.

Do not disrupt the party by getting up too much.

Of course, it’s a maiko’s job to make sure that nothing is needed at the party. If more beverages or something else is needed, she should offer to take care of it. But even if moving quickly to replenish drinks, the maiko must do so quietly, not making a lot of noise.

Do not talk with guests from a standing position.

At parties held in a tatami room, everyone will be seated on cushions on the floor. Sometimes a guest will start talking with a maiko just when she has stood up. It would be rude for her to answer from this “higher” position.  She should only respond after sitting back down on the tatami herself.

Do not become intoxicated.

Sometimes at parties,  maiko Ichimame, too,  is offered sake. While she may taste a little, she also asks for water or tea to drink rather than sake. No one wants to see a tipsy maiko!


Kamishichiken Ichimame. Maiko etiquette.  Copyright © 2007. Daiwa Shobō. pages 84-86. Illustrated by Katsuyama Keiko, p. 86.

Jan Bardsley, “A Maiko’s Party Manners: Taboo Behaviors at Ozashiki,” July 8, 2021

A Maiko Treat: Fruit Sandwiches

Fruit sandwiches?  What are these pretty  snacks?  How do they connect to maiko?  Now, here’s food for a sweet adventure!

Let’s start with the basics.  What is a fruit sandwich?

Basically, it’s a sandwich made from small pieces of juicy fruit slathered in whipped cream. They are tucked between two slices of white bread (crusts removed).  When plated, the sandwiches present the bits of fruit like enticing, edible gems.  Common fruit fillings:  strawberry, oranges, kiwi, and melon.  The sandwiches may also feature a single fruit.

In Japan, you can find fruit sandwiches in speciality stores and corner convenience stores alike. Some feature fruit cut like flowers.

How do you make a fruit sandwich?

Thanks to Just One Cookbook for permission to use this lovely photo.

Watching an experienced chef create a fruit sandwich makes it easy to understand.  Namiko Chen, host of the popular website Just One Cookbook, gives easy step-by-step directions. I enjoyed watching her video. Namiko makes the process look creative and fun. Here’s the photo from her lovely  website, too.





What’s the connection to maiko?

Kyoto Fruit Parlor Yaoiso sells fruit sandwiches. Nikkei 2019.

The owner of the Kyoto fruit shop Hosokawa told Nikkei News in 2019 that fruit sandwiches have long been a snack for maiko, geiko, and Kabuki actors. They consume them while busy with their arts lessons.  They eat the petite snacks without getting their hands dirty.

Hosokawa’s Fruit Sandwich. Nikkei, 2019.

Today, the sweet, pretty quality of the fruit sandwiches connects well to the girlish aura of maiko.  In Japan sweets consumption tends to be associated with girls and women.





Fruit sandwiches in maiko manga

Maiko-san-chi-no Makanai-san, 2017. Koyama Aiko. Vol. 3.

Koyama Aiko, author of this charming manga about maiko life, tells her own fruit sandwich tale.

It’s Christmas in the hanamachi. Clients bring strawberry and cream cakes as gifts. But maiko Momohana has been too busy to get even one bite. She feels Christmas has passed her by.

Kiyo comes to the rescue!  She finds fresh cream in the refrigerator. She whips it up, slices strawberries, and makes a tasty fruit sandwich for maiko Momohana. They have a merry Christmas snack.

Fruit sandwich for Christmas. Aiko Koyama, 2017.

One fan of Aiko Koyama’s maiko manga read this episode, too.  On her website, Mangashokudo, the fan shows readers how to make a fruit sandwich with strawberries, peaches, and mandarin oranges.


Fruit sandwiches are fun to make!

I had to try making one, too. With lots of help from a friend who is a very good cook. We followed the Just One Cookbook directions.

Homemade in North Carolina. 2021.

We could not find Japanese bread (shokupan) locally. But we got some white bread at a bakery nearby. Not quite the same effect, but still tasty.







Koyama Aiko.  Maiko-san-chi-no Makanai-san. Episode 23, Volume 3, 2017. For its new online anime adaptation, NHK World translates the manga title as Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House.

Yamamoto Sayo. “Did Fruit Sandwiches Originate in Kyoto?” Nihon Keizai Shinbun. January 10, 2019. (In Japanese).

Thanks again to JUST ONE COOKBOOK for permission to use their lovely photo and link to their fruit sandwich instructions. Such a wonderful website!

Jan Bardsley, “A Maiko Treat: Fruit Sandwiches,”  July 1, 2021.

© 2024 Jan Bardsley

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑