This article examines the tropes of "otherness" embedded in Japanese myths and legends in which the protagonist has a physical or intellectual disability to uncover the sociohistorical attitudes toward such people in Japan. Using the theory of semiotics, I will explicate the narrative signifiers of "the Other" represented in Japanese mythology; examine the binary perceptions of disability in ancient myths, medieval literature, and latter-day folklore in Japan; and demonstrate how perceptions have changed historically. I argue that some of these antique perceptions of the Other that have survived in contemporary Japanese consciousness may be hampering our effort to understand human variation.


This paper attempts to bring two bodies of work to attention — disability and mythology. Before exploring the intersection of the two fields, I will first describe the sociocultural notions of disability in Japan. The Japanese word for disability is shōgai. As disability has multiple meanings in English, so does shōgai, which consists of two characters, shō (interfering) and gai (damage/harm). The literal translation of the word tends to emphasize the physical impairment aspect and situates the meaning of disability in the medical-model context. Therefore, the Japanese who understand the literal meaning of shōgai are not necessarily aware of the social model of disability in which shōgai also means a limitation that is created by the social environment and negatively affects the person involved.

Pathological views of disability lead to discrimination, inequality, and stereotyping; thus, we need to avoid falling into negative perceptions brought about by an emphasis on impairment. However, social constructions of disability are not objective, nor are they stable. The term shōgai will continue to gain new meanings, not only among people with disabilities and those involved in their lives, but also among able-bodied citizens and academics who engage in the public discourse of words with elusive definitions such as shōgai. The concept of disability has changed throughout a cultural group's history (e.g., rōbunka, or Deaf culture, as identity and pride). In looking at such complex notions of disability, I will reveal the ideas held about disability in the period of the eighth to nineteenth centuries during which the narrative of otherness became a popular public discourse and suggest that the sociohistorical attitudes toward the disabled may still be resonant in Japan. In doing so, I will first discuss the cultural concept of ijin (lit. "different person") as the trope of the Other, which I will delineate in the next section.

What do ancient stories about ijin-characters tell us about a specific aspect of otherness? Although the narratives of the Other do not tell us what they think of disability today, they help us understand Japan's present-day hegemonic ideas. In discussing the present-day prejudices held against and stereotypes imposed upon individuals considered "foreign" to mainstream Japanese, we should not overlook the negative projection of otherness in the ancient myths and urban legends, as argued by some Japanese disability activists (e.g., Goto 2004; Yokota 2015.) With that purpose in mind, I analyze a set of select tales of Shinto deities and medieval literary characters as well as fairly well-known contemporary local legends. The disabilities of literary and legendary characters include deafness, blindness, intellectual or orthopedic impairments, mental illnesses, and diseases such as AIDs. This paper, however, focuses only on the narratives of the Other with physical or intellectual differences.

In the sections that follow, I will describe the Japanese concept of the Other, or ijin, first and then lay out my methodology of semiotics. Next, alongside other folk tales, I will introduce the legend of Hiruko, the first child born to the creation god and goddess of Japan, and the legends of fukugo, children with a disability who are said to bring happiness and prosperity to families and their communities. For the medieval characters in particular, I will dissect the narrative of abjection in light of gendering disability and ableism. I will also highlight a historical shift in the ways the Other is featured as the center of the story — from the ancient period of the eighth century until about the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which accelerated industrialization in Japan — in order to examine how perceived physical or mental alterity was socially constructed at the time in history in which each tale was told.

Representations of Otherness in Japanese Mythology

Prior to analyzing the Japanese narratives portraying the Other, I articulate what I mean by otherness in this section. By definition, otherness refers to "the condition or quality of being different or 'other,' particularly if the differences in question are strange, bizarre, or exotic" (Miller 2008:588). The topic is often discussed as a collective consciousness or a marker of identity of a certain cultural group and is typically presented as a way to attach negativity to a minority group (Miller 2008). In Western folklore, otherness was signified in the myth of changelings and the tales of monstrous birth (Schmiesing 2015). In Europe, it was believed that "pregnant women with inappropriate thoughts, women who engaged in deviant actions, could produce deviant offspring," which signified "divine displeasure" (Nielsen 2012:30). Women's "sinfulness" included challenging male authority in the patriarchal society of preindustrial North America. Thus, even though disability was framed as "the inability to 'maintain' oneself economically," children born with a physical deformity were marked for "maternal sin" and were despised and ostracized in the community (Nielsen 2010).

In Japanese traditions, the concept of oni (ogre) served symbolically as the nonhuman entity ("otherness"), which was constructed to articulate humanness ("sameness") and was narrated in folk tales throughout history. Oni is the embodiment of all sorts of otherness that exists in the margins of Japanese society (Komatsu, 1989:188). Throughout Japanese history, the Other has represented the antithetic or amoral elements of society such as "spirits, the dead, itinerants, and beggars" (Komatsu 1989:222). Oni continues to carry the same representation in modern-day popular culture. The character of a rebel, a member of a minority group, or a hybrid being is often drawn as an oni figure in manga and anime, as is the protagonist of a popular TV anime series, Devilman (Reider, 2010). Although the oni characters are condemned by society, they are endowed with supernatural power. They are visually associated with grotesqueness, often depicted as a monstrous character as in the drawing of Yubaba in Spirited Away, which was based on the signifier of yamauba, or the female oni (Reider 2010:159). As the contemporary imagery of the Other, "an oni and its variants are marginalized" by human characters in manga and anime narratives (Reider 2010:165), and the construct of otherness represented by the oni signifier "remains in the mind of Japanese artists and readers alike" (p.169). Foster (2015) points out that in Japan, oni is "interpreted historically as visualizations of otherness and the dangers associated with it" and is "everything foreign and mysterious that threatens the status quo," all of which reflects people's "fear of historically marginalized populations" (p.119). The oni metaphor, therefore, is anti-hegemonic in nature and is attributed to representations of something negative or destructive. Similar to Reider's (2010) interpretation, Foster (2015) sees oni as "the marginalized or disenfranchised Other who challenges" the social order (p.119).

Examining setsuwa, or short Japanese tales of extraordinary events with religious teachings compiled between the ninth and mid-fourteenth centuries, Li (2009) explains that these tales were intended to help justify the authority sustained by the people in power, including Buddhist priests, by emphasizing their supremacy over the elements of socially ambiguous status. The ulterior motive of the setsuwa is the storyteller's political purpose of vilifying all religious outsiders such as yamabushi (itinerant mountain ascetics) who were gaining popularity among ordinary citizens and therefore were despised by the mainstream Buddhist establishment. In the setsuwa narratives, social outsiders were narrated as "subversive" agents belonging to the kyōkai, a space between this and other worlds, and were characterized not only as oni and other nonhuman entities but also as humans with physical deformity (Li 2009:3).

Komatsu (1995) argues that in Japanese folklore, otherness is marked either positively or negatively, depending on the context in which the signifier appears. The Other is simultaneously awed and feared, admired and despised. In preindustrial Japan, according to Komatsu (1995:218), those who lived on the periphery of society included traveling merchants and religious healers (e.g., rokubu, or Buddhist pilgrims) as well as people with disabilities (e.g., blind masseurs and blind minstrels). Conceptually, they were ijin — the Other — from the perspective of the settled, able-bodied members of a community. Komatsu (1995) points out that the Other has two conflicting embodiments. Its malevolent aspect is represented by oni and yōkai (apparitions, monsters), while the opposite is what Japanese folklorists called marebito (lit. "rare person"), which refers to mysterious visitors, often of sainthood, who benefit the community with their skills, knowledge, or magical power. Thus, if the itinerant's provision of labor or services in exchange for food and lodging was regarded favorably by the villagers, their ijin status was viewed positively. However, the perceived value of the Other could abruptly swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, and such instability of the ijin status was documented in existing local legends in Japan. The narratives typically speak of the origin of a special pond, hill, mound, or deep pool that enshrines an anonymous traveling merchant, entertainer, or religious healer who died "by accident," went missing, or was murdered. Komatsu (1995) outlines the suspicious disappearance of the ijin from the community during their stay, their alleged accidental fall into a deep pool and drowning, and even an unapologetic murder of them for money or revenge by unidentified village members, suggesting that such tales may signify the collective memory of the Other killing (or "ijin goroshi" in Komatsu's coinage). That is the dark history of the ijin. This paper also sheds light on tales about the beneficial Other, or marebito, in Japanese folklore.


As mentioned earlier, the purpose of this paper is to analyze the ancient tales of the Other through the theoretical lens of semiotics. Therefore, in this section, I will briefly describe semiotics by addressing and answering the following questions: What is the rationale for using semiotics to interpret the symbolic meanings of physical or intellectual difference in the texts within Japanese culture? How is semiotics useful in analyzing how otherness is signified in each narrative?

Semiotics is a tool for in-depth textual analysis. This tool of textual analysis enables us to examine a text as a system of signs, allows us to decipher the characters' metaphorical meanings, and helps us realize how the inconspicuous affects us socially and psychologically (Okuyama 2015). It has been used to analyze the symbolic images of disability embedded in the characters' descriptions and discern social perceptions associated with them (e.g., Rogers & Swadener 2001; Devlieger et al. 2000). Similarly, I am applying semiotics to my analysis to read what is not conspicuous at first glance.

To show how semiotics works, let me describe several key concepts. First, semioticians see a text as a system of signs. A sign is something that stands for something else in some significant way and consists of a signifier (an entity) and a signified (its meaning). By "significant," I mean vitally and socially meaningful, thus worthy of analysis. Second, in dealing with Japanese myths and legends, I focus on a narrative as the medium of analysis in this paper. In the narrative, a word, an image, or a concept is used to "represent" something more than it is, such as a politically coded message, to the receiver of the tale. From a semiotic perspective, representation is an unavoidably selective and biased act that propagates the storyteller's (or the audience's) point of view by suppressing (or ignoring) other competing perspectives. Another important aspect is that in semiotics, we treat the narrative as a text that generates sociocultural meanings and contains tropes for analysis. Tropes are elements embedded in the narrative. Two very common types of tropes are a metonymy (a signifier that generates a meaning by representing something via an associated detail or notion, such as "the press" to represent journalists) and a metaphor, its counterpart, which has a less direct association, (a signifier that implies a meaning by analogy, as in "time is money"). Discerning an overarching theme or cultural value encoded in the text requires finding a dominant trope, one that frequently appears in the narrative.

A text also offers intertextuality, that is, the allusion to related texts, for analysis. The types of text include an architext (the prototype text from which other texts are derived), a hypotext (a text evolved from another text with altered or extended features), and a subtext (a text or message embedded within a text). Because the particular texts I examine here are mythological tales told at different periods of Japanese history, we also need to make a syntagmatic (diachronic) analysis by examining how the narrative changes over time. Thus, I will also look at a syntagmatic change of the same tale. In narratology, a branch of semiotics in which the focus is the study of stories, the key elements of analysis are the characters, plot patterns, setting, point of view, and narrative techniques (e.g., flashback) as well as narrative devices (e.g., deus ex machina or "god from the machine," an unexpected and contrived intervention used to move the story forward by resolving a problem or situation, often abruptly and illogically). In narratology, "story" is viewed as a socioculturally and historically coded text. In examining each Japanese tale (or a particular version of the tale) as such a coded text, I will pay attention to those elements of narratology. By taking a semiotic approach, I will shed light on how these elements contribute to the representation of a particular idea, specifically the idea of the Other, or ijin.

In the next section, I will examine some representative tales of Japanese mythology using the theory of semiotics.

Semiotic Analysis of Otherness in Japanese Mythology

Japanese religious mythology is characterized by the basic tenets of Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist beliefs (Okuyama 2015). 1 The dominant religious worldview represented by one of these religions is embedded not only in the ancient texts such as the Japanese creation myth but also in folk tales of Japan, told and retold from generation to generation. My first analysis focuses on the Shinto legends of Hiruko, Ebisu, and Katame-no-Kami. Then I touch upon the narratives of childhood disability through the folklore of the benevolent child (fukugo) and the malevolent child (onigo), followed by two tales of the adolescent Other's journey to happiness, Issunbōshi and Hachikatsugi Hime, as medieval literature examples. In the last section, I will expand upon the fukugo metonymy using two contemporary legends on which some of Japan's modern-day good luck charms are based. I selected these myths and legends of Japan featuring characters with disabilities to illustrate how they were narrated as specific representations of otherness. The narratives' significance to contemporary Japanese culture will be analyzed in the Discussion section.

Shinto Legends

This section introduces three representative tales from the tenets of Shinto, mainly from the first- and second-oldest chronicles of Japanese history, the Kojiki (compiled in 712) and the Nihonshoki (720). Shinto myths are laden with stories of heroes with exceptional skills as well as figures representing otherness, as exemplified by three narratives I am introducing in this section. By looking at the three representative legends, we can uncover social meanings of disability in ancient Japan. 2


Both Goto (2004) and Yokota (2015) 3 cite the Shinto legend of Hiruko as the first historically documented case of a murdered figure with a disability. According to the ancient tales of the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, Hiruko is the first child of Japan's creation god and goddess and is born with a physical disability. He is deemed "a no-good child" by his own parents and is cast away into the ocean. Hiruko's monstrous birth is attributed to the manner of mating "improperly" initiated by the female deity (Shimazaki 2013). In Shinto mythology, Hiruko's birth is marked as "no-good" for his lack of physical mobility, a condition deemed unfitting for a deity (Inao 2000).

The Hiruko myth appears in both the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki versions of the creation myth. In the Kojiki tale, a hiru-("leech") ko ("child") is born to Izanagi and Izanami, the male and female deities of the Japanese creation myth. The tale relates that the baby was set adrift in a reed boat in the ocean to perish because he was unable to stand by the age of three. As Tsuzuki and Nonoka (1995) point out, the tale can be read to imply that "disabled people were summarily disposed of or killed" in ancient society (p.226). Noting that the Japanese phrase of mizu ni nagasu (lit. "flush out in water") is synonymous with doing away with someone or something, Yokota (2015) argues that the subtext of "flushing out" in the Hiruko tale is reflected in present-day societal attitudes toward people with disabilities and that disability was, and still is, regarded as an "absurdity" (or fujōri na mono, in his words) to be feared and obliterated (p.92).


In Japanese folklore, Hiruko was resurrected as Ebisu, another deity. Associated with the Hiruko legend, the image of Ebisu is often depicted with physical abnormalities (a disproportionately large head, a short torso, etc.). In another manifestation, Ebisu is a god of foreign origin, an exemplary marker of the Other. Traditionally, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune (Shichi-fuku-jin), Ebisu is a mythological figure with other monikers, including Hiruko and Kotoshiro-nushi (Fukuda et. al 2006). This folkloric character is also said to be hard of hearing. Therefore, during the Ebisu-kō, the festival dedicated to Ebisu, a loud gong is played symbolically to notify the deity of the commencement of the ceremony. In the Edo period (1603–1868), the image of Ebisu changed dramatically, transforming from the deformed deity to the patron of commerce.

A photograph of statue representing the Ebisu figure. The figure is seated and has a large head and a short, rounded torso.

Figure 1: Photo taken by the author of an Ebisu statue in front of the Ebisu train station in Tokyo

The name Ebisu is now a metonymy signifying commercial fortune as in Ebisu Beer as a logo. No longer a signifier of infanticide, Ebisu embodies business or familial prosperity in modern-day Japan. Engimono, or figurines of good fortune such as Maneki-neko ("Beckoning Cat") and Ebisu-ningyō ("Ebisu Doll"), are very common in Japan. The figures are believed either to bring good luck or to ward off evil forces and are on display in various business establishments. Yokota (2015) provides a critical observation of the popularity and worship of Ebisu, however. This metamorphosis can be interpreted, he suggests, that the deformed baby Hiruko was first expunged and then later divinized as the god of fortune, an almost universal pattern of mythology in which the grudging spirit of the sacrificed is appeased by being elevated to a deity of blessing (p.93). The case of Ebisu may be an allusion to the ancient practice of dealing with the Other in a community.

Katame-no-Kami (One-Eyed God)

In Kojiki, Nihonshoki, and other Shinto myths, a cyclops-like deity appears in several episodes, including the famous scene in which Amaterasu (Sun Goddess) hides herself in a cave and the entire world turns dark. The Japanese cyclops' name varies from the ancient title, Ame-no-mahitotsu-no-kami (lit. "god with one eye") to the categorical term, Katame-no-Kami (lit. "one-eyed god"). This Shinto mythological character is associated with blacksmithing and is sometimes depicted as the god of blacksmithing (Hasegawa 2008).

The Shinto deity of Katame-no-Kami became associated with the deity of mountains in Japanese folk tales (Fukuda et al. 2006). In some tales, the figure is depicted as a one-eyed, one-legged giant wearing a straw raincoat. Yanagita (2013) suggested that because of its association with the festival dedicated to the mountain god, the one-eyed legend might have developed out of the old custom of blinding the festival priest in one eye.

The one-eyed god was also morphed into the one-eyed fish (Katame-no-Uo or Sugame-no-Uo), which is said typically to reside in a holy pond at a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. Japanese folklorist Yanagita Kunio investigated the widespread folk tales of a pond with one-eyed fish. Some stories claim the abnormality of the fish as a sign of being an offering to the festival god (e.g., its damaged eye distinguished the fish from other fish) while other stories mark the pond as a place into which someone with an injured eye threw himself or herself (Yanagita 2013). The myth of the one-eyed fish is also interpreted as a reminder of the ancient custom of human sacrifice. Selected individuals would have one of their eyes poked out, either to reduce the likelihood of their escape or to elevate their sacredness by relating the victims to the one-eyed god legend (Fukuda et al. 2006). The latter account is interesting because the notion that one-eyed individuals possess some magical power seems to be a trope applied in today's popular manga characters, such as Ginko, the protagonist of Mushi-shi series, and Ciel Phantomhive, the young master of Black Butler.

Later, this one-eyed signifier emerged as yōkai, or a supernatural creature of liminality, under the new label Hitotsume Kozō ("One-Eyed Junior"). It is a rascal yōkai that appeared in much of Edo-period folklore. The creature is neither evil nor saintly. Rather, he signifies "a troublesome mischief-maker" with the appearance of a young merchant apprentice who delights in scaring passersby by suddenly appearing and revealing his face with his single large eye (Foster 2015).

The Folklore of the "Other" Child: Fukugo versus Onigo

Western folklorists suggest that many changeling legends such as Hedgehog in the Grimms Brothers' fairytale "Hans the Hedgehog" are tied with the birth of children with disabilities (Schmiesing 2015). In Japanese mythology, there seems to be no equivalent to a changeling — a nonhuman child replaced by a fairy who takes the human child away. What does the Other in child form signify in medieval Japan?

In Japanese culture, children as old as seven were perceived as "nonhuman," being in an incomplete state in which one's soul and flesh are not fully merged. That idea is revealed in the old Japanese saying "Nanatsu made wa kami no uchi" (Until seven years old, the child belongs to the realm of kami,) according to Miyata (1996). The Japanese pantheon includes a guardian of childbirth named Ubu-Gami ("the Birth God"). All the other deities are disassociated with childbirth due to the impurity culturally associated with blood. In contrast, Ubu-Gami is said to appear when the mother is in labor as the protector of the mother and newborn (Fukuda et al. 2006). In a weird twist, however, the infant's liminal status provided a rational for infanticide, and the act of baby killing was vindicated as "sending back the child to where it came from." This section presents two contrasting tales of the Other as the representation of a child with a disability. 4

Fukugo (Lucky Child) as a Signifier of Good Fortune

As I pointed out earlier, a sense of awe and admiration is associated with disability in Japanese mythology. This positive signifier of the Other has engendered a unique genre of myths about the good-luck child, the fukugo-densetsu (lit. the legend of the good-luck child). In this legend, fukugo is a child born with a disability who is believed to bring happiness and fortune to his/her family. The signified of fukugo has evolved into a quintessential embodiment of purity or sainthood. The hypotexts in which the fukugo metonymy appears are found for the most part in Japanese children's literature such as Haitani's (1974) Tokochan's Yacht (Tokochan no Yotto is its original title) and Akagi's (1969) Naked Angel (Hadaka no Tenshi). The archetype of the genre is the innocent child with an intellectual disability who is regarded as the god's child bringing happiness to the family (Mishima, 2010).

In agrarian times in Japan (prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868), a family with many children was considered "blessed" because a healthy newborn was equated with additional labor for farming in the community. Consequently, the child incapable of performing any type of labor was undervalued. The fukugo metonymy seems to suggest a perception of society that viewed individuals with severe disabilities in a positive light and allowed them to be exempt from the traditional agrarian value system. Although a physical or intellectual otherness was considered "abnormal" at the time, the fukugo legend indicates that deformed or developmentally disabled children were raised as the guardian angels of their family and community in the Tohoku district (northeastern Japan) where the legend originated (Ono & Shiba 1983; Yamada 1993 & 2011). In the last section, I will discuss how the metonymy of fukugo has survived as a cultural meme embodied in the Fukusuke Doll in the Kansai district (southwestern Japan) and Sendai Shirō goods in the Tohoku district.

Katako (Half-Child)

In the previous section, three cases of Shinto mythological figures were presented to show that otherness signifies either good fortune or misfortune, depending on the social context or historical time in which the tale is told. The tale of Katako, in which the protagonist is born half-human and half-ogre, is one that is representative of the "misfortune" legend genre.

The tale has several versions with different endings, but here I use a Japanese folk tale, "The Laughter of Oni," described by Kawai (1995). A long, long time ago, a man encountered an oni (man-eating ogre) while working out in the field. He told the oni how much he loved mochi (rice cake), jokingly adding that he could even trade his wife for it. Taking his casual banter seriously, the oni treated him to mochi. The man ate his favorite food to his fill and happily went home only to find that the oni had taken his wife in exchange for the treat. The man searched everywhere and finally located his wife on the very island on which that oni lived. The man and his wife managed to come back home with Katako (meaning "Half-Child"), a child born of his wife and the oni on the island. At ten years old, Katako grew tired of being ridiculed and ostracized by his human peers. He asked his mother to "cut the oni part of me into pieces" when he died, and then committed suicide (p.95). In another version, after experiencing the difficulty of living in the human world, Katako returned to his oni father's island. He grew weary of eating humans and asked his grandfather oni to kill him to stop him from consuming his human peers. In either version, the hybrid child cannot "fit in" and choses suicide as "the only path open to him" (p.96).

A similarly sinister example is the folk tale of onnoko/onigo (lit. "oni's child"), referring to a baby born with natal teeth. Such a baby was feared as a signifier of bad luck to the family and/or their community. The onigo folk tale is widespread throughout Japan, hinting at the dark history of infanticide. Yakushima, one of the southernmost islands of Japan, has a tale of Onnoko Yakiba, an incinerator allegedly used for disposing of the onigo child (Shimono 1988).

As we have seen in this section, the "other" child can be either the object of worship or the target of abjection. It shows that perceptions of disability vary from time to time, context to context. In the worst case, the child is rejected and eliminated. At the other extreme, the child is worshipped as a holy being endowed with supernatural power.

Is the family blessed or cursed by the presence of a disability? One way to read the fortune legend is that disability can be tolerated as long as their wealth allows the family to access adequate medical care and attain a happy family life. Some are in a better position to use their finances, knowledge, and other resources than others. Another way of reading the blessing-disability metaphor might be that one can lead a life uncompromised by the presence of a disability depending on how his or her disability is framed — as a blessing, an identity, or a tragedy. We can hope that if we manage to stay unperturbed in spite of the challenges and stress stemming from the care of the Other child, it may be possible to thrive as a blessed family. Of course, life is far more complicated than a legend. From my own experience, however, I want to stick to this reading: If dismissed as a misfortunate, the weight of caring for the individual may crush the family; if regarded as something divine and blissful, that mental framework may help the family strive for happiness and thrive in difficult times. By consciously choosing the narrative of fukugo, we are more likely to search for the right strategies and resources to cope with the challenges.

Medieval Literary Characters and Gender of the "Other"

This section compares two narrative cases, Issunbōshi and Hachikatsuki Hime, in which tropes for physical deviance associated with cultural stigma are introduced into and removed out of the plot in different ways based on the protagonist's gender. These tales appeared in the medieval literature of Otogizōshi, an illustrated book of folk tales compiled during the Muromachi period (1336–1568). As I analyze each text, I will point out some of the gender differences in terms of how each literary figure's identity and sense of inferiority are shaped, how social stigma is endured, and how their deviance is "repaired" in the end. The gendering of disability is a feature on which I will focus in this section. Unlike the Kojiki and Ninhonshoki legends, in which ancient tales of female deities with disabilities were not included, these two medieval tales from Otogizōshi provide some insight, albeit sparsely, into the perspective of gender.


Issunbōshi, or One-Inch Boy, is a very popular Japanese folk tale. As in the tale of Tom Thumb in Western folklore, the protagonist is a small-statured boy. A childless, elderly couple longs for a child and fortunately is blessed with a son. However, the boy is born extremely small and grows only as tall as a fingernail. Despite his physical difference from his peers, his parents raise him with love and care. Frustrated with his tiny body that is not helpful in assisting his parents with manual work in the field, Issunbōshi decides to leave his village and find a new place where he can be of the best service to others. The aging parents dress him up like a samurai and prepare a sword and sheath made from a sewing needle and a straw for him. Issunbōshi bids them farewell and travels the river in a boat made out of a soup bowl using a chopstick as an oar.

Issunbōshi arrives in the city and negotiates for a job at the home of a wealthy daimyo. Initially, he is ridiculed for being short-statured, yet he persists. The daimyo finally agrees to give him a job as a playmate for his daughter. One day, the princess and Issunbōshi go to visit a temple. A gang of ogres appears and surrounds them. When they attempt to kidnap the princess, Issunbōshi swiftly draws his needle sword and attacks the monsters, stabbing their eyes and defending his master. During the commotion, he manages to steal a magical mallet from the head ogre before all of them run away whimpering. When the princess shakes the mallet, Issunbōshi grows into a full-sized, handsome young man. When she shakes it again, treasure troves appear. The princess and Issunbōshi marry and live happily ever after.

The architext of the story in Otogizōji is a darker tale, casting the protagonist in the less saintly role of a cunning and calculating boy. In either the architext or the hypotext, Issunbōshi is portrayed as a self-managing, independent, go-getter. Regardless of his perceived shortcoming, the protagonist behaves in the way a male suitor was expected to act in those days — with boldness and physical prowess.

Hachikatsugi Hime

The Otogizōshi storybook contains another popular tale, Hachikatsugi Hime (The Princess with the Magic Bowl), about a daughter of a samurai. When she turns thirteen years old, her mother receives a revelation from Hase Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy. Following the revelation, she places a black wooden hachi ("bowl") on her daughter's head. Soon after, the mother dies. Strangely, the black bowl would not come off Hachikatsugi Hime's head. No matter what is tried, the bowl remains stuck. The townspeople make fun of her disfigurement. Her father remarries, and his new wife moves in. Her stepmother abhors the "ugly" appearance of Hachikatsugi Hime and manages to remove her from her father's home.

Feeling ashamed and depressed and having no shelter, the princess attempts suicide by throwing herself into the river. But the wooden bowl keeps her afloat, and a nobleman rescues her and hires her as a housemaid. The nobleman is a kindhearted soul. Yet, when his fourth son falls in love with Hachikatsugi Hime, the aristocrat opposes his son's marriage as a misalliance. The son does not budge, however, refusing to marry anyone else. So the father arranges a bridal competition in which all four sons' wives are compared in beauty and intelligence. He is sure that if Hachikatsugi Hime is publicly shamed as a less desirable woman, his son would be disenchanted and abandon the idea of marrying the commoner.

On the very day of the bridal competition, Hachikatsugi Hime's bowl magically comes off, revealing to the son the exquisite beauty of her face. From the bowl also fall out the valuables the princess's dying mother had secretly stored for her child. During the competition, the princess surpasses her sisters-in-law not only in aesthetic appearance but in poetry-reciting skills and academic knowledge. The nobleman is so impressed with Hachikatsugi Hime that he permits his son's marriage to her. They are blessed with three children and wealth. Their offspring prosper for many generations in the town.

There are slightly different versions of the tale. The architext of Hachikatsugi Hime emphasizes the heroine's hard work and honesty as the housemaid, and her magical transformation from aberration to perfection is attributed to providence, typical for a myth featuring a disabled character (Goto 2004). In every hypotext, including the modern-day version of the story, the heroine's agency is diminished to a passive, quiet sufferer of fate, and some form of deus ex machina "repairs" her otherness as a way of restoring the character's wholeness, in this case, an unprothesized, ordinary head. Schmiesing (2015) points out this common pattern of fairy tales of the Other seen in the famous Grimms' tale, "The Maiden without Hands," in which the heroine's agency is typically compromised, compared to that of the male counterpart in "The Frog King or Iron Henry." Although the handless maiden and the frog prince "magically return to able-bodiedness toward the end of the narrative," there is a difference in "the very gendered nature of disability" (p.82).

In both Issunbōshi and Hachikatsugi Hime, physical anomaly serves as neither a signifier of immorality nor a marker of divine punishment. The characters are cast as neither villain nor antagonist; they are far from the evildoer often drawn in an unsettling bodily form such as oni and yōkai. If anything, each character is a person of moral virtues and remains so in spite of public ridicule and ostracism by their peers. Both strive, in one way or another, with perseverance, and their prowess, wisdom, or hidden beauty is revealed at the climax to accentuate the character's heroic qualities. With the sudden disappearance of the trope of otherness comes the eraser of social stigma that clings to the character without the stigma itself being critiqued. These tales end with a happily-ever-after scene that satisfies medieval social values (e.g., having wealth and offspring) and ensures the protagonist's magical transformation into a "normative" body. Thus, both narratives enforce a traditional view that otherness must be "corrected" to achieve happiness and that "correction" is given by the divine force as a reward for perseverance. By category, these tales do conform to the able-bodied perception of disability.

Schmiesing (2015) states that universally, the narrative moves "from disequilibrium to equilibrium, from enchantment to disenchantment, and from disability to ability and bodily perfection" (p.2). These two Japanese case studies show that that is the case. Unlike the tale of Hiruko or the tale of Ebisu, physical otherness attached to these medieval literary characters is not a signifier of failure or a lucky charm. The narrative of Issunbōshi entails the fairytale elements of monstrous birth and restoration to wholeness experienced by the Other. When compared with the plot of Hachikatsugi Hime, these two medieval Japanese tales reveal a similar gender difference, especially in how "females are typically given disabilities that make them more passive, whereas males often — but not always — have disabilities that make them as Other without significantly reducing their agency" (Schmiesing 2015:82). As with the Western fairytale tradition, Japanese folklore contains the common themes of monstrous birth and magical restoration of "normalcy" in the stories in which the protagonist is born with a marked characteristic and attains his or her "wholeness" in the end.

The Benevolent "Other" in Modern Japanese History

This section highlights two well-known legends of Japan that originated in relatively more modern times in Japanese history. I selected these narratives, which are based on real life figures with disabilities, to present a balanced view of Other-characters in Japanese mythology by adding the positive representation of otherness.

Fukusuke Legend

The fukugo metonymy discussed earlier in this paper seems to have developed into a popular cultural sign — a character that signifies good fortune — and shows up in the form of a figurine all over Japan. One such example is Fukusuke. Usually found in the form of a porcelain doll, Fukusuke depicts a smiling young man with an oversized head and plump ears, wearing festive kimono attire and sitting properly in Japanese seiza style. The doll, typically a fixture of business establishments such as restaurants and company offices, is said to bring wealth and happiness ("fuku"). To this day, plump ears are called fuku-mimi (lucky ears), signifying their mythological connection to wealth and happiness.

A photograph of a porcelain figure of Fukusuke. The figure is kneeling and has a large head with large earlobes.

Figure 2: Photo of a porcelain figure of Fukusuke owned by the author's family

Legend has it that during the Edo period, a man named Satarō had the congenital physical deformities of short stature (he was said to be approximately two feet tall) and a disproportionately large head. Growing tired of being mocked by the townspeople, he left to look for a new place and met a street performer on the way. He joined the man's troop and adopted a stage name, Fukusuke (parodied from fugu-suke, or "disabled fellow," with fugu replaced by fuku, or "fortune"). The public loved the moniker "Fortune Fellow" as a metaphor for the bringer of good luck, and his performance was well received. In real life, he was the bringer of good luck indeed. A wealthy samurai's son begged his parents to adapt Fukusuke as his playmate, and he was paid off to leave the show business. The samurai family accrued increasingly more wealth after Fukusuke moved in. As a grown man, he married Lisa, one of the family's housemaids, and became a potter in the same town, selling ceramic ware, including figurines made in his own bodily image. The Fukusuke dolls sold like hotcakes. He made a fortune through his own self-enfreakment, 5 capitalizing on his physical difference and his identity as the bringer of good luck.

The source of the Fukusuke legend is uncertain. It might be based on a successful merchant with dwarfism in the Kyoto-Osaka region. Whoever the real-life figure was, this legend appears to be linked directly to the fukugo metonymy that signifies a symbolic association between commerce and disability (Yamada 1993).

Sendai Shirō Legend

The legend of Sendai Shirō is another tale of the Other, a folk tale that became popular during the Edo period. His real-life name is Haga Shirō (or Yoshitaka, according to the family registry). Shirō (shi in his given name means "four" and rō, "son") was the fourth-born son of a wealthy merchant family, and because they lived in Sendai City in Miyazaki prefecture, Sendai Shirō became his nickname. He was said to have an intellectual disability and was unable to converse well with others. Although his only intelligible utterance was "Baayan" (Grandma), he had a charming smile and a nonchalant attitude, signifying an innocent child, and was well-liked by the townspeople.

The older Shirō circumambulated in the city of Sendai (possibly accompanied in distance by one of his family's helping hands), stopping by stores for food or toys. Carrying no money, he obtained the goods for free from generous storekeepers. Rumor has it that the business of the store that welcomed Sendai Shirō blossomed, whereas the business of the store that chased him away as a nuisance withered. He sometimes traveled to the adjacent Fukushima and Yamagata prefectures, smooching off welcoming merchants. Gradually, the rumor of Sendai Shirō as the bringer of good luck spread in that region. Similar to the case of Fukusuke, Sendai Shirō became the embodiment of fukugo, or the benevolent child. During the Meiji period (1868–1912), a black-and-white photo of a smiling Shirō loosely clad in a kimono with his knees and penis exposed was commodified as postcards under the moniker of Meiji Fuku-no-Kami ("the Meiji God of Fortune"). As did Fukusuke dolls, the postcards sold like hotcakes. Recently, the signifier of Sendai Shirō has been revived, and souvenir goods made with his image are sold again as good-luck charms in many stores in Sendai City.


The previous section introduced a wide range of mythological tales about characters with disabilities. In this section, the tales' significance to contemporary Japanese culture is analyzed, providing contextual information on what is then and now.

Otherness Revisited

By rereading well-known myths and legends of preindustrial Japan from a disability studies perspective, I attempted to uncover the sociohistorical attitudes toward the physically or intellectually marked Other. In the Shinto myth of Hiruko, the baby's physical disability is used as a narrative prosthesis 6 to account for "inappropriate" marriage, or more precisely, the mother's "indiscretion" in calling out to her husband to initiate lovemaking. The Shinto deities who are physically anomalous such as Hiruko and One-Eyed God reappear in other legends of Japanese mythology. From a narrative-prosthetic standpoint, their marked bodies' supernatural powers not only move the plot forward but also serve as the source story for a cultural metaphor. Interestingly, none of those deities are "cured" in the Shinto narratives. By contrast, the features that stigmatized the characters of the two medieval tales are magically corrected in the end. The symbolic resolution of the "problem" is a narrative prosthesis typically used in the setsuwa writings with Buddhist teachings to emphasize certain moral values to the reader.

The legend of Hiruko and other stories have been narrated in Japan for centuries, demonstrating how otherness was determined by the perceived norms of appearance and ability and was tied to labor productivity or commercial success. These folklore examples also tell us that the sign of deviance was used to justify the act of infanticide and the Other killing, whereas the same otherness was made into the narrative of supernatural power and blessing in Japanese mythology. I argue that the binary nature of the ijin recorded in Shinto myths, medieval literature tales, and more contemporary local legends accounts for the conflicting characterization of disability in modern-day Japan. I also postulate that the traditional narratives of physically and cognitively marked Others are extant, preventing a perceptional change about disability to occur progressively in society.

However, the ijin theory is only a part of the whole story. There is also a deep-rooted, cultural trope that has been historically linked to the "marked" body (or mind) and has ascribed stigma to disability. In Japan, the Buddhist conception of inga, or karma, is the cultural ideology often pointed out by disability rights activists (e.g., Goto 2004; Tsuzuki & Nonaka 1995; Yamamoto 1998) as the uniquely Japanese subtext of bias against disability. 7

Inga (Karma)

For centuries, the Buddhist concept of karma, or inga, has lingered in the Japanese psyche. Karma is a Sanskrit word referring to action driven by intention that results in certain consequences. The caveat of the idea is that if we engage in well-intended good deeds, we will be rewarded for them in the next life. Similarly, if we commit evil actions, we will pay for them later as well. Since it is our human nature to seek meaning in everything that occurs in our surroundings, we desire to find a reason for every phenomenon. When we cannot find any obvious cause or reason, we may misapply this "cause-effect" metaphor of karma, as a way to account for a problem that cannot be explained either by logic or from experiences (Suzuki 2004). During the medieval era in which Buddhism was the central force of moral teaching, the karma metaphor evolved into the idea of "predestination," which was used to rationalize the power and wealth of the privileged and to disempower minority groups, including people with disabilities, by encouraging their social passivity and sense of fatalism rather than pushing against adversity. According to Suzuki (2004), the concept of karma was originally not intended to instill a discriminatory attitude toward the marked otherness. "[T]his kind of fatalism was adamantly rejected by the Buddha" (2004:99). However, it has been used to justify classism, genderism, and discrimination against people with disabilities in Japan. The social stigma attached to the Other induces negative sentiments of fear and hatred in the dominant group, legitimizing the elimination of the "detestable" from their community (Akasaka 2010). By misusing the theory of inga, the Japanese came to see disability "as punishment for evil committed in one's former life or in the life of one's immediate family" although this tendency can be found in many other cultures (Tsuzuki & Nonaka 1995:231).

Ijin Goroshi (Killings of the Other)

It has been said that the study of minority groups, including people with disabilities, tends to be more neglected in Japan than in the United States (e.g., Heyer 2015; Hirose 2016; Tsuzuki & Nonaka 1995). Various derogatory terms are occasionally used in mass media in reference to physical, mental, or intellectual impairment as well as to sexual minority groups (e.g., derogatory words such as okama, or "faggot," frequently used in manga). There is an unspoken sentiment in society that those with disabilities who "receive special education should not do anything that would be a nuisance to" able-bodied people (Hirose 2005:398). An elevator for people in wheelchairs is often located at the furthest end of a train platform. Furthermore, objects such as parked bicycles take up much of the space in a tiny street, preventing people in wheelchairs from navigating the city safely (Goto 2004). Recently, a horrible incident occurred in Japan to further accentuate the negative image of the disability-unfriendly nation.

On the night of July 26, 2016, a former employee of the Tsukui Yamayuri En broke into the facilities, tied up the staff members on duty, and killed 19 residents who had multiple disabilities. The victims' ages ranged from 18 to 70. When photographed in the back seat of the police car, the 26-year-old suspect appeared to be smiling for the media's camera, and he expressed no remorse at the police station for his heinous crime (The Japan Times, July 27, 2016). Several months prior to the incident, he had sent letters to politicians in which he stated "[M]y goal is a world in which the severely disabled can be euthanized, with their guardians' consent, if they are unable to live at home and be active in society" (BBC, July 26, 2016). One of his letters alarmed the local authorities, and they hospitalized him for mental assessment and treatment. Unfortunately he was released within a month when the doctors determined he was no danger to others. It was only after the incident that the authorities discovered his twitter posts lamenting Japan's destruction by AIDS and radiation poisoning and his final message, posted some 30 minutes after the murder, stated, "May the world be peaceful. Beautiful Japan!" (The New York Times, July 25, 2016).

There is something very disturbing yet familiar about this bizarre incident in which the residents of the center appear to have triggered the instigator's underlying fear about the Other. 8 Is it a mere coincidence that this heinous crime occurred in the same year, 2016, in which Japan's first law eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities, Shōgaisha Sabetsu Kaishōhō, was enforced? Chronologically, this July incident cannot be claimed as the attacker's direct reaction to or message about the discrimination law, which became law in April. Yet, his association of disability with other phenomena that he thinks are destroying Japan points to the centuries-old ideology of ijin-goroshi, or the Other killing, that justifies the termination of what he perceives as "polluting" his ideal Japan. As seen in the sociohistorical attitudes toward the disabled that I uncovered in the ancient narratives, I argue that some of these antique perceptions of the Other that have survived in contemporary Japanese consciousness may be hampering our effort to understand and appreciate human variation in the nation. As much as we should avoid falling into an impairment-based perception of humanity, we need to stop categorizing ourselves based on physical or intellectual differences.


Not all myths and legends of Japan have disabled characters, nor do they always present an articulated message about disability or afflicted characters. Although folk tales are not intended to be scientifically credible stories, they inform us about a cultural group's attitudes toward certain ideas, commodities, and characteristics. By foregrounding the signifier of disability in Japanese mythology, I have tried to highlight sociohistorical attitudes toward people with physical or intellectual disabilities. I have also attempted to offer some insight into the recent massacre of 19 residents of a home for people with multiple disabilities in Kanagawa, Japan.

This paper has several shortcomings. First, the manner in which disability is depicted varies in Japanese myths and legends, providing rather contradictory images of otherness. Second, folk tales are told from the viewpoint of able-bodied, in-group "folks," and literacy was a privilege of the citizens of the socially dominant class. Thus, none of the tales show the lived experience of the under-privileged minority groups. The absence of the voice of tōjisha, or the experiencer himself or herself, is a major flaw of the texts I selected. We will never really know what it was like to be a person with a disability in pre-industrial Japan. Third, what I have offered in this paper is a comparative discussion of signifiers of otherness based on a small set of narratives. It is not a comprehensive literature review of the existing disability narratives in Japanese mythology.

However, using semiotics as the methodology of text analysis, I have attempted to uncover the inconspicuously encoded sociocultural attitudes of Japanese society toward disability, gender, and stigma at various points in time by interpreting the tropes of the Other (e.g., metaphors, metonymies) and exploring the narrative's architext, hypotext, or subtext for its intertextuality. I hope that my analysis of the selected narrative representations of otherness, along with the theory of karma, provides the multiple dimensions of this particular society. Emphasis on the rights of people with disabilities is vital but not sufficient in Japan. Some perspectives, especially ones derived from superstitions and stereotypes depicted in folklore, have contributed to and sustained the living environment in which the Other is discriminated against and marginalized. We need to understand that it is not a feature of otherness but the subtexts of ijin and inga that need to be erased in our present-day narratives as an anti-stigma intervention.


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  1. The legends and allegories of deities and humans that have survived to this day derive mainly from the mythic narratives of Shinto, Taoism, and Buddhism. Japanese Mythology in Film (Okuyama 2015) provides a more detailed discussion of how prevalent these three religions are in the historical context. Due to the limited scope of this paper, no such discussion is offered here.
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  2. There are other Shinto legendary characters who are described with disabilities such as Kusunahiko (a god with dwarfism), Kuebiko (a non-ambulatory god), and Homuchiwake-no-Miko (a prince with either a speech disorder or selective mutism). Due to limited space in this paper, I selected only three representative characters.
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  3. Hiroshi Yokota, who had cerebral palsy and passed away in 2013, was a disability-rights activist. His book, Shōgaisha Goroshi no Shisō (Ideology of Killing People with Disabilities), was published posthumously in 2015. Yasuyuki Goto, who also has cerebral palsy, has published several books on disability rights and has been an advocate for the integration of children with disabilities into regular classrooms and independent living for people with disabilities in Japan.
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  4. Although texts have been suggested as the source texts of these legends, it has not been determined that any of them are the origin of either legend in Japan. Thus, no chronological identification is available.
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  5. Enfreakment is a term referring to the ways in which the nonstandard body is exploited as in a freak show. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is one of the key academics who treated the subject of freak show as a topic of scholarly engagement. Utilizing the "normal-deviant" binary, the act of enfreakment objectifies our body via various means of public display or performance.
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  6. Narrative prosthesis "refers to both the prevalence of disability representation and the myriad messages ascribed to it" (Mitchell & Snyder 2000:4). In a story, a prosthesis is an added element that propels the plot forward. In addition, a prosthesis "seeks to accomplish an illusion" (p.6). "The very need for a story is called into being when something has gone amiss with the known world, and, thus, the language of a tale seeks to comprehend that which has stepped out of line" (p.53). The story progresses to cure something socially marked as incurable. It first exposes the hero or heroine's otherness to the reader, and the marked feature becomes the focus of the narrative. The story then proceeds to explain how the protagonist makes amends for the marked difference. As shown in this paper, this pattern is also discernible in Japanese folklore.
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  7. Citing Iwakuma's (2000) unpublished conference paper, Heyer (2015) writes: "The stigma associated with having a disability is based on Japanese cultural beliefs about kegare, or impurity. People with disabilities (and by extension, their families) were considered polluted and kept out of public view" (p.129). It is correct that kegare is avoided as a potential "spoiler" of otherwise happy, auspicious occasions such as weddings in Japan. However, Japanese folklorists generally define kegare as pollution derived from either blood or death, not disability (e.g., Miyata 2010; Fukuda et al. 2006). For example, the Shinto story associated with kegare is the tale of Izanagi's search for his deceased wife in the land of the dead, not the tale of deities with disabilities in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki tales. Japanese superstitions of pollution are evident in traditional practices such as banning women from entering certain "holy" areas (menstruation and childbirth being associated with "blood" pollution, or ketsue) and "purifying" funeral attendees with salt (salt being the purifying agent against "death" pollution, shie). I believe that what is employed to stigmatize disability is the theory of inga, not kegare.
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  8. Akasaka (1995) reports a dispute that erupted between Hatoyama Newtown residents in Saitama prefecture and the officials of a rehabilitation center for adults with schizophrenia to be built in the same town in 1981. Referring to two similar incidents in Hokkaido and Tokyo in the 1980s, he argues that these disputes reflect the townspeople's concealed fear of the Other.
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