East Meets West: Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales

East Meets West: Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales
by Elizabeth Hopkinson

In recent months, the hearts of many people around the world have turned to Japan, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, and the crisis at the Fukushima power plant. My own heart, however, has already been in Japan for many years. Like many in our time, I have embraced the manga/anime culture. And, in researching my own novel, I have become deeply interested in Japanese history. In 2009, my brother’s girlfriend (of Japanese-English heritage) leant me the Tuttle Classics edition of Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales. As a passionate reader of fairy tales as well as a Japanophile, I loved it instantly. Even after over a century since its first publication, the stories remain well-told and the collection varied. With something there for everyone, I found many motifs and themes that touched me on a personal level. But I also became interested in the author — herself born of a Japanese father and an English mother — and in her reasons for retelling these stories. So in this article I intend to examine both the stories and the author, looking both at what they have to offer a 21st-century reader and how they reflect the original social context and aims of Yei Theodora Ozaki.

Historical Background

The Japanese Fairy Book first appeared in 1903. The edition used by Tuttle Press and Project Gutenberg (Japanese Fairy Tales, to which I shall refer throughout) is dedicated Tokio (sic) 1908. It is a varied collection of traditional Japanese stories, retold for, “young readers of the West,”[1] comprising legends of old Japanese heroes and heroines, animal fables, supernatural stories, folk tales and stories with religious meaning. They range from the very familiar (in Japan), such as, “Momotaro, or the Story of the Son of a Peach,” to the less well-known, “The Stones of Five Colours and the Empress Jokwa.” We are told that, “Ozaki unabashedly re-crafted some of the stories, translating loosely and adding in elements of unrelated tales, in order to make them more enjoyable and understandable for Western children,”[2] and the author admits as much herself: “These stories are not literal translations, and though the Japanese story and all quaint Japanese expressions have been faithfully preserved, they have been told more with a view to interest young readers of the West than the technical student of folk-lore.”[3] So this is far from being a scholarly collection; rather a creative work written from a love of Japan and its heritage of story, aimed at eager young minds, for whom Japan was a distant, alien and possibly unknown culture.

Yei Theodora Ozaki was born the daughter of Baron Saburu Ozaki and Miss Sabbathia Catherine Morrison. Her father had studied in England under Miss Morrison’s father, William: one of the first generation of well-born Japanese men to do so. Sadly, the marriage ended after just five years, and young O-Yei[4] lived first with her mother in England, and from the age of 16 with her father in Japan. On her arrival, the Baron was said to have been pleased to note that she looked very much the Japanese young lady, and insisted that she become solely Japanese. It seems that O-Yei was happy to do this (perhaps with the enthusiasm of a young girl discovering the missing half of her heritage). The more picturesque aspects of Japanese life appealed strongly to her artistic nature, and having inherited a love of reading from her English grandfather, she now fell completely in love with the heroic tales of old Japan. However, she remained bi-cultural in many respects. She was said to be able to see the good and bad in both the Eastern and Western ways of life, and formed friendships both with distinguished foreign visitors and Japanese men and women of her own class.

But it was her friendship with Mrs Hugh Fraser, wife of the British minister in Tokyo that led to her writing career. Having become independent of her father (partly due to her refusal to marry) she became friends with the Frasers and travelled with them to Europe, notably Italy, where she also became friends with Mrs Fraser’s brother, Marion Crawford. It was he who first suggested that she write down her versions of the old Japanese stories, having enjoyed her storytelling within his family circle. Publication in English magazines, both while in Europe and when she returned to Japan, led to the appearance of the Japanese Fairy Book in 1903. This was her most popular work, and the one that continues to be published today. Along with the charming illustrations by Kakuzo Fujiyama, the 22 stories contained within it create an enjoyable and easy reading experience, and provide a gentle introduction to Japanese culture.

One delightful feature of Ms Ozaki’s storytelling is her subtle marriage of east and west. For her young readers’ benefit, she refers to samurai as “knights” and daimyo as “earls” for example, but also mirrors Japanese patterns of speech with dialogue such as:

“I am Ryn Jin, the Dragon King of the Sea and this is my wife. Condescend to remember me forever!”

“Are you indeed Ryn Jin, the King of the Sea, of whom I have so often heard’¦? I must apologise to you for all the trouble I am giving you by my unexpected visit.”[5]

Such linguistic features serve to blur the differences between Japanese and English cultures and make the one seem more familiar and accessible to the other. This is deliberate, and not just from a stylistic viewpoint. Ms Ozaki’s biographer Mrs Fraser tells us that one of O-Yei’s motivations for writing was to dispel misconceptions of Japan that she found in the West, and to show the “good old ideals and sentiments”[6] of Japanese culture portrayed in the old stories. We are told that one of O-Yei’s particular concerns was the perception of Japanese women in the West. She wanted to put an end to the notion of the Japanese woman as an oppressed, passive Madame Butterfly figure. Mrs Fraser records her as saying: “When I was last in England and Europe’¦ very mistaken notions about Japan and especially about its women existed generally. I determined if possible to write so as to dispel these wrong conceptions.”[7] In this way, she was very much a woman of her time. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) was a time of great social and political change in Japan, as the country was keen to show itself as equal to the Western powers. Women led the way in this as much as men; and O-Yei herself belonged to several educational, charitable and patriotic ladies’ societies. At the same time, things were changing for women in England too. The suffragettes were to riot in 1911 and the Women’s Institute was to be founded in 1915. As a well-connected, bi-cultural woman, Yei Theodora Ozaki stood in a good position to address these contemporary issues, at the same time as she looked back to the past for inspiration.

How does all this show itself in the tales themselves? Two of my personal favourites are, “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child,” and, “The Mirror of Matsuyama.” Both these tales centre round female characters and deal with largely feminine themes. They also show beautifully Ms Ozaki’s skill in fleshing out the old stories and bringing the characters and their emotions to life, and in incorporating details of Japanese culture and ideals into the text. In looking at them in more detail, I hope to show both how these stories reflect O-Yei’s context and aims, and what appeal they have for me as a 21st-century reader.

The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child

“The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child” is a story I was already familiar with before I came to this collection. According to the original preface, it is “taken from the classic “Taketori Monagatari” and is not classed by the Japanese among their fairy tales, though it really belongs to this class of literature.”[8] It tells of a bamboo cutter who finds a child in a stem of bamboo. She grows into a woman of unearthly beauty, named in this version Princess Moonlight. Five suitors seek her hand, only to be sent on impossible errands, in which they fail. Finally the Emperor falls in love with her, only to be told she has really come from the moon and must return. Her parents and the Emperor try to prevent her departure, to no avail. On leaving, she gives the Emperor a phial of the elixir of life, which he subsequently has sent to Mount Fuji: its vapours are the cause of the mountain’s constant smoke.

This is one of the longer stories in the collection, and a real showcase for Ms Ozaki’s storytelling talents. The adventures of the suitors are described in charming detail, right down to the amusing disillusionment of the fourth man:

“He thought it was quite probable she had wished to kill him, so that she might be rid of him, and in order to carry out her wish had sent him on this improbable quest.”[9]

The tender relationship between Princess Moonlight and the Emperor is also extremely touching in its portrayal:

“‘¦though she refused to see him again she answered with many verses of her own composing, which told him gently and kindly that she could never marry anyone on this earth. These little songs always gave him pleasure.”[10]

It is impossible not to read something of O-Yei’s own life into this retelling. Like Princess Moonlight, she had resisted her father’s attempt to arrange a marriage for her, having been adversely affected by her parents’ separation. When she did finally marry, as a mature woman, it was to a man of her own choosing: Mayor of Tokyo Yukio Ozaki (no relation) who she had got to know due to mix-ups over their mail. Princess Moonlight’s polite but assertive way of keeping her suitors at bay could be seen as reflecting the author’s own sentiments. The motif of a princess torn between two cultures (those of the earth and the moon) must also have appealed to an author who had been forced to choose between the lands of her father and her mother.

Princess Moonlight is a strong character. She is respectful of her adopted parents (showing that all-important Japanese trait of filial piety) but this does not stop her politely refusing both her father’s wishes and an Imperial command. Even when the moon messengers come to collect her, she keeps them waiting so she can write a farewell letter to the Emperor. And though we are told she suffers, “a spirit of deepest dejection, ending always in a burst of tears,”[11] when she realises she must return to the moon, in the end it is she who remains calm and collected while the men around her are arguing and sorrowing.

This very much fits with O-Yei’s mission to show Japanese women in a positive light. As to her role as an educator to her young Western readers, the tale comes with subtle little insights into Japanese culture (interesting to readers today as in 1908). For example, we read of the arrival of a celebrated name-giver to bestow Princess Moonlight’s name and the attendant three-day festivities, and of the suitors with “rosaries in hand’¦ before their household shrines’¦ praying to Buddha.”[12]

But Princess Moonlight’s story is also one of heart-rending tragedy; and O-Yei’s style brings out the pathos of her predicament in full force. Her loving parents are unable to keep her at home. The Emperor’s tender love is doomed to remain unrequited. And in the penultimate paragraph, “they all gazed with tearful eyes at the receding princess.”[13] This, for me, is one of the story’s main attractions. It is a tale that stimulates the emotions, allowing the reader to empathise with the characters and be touched by the bittersweet image of a moon princess in a robe of feathered wings receding forever into the clouds.

In its bittersweet ending, the tale contrasts strongly with the traditional Western notion of a fairy tale, in which the ending is expected to be happy. In most familiar Western tales, progressive suits usually lead to favour for the final challenger; and the life-renewing elixir gained at the end of the story is not generally sacrificed to a mountain. This lack of a comfortable ending is partly what helps to make the tale attractive to a modern reader, who is perhaps disillusioned with a “fairytale ending”. And yet the presence of familiar motifs (the tiny child found in a plant, the impossible quest, the elixir of life) show “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child” to share much in common with the tales of other cultures. Again, its cross-cultural potential is another one of the tale’s strengths. It has wide appeal and is open to new reinterpretations. For creators of anime and manga, it has been used to inspire a number of fantasy and science fictional creations[14], bringing the old story alive in new ways for succeeding generations.

The Mirror of Matsuyama

“The Mirror of Matsuyama,” by contrast, is a more overtly Japanese tale. In fact, it is subtitled, “A Story of Old Japan,” and Ms Ozaki makes full use of it to instruct her young readers in the history and culture of her country. It tells of a husband who brings his wife a mirror after a trip to Kyoto. On the wife’s untimely death, the mirror passes to the daughter, who is told she only need look in it to meet with her departed mother’s soul. On seeing her own reflection — which resembles her mother’s — she believes that she is indeed seeing her mother. This leads to trouble with her new stepmother, who is suspicious of the time the daughter spends in her room and accuses her of witchcraft. But when her father uncovers the truth, he praises his daughter for her filial piety and innocent heart, which has made her like her mother indeed. The discovery wins over the stepmother, who begs forgiveness, and the family live happily together.

Blended into the story, as O-Yei tells it, are many interesting little gems of information about Japanese life and culture in former times. For example, the story begins with a detailed description of the girl’s growing-up: “the visit to the temple when she was just thirty days old’¦ her first dolls festival’¦ her third birthday, when her first obi‘¦ was tied round her small waist.”[15] We read of the mother spinning and weaving to make winter clothes; the father walking every weary step of the way from Matsuyama to Kyoto and back, under his “large umbrella hat”.[16] These details give us a fascinating glimpse into a lost world. But it is the story itself that I personally find so touching.

In some ways, it is a Cinderella story. A girl loses her mother and is mistreated by her stepmother, overcoming her problems by means of a magical object that connects her to the dead mother (as in some versions Cinderella goes to the tree on her dead mother’s grave). Only in this story, the object is not actually magical at all. It is just an ordinary mirror, which the sheltered rural girl thinks is magical. “Never had she seen such a thing in her life for she had been born and bred in the rural province of Echigo.”[17] Plus, there is a merciful end for the stepmother; there are no rolling heads or dances in red-hot shoes here. The girl’s virtue leads to a re-birth of the family unit: not an ending one gets in all the stories of this collection (as we have already seen).

The heart of the story is the part in which the girl looks in the mirror and:

“Behold, her mother’s words were true! In the round mirror before her she saw her mother’s face: but, oh, the joyful surprise! It was not her mother thin and wasted by illness, but the young and beautiful woman as she remembered her far back in the days of her own earliest childhood.”[18]

And again when her father tells her:

“Living in constant remembrance of your lost mother has helped you grow like her in character.”[19]

This is a familiar motif, used for example in Disney’s The Lion King when Simba sees in his own reflection the image of his dead father, and one of great spiritual comfort to all who have lost a loved one. It is what makes this story one of my personal favourites.

But what of the lead character? By contrast with Princess Moonlight, some modern readers may find the heroine of this tale insipid and too good to be true. Although she does have an argument with her father in which she says, “…some evil spirit has taken possession of your heart,” she is constantly loving, does nothing to stand up to the stepmother, and “never bore a moment’s resentment or malice towards her afterwards.”[20] Moreover, she is ignorant enough not to recognise her own reflection or understand how a mirror works: something which her own father at first finds “stupid.”[21]

At first glance, this seems to undermine O-Yei’s mission to dispel unhelpful conceptions of Japanese women. Uneducated, unquestioningly obedient, suffering in silence: the girl seems very much the stereotypical Japanese woman of Western imagination. But there are a few important points to note. For one thing, Ms Ozaki is keen to point out the differences between her own time, “In these days of railways and jinrickshas and other rapid modes of travelling,”[22] and the time of the story, when an isolated rural community would have little chance of sharing in the fashions and technology of the capital. A subtle message here is that Japan has changed. For another thing, it is worth mentioning that the father is very kind and tolerant towards the women in his life. The scenes before the mother’s death paint a delightful picture of family life, and he deals with his second wife’s accusations with patience, ultimately being “greatly relieved to see the terrible misunderstanding wiped out of remembrance.”[23] This picture of mutual support must surely have been in contrast with the false ideas of Japanese family life that some of O-Yei’s European friends had, and goes a long way towards promoting Japan in a positive light.

It is also worth dwelling on the symbolism of the mirror. Early in the story, the husband tells his wife: “As the sword is the soul of a samurai, so is the mirror the soul of a woman’¦ if she keeps it bright and clear, so is her heart pure and good.”[24] This notion of keeping a pure, clear mirror/heart comes from Shrine Shinto. James W Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura in their essay on Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away tell us:

“‘¦to experience the kami presence’¦ requires an aesthetically pure and cheerful heart/mind (kokoro)’¦ Like a mirror clouded with dust, the disposition of our personality, i.e. our kokoro, becomes clouded and opaque’¦ Hence we need to’¦ cleanse our attitudes and cultivate a sound, pure and bright heart/mind, in order to act with genuine sincerity (makoto) towards others and the world.”[25]

This cultivating of the kokoro is precisely what the heroine of the story does, and she is rewarded for it. The “good old ideals and sentiments of old Japan” lead to forgiveness and happiness. This makes them just as efficacious as those of the West, in O-Yei’s persuasive storytelling. In this light, that fact that this Cinderella story does not end in marriage should not be seen as a sign of stunted development on the part of its heroine. This is not first and foremost a story of personal growth. It is a celebration of Japanese filial piety and makoto. This, I believe, is Ms Ozaki’s educational point for her 1908 readers. And the fact that it shares with Spirited Away a common theme of cultivating a pure and cheerful heart under adversity gives it an added layer of interest to the modern reader.


Yei Theodora Ozaki’s world of Meiji-era Japan and Edwardian England is now long gone. Much has changed, and a Western perception of Japan now has as much to do with high technology and cult animation as with cherry blossoms and samurai honour. The “modern woman” of 1908 now seems old-fashioned by 21st-century standards. O-Yei’s context and aims for her storytelling are no longer of immediate relevance to the contemporary reader.

Yet, for all that, the tales still present the reader with a remarkably fresh world. For the child (or child at heart) of the West, most of these stories are as unfamiliar now as they were in the 1900s. The insights into traditional Japanese culture and speech patterns remain fascinating. And the stories and illustrations of Japanese Fairy Tales still leap off the page with as much life, charm and emotion as they had for their first readers: a testament to a truly talented storyteller.

And in our own multicultural era, it is both insightful and encouraging to hear from a woman writer of what must have been an unusually mixed heritage for her time. Roy Stafford quoting Susan Napier suggests that in our day, anime “might offer a new kind of global hybridity for the techno-generation”.[26] By re-writing Japanese tales for the West, Yei Theodora Ozaki was beginning that hybridity right at the birth of the anime age.[27] The fact that the tales she chose to retell still influence and share themes with anime show both their continued importance to present-day Japan and their global appeal. In my opinion, this collection is an essential on any fairy tale lover’s bookshelf. It connects us both to the past and to the future.

1] Preface to Yei Theodora Ozaki, Japanese Fairy Tales (New York, 1908) Charles Franks, Greg Weeks, Project Gutenberg Etext (gutenberg.net, 2003) p.7
2] Zack Davision “Japanreviewed”, Amazon.com
3] Preface to Japanese Fairy Tales p.7
4] Her biographer and friend Mrs Fraser refers to her either as O-Yei (O- is an honorific) or Madame Ozaki
5] Japanese Fairy Tales p.66
6] Madame Yukio Ozaki: A Biographical Sketch by Mrs Hugh Fraser (pod cast on kungfuactiontheatre.com)
7] Ibid.
8] Preface to Japanese Fairy Tales p.8
9] “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child,” Japanese Fairy Tales p.48
10] Ibid. p.48
11] Ibid. p.48
12] Ibid. p.44
13] Ibid. p.50
14] For example, Sailor Moon (manga/anime), InuYasha (manga/anime) and Kaguyahime (manga)
15] “The Mirror of Matsuyama,” Japanese Fairy Tales pp. 50-51
16] Ibid. p.52
17] Ibid. p.52
18] Ibid. p.54
19] Ibid. p.57
20] Ibid. p.57
21] Ibid. p.57
22] Ibid. p.51
23] Ibid. p.57
24] Ibid. p.52
25] “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film Spirited Away”, The Journal of Religion and Film, www.unomaha.edu
26] Roy Stafford, “Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli and anime,” Film Extra Day Course handout, National Media Museum, Bradford, 2006
27]1917 is often cited as the date of the first Japanese animation

Editions used
Yei Theodora Ozaki, Japanese Fairy Tales (New York, 1908) Charles Franks, Greg Weeks, Project Gutenberg Etext (gutenberg.net 2003)
Yei Theodora Ozaki, Japanese Fairy Tales (Tokyo, Rutland Vermont, Singapore: Tuttle Classics, 2007)

Elizabeth Hopkinson has had over 30 stories published in magazines, webzines and anthologies, won prizes in 3 competitions, and her first novel Silver Hands is currently being considered by agents.