Symbolic Death and Rebirth into Womanhood: An Analysis of Stepdaughter Narratives from Heian and Medieval Japan


  • Sachi Schmidt-Hori Dartmouth College



Through a comparative reading of several premodern Japanese tales with a focus on Ochikubo monogatari (ca. tenth century) and Hachi-kazuki (ca. fifteenth century), this essay attempts to interpret the common literary trope of mamako ijime—stepmothers’ mistreatment of their stepdaughters—in a new light. Within the pre-existing scholarship, the fictional accounts of mamako ijime seem to have been viewed as a reflection of quasi-universal, self-evident phenomena at best. Consequently, little inquiry has been made regarding the ubiquity or functions of this particular form of female-on-female violence in literary texts. The present study, in turn, attributes the blind acceptance of the universality of mamako ijime to negative stereotypes against middle-aged women, shared by the readers of the past and present, and offers a more critical interpretation thereof. Based on the recurrent patterns found in premodern Japanese tales, mamako ijime can be read as the dead birthmothers’ “tough love” for their daughters. By enduring the abusive (albeit not deadly) deeds of the stepmothers—or the evil surrogates of the late mothers—the heroines mature into resilient, caring, and wise women and ultimately achieve strong marriage, wealth, and prestige, all of which would have been what the birthmothers wished upon their daughters.

Author Biography

Sachi Schmidt-Hori, Dartmouth College

Interdisciplinary Program of Asian Socities, Cultures, and Languages

Assistant Professor


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