A fantastic resource for educators and folklore enthusiasts
I am passionate enough about Japanese folklore that I got a Master’s Degree in it, and while my library of stories is pretty extensive, every now and then I discover a gem that had previously gone under my radar.
“The East Asian Story Finder” is just such a gem. A follow-up to the award-winning The Jewish Story Finder, children’s librarian Sharon Barcan Elswit had combed the world for English-language translations of stories from Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan, then meticulously cross-referenced and categorized all 468 tales she assembled.
Elswit does not tell the entire story, but always gives a reference as to where that particular story can be found. Instead, she provides a brief synopsis of the story, listing known variations if applicable, and assigns a series of subjects to each story that can then be referenced. Subjects can be general, like “burial” or “butterflies,” or more specific like “talking bird,” “breath of death,” “”Cinderella stories,” “charcoal makers,” or “propitious births.” The Subject Index in the back shows which stories contain which subjects, making for easy reference. All of the stories are also chucked together by overall theme, such as “The Way Things Are,” “The Problem Solvers,” “Strange Events and Ghostly Encounters” and “Tricksters and Fools.”
Many of the stories here are culled from familiar English translations, such as Theodora Ozeki’s 1903 book Japanese Fairy Tales and Grace James’ 1923 The Moon Maiden and Other Japanese Fairy Tales. Elswit points out that the age of these books makes the majority of them public domain, and that many of the full stories can be searched for on the internet without the need to buy them. In her introduction, Elswit notes that any translation somewhat compromises the original intent of the story, and especially older translations which were more liberal in their use of fantasy-words like “knight,” “fairy,” “ogre” and such, but she did try and locate the best translation available.
Clearly, there are more than 468 fairy tales from all of East Asia, and Elswit explains her selection criteria. They had to be stories with a universal appeal, something that was not depended on knowing intimate details of the culture and language. She eliminated stories that only explained a local landscape feature, for example, or were intended to illuminate a certain religious point. She also struggled with her identification of “East Asia,” but finally settled on the political regions of Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan instead of the more than sixty different ethnicities and cultures in that region. She does specify if possible when the story is Tibetan or from the native Japanese Ainu culture.
Many of the stories here were familiar, but there were even more that I had never heard of. Even though there is only a synopsis for each story, I have enjoyed reading through them and have tracked down the originals for more than a few.