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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Room 8/9, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
Event date: 
Monday, 17 February, 2020 - 17:00 to 19:00

Everyday Demons: reckoning with monsters and mediaeval Japan

“Death. Torture. Violence. Dogma. Dragons” The Getty Museum’s succinct synopsis of Game of Thrones also seems an apt set of keywords for what we know as the Middle Ages, whether in Japan or elsewhere. The first four terms are relatively easy to imagine and treat, but “dragons” pose some difficulties. Magical beings and supernatural causation can be found everywhere in medieval sources, but modern history (modern historians, too) has difficulty accepting the claims of medieval texts on face value. As Keller Kimbrough, the prolific translator and analyst of medieval tales of the supernatural, writes, we know “of course, that tengu are imaginary, and that the human-tengu metamorphoses ... are actually metaphors for something else.”

In this paper I will pursue what some have called a “surface reading.” Examining a selection of texts related to the monstrous birdlike tricksters called tengu, I intend to explore what follows when we try to understand such creatures not as projections of something else, but as phenomena with their own peculiar agency. What sort of portrayal of the Middle Ages is needed if we mean to take tengu (and dragons) seriously in their own right and not as metaphors or symbols? I will conclude with a brief discussion of some anime-ic attempts to integrate the supernatural to history.

Dr Tom Keirstead teaches Japanese history and culture at the University of Toronto. Equally interested in the history of medieval Japanese culture and in the writing of that history, he has written widely on such topics as medieval peasant rebellions and outcast groups and explored the presentation of Japan’s medieval past in film, anime and historical fiction. He is currently engaged in writing a history of monsters and the monstrous in medieval Japan, which allows him to read strange stories about wizards and demons, and to indulge an interest in Japanese monster movies.