History | History of Japanese Monsters
G300 | 22067 | Keirstead
A portion of the above section reserved for majors
Above section open to undergraduates only
He’s big, he likes to stomp on things, and he breathes atomic fire.
Godzilla, the most famous of Japanese monsters, is only one in a
long line of supernatural creatures to terrorize the people of the
archipelago. Early Japanese emperors did battle with Earth Spiders
and giant crocodiles. In the eleventh century, a demon haunted the
imperial palace and frightened courtiers out of their wits with the
icy touch of his claws. An imaginative geography from the
seventeenth century filled the surrounding seas with strange,
monstrous lands: Just a few days sail beyond the Japan’s
northernmost island lay the Land of Giants, and next to it, the Land
of Dwarves, populated by beings “the size of a bean.” To the South
one could find the Land of the Chest Holes, whose inhabitants had
gaping holes in their chests, and the Island of the People with No
These strange beings as well as the people who conjured them up are
the subject of this course. We’ll trace Japanese ideas about
monsters through ghost stories, religious tracts (always a great
source for information about demons), drama, and folktales. We’ll
look at paintings and picture scrolls and watch monster movies.
Throughout the course we’ll ponder why people come up with the
monsters they do, and try to figure out what precisely it is that
monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures do for a culture.
By examining monsters across time (that is, historically), we can
gauge how and why Japanese culture’s conceptions of the monstrous
have changed. What keeps some monsters alive, while others disappear
from the culture?
Our main readings will be drawn from literary and artistic
representations of monsters, including ghost stories from early
modern Japan and medieval scroll paintings depicting demons and the
horrors of hell. Our readings will also feature some primary
materials—folklore about goblins, ghosts, and fox demons, in
particular. Students can also expect to read a range of scholarship
that attempts to conceptualize the role that “the monstrous” plays
in the cultural imagination. And, of course, we’ll watch "Godzilla."
Assignments will probably consist of two or three short assignments,
two 5-8 pp. essays, and a final project.