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Demonology and Eroticism Islands of Women in the Japanese Buddhist Imagination

By Moerman, D. Max | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Demonology and Eroticism Islands of Women in the Japanese Buddhist Imagination


Moerman, D. Max, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


The demonic female, an object of male anxiety and desire, has long been a stock character in Japanese Buddhist literature. This article examines two female realms in the Japanese literary and visual imagination: Rasetsukoku, a dreaded island of female cannibals, and Nyogogashima, a fabled isle of erotic fantasy. I trace the persistence and transformation of these sites in tale literature, sutra illustration, popular fiction, and Japanese cartography from the twelfth through the nineteenth century to show how the construction of Japanese identity relies on the mapping of the marginal. In doing so, I argue for the centrality of Buddhism to Japan's cartographic tradition and the importance of cartography in Japanese Buddhist literary and visual culture.

keywords: Rasetsukoku-Nyogogashima-Japanese cartography-Buddhist narrative-visual culture

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

For the male authors of medieval Japanese Buddhist literature, the female body was an endless source of fear and fascination. "Women," according to the oft-quoted sutra passage, "are the emissaries of hell; they cut off forever the seed of buddhahood. On the outside they have the faces of bodhisattvas, but on the inside they have the hearts of demons."1 The popular genres of medieval literature, such as setsuwa, kana hogo, honjimono, and otogizoshi, are full of deceptive, duplicitous, and dangerous women. Attractive and alluring in appearance, they are invariably devils in disguise: ferocious figures of insatiable passion. Conjured by the fantasies and frustrations of celibate ideals, the demonic female, an object of displaced desire and one of the oldest figments of the Buddhist imagination, remained an obsessive presence in the visual and literary culture of the age.

Buddhist demonology includes many ferocious females but perhaps few more terrifying than the rasetsu ... (Skt. raksasi), orectic shape-shifting cannibals who seduce men and then literally eat them alive.2 Rasetsukoku ..., the land of these horrific man-eaters, is an isolated realm: an island to the south of the world continent on which we dwell, known in Sanskrit as Jambudvipa and in Japanese as Nansenbush. ... or Enbudaishu ... In Japan, this isle of demonic women appeared first in the literary and visual culture of the late Heian period and for centuries thereafter occupied an enduring and evolving place in the Buddhist imagination.

Rasetsukoku represented a conflicted site of desire and denial, of anxiety and alterity: a realm where the boundaries of religion and sexuality were encountered and explored. It lay forever at the margins of the known world, marking the furthest edge of cultural identity. Yet, like a floating island, it remained unfixed. It drifted, both geographically and semantically, until what was once a land of demons south of India was rediscovered as an erotic paradise south of Japan. In this article I examine the inscription and transition of Rasetsukoku in texts, images, and maps in order to locate the demonic feminine in one region of Japanese Buddhist culture. In doing so, I hope to suggest not only how Buddhist views of the world provided maps of meaning for literature and art in medieval Japan, but also how cartography might be understood as a form of fiction.

Textual Grounds and Visual Fields

Rasetsukoku is first found in Japanese literature among the stories of India collected in the Tenjiku ... section of the twelfth-century Konjaku monogatari shu ... (Konno 1999, 388-94).3 "How Sokara and Five Hundred Merchants Went to the Land of the Rasetsu" tells of a group of merchants who set sail from Jambudvipa to the southern seas in search of treasure. They are shipwrecked on an island of beautiful women, and "lust and passion immediately arise in their hearts" (388). They ask the women to take them in and more than willingly follow them back to their compound, an expansive, and exclusively female, gated community where each man takes a wife and enjoys a life of bliss.

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