Christina Laffin

Associate Professor

Research Classification

Research Interests

premodern Japanese literature
medieval Japanese history
women's writing
Japanese women's history
travel writing
Japanese poetry
wet nursing

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs

Affiliations to Research Centres, Institutes & Clusters

Research Options

I am available and interested in collaborations (e.g. clusters, grants).
I am interested in and conduct interdisciplinary research.
I am interested in working with undergraduate students on research projects.

Research Methodology

Literary analysis with a sociohistorical focus
Feminist studies


Master's students
Doctoral students
Any time / year round

Heian and Kamakura-era literature, late Heian and medieval women's history

I support public scholarship, e.g. through the Public Scholars Initiative, and am available to supervise students and Postdocs interested in collaborating with external partners as part of their research.
I support experiential learning experiences, such as internships and work placements, for my graduate students and Postdocs.
I am open to hosting Visiting International Research Students (non-degree, up to 12 months).

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Discussing "The Tale of the Heike" in the Edo period: didactic commentaries as guides to wise rule for warrior-officials (2018)

In the premodern period, the Tale of the Heike (thirteenth century CE) was regarded either as a source for popular entertainment, such as musical and performing arts, or a historical text used for scholarly purposes. Most studies on the Tale of the Heike’s reception have focused on the work’s literary and artistic side, while scholarly reception has remained neglected. This dissertation explores the use of the Tale of the Heike by seventeenth-century scholars of “military studies” (heigaku or hyōgaku), who compiled treatises and commentaries (gunsho) on leadership, statecraft, history, and ethics aimed at domain lords and warrior-officials of different levels. This study focuses on the category of evaluative commentaries (hyōban) on medieval texts that combined critical discussion, admonition of rulers, and plausible “secrets” in order to caution against mistakes and explain proper leadership. I argue that the commentary Heike monogatari hyōban hidenshō (1650) reinterpreted the courtly and Buddhist content of the Tale of the Heike in terms of pragmatic leadership and ethics relevant to warrior-officials of the Edo period (1603-1868), and that this commentarial appropriation brought the Tale of the Heike into the sphere of warrior-officials’ scholarship and cultivation. The dissertation begins with a detailed overview of the understudied field of military studies in premodern East Asia and Japan. Based on an analysis of primary sources, I then discuss the content and commentarial approaches of evaluative commentary on the Tale of the Heike, its readership and circulation, as well as related texts. The study concludes with a comparative analysis which situates the commentary within the Japanese discourse of historical discussion and admonition, and also places it in the category of didactic guides to statecraft that are found in different cultures and are known as “mirrors for princes.” This study reveals a new facet of the Tale of the Heike’s reception centered on didactic commentarial works influenced by military studies, which constituted an important current in premodern Japanese intellectual history that shaped perceptions of state, society, leadership, and identity of warrior-officials throughout the Edo period.

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Knowing Women: Sei Shonagon's Makura No Soshi in Early-Modern Japan (2012)

This dissertation explores the reception history of Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book, 11th c.) from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Focusing on an extensive body of texts, including scholarly commentaries, erotic parodies, and instruction manuals for women, I examine how Makura no sōshi and the image of its female author Sei Shōnagon were transformed through shifts in political contexts, readerships, and socio-cultural conditions. The complex reception history of The Pillow Book, in which the text was recreated through diverse forms, serves as a useful case study of how literary criticism, gender structures, and the status of women have changed through time. Drawing from research on the invention of national literatures and the historical reception of Japanese “classical” works, this study reveals the processes and agents that contributed to the shifting place of Makura no sōshi within Japanese literature. By so doing, it sheds light on the extent to which misrepresentations of Heian texts and their authors have influenced approaches in literary scholarship and shaped contemporary images of the Heian period as a whole. The Introduction analyzes the context in which Makura no sōshi was produced and considers theoretical approaches to the reception of literary works, particularly the processes of evaluation, interpretation, adaptation, and canonization. Chapter One traces scholarly debates regarding the textual identity and the genre of the work as recorded in scholarly commentaries and works of literary criticism. Chapter Two takes up the popularization of the Heian text among male readers and considers its transformation into a highly eroticized work. An examination of illustrated adaptations of Makura no sōshi for a female readership follows in Chapter Three, which shows how the work was used as a manual for social mobility gained through marriage. Chapter Four turns to constructions of Sei Shōnagon in instruction manuals for women and examines the use of the image of the author as an efficient tool for gender training both in Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) Japan. The Conclusion summarizes aspects of Makura no sōshi that defy categorization and make it a dynamic text. 

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

An analysis of Amerika shinwa : manuscript circulation and epistemological background in early modern Japan (2022)

This thesis examines the manuscript Amerika shinwa (New Stories about America, 1844) by Maekawa Bunzō, which reports the experience of the Japanese sailor Hatsutarō (1823–1889) in Baja California following a shipwreck. This study offers two primary analyses of the text. Firstly, I examine the scholarly network of the manuscript in the second half of the Edo period (1603–1868). I present examples of manuscript circulation and consider the importance of this medium for the transmission of secret information in the late Edo period. I also provide biographical context for the authors Maekawa Shūkō (1801–1854) and Sakai Sadateru (dates unknown), including their social and scholarly connections with other Confucian scholars. Secondly, I describe some of the paradigms through which foreign knowledge was organized and classified. I discuss the influence of honzōgaku (materia medica) on Amerika shinwa in particular and on early modern study of the natural world more broadly. I contrast the book’s concepts and illustrations of plants and animals with those of influential encyclopedias of the Edo period, such as the Bencao gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica, 1596), the Kinmōzui (Illustrated Dictionary for Beginners, 1666), and the Wakan sansai zue (Illustrated Dictionary of the Three Realms in Japanese and Chinese, 1712). This comparison sheds light on the categorization and organization of plants and animals in the text. The primary goal of this study is to provide a close reading and contextual analysis of Amerika shinwa, focusing on the circulation of foreign knowledge as well as the tools that enabled comprehension of plants, animals, and utensils from Mexico.

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Rewriting Lady Nijo's story: transformation, retelling, and replacement in modern adaptations of Towazugatari (2018)

Completed around 1307, Towazugatari, the work of a Kamakura-era (1185–1333) woman known as Lady Nijō (1258–after 1306), was only rediscovered in 1938. Half court diary and half travel diary, this hybrid work covers the life story of its author from her entry to court at age fourteen to her pilgrimages throughout Japan after becoming a Buddhist nun. Unlike other works of the Heian (794–1185) or Kamakura period, Towazugatari has not enjoyed much reception or adaptation after its completion, until the twentieth century when it was uncovered. However, since its rediscovery the text has inspired a short story, four novel adaptations, a movie, a play, and four different manga adaptations. In this thesis, I focus on the four novelizations of the text, arguing that, because of its late discovery, hybrid nature, and unique content, these novel adaptations have acted as replacements of the original for non-academic audiences. I also highlight two different waves of adaptations by separating the four novels into two categories, chronologically and thematically, suggesting that the earlier works focused on retelling the story of Nijō’s life while the later adaptations create narratives around the text itself as an artifact. First, I carry out a survey and analysis of all of the non-novel adaptations in order to provide a background on which to couch my discussion of the novels. As my critical framework, I utilize Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation and Michael Emmerich’s idea of replacement from his The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature. I rely on close readings of the texts, secondary sources, and personal communication with some of the authors to support my argument. Next, I analyze Setouchi Harumi’s (1922–) Chūsei enjō and Sugimoto Sonoko’s (1925–2017) Shin Towazugatari. Finally, I discuss Mori Masako’s (1944–) Kewaizaka and Okuyama Kyōko’s (1966–) Koi goromo Towazugatari.

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Re-cycling Her Words: The Transmission of Narrative through Poetry in the Reception of Kenreimon'in UkyM no Daibu shk within the Imperial Waka Anthologies (2015)

This thesis explores the transmission of narratives and cultural memory through medieval Japanese poetic reception by examining how selections from one aristocratic woman’s memoir are borrowed, omitted, or altered in the cross-genrefication from poetic memoir to poetic anthology. I examine the medieval reception and re-presentation of Kenreimon’in Ukyō no Daibu shū (The Poetic Memoir of Lady Daibu, ca. 1220) within the latter thirteen of twenty-one Japanese imperial poetry anthologies of waka (jūsandaishū), compiled from 1234 to 1439. I focus on her reception within Gyokuyō wakashū (Collection of Jeweled Leaves, ca.1312), and Fūga wakashū (Collection of Elegance, ca.1346), as these two anthologies include ten and six of her poems, respectively, which is more than any of the other anthologies. Their selection of so many of her poems indicates a statistically significant interest in rehabilitating her as a poet.Lady Daibu (ca. 1155-1232) grounds many of the poems in her memoir within a context of love, civil war, and loss through a chronological prose narrative that describes the circumstances of the poems’ composition. I argue that the anthologies transmit narratives about her through their selection of poems, contextualizing headnotes, integration of voices, and structural choices in terms of where her poems are placed within the anthology. While the narratives created in this manner have some connection to Lady Daibu’s self-portrayal within her memoir, such as her romantic relationship with Taira no Sukemori (ca. 1161-1185), connection to the Heike clan, and intimacy with the imperial family, they frequently differ from her own story and each other. In other words, the historical narratives within the anthologies create competing cultural histories about Lady Daibu, the time in which she lived, and the focal point of much of her attention—Sukemori and the Heike clan, who lost the Genpei War (1180-1185). Through this, I focus on the gendered roles female poets occupy within the imperial anthologies in relation to love and lamentation. As all of the anthologies were compiled by men, this thesis also considers how women’s self-writings were reframed in a gendered discourse of men compiling canonical works.

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The Monkey and Crocodile Story in Japan: The Presence of an Ancient Indian Tale among Early Japanese Narratives (2015)

This thesis examines the presence of early Indian narrative elements in Japan through an analysis of tale collections and regional Japanese folklore. Focusing on the reception of the widely distributed monkey and crocodile story, the present study aims to elucidate the role of Indian tales within Japan, and will serve to demonstrate the position of Japanese folklore among globally present motifs and tale types. The project discusses literary and oral forms of the story, examining variants among the Indian Jātakas (ca. 3rd c. BCE – 5th c. CE) and Pañcatantra (ca. 300 CE), the twelfth century Konjaku monogatarishū, and nineteen oral retellings recorded from across Japan. Elements characteristic of the three primary literary versions are identified, while also recording transformations, additions, or omissions of thematic elements, as well as core motifs that have remained consistent across all known stories. This analysis demonstrates that Japanese variants of the tale were not drawn linearly from a single Buddhist text, but instead represent a fusion of themes from across various religious and cultural contexts.The present study also provides some explanation as to the extensive dissemination of the story within Japan, identifying characteristics of the tale that facilitated its lasting and widespread promulgation. The study examines similarly themed myths and legends from the indigenous Japanese tradition that provided the foundations for its assimilation into the existing storytelling culture and the integration of characteristically Japanese motifs into the core framework of this imported narrative.

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Interaction between Characters in Heike Monogatari Dialogues: Language Forms and Functions (2010)

This thesis examines language aspects of interaction in dialogue passages of Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike, 1371) focusing on the role of language forms in characterization. The main goal of the present study is to assess the role of language variation and analyze how it participates in construction of asymmetries in social status and power between characters. Selected dialogue data is divided into two groups according to the participants and the dominant context: political interaction at court and interaction involving religious matters. Analysis of language forms in each dialogue draws on research by Japanese scholars and covers a wide range of linguistic phenomena such as sound changes, lexical choices, and markers of politeness. Linguistic findings are intended to supplement recent studies of the literary, socio-political, and religious contexts for early medieval narratives. By selecting a specific language style for each interacting character, the author(s) constructed particular images that have shaped audience’s perceptions of the characters. This study brings attention to language variation and clarifies how the socio-political status of characters, their interpersonal relations, and attitudes toward each other are encoded in the language of Heike monogatari dialogues. As such, this study is perhaps the first attempt in English to adopt a sociolinguistic approach to a Japanese pre-modern text, focusing on language properties and shifts in style in Heike monogatari.

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