As I enrolled in several courses in folkloristics that caught my attention (European Folklore, Non-European Folklore and Folk Tales), I noticed some common factors in these different focuses. As an interdisciplinarian by trade, I wanted to tie these commonalities together in a single project, so their reciprocal connections would stand out even more. Added to that, there is a remarkable postmodernist philosophical feel to the continuing evolution of folktales and -views, a perpetual explicatory word-of-mouth that seems to have lost its authenticity and foundings in ontological factors, but merely thrives on (lack of) epistomological grounds. This is a thing that caught my attention and encouraged me to look deeper into the supposed metastructure of folktales.
Thus I decided to create a common project—create common ground, as interdisciplinarians tend to call their efforts—to put these courses and curricula in and attain some extra literature on the philosophical background of this act of copying—the simulacrum—and différance; the Derridarian notion of perpetual referrence to the other as a confirmation of individuality. Although we still seem to honor and uphold views coined by our ignorant ancestors, these aren’t anchored in the present, but merely in narration and repetition of tradition, as remnants of ancient superstition. But who ever questions tradition, unless it becomes a political issue? This prevents us from gaining deeper insight into these traditions.
By illustrating the roots of our traditions, I want to create awareness of traditional patterns and their origins. By researching folktales from Germany—one of the intellectual cores of the Enlightenment and home of radical and influential thinkers—and Japan—shut off from the rest of the world until the Meiji Restoration in 1869—and finding common factors and striking differences, I can extract “deeper truths” and commonalities that do not only illustrate our similarities, but also tie traditions together in order to connect views and schools of thought that independently evolved from scratch. My purpose is to get the reader thinking about his views and assumptions, his notion of individuality and belonging, and his religious beliefs, as compared to the other side of the world. Through comparison new insights may occur and influence ones view of truth and reality. This should either support cultural relativism, or break with it, since it could signify remarkable similarities in man’s worldview as a result of the ‘‘psychological unity of the human species’’ or give rise to specific geographical differences in cultural semantics and meaning.
Light should also be shed on the origin of the general notion of religion, as the reverence of a spirit that acts as a governor, or maintaining power of order and justice. The study of the bigger picture of folklore (maybe even for the sake of globalization) should remind mankind of its common roots in the savage world. The addition of the Japanese view has extra value, since its centuries long isolation from our ‘civilized’ Western-European continent acts as a touchstone or sounding to measure our familiar cultural texture with. This is, in fact, the very act of practicing différance: creating value out of oppositions and finding similarities to perform the comparison with in the first place.
More to the point, the specific comparison of good and evil in both antipodal traditions points us to universal or common imperatives that are not dictated by the various deities that have purportedly composed them. Instead, in favor of polygenesis, good and evil are traits of human behaviour that are not to be personified by angels or demons, but derive from the general notion of respect and reverence for the other, as a mirroring of the self. These moral codes and ethics only apply to societies. If man were to live his life in solitude, there would be no pragmatic use for these directives. The Japanese language provides us with interesting insights into this communitarian view of the self and the necessity of reflexivity—I will get back to this later—the Western-European view lacks explicitly.
Whereas monogenesis could imply an Archimedean point of original knowledge, bestowed upon man at a certain point in his progress from savage to civilian, polygenesis fits the way all (or most) varieties of the human species have evolved over time, although developing in isolation. That’s where Japan, as an antipodal checkpoint, fits the equation.
A final justification should be added for the use of folktales as my main concentration. These tales articulate the motifs, themes and directives as they should be conveyed to all layers of the public sphere. Their nature can vary from humorous anecdotes and jokes to tall tales or exempla, articulating the directives and imperatives upheld by the society the tale belongs to. There is a distinction to be made between folktales and fairytales, but as I will demonstrate further on, they are related and, eventually, convey a similar message. Their prime goal is to instruct or inform about the surrounding world, how it came to be or where it should or might be going. In this it forms an excellent illustration of the mental scape of a (local) community. It ties nations and expresses the differences with neighboring tribes and communities, from which individuality is extracted. Again an example of the practice of différance. However, this philosophical notion will remain implicit throughout this paper, for clarity’s and brevity’s sake. Neither will I quote nor explain the tales I refer to, to refrain from tedious recitation of literature. Explanation of my own views is lengthy enough.
Folktales are not only narrative boundaries drawn between folk, but also commonalities that act as preservational aids of the self, or the mirroring of it in fellow man or the adversary. The body of tales tales is the coded set of behavioral rules, derived from ancient knowledge and philosophical or religious insights gained over the years, accumulated and molten together in a lump of directives. That is what makes them exceptionally fit to analyse in comparative cultural research.