In this extended essay, David Chaffetz, a scholar of Persian and related literary traditions who has lived for years in China and Southeast Asia, zeroes in on erasures in the history of these traditions: the brilliant and highly trained women virtuosos—poets, singers, and dancers—who cut a swath through the opulent courts of Iran, India, and China.

At first glance, the only thing linking the stories in Rebecca Otowa’s new book, The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper, is that they all take place in Japan. Yet although they span 17th-century Edo to the present day, two themes recur in most: women’s hardships and the fears of ageing. It quickly becomes clear how, in Japan at least, these two themes are closely related.   

“Dissatisfaction with the womanly rôle,” the psychologist Alfred Adler wrote in Understanding Human Nature (1927), “is … more evident among [women] who escape from life because of some so-called ‘higher reasons’. Nuns, or others who assume some occupation for which celibacy is an essential, are a case in point.” Adler, of course, was not judging such women negatively, as he felt that women should not have to be controlled by the patriarchal nature of 20th-century society and that they should be able to develop their own roles.