If you have children there is perhaps nothing more rewarding than reading them bedtime stories. But let’s face it, there is only so many times that you can read The Gruffalo or Little Red Riding Hood. As such, why not add an extra layer of interest to your quality time, for both you and your little ones, by introducing fairy tales from Japan. As you an probably imagine, folk stories from Japan are filled with marvel, invention and magic. Below is just a sample of the many stories that Japanese children have been told throughout the ages, and your children too, are sure to love.
Warning: This article contains spoilers
With its origins in the Nara period (8th Century) Urashima Tarou is a tale of a young fisherman who rescues a turtle being tormented by others and releases it to the sea. The following day a giant turtle arrives to tell the fisherman that the turtle he saved was in fact the daughter of Ryūjin, the Emperor of The Sea. Given gills Urashimatarou is taken to the sea where he again meets the turtle he saved, now a beautiful princess, and they fall in love. After three days he returns to land to inform his mother that he is to be wed.
Upon arriving he discovers that he is now 300 years into the future and absentmindedly opens a box given to him by the princess under the proviso that he never does so. Urashima Tarou turns into an old man as the box contained in it his old age.
In this story with comparisons to Tom Thumb, an old, childless couple wishing to have a child “no matter how small” are blessed with Issun-bōshi. Upon realizing that he will grow no taller than one inch, and fancying himself as a samurai, the boy sets sail to the city to find his way in the world, his sewing needle sword by his side, sailing in his soup bowl ship. Derided for his size, he is eventually given work as the play pal of the daimyo’s daughter.
One day the pair are attacked by an Oni demon who swallows the boy. Issun-bōshi escapes by fighting his way out from the inside of the oni who spits him out, dropping the powerful Uchide’s mallet in the process. Out of gratitude the princess uses the mallet’s power to enlarge the boy, and they eventually wed.
As the name suggests, the boy Momotaro came to earth in a giant peach, and was found in this Edo period story by another old, childless woman washing clothes in the river. Having been raised by the old woman and her husband Momotarō leaves to fight a group of rampaging Oni demons. En route he befriends a band of talking animals – a monkey, a dog and a pheasant – who help him capture the chief demon and take from him the stolen bounty with which he returns home to his family.
Momotarō is perhaps the best loved of Japan’s folk tales, and was particularly popular during the Pacific war when Japan’s government was often portrayed as the young boy, the Japanese people as the animals and the United States as the Oni.
An early example of proto-science fiction, the tale of a bamboo cutter again features an old childless couple finding a child, this time a tiny girl of exceeding beauty, within a silver bamboo stalk. From that day on the bamboo cutter discovers a small nugget of gold within every bamboo shoot he harvests and they become wealthy. As an adult the girl Kaguya’s beauty becomes well known and she is proposed to by five princes, proposals she rebuffs by setting them each an impossible task. Learning of her beauty the Emperor too proposes marriage, but Kaguya also rejects the advances.
Eventually, as her behavior becomes erratic, it is revealed that the girl is a princess of the moon and she is to return to her home. Before she is taken by her celestial family she leaves notes to her foster family, as well as a drop of the elixir of life for her friend the Emperor. Not wanting to live eternally without his beloved Kaguya, the Emperor has the elixir and the letter sent to the mountain “closest to heaven” where it was to be destroyed. The mountain now bears the name immortality (不死), Fushi or, now Fuji.
An old man heading to town to sell firewood, discovers a crane caught in a hunter’s trap. Feeling sorry for the bird he releases it. That night, during a violent snowstorm a young girl arrives at their home seeking shelter. After taking care of the old couple she asks to be taken as their daughter, something the old couple happily agree to do. One day she requests that the couple buy her some yarn with which she can weave. Being handed the yarn she takes it to her room requesting that the couple never watch her at her work. Soon she returns with a beautiful blanket which she bids the couple to sell and purchase more yarn.
Again the girl retires to her room and returns with another blanket of outstanding beauty which the couple sell for a great price. This they repeat making the family wealthy, but overcome with curiosity as to how the girl can weave with such elegance they open her door. Instead of finding a girl, they instead discover a crane weaving its now partially-bald wing weathers to make a shimmering cloth. The crane’s identity now discovered she is forced to leave. She returns to her crane form and flies away.
By Mark Guthrie
Image: flickr.com "2007-1106-dg-SFfun020.jpg" by Groovnick (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) - Modified