Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lessons From Another World: Three Timeless Folktales From Japan

Life's a mukashi banashi! Illustration by Benjamin Warren.

Whether it’s a turtle ride to an underwater palace, bamboo-born princesses, or a thumb-sized samurai besting beasts, Japanese folklore conjures worlds unlike any other where truly anything is possible.

In his fourth volume of Japanese Fairy TalesProfessor Keisuke Nishimoto of Showa Woman's College of Tokyo writes, "[these tales] are more than just entertaining; they also address some of life's enduring themes: how to live a good, kind life; how to achieve happiness; and the price to be paid for cruelty, greediness, and cowardice."

Today Japan Society marked Kodomo no hi, Japan's annual festival to celebrate children's happiness and wellbeing with its first-ever Folklore Family Day, transforming three floors of its landmark building into immersive worlds of Japan's most enchanting and enriching mukashi banashi (folktales).

“We want to share the mystery of stories from a different culture,” Jeffrey Miller, director of Japan Society's Education and Family Program told The New York Times, adding that children would see that “the humanity in these stories is common to all cultures.”

Japan Society brought to life several folktales, including stories familiar throughout the world such Momotaro (Peach Boy) and Kintaro (Golden Boy). Other featured stories just as beloved and time-honored in Japan, but perhaps less well known outside the country were Urashima Taro, Kaguya-hime (Bamboo Princess) and Issun-bōshi (One-Inch Boy).

Fathoming A Treasure More Valuable Than Time

One day the son of a modest fisherman, Urashima Taro (1) comes across a group of mischievous boys taunting and torturing a tortoise. Thinking quickly, Urashima offers to buy it from them, then releases it back to the sea as soon as they have gone. The following day while out fishing on his boat, Urashima is greeted by the tortoise, who expresses its gratitude with a trip to the Dragon King’s Palace at the bottom of the sea. Once they arrive, the tortoise transforms into a beautiful princess and asks Urashima to marry her, which he accepts.

A few short days later, Urashima begins to miss his family, whom he had nearly forgotten during the adventure, and asks the princess to let him go see them. She obliges, giving him a precious keepsake: a box which he must promise never to open. He agrees, returning to the surface, where he finds that more than 300 years have passed. Realizing that he’s outlived all of his friends and family, he opens the box in his grief, releasing a small cloud of smoke. He starts to feel weak, with his hair turning grey and his face wrinkling up, as the box had contained his old age.

(Searching for the many meanings hidden in this tale, it's important to understand the rich history of Japan's fishing culture. Up until just one hundred years ago, one out of every twenty Japanese were fishermen.)

Lunacy In Not Letting Go

Discovered in a bamboo stalk by a childless elderly couple, Kaguya-hime, the Bamboo Princess (2) wishes for nothing more than to spend the rest of her time on Earth with her parents. She grows up to be one of the most beloved women in the land, but with no desire to marry, she sends every suitor off to complete impossibly difficult tasks before they can win her hand in marriage. Several men set out on their journeys, with some attempting to deceive the princess, and others simply realizing the futility of their efforts. None complete their tasks (and not all of them make it back alive).

Though the princess manages to avoid marriage, she realizes she won't be able to stay with her parents forever. She tells them she must go back to the moon, her true home. Her parents are devastated, and eventually word reaches the Emperor, who sends his troops to prevent the princess from returning to the moon, to no avail.

Kaguya-hime puts on a special robe that erases her memories as she walks to the carriage sent to take her to the moon. Before she leaves, she hands the Emperor’s servant a letter and a portion of the elixir of eternal life that she herself has imbibed. Upon reading the letter, which proclaims the Princess’s desire to marry the Emperor if only it were possible, the Emperor, still in love with her, orders his servant to climb the highest mountain in all of Japan, then burn the potion and the letter at its peak, so that the smoke carries his sorrows to the heavens. That mountain eventually became known as Mt. Fuji, and on days when smoke rises up from the mountain, it is believed the letter and potion continues to burn its message for the princess.

(Another story deeply intertwined with meaning, especially when you consider the history of marriage in Japan.)

Big Benefits For The Steadfast Brave

Another elderly couple have been praying at a local shrine every day for a child, when Issun-bōshi, or One-Inch Boy (3) arrives. No bigger than a man’s thumb, he is nevertheless determined to become a samurai. When he comes of age, he asks his parents for a needle to use as a sword, a straw for a sheath, a rice bowl for a boat, and a chopstick for an oar, and sets off for adventure. Riding his bowl down the river and fending off a hungry fish with his chopstick-oar, he eventually makes it to the city and starts working for a wealthy man, whose daughter he quickly befriends. One day, while the two are playing outside, they are approached by a group of ogres who intend to kidnap the girl, who was actually a princess.

One-Inch Boy resists and one of the ogres swallows him whole. He responds by poking the ogre’s stomach full of holes with his sword. In incredible pain, the ogre spits out One-Inch-Boy and flees, dropping his magic mallet in the process. The princess picks it up, chants, “Grow, One-Inch Boy, grow!” Soon enough, One-Inch Boy quickly outgrows his name, rivaling the princess in height. The story ends with him marrying the princess and becoming a samurai as he had always dreamed.

Enduring Lessons From The Monstrous Mystery

In their delightful (and deceptive) simplicity, folktales, fables and myth are ancient tools to help us cope with life's difficult twists and turns. On the surface, Urashima Taro shows us there are rewards for doing right; but dive deeper into the story and we find that the act of doing right is its own reward: peril awaits those who are distracted by meaningless treasure. Kaguya-hime teaches the importance of loving and appreciating your family, and the difficulty and inevitability of having to let go (imagine a grief so profound it causes Mt. Fuji to bellow!) Sharing many similarities with Tom Thumb from English folklore, Issun-bōshi stresses the importance of inner strength and self-sufficiency, regardless of how immense the challenges one may face.

"The great ideas of courage, duty, beauty, desire, cause, man and animals are themes throughout western literature and many also appear in Japanese children's stories," notes Miller.

According to maverick mythologist Joseph Campbell, there are four purposes to myth (4): to inspire awe of the "monstrous mystery" of existence; to present the inner and outer cosmos in a way that simultaneously dazzles and describes the universe; to advance a society (or community or family) through a shared understanding of right and wrong; and to "carry the individual through the stages of his life, from birth through maturity through senility to death… in accords with the social order of his group, the cosmos as understood by his group, and the monstrous mystery."

Through its Folklore Family Day, Miller says, "Japan Society's Education and Family programs share the great wealth that comes from considering tales that cause children and adults to be in awe and wonder. The imagination of a child is not a small thing and we desire to share stories that excite."

Miller points to a quote from Anthony Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy Your Child’s Imagination: "Fairy tales and folk tales are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself.”

--Stories adapted by Mark Gallucci

1. Adapted from "The Story of Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad", Japanese Fairy Tales, Yei Theodora Ozaki.

2. Adapted from "The Moon Princess", as told by Tetsuo Kawamoto, translated by Clarence Calkins. (Read the full pdf.)

3. "One Inch Boy", Old Stories from Japan, Masahiro Kudo. (Read another version here.)

4. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Joseph Campbell.


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