8 FolkTales of Japan: Momotaro “The Peach Boy” and More
Any country or region has folk tales that are specific to the area. Today, I will introduce some famous folk tales that have been passed down the generations in Japan. The first five that are introduced are known as “The Top 5 Folk Tales of Japan” as 5 of the major folk tales that have been developed between the late Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573) and the early Edo Period (1603 to 1868). There are some that are mysterious and some that are beautiful. There are even some that are a little scary but I hope you enjoy the stories nonetheless.
1. Momotaro “The Peach Boy”
Long long ago, there lived a man and wife. The man left to go to the mountains to gather firewood, and the wife went to the river to wash their clothes. When the wife was at the river, she saw that a giant peach was floating toward her on the river. She took the peach home to eat with her husband. When the man returned from the mountains, she cut the peach open in half and found that in the place of the pit, there was a baby boy! Since the couple did not have any children of their own, they decided to raise the boy as their own, and named him Momotaro, after the name of the fruit Momo/peach.
Once grown up, Momotaro decided to go on an expedition to Oni-ga-shima (Island of Oni) to fight the Oni (demons) there. On his expedition, he took some kibi-dango (sweet dumplings) that the couple made for him. On his way to Oni-ga-shima, a dog approached him and said to Momotaro that he would accompany him in exchange for a dumpling. Then a monkey, and then a pheasant came to him hoping to join his crew. And so Momotaro and his 3 servants; the dog, monkey and pheasant, all got on a boat and headed to Oni-ga-shima.
At Oni-ga-shima, the oni were having a feast. The dog bit, the monkey scratched and the pheasant poked at the oni and attacked. Momotaro fought the leader and won. Momotaro made the oni promise never to cause any trouble again. Momotaro loaded all the treasure that the oni had collected from his past wrong-doings and loaded them onto a cart. The dog pulled the cart, the pheasant pulled the rope and the monkey pushed from behind to take the treasures back to the couple who have raised him.
2. Hanasaka Jiisan “Grandpa Flower Blossom”
Once upon a time in the mountains, there lived a kind old couple and their greedy neighbor. The kind couple discovered a puppy that was hurt and decided to take it home to care for it as their own. One day, when the man and dog were in the fields, the dog barked “dig here!!”. The old man was startled, but dug into the fields with his hoe to find large and small golden coins galore. The old couple was extremely happy and shared their wealth with their neighbors.
Their next door neighbor became envious and took the dog out to the fields and abused it to try to get the dog to reveal where more treasure was hidden. However, this time, even when the couple dug where the dog indicated, what was unearthed was only worthless trash. The jealous neighbor became furious and killed the dog.
The kind couple, who had cared for the dog as if it were their own child, made a grave and buried the dog in their yard. They planted a tree beside the grave to weather the rain and wind. The tree grew to be quite large in a short period of time. One day, the dog appeared in the couple’s dream and said to cut down the tree to make a mill. The couple did as they were told, made the mill, and used that mill to pound rice cakes. To their surprise, from the rice cakes there appeared loads of treasures.
Again, the neighbor asks to borrow the mill and tries to pound rice cakes on the special mill. However, all that appears in the rice cakes is garbage. The couple becomes furious, destroys the mill with an ax and burns it in the fire.
The kind couple asks for the ashes from the mill. Then again, the dog appears in the dream and says to sprinkle the ashes in the dead branches of the tree. The kind old man does so and the dead branches suddenly blossom into a full bloom of flowers. A feudal lord who coincidentally passes by sees the full blossoms, and rewards the couple for the beautiful flowers.
Yet again, the mean couple next door tries the same and throws ashes into the dead branches of a tree. Instead of getting flowers, the ashes go right into the eyes of the feudal lord. The couple is then, punished by the feudal lord for his disrespect.
3. Shita Kiri Suzume “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow”
Long long ago, there was an old couple. The husband was kind and gentle but the wife was mean and greedy. One day, the man finds an injured sparrow, takes it back home and cares for it. Once cured, the old man tries to let the sparrow back into the mountains. The sparrow becomes very attached to the old man and refuses to leave. The wife however, does not feel happy about the man doting on the sparrow.
When the man was not home one day, the wife had been at home making a rice paste to use in mending the paper screen doors. The sparrow came along and ate all the rice paste. The old woman became furious and cut off the sparrow’s tongue with a pair of scissors. Hurt and scared, the sparrow flies away. The old man comes home to discover that the sparrow is gone. He goes into the mountains to look for the sparrow. In the woods, he discovers a hut of sparrows. From within, his sparrow comes out and welcomes him into the hut.
The sparrow apologizes for eating the rice paste and thanks the old man for coming to look for her. The sparrow and her fellow sparrows prepare a feast and entertain the old man with song and dance. When it came time for the man to go home, the sparrow prepares two wicker boxes, 1 large and 1 small for the old man to take home. The old man says that, since he is old, he does not need the large box; the small one is plenty for him. He carries the small box on his back and leaves the sparrow’s hut to go to his own home. Once home, he finds that the wicker box was filled with riches such as gold, silver, coral, pearl and coins. The greedy wife was certain that the larger wicker box would have held even a larger amount of riches. She rushes to the hut of sparrows, sees the large wicker box and takes it by force. The sparrows warn her that “she cannot open the box until she gets home.” Being too impatient, she opens the box on her way home. From inside, there crawls out ghouls, spiders, insects, and snakes! The old woman, is startled, passes out and is eaten to death by the creatures that were leashed out of the box.
4. Saru Kani Gassen “The Battle of the Monkey and the Crab”
One day, a crab was walking along with a rice ball. The cunning monkey proposed to exchange it for a persimmon seed that he had found on the road. At first the crab declined, but the monkey insisted that if the seed was planted, it would grow a lot of persimmons. The crab obliged in the exchange.
The crab went home and planted the seed and chanted “Persimmon seed, hurry up and sprout, otherwise I’ll cut you up with my scissors”. The seed quickly sprouted and grew into a tree bearing lots of fruit. The monkey came again and suggested that since the crab could not pick the fruit by herself, the monkey would pick the fruit for her. The cunning monkey sat in the branches and ate all the persimmon he wanted but would not give any to the crab. When the crab yelled at the monkey, the monkey threw an unripe green persimmon at the crab. This was a lethal blow to the crab. Moments before dying, the crab gave birth to baby crabs and passed away.
The baby crabs grew up and decided to get revenge on the monkey. They gathered a team of a chestnut, a mill, bees and cow dung and plotted their revenge. Each member finds a place to hide; the chestnut hides in the fireplace, the bees in the water pail, the cow dung in the earthen floor and the mill on the rooftop. When the monkey comes home to try to warm his body by the fireplace, the chestnut pops out and hurls itself against the monkey. The monkey gets severely burned, rushes to the water pail to cool the burn, only to get stung by the swarm of bees. Shocked, the monkey tries to run out of its home, steps in and slips on the cow dung, when the mill falls onto the monkey from the rooftop. The monkey is crushed to death by the weight of the mill and thus, the children of the crab got their revenge.
A little side note…this story was also made into a short novel by the renowned writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. In Akutagawa’s novel the crab children get their revenge on the monkey but get arrested and get the death penalty.
5. Kachi Kachi Yama “Kachi Kachi Mountain”
Once upon a time there was an old couple who made a living from tilling the fields. Every day, their field was visited by an evil tanuki (raccoon dog) who sang songs wishing poor harvest and ate the seeds and crops that the couple had planted. The old man was furious and finally succeeded in catching the tanuki in a trap.
The next day, the old man leaves for the fields again, instructing his wife to cook the tanuki in a tanuki stew. The tanuki begs for his life and tricks the old woman into untying him. Once untied and free, the tanuki kills the old woman, cuts her up and makes her into a grandma stew. He then transforms into the old woman, and serves the stew to the old man when he comes home. The tanuki sees this through and runs into the mountain again. The old man furiously chases the tanuki, but is unable to catch him.
The old man goes to his friend, the rabbit for help. The rabbit decides to get revenge on the man’s behalf. First, the rabbit invites the tanuki to go into the mountain to gather firewood. On the way back from the mountain, the rabbit walks behind the tanuki, who is carrying a load of firewood on his back. The rabbit uses the flint stone to ignite the firewood on the tanuki’s back. Hearing the clicking noises “kachi kachi” of the flint stones, the tanuki gets suspicious and asks what the noise is from. The rabbit lies, “That is the sound that the kachi-kachi bird makes when they cry because this is Kachi Kachi mountain.”. As a result, the tanuki experiences burns all across his back. Later, the rabbit comes to the tanuki with an “ointment” for his burnt back. In fact, the ointment that the rabbit gives the tanuki is a paste made of chilli peppers! Having used this ointment on his wound, the tanuki experiences even more pain on his back. Once the burn on his back cured, the rabbit invited the tanuki to go fishing. The rabbit prepared 2 boats and had the tanuki pick the boat he wanted to use. Sure enough, the greedy tanuki picked the larger of the 2 boats thinking it could carry more fish. In fact, the smaller boat was made of wood, but the larger boat was made of mud! The two sailed out into the waters and sure enough, the mud boat the tanuki is in starts to sink. The tanuki calls to the rabbit for help, but rather than help the tanuki, the rabbit uses his oar to drown the tanuki to death. And so the rabbit gets revenge on behalf of the old couple.
6. Tsuru no Ongaeshi “The Grateful Crane”
Once upon a time there was an old couple. One snowy winter day, as the old man was going into town to sell firewood, he found a crane caught in a trap. Feeling sorry for the crane, the man released the crane from the trap. That evening, as the snow became heavier, a beautiful maiden came to the old couple’s home. She says that she had lost her parents and was on her way to finding her long lost relatives she had never met before. She asked if she could spend one night at the couple’s home. The couple welcomes her into their home. The snow continues for days and days and the maiden continued to stay in the couple’s home. During this time, the maiden took care of the couple and she made the couple very happy. One day, the maiden asks the old couple; rather than going to stay with relatives she has never met before, she would rather stay with the couple and become their daughter. The couple happily agrees.
One day, the maiden, who was now the couple’s daughter asks for the couple to buy her thread that she can weave into fabric. When the couple comes home with the thread, she tells the couple that they must never look into the room when she is working. She goes into the room, spends 3 days and 3 nights without any rest to create a beautiful roll of fabric. She gives the couple the roll of fabric and asks for the couple to sell the roll for more thread. The fabric that she wove was quite beautiful and immediately became the talk of the town. Her fabric sold for a good price. With the thread that the old man had bought her, the daughter wove a second roll of fabric more beautiful than the first. It sold for an even higher price than the first and the couple became wealthy.
When the daughter went into the room to weave her third role of fabric, the couple could not contain their curiosity. How was she weaving such beautiful fabrics? They look into the forbidden room and to their surprise, instead of the daughter, they find a single crane. The crane was pulling its own feathers one by one to weave into the fabric. The crane had lost most of its feathers and was in a saddening state. Once finished with another roll of fabric, the daughter came to the couple and confessed that she was in fact the crane that the old man had rescued on the one snowy day. Now that her identity was revealed, she could no longer stay with the couple. She had transformed back into a crane and flew into the sky.
7. Urashima Taro “The Tale of the Fisher Lad”
One day, a fisherman called Urashima Taro encounters a group of kids bullying a turtle. When Taro rescues the turtle, the turtle takes Taro to an underwater palace. At the underwater palace called Ryugujo, he is welcomed by the princess Otohime and entertained by the creatures of the sea. After a few days, Taro desires to go home. Otohime comes to him with a Tamatebako box, which she says is never to be opened.
Taro is taken back to shore by the turtle and finds that back on land, there is not a single person he knows. He then opens the magical box. From the box billows a cloud of smoke. Being surrounded in the cloud of smoke, Taro transforms into an old man. The days that Taro spent in the underwater palace only seemed like a few days, but in fact on land, it had been many decades.
8. Issun Boshi “The Three-Centimeter Boy”
An old couple who did not have any children had prayed to god to be blessed with a child. Shortly after, the wife bore a child. However, the child that was born was only Issun (1 Sun= about 3 centimeters) in height. Even after a few years, the child did not grow to be larger. The child was named Issun Boshi for his height.
One day, Issun Boshi declared that he wanted to go into the city to become a samurai. He used a bowl as a boat, a chopstick as an oar, a needle as a sword and took off on his journey. Once in the city, he found a large home and asked to serve in that household. When he was visiting shrines with the daughter of the household, there came an oni (demon) to kidnap the daughter. Issun Boshi had tried to fight the oni and save the daughter, but he was swallowed whole. Issun Boshi poked the inside of the oni’s stomach with the needle. The oni could stand the pain no longer, spit out the tiny man and ran off into the mountains.
Issun Boshi picked up the magical hammer that the oni left behind. With a few shakes of the hammer, his wish of becoming the size of a grown man had been granted and he married the daughter of the household. Using the hammer, he acquired rice as well as riches and flourished for generations.
Hope you liked these stories. These were only the most famous of the many folk tales that are passed down in Japan. There are variations in the characters or how the story unfolds depending on the region or who tells it. It can be quite interesting. If you get a chance to travel throughout Japan, we hope you get to discover the various folk tales that are told in those regions!