Monday, March 23, 2009

Urashima Taro and the turtle

Urashima Taro and the turtle

I had read this story in translation while I was at school. When I thought of putting this blog together I wanted very much to include it which like other stories had etched a permanent marker in my brain. Since I had only read it in translation a long time ago I was very doubtful if I'll ever be able to find it especially without any knowledge of the Japanese language. But I kept on surfing the web hoping that somehow somewhere I will find a clue and as the chance would have it I found this site: Old Stories of Japan

The website has an extensive collection of Old Stories of Japan together with Japanese popular Songs, Children's Songs, Japanese Famous Songs and Japanese Lullabies. Here was a ray of hope so I emailed Mr. Masahiro Kudo a summary of what I remembered from the story and lo and behold in less than a half hour I received the name of the story - 'Urashima Taro' - and this was indeed the story I had fondly cherished for all these years.

It is an old old story which has withstood the test of time and has survived the passage of many many centuries. It is a famous and charming tale from the Japanese folklore told to countless children in the Japanese households, enacted in many theatres and posted in videos on the web.
There are a number of variations on the story.
A young fisherman rescues a turtle/tortoise from some children or releases it after it is caught in his net. In return the young man is helped in a storm or he is otherwise invited to go to the palace of the sea-god/dragon who is variously named as rin-jin or rin-gin, Ryūgū-, Ringu and so on. In some versions it is a turtle and in others a tortoise who is the sea princess herself or a maid of the princess.
Similarly, the story ends differently in different versions.
In one he turns into a crane. In another he takes a pill and acquires the ability to breathe underwater and in the third the age of 300 years takes its toll and he is reduced to ashes.
But the core of the story remains unchanged whatever the variation.

He is taken to the palace of the sea-god/dragon where he lives for a few days by his reckoning but on returning to his village he finds that three hundred years have passed.

The theme where a person lives for hundreds of years is found in folklores all over the world in many countries and cultures. However, there are simply too many of them to be recounted here and in any case it has not been my intention to shift the focus from the story itself and to turn this write up into a comparative study of all those myths and legends.

I toyed with the idea of introducing "The Picture of Dorian Gray" as an example which is not too distant in the past. The point of convergence between the two is the containment of the ageing process, in case of Urashima Taro his passing years are stored in a Tamatebako and for Dorian Gray his painting carries the burden of his style and manner of living. But the resemblance ends there. The Picture of Dorian Gray lapses into the eternal struggle between the good and the evil, the devil and the divine whilst Urashima Taro is a sweetly tragic fantasy where a man gives up an almost immortality and a beautiful and joyous life to answer the call of his filial obligations.

In preference to other versions I have chosen the one where he opens the box and suffers the consequences - changes instantaneously from a young to a very old man and this metamorphosis is followed by death.. Why have I chosen this version? In my view the end brings a closure to the story and gives it a modicum of reality. It is also a carry over from what I read so many years ago and it is still the version that I like best.

THERE was once a worthy old couple who lived on the coast, and supported themselves by fishing. They had only one child, a son, who was their pride and joy, and for his sake they were ready to work hard all day long, and never felt tired or discontented with their lot. This son s name was Taro, which means in Japanese, ‘Son of the island,’ and he was a fine well-grown youth and a good fisherman, minding neither wind nor weather. Not the bravest sailor in the whole village dared venture so far out to sea as Urashima Taro, and many a time the neighbours used to shake their heads and say to his parents, ‘If your son goes on being so rash, one day he will try his luck once too often, and the waves will end by swallowing him up.’ But Urashima Taro paid no heed to these remarks, and as he was really very clever in managing a boat, the old people were very seldom anxious about him.

One beautiful bright morning, as he was hauling his well-filled nets into the boat, he saw lying among the fishes a tiny little turtle. He was delighted with his prize, and threw it into a wooden vessel to keep till he got home, when suddenly the turtle found its voice, and tremblingly begged for its life. ‘After all,’ it said, ‘what good can I do you? I am so young and small, and I would so gladly live a little longer. Be merciful and set me free, and I shall know how to prove my gratitude.’

Now Urashima Taro was very good-natured, and besides, he could never bear to say no, so he picked up the turtle, and put it back into the sea.

Years flew by, and every morning Urashima Taro sailed his boat into the deep sea. But one day as he was making for a little bay between some rocks, there arose a fierce whirlwind, which shattered his boat to pieces, and she was sucked under by the waves. Urashima Taro himself very nearly shared the same fate. But he was a powerful swimmer, and struggled hard to reach the shore. Then he saw a large turtle coming towards him, and above the howling of the storm he heard what it said: ‘I am the turtle whose life you once saved. I will now pay my debt and show my gratitude. The land is still far distant, and without my help you would never get there. Climb on my back, and I will take you where you will.’ Urashima Taro did not wait to be asked twice, and thankfully accepted his friend’s help. But scarcely was he seated firmly on the shell, when the turtle proposed that they should not return to the shore at once, but go under the sea, and look at some of the wonders that lay hidden there.

Urashima Taro agreed willingly, and in another moment they were deep, deep down, with fathoms of blue water above their heads. Oh, how quickly they darted through the still, warm sea! The young man held tight, and marveled where they were going and how long they were to travel, but for three days they rushed on, till at last the turtle stopped before a splendid palace, shining with gold and silver, crystal and precious stones, and decked here and there with branches of pale pink coral and glittering pearls. But if Urashima Taro was astonished at the beauty of the outside, he was struck dumb at the sight of the hall within, which was lighted by the blaze of fish scales.

'Where have you brought me?" he asked his guide in a low voice.

'To the palace of Ringu, the house of the sea god, whose subjects we all are,' answered the turtle. 'I am the first waiting maid of his daughter, the lovely princess Otohime, who you will shortly see.'

Urashima Taro was still so puzzled with the adventures that had befallen him, that he waited in a dazed condition for what would happen next. But the turtle, who had talked so much of him to the princess that she had expressed a wish to see him, went at once to make known his arrival. And directly the princess beheld him her heart was set on him, and she begged him to stay with her, and in return promised that he should never grow old, neither should his beauty fade. ‘Is not that reward enough?’ she asked, smiling, looking all the while as fair as the sun itself. And Urashima Taro said 'Yes,’ and so he stayed there. For how long? That he only knew later.

His life passed by, and each hour seemed happier than the last, when one day there rushed over him a terrible longing to see his parents. He fought against it hard, knowing how it would grieve the princess, but it grew on him stronger and stronger, till at length he became so sad that the princess inquired what was wrong. Then he told her of the longing he had to visit his old home, and that he must see his parents once more. The princess was almost frozen with horror, and implored him to stay with her, or something dreadful would be sure to happen. ‘You will never come back, and we shall meet again no more,’ she moaned bitterly. But Urashima Taro stood firm and repeated, ‘Only this once will I leave you, and then will I return to your side for ever.’ Sadly the princess shook her head, but she answered slowly, ‘One way there is to bring you safely back, but I fear you will never agree to the conditions of the bargain.

‘I will do anything that will bring me back to you,’ exclaimed Urashima Taro, looking at her tenderly, but the princess was silent: she knew too well that when he left her she would see his face no more. Then she took from a shelf a tiny golden box, and gave it to Urashima Taro, praying him to keep it carefully, and above all things never to open it. ‘If you can do this,’ she said as she bade him farewell, ‘your friend the turtle will meet you at the shore, and will carry you back to me.’

Urashima Taro thanked her from his heart, and swore solemnly to do her bidding. He hid the box safely in his garments, seated himself on the back of the turtle, and vanished in the ocean path, waving his hand to the princess. Three days and three nights they swam through the sea, and at length Urashima Taro arrived at the beach, which lay before his old home. The turtle bade him farewell, and was gone in a moment.

Urashima Taro drew near to the village with quick and joyful steps. He saw the smoke curling through the roof, and the thatch where green plants had thickly sprouted. He heard the children shouting and calling, and from a window that he passed came the twang of the koto, and everything seemed to cry a welcome for his return. Yet suddenly he felt a pang at his heart as he wandered down the street. After all, everything was changed. Neither men nor houses were those he once knew. Quickly he saw his old home; yes, it was still there, but it had a strange look. Anxiously he knocked at the door, and asked the woman who opened it after his parents. But she did not know their names, and could give him no news of them.

Still more disturbed, he rushed to the burying ground, the only place that could tell him what he wished to know. Here at any rate he would find out what it all meant. And he was right. In a moment he stood before the grave of his parents, and the date written on the stone was almost exactly the date when they had lost their son, and he had forsaken them for the Daughter of the Sea. And so he found that since he had left his home, three hundred years had passed by.

Shuddering with horror at his discovery he turned back into the village street, hoping to meet some one who could tell him of the days of old. But when the man spoke, he knew he was not dreaming, though he felt as if he had lost his senses.

In despair he bethought him of the box which was the gift of the princess. Perhaps, after all, this dreadful thing was not true. He might be the victim of some enchanter's spell, and in his hand lay the countercharm. Almost unconsciously he opened it, and a purple vapor came pouring out. He held the empty box in his hand, and as he looked he saw that the fresh hand of youth had suddenly gone shriveled, like the hand of an old, old man. He ran to the brook, which flowed in a clear stream down from the mountain, and saw himself reflected as in a mirror. It was the face of a mummy, which looked back at him. Wounded to death, he crept back through the village, and no man knew the old, old man to be the strong handsome youth who had run down the street an hour before. So he toiled wearily back, till he reached the shore, and here he sat sadly on a rock, and called loudly on the turtle. But she never came back any more, but instead, death came soon, and set him free. But before that happened, the people who saw him sitting lonely on the shore had heard his story, and when their children were restless they used to tell them of the good son who from love to his parents had given up for their sakes the splendour and wonders of the palace in the sea, and the most beautiful woman in the world besides.

Notes on Sources:

The text is taken
From the Japanische Marchen und Sagen, von David Brauns (Leipzig: Wilhelm Friedrich). In Andrew Lang's Pink Fairy Book.
Images: Urashima was so enchanted that he could not speak a word. Gutenberg eBooks::

Kagawa | Urashima Taro | Bronze statues
Toto-tarou's file with permission
Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Station 38, 1852. The print depicts Urashima Taro beneath a pine tree on the shore; he is accompanied by a tortoise, from whose mouth issues a vision of Horai.
The four Lake Saromarko pictures
To Ringu's Palace, Princess Otohime, The Tiny Gold Box and He gets old.
are reproduced from
The video is reproduced with permission from rogue28theatre.