So I’ve been reading a lot of old Japanese stories lately. I’ve been studying Japan for so long that I guess I’ve grown used to many of these common stories that every Japanese child knows. But I remember how thrilling and fun it was to hear them for the first time, and while many people reading my blog might already be familiar with them, some may not be and I’m happy to share them. Since these are fairy tales many of them have multiple versions. I’ll admit that I’m going to pick and choose my favorite details of the various versions and combine them into a story I hope you can enjoy.
I’ll include the main story and then some comments about the story, such as cultural factors that may help explain certain things. I’ll also include any pop culture references and comparisons to western stories. And my random thoughts for your amusement. These entries will likely be long, but hopefully they will be interesting and thought provoking.
Once upon a time there was a fisherman named Urashima Taro. He was well known throughout his small fishing village for his kind heart. One day he saw some young children tormenting a turtle on the beach. Urashima offered the boys money for the turtle and released it back into the sea. The next day the turtle came back to Urashima. “I want to thank you for saving me,” he said. “Please come with me to the Dragon King’s Palace.” Urashima was very shocked at the invitation. He had often heard of the spectacular palace deep beneath the sea, but in all his years as a fisherman he had never seen it or learned its location. So he climbed on the turtle’s back and they began their journey.
Down they dove deep into the sea. Urashima was surprised that he had no trouble breathing and his clothes never even got wet. Sooner than he expected they arrived at the Palace. It was far more beautiful than anything Urashima could have imagined. All of the Sea Palace’s attendants, who of course were fish, welcomed him graciously. Just then a beautiful woman appeared. She was the Princess Otohime. “Urashima Taro, yesterday you saved a turtle and I must thank you for that because that turtle was me. Please stay with me here in the Sea Palace of the Dragon King and I will be your bride. We will live forever together in happiness.”
And so the Princess and Urashima Taro were married. There was a celebration in the undersea kingdom as there had never been before. Urashima was very happy and three days passed very quickly. He seemed to forget about his life before as he was so blissfully happy with his new bride. But then his mind came back to him and he began to worry. He had left his elderly father and mother at home. Surely they must be very worried about him. He was a good and devoted son and resolved immediately to return to them.
When he told Otohime of his wish to return she protested and cried. “Are you not happy here Urashima? You wish to return so soon? Will you not stay just one day more with me?” But Urashima had remembered his parents and the duty he owed them was stronger than ever his desire for pleasure and love. “I do not wish to leave you, but I must go. Let me return to them for one day only and then I will come back to you.”
Otohime saw that he would not be persuaded and agreed to send him back to his parents. “Please take this token of our love with you,” she said and she presented him with a beautiful lacquer box tied with a red silk cord. “What is this, my love?” Urashima asked. “This is the Tamate-Bako (Box of the Jewel Hand). It contains something very precious. But you must not open it, no matter what happens. You must promise me that you will never open the box.” Urashima promised and said goodbye to Otohime. Atop another turtle he returned to the beach near his home.
But things were strange when he arrived. He recognized no one and the people stopped to stare at him. The hills and the shore still seemed familiar but the people were all strange. Quickly he returned to his home to check on his parents. When he arrived his parents were nowhere to be found. “Perhaps they have moved in my absence,” Urashima thought. He found the new owner and said, “My name is Urashima Taro. I lived in this house until a few days ago. Can you tell me where my parents have gone?” The man looked surprised. “Urashima Taro? It’s true there was a man who used to live here by that name, but that was three hundred years ago. He couldn’t possibly be alive now.” “But I am Urashima Taro! This is my house.” “That’s impossible,” the man replied. “I’ve lived in this house my whole life,” and he went away.
Urashima looked around and began to fear that what the man said could be true. Everything looked somehow different from when he had left. What he had thought had been merely days had actually been hundreds of years and his parents and everyone he had ever known were gone. He made his way back to the beach but he could not find the way to the Dragon Palace on his own. He began to despair, but suddenly remembered the box that the Princess had given him.
“I have lost my home and my family. I am alone and my heart is heavy with sadness. The Princess said that this box contains a precious thing. Surely if I open the box I will find something to help me find my way back to her. There is nothing else for me to do now!” And so he resolved to break his promise. He slowly untied the red silk cord and carefully lifted the lid. All that the box contained was a small cloud of purple smoke that washed over Urashima Taro. Until that point Urashima had been a strong handsome youth, but he suddenly became very, very old. His face filled with wrinkles, his hair turned snowy white, and he fell down dead on the beach, never to return to the Sea King’s Palace and his beautiful Princess.
The moral of the story seems to be to listen to warnings that other people give you and to keep your promises. It does surprise me a little that his dedication to his parents isn’t rewarded at all. That’s a big deal here in Japan and if he had just been a bad son he could have avoided the whole mess at the end.
Apparently the Sea Palace doesn’t always make time skip around strangely. The Palace appears in several stories I’ve read and in one they made it a point to mention that time didn’t pass any differently from the mortal world. In all likelihood the story of the beautiful undersea palace came first and then different stories used the location in different ways. But it is always difficult to find and incredibly beautiful.
The time Urashima spends in the Palace is sometimes different. I think the first version had him spend one year at the Palace which turned into a hundred years back home. But I like this version better as it doesn’t take him a year to think that maybe he might want to check in back home. Also, in the first version I read I don’t think he marries the Princess. I think they just partied for a year and then decides he should go home and check on mom.
I have never liked the idea that the Princess doesn’t just tell him what has happened. If he knew it had been 300 years then he wouldn’t want to leave anymore. He would have just stayed with her and they could have stayed happy. And the whole box test also strikes me as unfair. I assume she knew what he would find back home. This would clearly be rather upsetting and could lead people to make bad decisions. He clearly wanted to go back to her. He didn’t have anything else left for him. It’s a little less cruel in the version where they aren’t married because she just tells him not to open the box and it isn’t a test of their love or anything. In that case it was almost merciful because he had nothing left for him and the box aged him 100 years to the age he would have been if he hadn’t gone. At least in that version it felt like it was somehow restoring the balance or something. Here it’s just mean.
This story bares some similarity to the story of Rip van Winkle.
This story is really well known in Japan and is referenced a lot. I remember a Lupin the Third movie that had beautiful women who gave you a box that killed you.
I think my favorite reference to this story is in the video game Okami. Get used to seeing references to this game in this kind of article because it makes use of a lot of them. In Okami you meet a young man who is trying to convince an old lady that he is her husband who was lost at sea years ago. He was hurt and Otohime saved him and nursed him back to health. But because he ate the food there he has eternal youth (or life, I can’t remember). He returned to his wife as soon as he could but she doesn’t recognize him since he’s way too young to be her husband. When you visit the Dragon Palace you meet Otohime and she gives you the box. When you return to the surface you give Urashima Taro the box. He opens it and ages to his proper age. His wife recognizes him and they are able to spend the rest of their days together. It’s really sweet and a nice twist on the otherwise downer ending.