The Tale of Urashima Taro

Due to the many beliefs and myths in Japan, it is no wonder that there are also various Japanese folktales that surround the history of the country. These folktales bring about moral lessons to the children of Japan so they would learn to have good values and respect for one another. There are several famous Japanese folktales that have been told through time and described through the years. One of the most well-known Japanese folktales in that tale is about Urashima Taro.

Urashima Taro: A Well-Known Japanese Folktale in Children’s Books

By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well-known not just in the Land of the Sun but also in other countries, the story of Urashima Taro is so popular that it is even written in children’s books. The story revolves around a young fisherman who went by the name of Urashima Taro. Taro lived with his aging mother. In their village, he was known for being kind and modest amongst his peers. One fateful day, Taro decided to go down to the seashore early morning.

As he walked along the beach, he found a number of children tormenting a turtle with their heavy sticks. Seeing this cruelty, Taro scolded the children and made them stop tormenting the turtle. The children naturally scurried away. Taro then brought the turtle back into the sea, where the animal belongs.

Come the next day, Taro was fishing when a turtle suddenly appeared near him from the waters. The turtle spoke and introduced himself as the animal Taro saved just the day before. He wanted to thank Taro for saving his life; thus, he invited Taro to come with him to see the Dragon Palace, which is located deep into the sea.

Because his mother was all along in their home, Taro was reluctant to leave for long. Hence, he told the turtle that he cannot leave this mother alone and must stay on land. However, the turtle coaxed him by saying that the would not be staying below the sea for too long and Taro would be able to go home again soon. Ecstatic with this idea, Taro accepted the turtle’s invitation.

Climbing onto the back of the turtle, Taro was excited for what he was about to discover. The turtle dived into the sea and swam to where the palace was located. Taro witnessed the magnificence of the Dragon Palace as it glittered with silver and gold. Upon arrival, they were welcomed by fishes that were attendants to the palace. Taro was in awe of what he was seeing.

A beautiful princess by the name of Otohime then arrived at the palace and spoke to Taro. She told him that she was, in fact, the turtle that he saved the day prior. To give thanks to his actions, he was allowed to stay in the palace for as long as he wishes. The princess then brought Taro inside the Dragon Palace where he was able to eat and drink his heart desires.

Because his life in the palace was comfortable and joyful, Taro forgot about his old life back in the village with his mother. He stayed in the palace for a few days before he suddenly remembered about his lonely mother and the village where they lived. Then, Taro decided to return to home to his mother. Before he left, the princess gave him a present. It was a Tamate-Bako or a jeweled hand box, that served as his souvenir from his visit to the Dragon Palace.

The princess advised Taro that the box is a precious gift that would protect him from any harm. Should there be any trouble, he shall open up the box. After receiving this memento, Taro proceeded on to climb on the back of the turtle and returned to his home on the beach.

However, upon his arrival to his village, everything seemed strange. He did not recognize any of the people living in the village while these people were staring at him as if he was a stranger when he actually grew up in the village as a boy. Moreover, many things have changed since the last time he left. He proceeded to go home to look for his mother but when he arrived, she was nowhere to be found.

Instead, a house owner came and asked Taro who he was. Taro introduced himself and stated that he and his mother are the owners of the house. He was surprised when the man answered back by saying that the latter is, in fact, the owner of the house. However, the house owner acknowledged that a fisherman used to live in the same house, along with his mother, though this was hundreds of years ago.

Shocked by this revelation, Taro did not know what to do with this new piece of information. He went back to the beach, lamenting how his mother had passed and how he had lost everything that matters to him. With the box in hand, Taro remembered the advice that the princess gave to him before he left. Feeling sad and alone, he finally decided to open the box that day.

Surprisingly, the box was actually empty. Instead of finding something that would relieve him of his troubles, the person had nothing. Only a white smoke emerged from the box and suddenly, Taro became an old man wearing a long white beard. His face was wrinkled as it battled against the time that had passed, signifying old age and the damage being done. He threw up his arms into the air then fell dead on the beach floor. 

The Moral Lessons of the Story

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Children may not be able to fully grasp the moral lesson of the story upon the first time hearing the tale of Urashima Taro. It may seem a bit confusing to them as to why these events happened to poor, old Urashima Taro when he did not really do anything wrong. However, as one grows up and hears of this tale yet again, one may realize the moral lesson or point of the story.

One probable moral lesson of the story is that helping other people may not necessarily mean that it is a good thing. Just because one helped another person, it does not mean that good things would happen to the helper. These are all circumstantial and relative. Furthermore, committing good deeds does not necessarily mean that there would be good rewards in exchange for the deed. The same can also be said in doing bad deeds. Just because a person or an enemy does something bad, it does not mean that there is always a punishment for it.

Another way to look at this story is the expectation after doing something good. There are people who do good things because they expect something in return such as a reward. This tale just shows that doing good should not always equate to expecting something great in return. Instead of readily accepting gifts and presents for doing a good deed, one may also choose to stay humble and still continue to be a good person despite not receiving any rewards.

From this story, it can be said that Taro became used to the good things inside the palace that he actually forgot his own mother in the process of enjoying these things. While ignorance is bliss, not being aware of what exactly is happening in one’s surroundings is a bad thing altogether. Hence, Taro was not aware of how much time passed in the Dragon Palace.

A possible moral lesson to this story is also about leaving one’s comfort zone. The beach and the village were Taro’s comfort zone. He grew up in this place and knew nothing else. While it was great that he was willing to leave his comfort zone in order discover new things and uncover new opportunities, he should have been ready that things may not be the same when he comes back. This is what it means leaving one’s comfort zone. There are endless possibilities out there, but one should be ready for change because of doing it.

Another aspect of this story is when a man indulges too much. Taro was not exactly the man used to a luxurious life. How ecstatic he must have been upon seeing the grandeur and magnificence of the Dragon Palace. Having experienced abundance in food and comfort, it was quite easy for Taro to forget about his simple home and indulge in the comfort that the Dragon Palace brings. However, having indulged for too long, Taro became unaware of the time and how fast it passed by. Suffice it to say, time does not wait for anyone.

While the tale of Urashima Taro may seem a bit strange, there are actually several great moral lessons to the story. Of course, deep understanding is needed in order to uncover these lessons in life. Even though the story is sometimes included in children’s books, it would be best to explain these lessons to them for the children to fully understand the concept.

Other Versions of the Tale: Otogizoshi and Seki’s English Version

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The tale of Urashima Taro was retold in the children’s book written by Iwaya Sazanami during the Meiji period. Most Japanese know the storyline as written in this book. A summarized version is also written in Kokutei Kyokasho and is widely read by schoolchildren in Japan.

While the most common version known to the Japanese of today is that written in the 19th-century textbooks, there was actually an otogizoshi version of this tale back during the Muromachi period. In this version, Taro actually catches the tortoise but the releases it right after. Come the next day, Taro encounters a boat where a woman is sitting, asking for him to escort her home.

The woman does not identify herself to Taro. In actual fact, she was the human transformation of the turtle that Taro spared the day before. Taro helps her row her boat to her magnificent house, where she proposes to Taro that they marry each other. The house is the Dragon Palace, which has four sides. Each side of the palace is a different season. After three years, Taro decides to go home.

Before he left, he was given a box as a parting gift. He was cautioned not to open the box. When he arrives in his hometown, he is surprised to find the place empty of any person. He finds out that 700 years have actually passed since the day he left his hometown. As loneliness succumbed his being, Taro is tempted to open the box that was given to him. Three wisps of purple cloud appeared from the box, which turned Taro into an old man. Then, he turns into a crane as his wife turns back into a turtle. Together, they are known as myojin, which are Shinto deities.

Adapting His Tale into Anime in 1918 and Movie

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The tale of Urashima Taro is so popular that it has been adapted into films through the years. The first animated adaptation of the story was premiered in the year 1918. It is one of the oldest anime ever created and produced in Japan. It was also the same year when the author of Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson, adapted this story as “Urashima and the Princess of the Sea” for The Philadelphia Public Ledger.

This story also influenced for several works of fictions and movies. A book entitled “Otogizoshi,” which translates to “fairytale book,” was published in the year 1945 by the Japanese writer Osamu Dazai. This book tells an expanded version of the tale. The story also serves as a platform for the author’s own thoughts and musings regarding the tale and its lessons. A short story entitled “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” written by Ursula K. Le Guin was also based on the tale of Urashima Taro but was set in the Ekumen or Hainish universe.

There are definitely a lot of lessons to learn from this story if one only digs deep into the fibers of the tale. Nonetheless, the concept of this tale is unlike any other. The story is as fascinating and as useful as it gets. It is no wonder that the sale is well-loved by the Japanese people.