Japan is a country that is blessed with not only a fascinating culture but also an extensive amount of literature. Much like how they value historic landmarks, they also give great importance to their literature because it is a vital part of their history and traditions as well. These works of Japanese literature can be a great way to learn more about Japan because in it lies the beliefs and values of Japan during the time it was made or written. Even the simplest Japanese folklore can teach you or show you what notions and ideas the people of Japan’s past had and a perfect example of such a folklore is the story of the peach boy known as Momotaro.
The Japanese Folklore of Momotaro
The story of Momotaro is said to originate from the Okayama Prefecture. It starts off with an old couple going about their everyday life. The man’s job was to cut the grass of the farms around the area while the woman’s job was to do choirs for the home. One day, as the woman went about her daily washing of clothes along the riverside, a giant peach came strolling down with the current of the river. Just as anybody would if they saw such a thing, the woman took the peach and brought it home as she was eager to tell her husband about it and taste the gigantic peach.
Once she got home, she immediately called her husband so that they could open the peach together and enjoy it. To their surprise, just when the old man was to cut the peach in half, the peach split into two and there laid a baby boy. The old couple was surely startled by this and what happened next should have scared the couple more because the baby boy started to talk. The boy said that the heavens have heard their constant prayers for a child and so they sent him down to be their son.
Fearing their aging bodies and dwindling health, the couple was extremely happy that the heavens answered their prayers by giving them a child that could take care of them when the time comes that they can no longer take care of themselves. They named the boy “Momotaro” in honor of the peach where they found the boy in and they raised him the best way they could despite their lack of fortune.
Momotaro was no ordinary boy. Aside from the fact that he came from the heavens inside a ginormous peach, he was also very strong and courageous. He had all the necessary traits to become a perfect warrior. He was so strong that he gained a reputation of being the strongest in all of Japan as he was growing up to be a man.
One day, he was having a conversation with his father about how he was so thankful for all the things his parents have done for him and he promised to take good care of them when the time came. However, this was also the moment when he opened up about a truth that he had been keeping since his arrival to Earth. He told his father about an island located in the northeastern portion of Japan. This island was supposedly the lair of all kinds of demons that terrorize the people of Japan and one of his purposes for coming to Earth was to cleanse the island of these evil demons.
A normal father would not let his child go on such a dangerous adventure but considering that Momotaro was not an ordinary boy, his father had nothing to say to him but to take care and to come back to them when he finished his mission. With this, Momotaro started to prepare for his long journey towards the northeast. His father prepared all sorts of weapons for his to bring and use of his journey while his mother prepared the most delicious rice cakes in all of Japan to keep him fed and satisfied during his travels.
On his journey to the island, he ended meeting three animals that became his companions. The first was a dog that gave him some trouble. The second was a monkey that wanted to help on his heroic adventure and the third was a pheasant which was a bird decorated with mesmerizing coats of colorful feathers. Each of them got a small piece of the delicious rice cakes Momotaro’s mom prepared and it somewhat became the sign of their acceptance to Momotaro’s group.
They eventually braved the sea as well in search of Onigashima, which was what the Devil’s Island was called. Upon finding the island, Momotaro thought of a plan to maximize his companions’ abilities. Since the pheasant could fly, he was tasked to go ahead and start a ruckus with the demons until they got to the castle on foot. When Momotaro got there, a huge battle happened.
Understanding that he had lost the fight, the leader of the demons surrendered and promised to never terrorize people again. This promise came along with all the treasures that they took as loot from their terrorizing. Momotaro believed them and took the treasure back to his parents. They basically lived happily and peacefully ever after along with all the companions and friends that he had made on his journey.
The village celebrated him as a hero through a festival and that festival is still celebrated in real life. It is held in Inuyama every year and it happens on May 5th. It is called the Momotaro Festival and it is held at the Momotaro Shrine. It isn’t a Shinto shrine but it is still valued by the people of Japan because of this legendary folklore about Momotaro.
The Variations and Symbolisms in the Folklore of Momotaro
Despite the fact that this folklore is one of the most popular ones in Japanese literature, there are variations to the story depending on what region it comes from. Some of the changes are minor but there are also major changes to the story. One of the more prominent variations that can be found is the difference in the characteristics of Momotaro in some of these stories. In the story mentioned above, Momotaro was depicted as the perfect son who always did the right thing. Other versions of this story depicted Momotaro as a lazy boy at the beginning of the story but eventually, through the values he learned on his journey, he changed into the heroic character that he is described as in the other versions.
There are also differences in the details of how he met each of his companions. Some versions of the folklore stated that the dog, monkey, and pheasant just wanted some of the rice cakes and in exchange, they would help him. There are also variations of the story wherein millet dumplings were what the mother packed for Momotaro and not the rice cakes. There are also some version wherein Momotaro fought ogres and not demons but this can be seen as a minimal change because demons and ogres are somewhat interchangeable when it comes to Japanese folklore. The version of this folklore as told in the regions of Shikoku and Chugoku even have different creatures that became Momotaro’s companions. Instead of the dog, monkey, and pheasant, his allies were a bee, a crab, a millstone, a chestnut, and cow dung. Either way, in any version of the story, his companions did the same thing as they helped him overcome the horde of demons that awaited him on the island.
Some of the weirder variations to this folklore involve a different origin of Momotaro because, in these particular versions of the story, Momotaro did not come from a peach. He was said to float down the river in a box. This is a weird variation to have because the origin of his name came from the peach that he supposedly was in before he broke out of it. Either way, in every version of this story, Momotaro successfully defeats the bad guys and they all live happily in the end.
If you think about it and compare this folklore to the other Japanese folklore, you will notice that this one is quite unique because it doesn’t involve any god or goddess. Momotaro was said to come from the heavens but the presence of the deity or powerful entity that sent him down to Earth never appeared in any of the versions of this folklore or myth. This is highly unusual in stories of mythology but in any case, it worked out well because it taught great values to the people who took it to heart.
How the Folklore was used by Japan to Influence the Youth
It might not have been obvious at the time but if you note that this folklore was frequently told in Japan during the times of the war, it becomes pretty clear that they wanted to influence the youth to protect and serve their motherland like how Momotaro did. They used multiple symbolisms in the story and related them to the situations they were going through during the times of the war and this created a sense of inspiration in the youth to do as Momotaro did.
There isn’t anything wrong with doing this. Other countries have done this and a perfect example would be how the USA used Captain America, in the same way, to inspire people to join the army and their cause. No one ever thought that a children’s story could influence a person to act with that much passion and determination.
Until this very day, this folklore story is able to inspire and influence the youth to do good things in this world. It gives the kids someone to look up to and aspire to become. If you are looking for a good story to share with your kids, nieces, nephews, or anyone else for that matter, you might have a winner in the story of Momotaro if you’re intention is to give them someone to idolize. Since it also involves a bit of fantasy, it is also highly entertaining to the kids so they will definitely listen. All you need to work on is how you present it to really capture their attention as you share this amazing story.