Otogi Zoshi: Folk Tales of Japan

Fun and interesting to read, Japanese folk tales (otogi zoshi) also reflect many of the societal values and beliefs central to Japanese culture for centuries. These values are often represented by one or more elements common to most Japanese fairy tales. One scholar, Professor Okahura, has identified these symbols or elements as: one specific setting for the story; love and acceptance; service to the emperor or society; family inter-dependency; humility; spiritual (as opposed to outer) beauty; and the magical mallet.

In “The Adventures of Kintaro, the Golden Boy,” for example, Kintaro is raised by his mother in the woods. He is honorable in his dealings with his only friends–a deer, a hare, a bear and a monkey, whose languages he has learned to speak. One day an old man sees Kintaro uproot a great tree to use as a bridge so that he and the animals can cross the river and return home.

The old man, who appears to be a woodcutter (a symbol of strength), tells the boy’s mother what he has seen. He explains that he is not a woodcutter but a general who is looking for soldiers to recruit. He wants to take Kintaro back to serve the emperor, which Kintaro has wanted to do, and train him to be a samurai.

Kintaro’s mother grants this, though it will leave her alone. She nobly wants a good life for her son. Kintaro promises to become a great samurai and build his mother a fine home to live in. He goes with the general and in time does become a great samurai by virtue of his strength and bravery. Remembering his promise to his mother, he provides amply for her until her death.

Here are a number of elements revered in Japanese culture: willing and faithful service to the emperor (in modern times, society); family interdependency and spiritual beauty, as both mother and son do well by one another; bravery; and modesty, as Kintaro remains humble and remembers his origins after he climbs high socially and militarily.

Symbols in Japanese folk tales often come in the form of animals, supernatural forces, human beings or elements of nature. The beggar is a common human symbol. He appears to the lead character, asking for help. In return for his or her kindness, he provides some special boon or blessing that greatly aids the character’s life. Men are usually woodcutters (symbolizing strength), women are generally weavers (symbolizing grace, patience and dedication to family).

Where the supernatural is depicted, it is often an evil force that must be quelled or escaped from. An evil spirit may disguise itself as a kindly old woman, as in “The Goblin of Adachigahara.” A weary traveler, a Shinto priest, takes shelter in the cottage of an old woman who appears to be gracious and kind. But in the house, the priest finds a backroom spattered with blood with human bones stacked high. He races out of the house in terror with the goblin giving chase. The priest runs through the woods until dawn, at which point he is safe, as the goblin must recede at daylight.

Evil can also be portrayed as goblins or ogres (oni). Though Buddhism once viewed ogres as spirits who tortured the wicked in hell, they eventually came to be simply cruel elements who created problems for the lead character. In modern times they are seen as ghosts or expressions of anger or disease.

Among animals, the monkey is a very common symbol. It often carries the human traits of intelligence and quick wit. Though it is sometimes a trickster, it can also be funny and lovable. The fox is also considered very quick-witted, and like the monkey can be presented as a sacred emissary of the gods or Buddha. The fox can also be a mysterious creature, and is the most common trickster in Japanese tales.

Hares tend to be full of mischief, alternating between good and bad, such as the hare in “The White Hare and the Crocodiles.” Though he is guilty of tricking the crocodiles, who punish him by pulling his fur out, the hare is wise enough to be grateful to a kind young man who heals him, a fairy who is accompanying his princely brothers to meet a beautiful princess. The hare tells the young man that the princess will fall in love with him for his kindness—his spiritual beauty. Valued well above physical beauty in Japanese folk tales, the hare’s prediction comes true. It is the kind brother’s face that most draws the princess. Upon meeting him, she chooses him for her husband.