I am always on the lookout for websites with good children’s stories, and here is an excellent site that I have found with stories from Japan, translated into English. The stories are cute in and of themselves, and by looking at the themes that repeat most often one gets a sense of what life lessons are most important to the Japanese.
The site was created by Tom Ray, a biology professor at the University of Oklahoma who translated the stories as a means of practicing his Japanese. He provides both the Japanese characters and the literal meanings of each word or phrase, in addition to the narratives. I like that he leaves in the words that are there as sound-effects, which I understand is a common trait of Japanese speech. For anyone else who is working on learning Japanese this is a great resource.
Samarai and Sumo
I’m by no means an expert on Japanese culture, but reading these gave me a sense of being transported into a more Japanese perspective on the world. There are many things that are pretty much stereotypes by now, such as samurai warriors, sumo wrestling, and ever-present rice.
But even these familiar tropes are treated more creatively than we see in Western renditions of Japanese culture. I love the story, Nezuminosumou, in which a poor farmer is delighted to find that the mouse who lives in his house competes in sumo wrestling tournaments in the forest. Another one that stands out is Issunboshi, the Inch-High Samurai. I’ll let you guess what that one is about.
Classic Japanese Tales
Here are some stories that are celebrated as some of the most well-known Japanese folktales:
Momotarou is a textbook-perfect example of the Hero’s Journey, in which an elderly and kindly couple discover a boy inside a peach and rear him as their own. When he is grown, he defeats a band of devils that have terrorized a town, thanks to the help of several creatures that he befriends on his journey and the strength he achieves when eating the millet-balls given him by his elderly mother.
Hanasakajijii, Grandfather Cherry-Blossom
Hanasakajijii is the tale of the old man who made trees blossom, and features once again, a childless old man and old woman. These two are delighted to find a puppy, and bring it up with great love. Their generosity is rewarded by the dog finding a treasure, but thanks to their neighbor’s greed the dog is killed.
In the story of Urashima, the hero is a young boy instead of an elderly couple, and this time he comes to the defense of a sea turtle who has been captured by children. In thanks for saving him, the turtle takes Urashima to the kingdom beneath the sea, where the sea queen is clearly much taken with him.
Recurring themes and lessons
These are some themes that seemed to come up repeatedly in these stories:
Multiple stories feature an old man and an old woman, usually very kindhearted, who wish for a child to make them happy.
There is great virtue in self sacrifice (such as in The Fairy Crane), and it is usually rewarded handsomely, especially if you are willing to give all you have even if you are poor yourself.
On the flip side is the lesson that greedy neighbors never succeed, and only end up in even with worse conditions than they started.
Also important is the lesson of making the best of a bad situation, such as in Grandfather Cherry-Blossom, who never gives up loving his little puppy, even when it is basically reduced to nothing but ashes. These ashes are what he spreads on the wind, and which cause the trees to burst into blossoms.
Some lessons are a little more practical. Young people hearing these stories learn that you must eat a lot so that you can grow big and strong. Also, it is good to have a team of helpers when you are going to defeat something big and evil, as in one of my favorites, Sarukani – The Monkey and the Crab.
Finally, there is one very undeniable truth: Everyone loves sumo, even animals.
Here are some more sites to check out if you are interested in reading more Japanese folktales: