USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘kaguya’
Legends
Narrative

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

This story was told outside at 10 p.m. when the moon was clearly visible. It was not a special holiday, but it was dark with only the moon as a visible light source. The outside air was very still and peaceful. The speaker wished to illustrate a story that was very important to him because it is part of his culture.  It reflects the importance of filial piety, and how wit is important in making decisions tactfully and meaningfully. It also shows how good actions will bring good karma and good fortune will follow, while evil will be repaid with punishment and other problems. This story was learned from the speaker’s parents as he was growing up, and they would constantly tell this story to both teach him to honor his parents and to fill in his identity as a Japanese-American.

Once upon a time, there was an old bamboo cutter who, while walking home, saw a faint white light in the distance. And as he came closer to it, he saw that it was coming from this shining stalk of bamboo and he decided to cut it open. Inside it, there was a small little baby girl who was only a few inches tall but very beautiful. And the old man was very surprised and did not want to leave her there, so he decided to take her home to his wife. The old couple was glad because they didn’t have any children so they decided to raise her as their own and named her Kaguya-hime. And from that day on, every time the old man went to cut bamboo, he’d find a small piece of gold inside each bamboo stalk. And so the family became very rich. And eventually, as Kaguya-hime grew, she became extremely beautiful and news of her beauty quickly spread talking about how she was more beautiful than any princess ever. Eventually five princes came and thought that whenever they saw Kaguya-hime, she was the most beautiful person ever, and decided to try and get her hand in marriage. Each of the princes wrote to the father of Kaguya-hime asking for her hand in marriage but he didn’t know what to do because all the letters actually came at the same time and he thought that if he chose one of the princes the rest would became angry. He decided to ask Kaguya-hime to decide. But Kaguya-hime was not every interested in marriage and did not want to actually marry any of them and just wanted to stay with her parents. So she carefully planned and had all the princes come to the house. And so on a certain day the five princes would come to the house of the bamboo cutter and each one of them thought that they would be able to marry her. Kaguya-hime decided that if they wanted to be able to marry her they would try to accomplish one of these missions that she would give to them. These five princes were to retrieve these rare artifacts. The first prince was to go to India and find the great stone bowl of Buddha. The second prince was to bring a branch from the jewel trees that grew on the floating mountains of Hourai. The third prince was to bring a robe made from the skins of the fire rats. The fourth was to bring the shell which the swallows keep hidden in their nests. And the 5th prince was to bring a jewel from the neck of the sea dragon The princes hurried off hoping that they would be able to retrieve the item as fast as possible and be able to achieve Kaguya-hime’s hand in marriage. The first prince was supposed to retrieve the great stone bowl which was hidden in India that belonged to the great god Buddha, and the bowl supposedly gleamed and sparked as if set with the most beautiful gems and it was hidden in some great temple. Now the first prince was trying to go to India but he was very lazy and decided that he didn’t actually want to India and so he decided to try to come up with a clever plan to try and trick Kaguya-hime. He asked the sailors how long it would take to go to India, and the sailors said it would take about 3 years. And so he decided that he wasn’t going to go and he decided to go to another city, stay for a few years, and find an old stone bowl and try and dress it up as if it were the great stone bowl that was in India. When Kaguya hime received the bowl, she opened it up and found that it was made of common stone and saw that the prince had tried to trick her. She was very angry and did not want to even see the prince when he came. The second prince who had to find the branch of the jewel tree also thought that he could outsmart Kaguya-hime. He didn’t actually believe that there was a floating mountain called Hourai and didn’t believe that her were actually trees of gold with jewels for leaves. So he decided to actually make it himself. Nobody really saw the second prince for about 3 years and he would just appear out of nowhere with a beautiful branch of gold with blossoms and leaves with all these colored jewels. And so Kaguya-hime decided to ask the prince of his journey, and so the prince talked about how he had seen many different things like these beautiful cities and strange countries, how these great sea dragons and sea serpents and saw these strange birds, and he talked about how he struggled through these fierce storms and sometimes he had neither food nor water, but eventually he was able to reach the great mountain of Hourai and retrieve the branch of the jewel tree. And after the prince told the story, 3 men came in and asked for payment for making the jewel branch. And the prince had tried to drive them away, but Kaguya-hime asked them to stay and asked why they were there. And the three men talked about how they had been working for 3 years to make this beautiful golden branch and that they wanted their pay. And Kaguya-hime found out that the prince had just lied to her, so the second prince went home dejected. And Kaguya-hime gave the three men the jeweled branch to pay for their years of hard work. And they went off happy and praised the princess for her kindness. The third prince had a very difficult task as well and he was to find the fire robe. He was very rich and had friends all around the world, and he had one friend that lived in China and sent him a messenger with a great bag of gold asking him to find the robe made of the skins of fire rats. The friend did not know what to do because he had never heard of this thing before, but he decided to try his best. He sent messengers all around china looking for this robe, but they could never find it.  He went to every temple and asked about it, but he could never find it. And they had never even heard of it before. He even asked all the merchants as well. At last he decided that he would just send the gold back to the prince and say that he was unable to find it. But the next morning he saw a group of beggars passing by and decided to ask them about the fire robe. And they were very surprised about all this. And the friend asked them about the fire robe. Some of them laughed at his face because they didn’t think that it existed. One of them thought that they had heard of it but that it was only a story and that it didn’t actually exist. After all but one beggar left, there was one old man who told them a story about how when he was a child his grandfather talked about this fire robe that was kept in this temple on top of a mountain hundreds of miles away from this place. The friend was very delighted but was wondering why the messengers had never found it. So he went to look for the temple and sent a messenger there but the messenger said that there actually wasn’t a temple on the mountain. The beggar said that there was a temple during his grandfather’s time. So the messenger searched the mountain and tried to look for the temple and couldn’t find it and said they only found a couple of stones. And they searched around a long time and eventually they actually found a large iron box that was buried underneath the stones. They opened the box and within it wrapped in many folds of rich silk, a strange beautiful fur robe. They carried it home joyfully to the friend who was very glad to receive it and sent it to the third prince who was very excited. He took it out of the box, and looked at it, and it was very beautiful, and remarked how Kaguya-hime would look beautiful in it and he remembered that every time the fire robe was put into the fire, it would be more bright and silvery than it was before, and so he put it in, but before he could snatch it from the fire, the fire quickly consumed up the robe and left nothing but silvery smoke. And the 3rd prince was suddenly heartbroken. He decided to write to Kaguya-hime telling her all about what had happened and the truth and decided to leave forever. And once Kaguya-hime received the letter, she knew that he was telling the truth and wanted him to come to her but he had gone away forever and Kaguya-hime never heard or saw of him ever again. The prince who was to find the shell in the swallow’s nest decided that he would ask the servants and everyone he knew about the shells that the swallows kept in their nests. None of the servants knew about it or the gardeners or any of the people that he had known so he decided to ask the children. A little boy thought that he had seen one inside some nests and while he was in the roof of the kitchen looking for swallow’s eggs he thought he saw this supposed shell and thought it was the shell the prince wanted. The prince was delighted and ordered his men to go search the swallow’s nest on the roof of the kitchen to look for the shell but they couldn’t reach it. So the men spent about three days trying to climb up and get it but they failed. So their final solution was to get a rope and a basket to drop a man and look into the nest, but they couldn’t find a shell. At last the prince grew impatient and decided to go up to the kitchen and into the basket and look for a shell himself. But the men told him how dangerous it was but they decided not to refuse and brought him up and the prince decided to look into the nest. But the swallows began to peck at him. They didn’t want to have their eggs broken so they attacked the prince multiple times until he fell off of the basket and onto a stove and was just badly bruised and burned and eventually he just gave up. He didn’t want to look for the shell and forgot about Kaguya-hime. In the end, he would never climb up and look into the swallow’s nest from that day on. The last prince was to bring the dragon jewel, but while he was very rich, he was only a great boaster and a coward as well. He was going to get the dragon jewel but he didn’t want to get it himself so he called up a great number of servants and soldiers and told them they were to look for the dragon jewel. He would give them a bunch of money and they weren’t to come back until they found it, but they took the money and left because they didn’t believe that it existed. So the last prince decided to go look for it himself. And he took a few men and set off on a boat. It was okay for the first couple of days, but eventually there was a great giant storm. The storm was very dangerous and could potentially destroy the boat and kill them all. So the prince went up to the captain and asked what he should do and the captain responded that the dragon had probably heard he was going to kill it and take the jewel, so he had sent the storm to try and kill him. So the prince, fearing for his life, promised that he would never ever touch the dragon and eventually the storm died down and the prince came to land down elsewhere. And the prince was so scared for his life that once he had touched the ground he vowed that he would never leave the solid piece of ground and he would spend the rest of his life on an island far away. Many years passed and Kaguya-hime took very good care of her old father and mother. The mother and father finally realized why Kaguya-hime had asked the princes to do such impossible things and that Kaguya-hime had just wanted to stay with her parents. And Kaguya-hime knew that if she refused to marry them, they might cause trouble and attack and harm the family. And as each day passed, Kaguya-hime would grow more and more beautiful and kinder and gentler and eventually when she was 20 years old her mother died and she became very sad. And whenever the full moon rose to show, she would go by herself and weep. One evening late in the summer, Kaguya-hime was sitting on a balcony looking at the moon and was crying very much. Her old father would come up to her and ask what the problem was and Kaguya-hime replied that she knew that one day she would eventually leave him and that her home was actually in the moon; she was sent down to earth to take care of them but eventually the time would come where she had to leave. She did not want to leave them but she must. She said that when the next full moon came, the people from the moon would come and get her. The father was very sad to hear this but thought that he would be able to keep her there by asking the emperor for some help. Kaguya-hime replied that it would be no use and that no one could keep her there when the time was to come. The father thought that he could do something about this and went to the emperor and told him the entire story. The emperor was touched by Kaguya-hime’s story and decided to send a whole army to guard the house when the time came. The old bamboo cutter went home cheerful but Kaguya-hime was sadder than ever. Eventually the old moon faded away and the few nights would show only the blue lights of the heaven and the gold of the stars, and a tiny silver thread showed just after sunset which eventually widened and brightened. Kaguya-hime would grow sadder and sadder. On the first night of the full moon the emperor’s men stood guard all around the house and Kaguya-hime waited on the balcony for the moon to rise. Eventually, slowly over the tops of the trees of the mountain rose this great white silver ball and every sound hushed. Kaguya-hime went to her father who had lied down as if he were asleep. When Kaguya-hime came near he opened his eyes and said, “I see now why you must go. It is because I am going too. Thank you my daughter for all the happiness you have brought to us,” and the old man closed his eyes and Kaguya-hime saw that he was dead. The moon rose higher and higher and eventually a line of light like a bridge reached from heaven to earth and down this bridge came many soldiers with shining armor. There was no sound and no wind, but they came. The emperor’s soldiers stood as if they had turned to stone and could not do anything. Kaguya-hime went to the leader of these heavenly visitors and said that she was ready. The leader handed her a cup with the elixir of immortality and she drank from it and she would no longer be mortal. She would become a princess of the moon and live on forever. Kaguya-hime and the others would eventually rise up like the morning mists, passing on to Mount Fuji, the sacred mountain of Japan, and eventually reach the silver gates of the moon city where everything was all happiness and peace. Men say that now a small soft white wreath of smoke that curls up around the crown of Mt. Fuji comes up like a floating bridge to that city in the moon far off in the sky.

As the one recording this tale, I had the same reaction as the speaker did. By looking at the moon in the darkness and listening to the tale, it seemed much more convincing and meaningful. It was a reminder to treasure loved ones and to act wisely so as to stop harm from following. It teaches good moral lessons such as protecting things that are unable to project themselves and to live honestly. More broadly, the story indicates to me that Japanese culture prioritizes family and morality.

This story is also mentioned in a scientific article:

Folktales Commonly Told American and Japanese Children: Ethical Themes of Omission and Commission
Betty B. Lanham and Masao Shimura
The Journal of American Folklore , Vol. 80, No. 315 (Jan. – Mar., 1967), pp. 33-48
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