Fairytale – Japanese

Issun Boshi – Little One Inch

My friend Mikey told me this Japanese fairytale and said his mom used to tell it to him sometimes as a bed time story when he was a little kid.  The story is called Little One Inch, which translated into Japanese is Issun Boshi.  I asked Mikey to tell me the story and he said that there was a married couple with no children so one day they went to a shrine and prayed for a child of their own.  Then on their way home they heard a baby crying in the grass and found a small baby boy wrapped in a blanket.  They were so happy that their prayers had been answered they took the boy home and raised him as their son.  But the boy was very tiny, he was bout the size of a person’s thumb so they named him Little One Inch.  When Little One Inch grew older he told his parents he was very thankful for them but he wanted to go out in the world and make his own fortune.  His parents tried to tell him he was too little but Little One Inch eventually convinced them to let him go out into the world on his own.  To prepare him for his journey they gave him a rice bowl to use as a boat, a chopstick to use as a paddle and a needle to use as a sword.  So Little One Inch set off on his journey down the river in his rice bowl.  But his bowl was soon overturned by a frog in the river that hit it.  But Little One Inch was able to swim to shore and found himself in front a great castle.  Little One Inch went to the front of the castle and called out for someone.  A man servant came at first could not even see Little One Inch standing in front of him.  He was so surprised when he saw the boy he went to go get hid lord.  Little One Inch told the lord he came to seek his fortune and asked that he let him be a guard in his castle.  he said that he maybe little but he could fight fiercely with his sword.  The lord was very amused so he let Little One Inch stay in the castle and play with his daughter the princess.  Little One Inch and the Princess played everyday and became very good friends.  Then one day when they went to visit a nearby temple a demon appeared and tried to get the princess.  Little One Inch tried to attack the demon with his sword but the needle did not even penetrate the demon’s toes.  So Little One Inch climbed up the demon’s body onto his arm and waved his sword.  This made the demon angry so he opened his mouth and roared.  When the demon did this Little One Inch umped into the demon’s mouth and began to cut is tongue with his sword.  This hurt the demon so much he spit Little One Inch out and ran away also dropping his magic hammer in the process.  The princess picked up the hammer and said now we can make a wish, and she wished that  Little One Inch would grow taller.  She shook the magic hammer and Little One Inch began to grow until they were both the same height.  They were both very happy and so was the lord when her heard what happened.  The Princess and Little One Inch then got married and lived happily ever after.

Mikey said his mother and his grandmother used to tell him this fairytale sometimes when he was younger.  He says he’s not sure why he remembers this particular story, he just does.  I think he was probably told this story as a way of creating somewhat of a cultural identity and creating some ties to his Japanese heritage/descent.  Because is Japanese, Issei means first generation and usually means the generation of Japanese people born in Japan that perhaps immigrated to another country such as the United States.  The second generation is called Nissei, the third generation is Sansei, and the fourth generation is Yonsei.  Mikey is fourth generation in his family, as am I.  I know that because my parents are Sansei and I am Yonsei we partake in much less traditional Japanese customs compared to my grandmother and compared to how my grandmothers raised my parents.  Therefore, as the traditional Japanese customs and culture seems to be less and less with each generation I think these little pieces of Japanese folklore help create a sense of cultural identity and become increasingly significant and important.  This could explain why Mikey’s mom and grandma told him this fairytale and could also explain why he remembers this specific story; the strong cultural ties and meaning behind it.  This fairytale can be found among many other popular Japanese folktales in Florence Sadake’s book Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories on page 60.  These folktales are all translated and written in English.

Little One Inch fits Propp’s 31 Funtions very nicely.  The story starts with a lack, as the married couple is without children or a child that they so desperately want.  Then the lack is fulfilled and the audience is introduced in the story’s hero, Little One Inch.  Little One Inch grows up and eventually decides he must go on a journey and venture out into the world, which is the departure from home in Propp’s functions.  Then of course the hero must meet obstacles along his journey, such as having is ice bowl boat over turned by the frog in the river and having to swim to shore.  Next in sequence is the meeting of the villain, which is the demon that Little One Inch and the Princess encounter in the nearby temple.  There is a struggle, which is the fight between Little One Inch and the demon.  Little One Inch had to be clever about in defeating a demon so much larger than himself in size.  Finally victory over the villain by the hero, who returns home or in this case to the castle and marries the girl or princess of the story.  It is very interesting to see how Propp’s functions can be followed by many folktales from many different cultures.

Annotation: Sadake, Florence.  Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories. Vermont: Tuttle Publishing:2003.

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