The tale of bamboo cutter

A friend of mine, who’s an international exchange student from Japan now currently studying in China, contributes this story, one of the most famous tales in Japan. According to her, this is like the most common bedtime story for kids in Japan. We interviewed in Chinese so the following is only rough translation of what she shared.


A long long time ago, there were an old man and his wife. They were poor and childless, and the husband cut bamboo to make a living. One day, he found a beautiful shining bamboo in the forest, and when he cut it open, there’s a small baby inside. The baby was a beautiful girl. The old man took her home and raised her like his own. Ever since the bamboo cutter found this baby, every bamboo he cut he would found gold in it. The couple became rich soon after.

The baby grew among great love and care, and she grew as fast as the bamboo. As she became more and more beautiful, she would shine the night like it was day. The old man named her Kaguya-hime, meaning “The Shining Princess”. Three months past, she became the fairest lady in the country. The old couple cared for her a lot and did not let her go out, fearing she would be taken. The news of her extraordinary beauty spread fast nevertheless. Countless people came, hoping to witness her beauty but only failed and gave up. However, five royals (two Princes and three governors) stuck around years after years, wanting to marry her. Finally, the old man was moved and went to Kaguya-hime, said she should get married one day and those five royals did not seem to be a bad choice. Although Kaguya-hime did not want to get married, she also didn’t want to disappoint the old man, so she agreed with one condition – She’s gonna assign each five of them a task, only the one who accomplishes the task can marry her. The five tasks were: Retrieving the stone begging bowl of Buddha from India, a jeweled branch from island Horai, a robe made of fire-rat from China, a five-colored jewel from a dragon’s head, and the delivery shell of swallows. All of these five items were from legends and were impossible to get, and of course the five royals failed.

The Emperor of Japan heard of Kaguya-hime‘s beauty and also wanted her. He called in the bamboo cutter to have him to bring Kaguya-hime to the palace. The old man brought back the message but Kaguya-hime refused so, saying if the old man want to exchange her for the good fortune the Emperor promised, she’d rather die. Since the old man loved her so much, he then returned to the palace and explained that Kaguya-hime was not this actual child so he couldn’t arrange a marriage for her. However, the Emperor came up with the idea of going to the bamboo cutter’s house and having a peep of Kaguya-hime during the royal hunt.

During the hunt, the Emperor saw Kaguya-hime in her room and was mesmerized by her beauty. He broke in and wanted to bring her back with him, but the Kaguya-hime disappeared in the air suddenly. The Emperor panicked and promised her not to touch her again, only begging her to show herself to let him have a final look at her. Kaguya-hime showed herself, and the Emperor left reluctantly. Ever since the Emperor saw Kaguya-hime‘s beauty with his own eyes, he could not think of anyone else. He started to write to Kaguya-hime, and Kaguya-hime wrote back out of politeness. They exchanged letters for years and actually became friends.

One day at night, Kaguya-hime looked at the moon and suddenly started to cry violently. She told the worried couple that she in fact was not from earth but was sent from the moon, and it was time for her to go back. The moon people were gonna come and to ensure she comes back. The old man was distressed and went to the Emperor for help, so the Emperor sent an army to guard Kaguya-hime‘s place. The army of course, by the time moon people came, was useless against them. The leader of the moon people declared that Kaguya-hime was sent to earth as a punishment and now it was time for her to go home. Kaguya-hime had no choice but obey. The moon people then gave her some immortal pills for her to take so she could be cleaned from “living in filthy earth”. Kaguya-hime took some, and left the rest to the old couple and the Emperor. She also wrote a letter to the Emperor saying that she only turned him down because she knew this was gonna happen and didn’t want to upset him. During the whole time Kaguya-hime was sobbing, but as soon as she put on the feather coat the moon people brought, she became emotionless and left without hesitation.

The army brought back the pills and the letter, and the Emperor was in deep sorrow. He sent a messenger to bring the letter the pills to the top of the highest mountain – the place that is the nearest to the moon – and burn them there. Both the Emperor and the old couple thought that if they could not see Kaguya-hime again, immortal would mean nothing. They soon died out of grief. The mountain the pills were burnt was then called the Mountain Fuji, meaning “never die/end”. The smoke from the burnt pills ascends to sky to reach Kaguya-hime till today.


I googled the tale after the interview and realized this is actually one of the earliest tales that survived in Japanese literature. The earliest transcript of the tale could be dated back to almost a thousand years ago. Though there were some different versions of the tale but they do not differ from each others much. This tale is particularly interesting because it is not a typical tale where a male hero fights against villain and such such. The tale focused on the only protagonist – a female who resists the tradition of getting married. This piece of tale carries hints of feminism that I see precious considering it is thousand year old. In addition, the end of the tale explained the natural phenomenon of where the smoke of volcano Mountain Fuji comes from.


For another version of this story, see:

Kawabata, Yasunari, Donald Keene, and Masayuki Miyata. The tale of the bamboo cutter. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1998. Print.