Urashima Tarō

“This is a story from Japan, it’s also one of those kids things.  And in Japanese it’s called Urashima Tarō.  It’s about a guy, uh, who saves a turtle who was—uh—who one day sees a turtle struggling on the beach, uh, almost dying because they were stuck on the beach, and he helps him go back to water.  And the turtle finally got saved, and the turtle, in order to thank him, brought him down the water to the magical, wonderful palace beneath the secret, wonderful palace beneath the water and toured him around and everything—it was all fantastic.  And, um—the turtle was actually, uh, probably a lady, if I remember correctly—and she gave him a box of, uh, of secret things, of a present, it’s a box, but she told him never to open it again, never to open it.  And, um, so then he said ‘yes,’ and the turtle brought him all the way back to shore, and, uh, he was with a box and went back home.  Then he was very curious what was inside the box, so… but he was told not to open it… and then he opened it.  And then he turned old and gray…  And I think that’s it.”

My informant had heard this story in school when he was growing up in Japan.  He said it is a very famous story, so that is why the teachers in his school taught it.  When I asked him why this story is so widely known in Japan, he supposed it was to teach children morals about respect and heeding the words of others.  He also made the connection between the tale he told me and the story of Pandora’s Box because of the motifs of the box and the promise of its hidden treasure, but also both stories contain elements of foreboding against opening the box despite whatever they believe to be inside.  But in the case of Urashima Tarō, the man whose curiosity drove him to open the box in the first place was punished with old age.  My informant believes that this story was taught to teach children life lessons: respect others’ words and consistent humility.  The respect, he said, was an obvious moral that could be derived from the tale.  The humility moral presented itself when the man who had done a good deed for the turtle decided that he was entitled to open the box, being too eager to reap the reward for his act of kindness.  My informant felt that this was meant to be a model for young Japanese children just starting school (around the age when he first heard the story) because the children could learn to respect each other—of course, he also tells me that, honestly, when he heard the story, he did not think of it in a moral sense because he was too young; instead he thought it a nice story but still proceeded to dismiss it entirely.

I think that the story is definitely a version of the well-known Pandora’s Box with some significant cultural changes.  The fact that the story ends with the stalwart hero becoming old and gray I think demonstrates the values of the Japanese culture: there is a certain focus that is bred, even from a young age, on physical appearances.  In the Greek version, Pandora’s Box involves the first woman on Earth, Pandora, who opens the box and releases evils into the world, excepting for the one spirit she is able to hold inside, the Spirit of Hope.  In this version of the story, the opening of the box has affected the entire world and all of its inhabitants; however, in the Urashima Tarō version, the opening of the box only holds consequences to the hero of the story.  This, in my opinion, demonstrates the Japanese’s focus on the individual and physical appearance.  Though it does also translate to the larger values of which my informant had spoken, the tale is also definitely representative of the culture’s more aesthetic values.