Kaguyahime

Some of Japan’s most beloved fairy tales are about childless couples who pray for a baby, and who are eventually rewarded with a child with supernatural powers.

Kaguyahime, or the Shining Princess, is one such star of a venerated Japanese story, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. One day an elderly bamboo cutter goes into the forest to harvest bamboo. He discovers a large bamboo stalk with a mysterious glow, and when he cuts it open he finds a beautiful baby girl who is just one inch high. To put that in perspective, Kaguyahimeshe was the same exact size as this hashioki. The old man carries the child back to his hut and presents her to his wife, who is delighted. The couple take very good care of the little girl, aided by the gold coins the old man now finds in the bamboo forest every day after he brings her home. The girl grows up into a young woman with exceptional beauty, but she shies away from all the suitors that ask to marry her. Even the Emperor of Japan proposes, and when he does, the young woman mysteriously fades into a transparent apparition, and he withdraws. Finally Kaguyahime explains to her adoptive parents that she is actually a resident of the moon, and on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, when the moon is full, she returns there (1). Her adoptive parents were devastated.

In some versions of this tale Princess Kaguyahime sends a box containing an elixir for immortal life to the Emperor before she returns to the moon. Saddened by her departure, he is unable to open the box, and he instructs his soldiers to take it to the top of Japan’s highest mountain and burn it. It is said that the Japanese word for immortality, fushi, was then adapted to name that place Mount Fuji.

Readers of The Tale of Genji may remember that The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is referred to as “the ancestor of all tales” in Chapter 17 (or The Picture Contest) of the novel. The Court ladies involved in a debate about the tale argue that “Princess Kaguya remains forever unsullied by this world, and she aspires to such noble heights that her story belongs to the age of the gods” (2). Fans of the more plebian video Big Bird in Japan may remember that Big Bird’s tour guide reveals herself to be Kaguyahime in the end.

While I appreciate that this is a well loved fairy tale in Japan, I’m not sure what the moral is. Be careful what you wish for? The parents in this story receive their child, but their hearts are broken when she returns to the moon. Maybe the real audience for this tale are all the little girls who dream about leaving home and flying to some place as far away as the moon

(1) Yasuda, Yuri.  A Treasury of Japanese Folktales.  Rutland, VT:  Tuttle Publishing, 2010, pp. 32-41.

(2) Tyler, Royall (trans.)  The Tale of Genji.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2003, p. 325.

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