Probably not as familiar as Kaguyahime or Momotarō is the story of Issunbōshi,  yet another  child with miraculous powers who appeared as a reward for a worthy childless couple.

IssunboshiIn this tale a poor couple had prayed faithfully that the wife would give birth to a baby, and finally their prayers were answered. Their son, however, was very small, just a little more than one inch tall. The child grew older, but never grew any bigger. They named him Issunbōshi because issun is a traditional Japanese measure equal to 1.39 inches, and bōshi is a term for son.

When Issunbōshi became an adult he longed to travel. His father gave him his lacquer rice bowl to use as a boat, and a pair of chopsticks to use as oars. His mother gave him a sewing needle to use as his sword. Issunbōshi set off in his makeshift boat and made his way down the river to Kyoto. In the city Issunbōshi was welcomed into the household of a local lord, but later he and the lord’s beautiful daughter were forced to leave after a misunderstanding. They found a fisherman’s boat and tried to return to Issunbōshi’s home, but a storm blew them off course and they were beached on a mysterious island. On the island an ogre confrontedIssunboshi them, and when he saw how small Issunbōshi really was, he swallowed him. Issunbōshi used his needle to prick the inside of the ogre’s stomach until the ogre spat him out, and then he used the needle to stab the ogre’s nose and eyes. Screaming in pain, the ogre ran away, but left behind his magic mallet. Issunbōshi and the lord’s daughter used the mallet to make a wish that the tiny hero would grow to a normal size, which he promptly did, and then they used the mallet to wish for some food, riches, and a strong boat to return to Kyoto. When they arrived they are welcomed by the Emperor, and the couple invited Issunbōshi’s parents to come live with them in their new home (1).

It’s interesting that Japan, where many people are short, has a number of folktale heroes who are also quite diminutive. I think Issunbōshi is my favorite because he is so resourceful; he starts his journey in a rice bowl, and wields his needle to escape the ogre. Apparently in Japan not only is the pen mightier than the sword, but so is the needle.


(1) Yasuda, Yuri.  A Treasury of Japanese Folktales.  Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2010, pp. 81-93.



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