The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

Hear this tale on Episode 59 of our Podcast, the Japan Archives.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, in Japanese known as the Taketori Monogatari (竹取物語) is one of the famous folktales from Japan.

Synopsis

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
The man finds the child inside the bamboo.

There was an old man and woman who had no child. He would go every day and cut bamboo and made a living by selling the wood.

One morning when he goes to the bamboo there is a bright light stemming from a single bamboo shoot. In the hollow of it he found a three inch tall girl and he thought she had been sent to be his child.

From that day he always found gold and precious gems in the bamboo and so he and his wife became wealthy. In only three months the girl had grown to normal height and they gave her the name of Kaguya Hime. For three days they celebrated her naming and stories of her beauty went far and wide and so many people came to try and be her suitor.

The girl never held audience with these suitors and many lost heart returning home. All except for five Samurai he continued to wait. Winter came, the suitors begged the old man to ask his daughter to allow them to see her. But as she was not truly his daughter he said he could not force her to do so and so the five Samurai returned home.

But they all returned as their heart desired her. They asked the old man to tell his daughter how they had waited out the harsh winter, waited without food, and all of the other challenges they had faced in the hopes of being allowed to see her. And so the old man agreed.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
Kaguyahime appearing from behind the screen door.

She eventually agreed to meet with them to please her father. She also decided to give each man a mission that if they could complete she would marry them.

The first mission was to bring the stone bowl that had been held by Buddha from India. The second to go to Mount Horai and bring a branch of the tree that grew on its summit. Third was to go to China and bring back the skin of the fire-rat. Fourth to find the dragon which upon its head was a stone that radiate five colours and bring her the stone. Fifth and finally was to find the swallow which carried a shell in its stomach and to bring her the shell.

The first man was too scared to go to India and so he collected a bowl from a temple in Kyoto, wrapped it in gold cloth and waited three years before returning. She thought it strange that he had returned from india so quickly and testing the bowl she discovered it to be fake.

The second man told his parents he would be travelling for his health. Eventually going somewhere where he built a house that could not be accessed from the outside. Inside resided him and six skilled jewellers which he instructed to make a silver and gold branch he thought would satisfy the requirements of the mission. When she is given the branch she again says it is strange he could return so quickly and have gotten the branch so easily and declares it a fake.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
The Receeding Princess

The man tried to defend himself, telling a fake tale of his journey to the mountain. However, the jewellers appears demanding they be paid and so his lie is revealed.

The third man had a friend in China and so he sent a letter asking him to send him the skin of the fire-rat. He paid his friend a lot of money and after recieving the item took it to Kaguya Hime. She tests the item, setting fire to it saying the real item would not burn. It burns infront of her and so she knows it is a fake.

The fourth man was lazy and sent all his retainers and servants to do his bidding. All of them thinking it an impossible task, merely had long holidays and made no attempt to find the item. After a year he grew desperate and taking two men hired a ship and made them set out in a storm. The storm caused the ship to crash into shore and so he returned home and made no more attempt to find the item.

The fifth man, is merely said to have failed in finding the swallow’s shell.

During all of this time stories of the girls beauty had reached the Emperor, and so he sends an Imperial messenger to see if she will come to court. She tells her father that is she is forced to do this then she will vanish from the earth. And so the Emperor decided to go and see her himself.

He enters and when she noticed the Emperor watching her she tries to hide her face. The Emperor falls in love with her immediately and asks her to come to Court. She says if she is forced to do so she will turn into a shadow and began to do so infront of the Emperor, and so he says if she stays in human form he will not force her to go.

As time passes she would spend nights watching the moon often weeping and that she was not of this Earth and perhaps would soon leave. The Emperor hearing about this sends 2,000 warriors to defend the home.

Night had almost passed and all thought the girl would stay until clouds formed around the moon and moved towards the house. A man comes forth from a chariot on a cloud saying it is time for her to return home, saying she had originally been sent to Earth as punishment.

She climbs into the chariot, her father not being allowed to join her. She is given an Elixir of Life and drinks most of it, and was about to give the rest to her father but is stopped. She asks to write to the Emperor one last time and places the remainder of the Elixir in the letter. And with that she leaves the Earth.

The Emperor receives the letter and Elixir and he sends the Elixir to Mount Fuji where it is burnt. And that is the reason why smoke rises from Mount Fuji.1

Other Depictions in Art

Discovery of Kaguya-hime, late 17th century depictionHeavenly beings descend, depiction c. 1650
Taketori no Okina takes Kaguya-hime to his home, painting c. 1650Princess Kaguya returns to the Moon. 1888 print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Footnotes

1. Ozaki, Y.T. (2015) “Japanese Fairy Tales” USA: Cavalier Classics.

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