Ten Japanese Folktales You Should Know


*The term Monogatari can mean legend, tale or story.

There are days when I feel like I’m starting to learn more about Japanese culture and then there are others when I feel like “Donald, what the hell have you been doing for the last three years?!?” Today, I feel kind of in the middle. I taught a private English lesson the other day, and we were working on pronunciation together using a children’s book. Near the end of the lesson I actually read to my student almost as I would to younger child.

To some, you might think this is demeaning or even pointless, but I would have to say I whole-heartedly disagree. First, because it was a private lesson, it was just us, no worries about any onlookers making comments. Second, when I saw that she didn’t understand a word or a phrase, I would stop to explain that word or phrase in a context she could understand. The end result…one of the most interesting, most fun private lessons that I’ve had so far.

I had a Japanese storybook nearby and asked her if she’d do me the honor of reading a few pages in Japanese, at a natural speed with natural inflection, pronunciation, etc.. It was awesome. I was so amazed at how much faster she could go through the pages than I could and just how much smoother it sounded.

As she was reading, lightbulbs started going off in my head. I realized that I don’t know very many of the famous Japanese myths/folktales/children’s stories. So I did a small survey of the teachers at my job asking them what their top ten stories or folktales were. After going through the results, here’s what I got:

1.Momotaro (ももたろ or Peach Taro): The story of a young boy, born from a peach (yes, I know it’s weird), who fights to save his village.

2.Ikkyu San (一休, Mr. Ikkyu): A tale of a young boy’s adventures on his path to becoming a Buddhist monk.

3. Kasajizo (かさじぞう or Bamboo Hat Guardians): A story of a poor old couple and the magical stone, guardian statues (Jizo).

4.Hanasakajisan (はなさかじいさん or ): An old man and his dog. Sounds like your average run of the mill story, but IT’S DEFINITELY NOT! Super interesting.

5.Urashimataro (うらしまたろう): This story didn’t make me happy at all, but it’s the story of a fisherman who saves a turtle and is shown the beauties of an underwater kingdom. If you have a chance to read it, please let me know, it kind of made me wonder if the moral of the story is “Don’t save sea turtles.” When you read it, you’ll know what I mean.

6.Shitakirisuzume (したきりすずめ or Tongue-Cut Sparrow): The tale of (yet another) old man who saves the life of a sparrow.

7.Issunboshi (いっすんぼぼうし or One Sun Son): I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story of Tom Thumb, but this story is almost like a cross between Tom Thumb and a samurai story. A small boy, the size of “one sun” (approximately 3 cm) who is raised by a loving couple, goes on samurai quest.

8.Kaguyahime (かぐやひめ or Princess Kaguya): Another interesting story of children sprouting from strange objects. This time, a bamboo cutter finds a young girl inside of a bamboo stalk. It seems like folk tales have figured out a way to get past the whole business of labor pains.

9.Tsuru no ongaeshi (つるのおんがえし or The Crane’s Repayment): Weird but good. Hey! It’s a young man this time! A young man who rescues a crane.

10.Kobutorijisan (こぶとりじいさん or Plump Old Men (I don’t know if my translation is accurate)): The story of two old men with cysts. I wish I had another explanation, but that’s exactly what the story is about…I kid you not.

Of the Japanese folktalkes that I’ve read, many end up being nothing like what I expect them to be. It’s so interesting how American stories are so different. I’m used to having a tale with a moral, or some kind of teaching. Yes, many of the Japanese tales do have them, but some of them…it beats me. Please check them out.

Do you have any Japanese stories or folktales that you really like? What are they?

Donald Ash

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  • I like the Fire-fly’s Lovers.. but then again, I think that my have to do with my fascination with lightening bugs. :)

  • Donald Ash

    I don’t know that one, Nanami. What’s it about?

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a firefly. I was pretty fascinated by them, too.

  • Do you know the Japanese folktale about the monkey and the crab? It involved brutal murders…and helpful inanimate objects.

  • Mikan

    Do you know the “Kuchisake Onna” (eng. ‘slit-mouthed-woman’) folktale/legend? i think it’s scary stuff LOL. you just gotta google

    • Donald Ash

      I’ve heard the name, but I’m not familiar with the story yet. I will definitely check that out! Thanks for the recommendation, Mikan :)

  • Jessica

    Interesting only one princess tale. I was starting to think are all these tales about little boys and old men?

  • Sarah

    Hi! I always thought the Yuki Onna folktale was interesting! It’s actually sad but I liked it >.<

  • MT

    When we lived in Japan in the 1950′s we read a story about these brothers that had something on their cheeks. One brother on the left side and the other brother on the right. Does any of that sound familiar?

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