The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

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, also known as , is a 10th century Japanese folktale
Japanese folklore
The folklore of Japan is heavily influenced by both Shinto and Buddhism, the two primary religions in the country. It often involves humorous or bizarre characters and situations and also includes an assortment of supernatural beings, such as bodhisattva, kami , yōkai , yūrei ,...

. It is considered the oldest extant Japanese narrative
Japanese literature
Early works of Japanese literature were heavily influenced by cultural contact with China and Chinese literature, often written in Classical Chinese. Indian literature also had an influence through the diffusion of Buddhism in Japan...

 and an early example of proto-science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...


It primarily details the life of a mysterious girl called Kaguya-hime, who was discovered as a baby inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo
Bamboo is a group of perennial evergreens in the true grass family Poaceae, subfamily Bambusoideae, tribe Bambuseae. Giant bamboos are the largest members of the grass family....

 plant. She is said to be from Tsuki-no-Miyako (月の都 "The Capital of the Moon") and has unusual hair that shines like the moon.


One day, while walking in the bamboo forest, an old, childless bamboo cutter called came across a mysterious, shining stalk of bamboo. After cutting it open, he found inside it a baby the size of his thumb. He rejoiced to find such a beautiful girl and took her home. He and his wife raised her as their own child and named her Kaguya-hime (かぐや姫 "radiant-night princess"). Thereafter, Taketori no Okina found that whenever he cut down a stalk of bamboo, inside would be a small nugget of gold
Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. Chemically, gold is a...

. Soon he became rich. Kaguya-hime grew from a small baby into a woman of ordinary size and extraordinary beauty. At first, Taketori no Okina tried to keep her away from outsiders, but over time the news of her beauty had spread.

Eventually, five princes came to Taketori no Okina's residence to ask for Kaguya-hime's hand in marriage. The princes eventually persuaded Taketori no Okina to tell a reluctant Kaguya-hime to choose from among them. Kaguya-hime concocted impossible tasks for the princes, agreeing to marry the one who managed to bring her his specified item. That night, Taketori no Okina told the five princes what each must bring. The first was told to bring her the stone begging bowl of the Buddha
Gautama Buddha
Siddhārtha Gautama was a spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. In most Buddhist traditions, he is regarded as the Supreme Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit: सिद्धार्थ गौतम; Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) was a spiritual teacher from the Indian...

 from India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, the second a jewelled branch from the island of Hōrai, the third the legendary robe of the fire-rat of China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

, the fourth a colored jewel from a dragon
Japanese dragon
Japanese dragons are diverse legendary creatures in Japanese mythology and folklore. Japanese dragon myths amalgamate native legends with imported stories about dragons from China, Korea and India. The style of the dragon was heavily influenced by the Chinese dragon...

's neck, and the final prince the cowrie which was born from swallow
The swallows and martins are a group of passerine birds in the family Hirundinidae which are characterised by their adaptation to aerial feeding...


Realizing that it was an impossible task, the first prince returned with an expensive bowl, but after noticing that the bowl did not glow with holy light, Kaguya-hime saw through his deception. Likewise, two other princes attempted to deceive her with fakes, but also failed. The fourth gave up after encountering a storm, while the final prince lost his life in his attempt.

After this, the Emperor of Japan
Emperor of Japan
The Emperor of Japan is, according to the 1947 Constitution of Japan, "the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people." He is a ceremonial figurehead under a form of constitutional monarchy and is head of the Japanese Imperial Family with functions as head of state. He is also the highest...

, Mikado, came to see the strangely beautiful Kaguya-hime and, upon falling in love, asked her to marry him. Although he was not subjected to the impossible trials that had thwarted the princes, Kaguya-hime rejected his request for marriage as well, telling him that she was not of his country and thus could not go to the palace with him. She stayed in contact with the Emperor, but continued to rebuff his requests.

That summer, whenever Kaguya-hime saw the full moon, her eyes filled with tears. Though her adoptive parents worried greatly and questioned her, she was unable to tell them what was wrong. Her behaviour became increasingly erratic until she revealed that she was not of this world and must return to her people on the Moon. In some versions of this tale, it is said that she was sent to the Earth as a temporary punishment
Punishment is the authoritative imposition of something negative or unpleasant on a person or animal in response to behavior deemed wrong by an individual or group....

 for some crime, while others say it was for safety during a celestial war.

As the day of her return approached, the Emperor set many guards around her house to protect her from the Moon people, but when an embassy of "Heavenly Beings" arrived at the door of Taketori no Okina's house, the guards were blinded by a strange light. Kaguya-hime announced that, though she loved her many friends on Earth, she must return with the Moon people to her true home. She wrote sad notes of apology to her parents and to the Emperor, then gave her parents her own robe as a memento. She then took a small taste of the elixir of life
Elixir of life
The elixir of life, also known as the elixir of immortality and sometimes equated with the philosopher's stone, is a legendary potion, or drink, that grants the drinker eternal life and or eternal youth. Many practitioners of alchemy pursued it. The elixir of life was also said to be able to create...

, attached it to her letter to the Emperor, and gave it to a guard officer. As she handed it to him, the feather robe was placed on her shoulders, and all of her sadness and compassion for the people of the Earth were forgotten. The heavenly entourage took Kaguya-hime back to Tsuki-no-Miyako ("the Capital of the Moon"), leaving her earthly foster parents in tears.

The parents became very sad and were soon put to bed sick. The officer returned to the Emperor with the items Kaguya-hime had given him as her last mortal act, and reported what had happened. The Emperor read her letter and was overcome with sadness. He asked his servants, "Which mountain is the closest place to Heaven
Heaven, the Heavens or Seven Heavens, is a common religious cosmological or metaphysical term for the physical or transcendent place from which heavenly beings originate, are enthroned or inhabit...

?", to which one replied the Great Mountain of Suruga Province
Suruga Province
was an old province in the area that is today the central part of Shizuoka prefecture. It was sometimes called . Suruga bordered on Izu, Kai, Sagami, Shinano, and Tōtōmi provinces; and had access to the Pacific Ocean through Suruga Bay.-History:...

. The Emperor ordered his men to take the letter to the summit of the mountain and burn it, in the hope that his message would reach the distant princess. The men were also commanded to burn the elixir of immortality since the Emperor did not wish to live forever without being able to see her. The legend has it that the word became the name of the mountain, Mount Fuji
Mount Fuji
is the highest mountain in Japan at . An active stratovolcano that last erupted in 1707–08, Mount Fuji lies about south-west of Tokyo, and can be seen from there on a clear day. Mount Fuji's exceptionally symmetrical cone is a well-known symbol of Japan and it is frequently depicted in art and...

. It is also said that the kanji
Kanji are the adopted logographic Chinese characters hanzi that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with hiragana , katakana , Indo Arabic numerals, and the occasional use of the Latin alphabet...

 for the mountain, 富士山 (literally "Mountain Abounding with Warriors"), is derived from the Emperor's army ascending the slopes of the mountain to carry out his order. It is said that the smoke from the burning still rises to this day. (In the past, Mount Fuji was much more volcanically active.)

Literary connections

Elements of the tale were drawn from earlier stories. The protagonist Taketori no Okina, given by name, appears in the earlier poetry collection Man'yōshū (c. 759; poem# 3791). In it, he meets a group of women to whom he recites a poem. This indicates that there previously existed an image or tale revolving around a bamboo cutter and celestial or mystical women.

A similar retelling of the tale appears in the c. 12th century Konjaku Monogatarishū
Konjaku Monogatarishu
is a Japanese collection of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian period . The entire collection was originally contained in 31 volumes, of which only 28 remain today...

 (volume 31, chapter 33), although their relation is under debate.

There have been suggestions that The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is adapted from the Chinese legend Chang'e
Chang'e may refer to:* Chang'e - a traditional Chinese lunar goddess* The Chinese Chang'e space program, part of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program :** Chang'e 1 - the first CLEP lunar orbiter, launched on 24 October 2007...

and is related to the tale of Swan Lake
Swan Lake
Swan Lake ballet, op. 20, by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, composed 1875–1876. The scenario, initially in four acts, was fashioned from Russian folk tales and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. The choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger...

. This probably is due to Kaguya-hime wearing the hagoromo (羽衣 "feather robe") when she ascends to her homeland. But the hagoromo figures more famously in a group of tales known as the hagoromo densetsu (in one example recorded in the Ōmi-no-kuni
Omi Province
is an old province of Japan, which today comprises Shiga Prefecture. It was one of the provinces that made up the Tōsandō circuit. It is nicknamed as .Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, is located at the center of the province...

are ancient records of the culture and geography of provinces of Japan. They contain agricultural, geographical, historical and mythological records, as well as folklore.Compilation of Fudoki began in 713 and was completed over a 20-year period....

tells of a man who instructs his dog to steal the hagoromo of eight heavenly maidens while they were bathing, forcing one of them to become his bride). And the latter is remarkably similar to the tale of the Chinese traditional Magpie Festival legend of the Fairy Couple
Fairy Couple
Tian Xian Pei , sometimes translated as Fairy Couple, is a Chinese legend, which existed as oral traditions before any written compilation. It has since become a major subject of several Chinese opera, films and TV series.- Story :...

. also similar to the story of how Völundr Smith and his brothers wedded the swan-maidens.

Banzhu Guniang

In 1957, Jinyu Fenghuang (金玉凤凰), a Chinese book of Tibetan tales, was published.
In early 1970s, Japanese literary researchers became aware that "Banzhu Guniang" (班竹姑娘), one of the tales in the book, had certain similarities with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Initially, many researchers thought that "Banzhu Guniang" must be related to Tale of Bamboo Cutter, although some were skeptical.

In 1980s, studies showed that the relationship is not as simple as initially thought. Okutsu
provides extensive review of the research, and notes that the book Jinyu Fenghuang was intended to be for children, and as such, the editor took some liberties in adapting the tales. No other compilation of Tibetan tales contains the story.

A Tibet-born person wrote that he did not know the story.
A researcher went to Sichuan
' , known formerly in the West by its postal map spellings of Szechwan or Szechuan is a province in Southwest China with its capital in Chengdu...

 and found that, apart from those who had already read "Jinyu Fenghuang", local researchers in Chengdu
Chengdu , formerly transliterated Chengtu, is the capital of Sichuan province in Southwest China. It holds sub-provincial administrative status...

 did not know the story. Tibetan informants in Aba did not know the story either.


Kon Ichikawa
Kon Ichikawa
was a Japanese film director.-Early life and career:Ichikawa was born in Ise, Mie Prefecture. In the 1930s Ichikawa attended a technical school in Osaka. Upon graduation, in 1933, he found a job with a local rental film studio, J.O. Studio, in their animation department...

 made a film of the story in 1987. Composer Robert Moran
Robert Moran
Robert Moran is an American composer of operas and ballets as well as numerous orchestral, vocal, chamber and dance works.-Life:...

 saw it and composed an opera based on it, From the Towers of the Moon
From the Towers of the Moon
From the Towers of the Moon is an opera in one act by Robert Moran, with a libretto by Michael John LaChiusa. It is Moran's third opera and is based upon an ancient Japanese legend, called Princess Kaguya, of a Moon Goddess who comes to Earth...


Big Bird in Japan
Big Bird in Japan
Big Bird in Japan was a 1989 special by the Children's Television Workshop . The special was based on the popular television series Sesame Street...

 includes schoolchildren performing the play within the story.

The Hello Kitty television series has a simplified episode version of this story.

Hime Chen! Otogi Chikku Idol Lilpri , also known as Lilpri, is a Japanese shōjo anime directed by Makoto Moriwaki. The anime was adapted from the Sega arcade game of the same name.-Plot:...

 has a character representing Kagura-hime.

In the second Inuyasha movie The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass contains many references to the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In addition to this, the villain is supposed to be Princess Kaguya.

In the video game Ōkami
is an action-adventure video game developed by Clover Studio and published by Capcom. It was released for Sony's PlayStation 2 video game console in 2006 in Japan and North America, and 2007 in Europe and Australia...

, both Princess Kaguya and Taketori no Okina appear as important non-player characters (as Kaguya and Mr. Bamboo, respectively). The sub-plot concerning the two is very similar to The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, with a few clear differences.

See also

  • Thumbelina
    "Thumbelina" is a literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen first published by C. A. Reitzel on 16 December 1835 in Copenhagen, Denmark with "The Naughty Boy" and "The Traveling Companion" in the second installment of Fairy Tales Told for Children. "Thumbelina" is about a tiny girl and...

     - another folktale involving a tiny girl found in vegetation
  • Inuyasha the Movie: The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass
    InuYasha the Movie: The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass
    is the second movie of the InuYasha movie series. It was released in Japan on December 21, 2002 , and in the United States on December 28, 2004...

     uses poems referring to Kaguya-Hime's tasks for the five Princes.
  • Sailor Moon
    Sailor Moon
    Sailor Moon, known as , is a media franchise created by manga artist Naoko Takeuchi. Fred Patten credits Takeuchi with popularizing the concept of a team of magical girls, and Paul Gravett credits the series with "revitalizing" the magical-girl genre itself...

     is a manga, anime and tokusatsu franchise around the story of a Moon princess reincarnated on Earth. The second Sailor Moon movie, Sailor Moon S: Hearts In Ice, specifically references the tale, in which the cat Luna takes on the guise of Princess Kaguya.
  • In Imperishable Night
    Imperishable Night
    is the eighth official game of the Touhou Project scrolling shooter series by Team Shanghai Alice. It is the third Touhou game to be released specifically for the Windows operating system...

    , the eighth game in the Touhou Project
    Touhou Project
    The , also known as Toho Project or Project Shrine Maiden, is a Japanese dōjin game series focused on bullet hell shooters made by the one-man developer Team Shanghai Alice, whose sole member, known as ZUN, is responsible for all the graphics, music, and programming for the most part...

     series, Kaguya-hime hides in Gensokyo to avoid returning to the moon.
  • Queen Millennia
    Queen Millennia
    is a manga series by Leiji Matsumoto which was serialized from 28 January 1980through 11 May 1983 in both the Sankei Shimbun and Nishinippon Sports newspapers. The manga series was adapted into a 42-episode anime TV series by Toei Dōga and broadcast on the Fuji TV network from 16 April 1981 through...

    , a series by Leiji Matsumoto
    Leiji Matsumoto
    is a well-known creator of several anime and manga series. His wife is also known as a manga artist.-Space opera:Matsumoto is famous for his space operas such as Space Battleship Yamato...

    , has the subtitle "New Tales from the Bamboo-Cutter" and features a princess from outer space
  • InuYasha
    , also known as , is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi. It premiered in Weekly Shōnen Sunday on November 13, 1996 and concluded on June 18, 2008...

    - The character of InuYasha wears the robe of the Fire Rat mentioned in the tale.

External links