By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff WriterOnce Upon a Time in Japan
Translated by Roger Pulvers & Juliet Winters Carpenter
Tuttle Publishing, 120pp
As we get older, folktales and the lessons learned from them fade into distant memory.
Given that we go through layers of experience, it’s only natural that lessons from real life are more convincing to our older selves than those from fictional settings in picture books.
“Once Upon a Time in Japan” is a collection of eight folktales set in Japan that will jog such childhood memories among many adult readers — but in new ways.
The book includes such classical stories as “The Gratitude of the Crane” and “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” and the less well-known stories “Sleepyhead Taro and the Children” and “The Mill of the Sea.”
Old tales often present ethical concepts through characters’ good and bad deeds. Reading them, children learn things like sharing is good and being greedy is bad, while honesty is right and dishonesty is wrong.
Some might think it’s a waste of time to look at reading material for kids. But the perspective of a grown-up will give you fresh insight into the tales.
Between the lines of the supposedly happy-ending stories, there is untold sorrow and subtle unease, undetected by a child’s mind. Karmic backlash for the “bad guys” that once felt righteous seems a little too harsh now.
For instance, “The Fox and the Otter” tells the story of a deceitful fox and how his bushy tail was torn apart as punishment. In “The Monkey and the Crabs,” the sly monkey, attacked by a mortar, a bee and a chestnut at once, is forced to apologize on his hands and knees.
The moral lessons in these tales are universal and should transcend the reader’s age. But to an adult who is well aware that we’re not living in a good and evil fairy-tale world, it may not be the courageous avengers but rather the ruffians accused by them who somehow have more appeal.
Four artists illustrated the world of each story in different styles.
Among them, the most memorable image is by Manami Yamada for “The Wife Who Never Eats,” in which the culprit is stuffing an enormous amount of rice balls into “a huge mouth at the very top of her head.”
If you want to cultivate your own visual imagination, listening to the included audio CD is recommended before opening the book.
In recent years, several Japanese publishers have reissued their books of old folktales by presenting them in easier Japanese with modernized illustrations to make them approachable for young readers.
But reading this book leads to a discovery about the nature of old folktales: A sprinkling of cruelty and weirdness help engrave moral lessons deeper on the minds of readers.
“Once Upon a Time in Japan” will no doubt remind people of familiar tales from the past. But at the same time, some readers will be surprised at how they interpret these nostalgic tales differently from their old days.
This gap probably reflects the sometimes bitter experiences people have in the process of moving into adulthood.
Where to Read
At a family house where you spent your childhood, sitting in the shade of trees that have grown taller