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This old man: Japan’s folktales and the prominence of the elderly

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsA few months ago, I became a grandmother. My daughter and Canadian son-in-law live in Toronto, and I went for a quick visit to have a chance to hold my little granddaughter in my arms. When I asked my daughter if there was anything in particular she wanted me to bring from Japan, she asked for some Japanese books, of the kind with thick cardboard pages, suitable for babies. As a result, I spent a very pleasurable time choosing among the many splendid books on offer at Maruzen.

I realized how happy I felt that my daughter wanted to read Japanese books to her baby. This, in fact, was a reversal of what I had done with her. My Japanese husband and I had largely followed the “one parent, one language” approach to family bilingualism when our children were young, so I almost exclusively read English books to my daughters, although, naturally, living in Japan they had many occasions to enjoy Japanese children’s books.

My feeling of delight was not simply a matter of being glad that my daughter was trying to do what she could to help expose her child to the Japanese language. It was something about the stories themselves — stories I had not read to her, but which had come to feel an important part of what I hoped would be passed on to the next generation of our family.

What was it about these stories that was different from the English stories I’d read to my children? In an article I wrote for this column in 2006, I introduced the research of Jennifer Dryer-Seymour and her colleagues that compared 40 American and 40 Japanese picture books. They found, among other things, that words only appearing in the American books were “fun,” “kiss,” “love,” “best” and “helpful,” while the Japanese books included “genki” (spirited), “iya” (disagreeable), “itazura” (mischief), “jozu” (well done), and “namakemono” (lazy) — words that had no corresponding manifestations in the American books.

A recent study by Mayako Murai, a cross-cultural fairy tale researcher, points out another difference between Japanese and Western stories: the role of old people in Japanese folktales and Western fairy tales. The disparity plays out in a range of ways.

Old people take center stage in Japanese folktales. As Murai notes, in four of the five most well-known Japanese folktales, old people are major characters. “The Man Who Made Flowers Bloom” portrays a kind old man and the comeuppance of his neighbor, another old man, greedy and brutal. In “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow,” once again a compassionate old man is featured, along with his avaricious old wife, who receives her just deserts. In “Kachi Kachi Mountain,” the main action falls to a tanuki racoon dog and a rabbit, but the story is driven by the rabbit’s love for an elderly couple and his revenge on the tanuki after it kills the old woman. In “Peach Boy,” an old childless couple find a boy in a peach floating down a river. While “Peach Boy” is the hero of the story, the old couple are key players. Only in “The Monkey and the Crab” are there no old people — but no humans at all appear in this story.

Murai further observes that while old people do figure in Grimm’s fairy tales, they often live on the outskirts of society and possess magic power, most often as witches or crones. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the grandmother lives on the other side of the forest and is infirm. The old people in Japanese folktales, on the other hand, are part of the normal working world, engaging in woodcutting, washing clothes by the river, and other daily labor, with no supernatural capabilities. Murai points out that in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, old people are sometimes the main characters, but they are depicted as sequestered from the hustle and bustle of life, awaiting death, looking back in happier times. And these stories of old people are not among Andersen’s most popular.

Two Grimm’s fairy tales, “Faithful Johannes” and “Old Sultan,” indeed feature old men with no magical powers as the main characters. However, they were not popular in the West, although they were among the most translated of the Grimm’s fairy tales in Japan at the end of the 19th century. Another frequently translated story was “The Musicians of Bremen,” the well-known story of a group of discarded animals that head to Bremen with the aim of becoming musicians. Murai cites the work of another folktale ethnographer, Kayo Kubo, who remarks on an interesting twist added when the story was rendered in Japanese. Instead of the donkey’s master treating him heartlessly, the Japanese version portrays the man as wretched that he can no longer support the donkey, so that the animal leaves of his own accord.

Since 2015 NHK has produced a series of simulated trials based on Japanese and Western folktales to help educate children on court proceedings and the role of the jury. “Kachi Kachi Mountain” is the second of the 10 so far created, following “The Three Little Pigs,” and it is one of the most poignant, the defense of a violent assault brought on by the love of the rabbit for a murdered old woman. While affecting, it is also humorous as the courtroom drama is played out so earnestly and precisely. I’ve watched it with several Japanese friends and family members and they’ve smiled at the prosecutor’s snarky comments, the tanuki’s self-righteous statement of grievances and so on, but each time they actually laughed out loud at exactly the same point in the trial: when a photo is shown of the rabbit with the old woman, 10 minutes into the 15-minute video.

She’s an ordinary gray-haired woman, smiling cheerfully as she poses for the camera with the rabbit. The feeling of complete normality imbued in the photo brings the incongruity of the whole set-up into sharper contrast, provoking mirth. The next trial NHK produced used the story of “Snow White,” and a photo of a handsome young Japanese man, ostensibly the prince, is similarly shown. Japan loves its cute young guys, as any TV viewer knows, but the photo is just another part of the trial, with no wacky tug of recognition as a folktale suddenly springs to life. It’s a different story and a different trial, originating in a different culture.

(The next installment will

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