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Folktales: Issun-Boshi, the One Inch High Samurai

This story is an ancient Japanese folktale of an Inch High Samurai who seeks his fortune in the capital.

The Shrine

A long time ago, in Japan, during a peaceful period of wars past and wars to come, lived an ageing couple. They desperately sought to have children but could not bear any. So they decided to visit the local shrine and earnestly pleaded in prayer to the Sumiyoshi sanjin for a child. They added that it did not matter how big the child was, they just wanted a child, they could love and cherish.

The Sumiyoshi sanjin are the three main gods of sea and sailing. There are still many of these shrines, mainly in the South of Japan.

The Sumiyoshi sanjin are the three main gods of sea and sailing. There are still many of these shrines, mainly in the South of Japan.

A Child was born

A child was born. The three gods had answered their prayer. Literally. Issun-boshi was born, a sun high, approximately three centimetres, or an inch tall. He never grew any taller, but he was intelligent and studied hard. He worked diligently and became very wise. He gave advice, and his family and his village prospered. Any time he had remaining, was spent practising swordplay.

A sun is a Japanese Imperial measurement, approximately 3 cms or just over an inch.

A sun is a Japanese Imperial measurement, approximately 3 cms or just over an inch.

The Journey

As his skills in swordplay became more refined he spoke to his parents and told them of his desire to join a noble house and become a samurai. His parents listened and even though his absence would sadden their hearts, they agreed to his request. So he took to the river which reached to the capital - in a bowl for a boat, a chopstick for a paddle and tucked in his belt, a needle for his sword.

Inch High wearing traditional kimono and hakama (leg wear) which is customary male dress in the 15th century.

Inch High wearing traditional kimono and hakama (leg wear) which is customary male dress in the 15th century.

The Arrival

Eventually, he arrived at the capital and set about finding a lord he can work for. He was taken to a large manor with surrounding farmland. When the lord met Issun-boshi, he was curious to what use can a one inch man be.

Issun-boshi explained that his parents were farmers and they took him to a local monk who taught him how to read. When he helped his parents with his first harvest he helped them to get a higher price. They used the excess to buy a book on how to grow crops. When they had their next harvest, the yield was bigger, and with that excess they bought an ox. plough and another book about animal husbandry. When the next harvest came they bought a pig and a cow. Each following harvest got better and with it came a lot of interest from other villagers. They paid for his advice with a share of their harvest and the whole village started to prosper.

The lord was impressed and he had heard of this village so he employed Issun-boshi to help him manage the fields. In return he would give him a respectable wage, a room, and also train him alongside the other samurai initiates.

Tiny, little Issun-boshi in audience with his Lord.

Tiny, little Issun-boshi in audience with his Lord.

The Ambush

Issun-boshi significantly affected his lord's fortunes making him one of the richest and most powerful nobles in Japan. The lord was equally generous to Issun-boshi and even invited him to his home to dine. Issun-boshi met his lord's daughter and over time he fell in love with her. He pledged to protect her and willingly volunteered to accompany her on all her travels.

All was well, until one fine autumn day, when returning from a visit to a shrine to give thanks for the harvest. A large demon, with fiery red skin, wild hair and piercing eyes stood before them.

The Oni priest shakes the magic mallet he has in his hand and asked for all those soldiers he can see to be still. And they were still, except for one who could not be seen. Issun-boshi pulls out his needle sword and runs towards the demon. The demon laughs and reaches down with his free hand and picks up the brave and fearless Inch High Samurai and drops him into his mouth.

The oni is a demon that commonly appears in Japanese folktales. This one bears an uchide no kozuchi - a magic mallet.

The oni is a demon that commonly appears in Japanese folktales. This one bears an uchide no kozuchi - a magic mallet.

The Gift

Issun-boshi soaked in spittle, and quickly sliding down the demon's throat, stabs relentlessly. The demon roars with pain, dropping the mallet. Pain after pain intensifies until the demon cannot tolerate it anymore. He coughs up the samurai and with no more ado, he turns on his heels, and with great speed the demon flees to his safe little home in the mountains.

The lord's daughter picks up the dropped mallet. She shows it to him saying that this mallet is rare and imbued with strong magic and can grant any wish. She asks him what would he like. He says he has everything, but one thing. He would love to be tall enough to hold her. She laughed a nervous giggle and said she would like that too. She shook the mallet and little Issun-boshi became little no more. He rose to the Imperial measurement of six shaku - six feet in length. They married and soon after they left on another visit to meet two elderly parents who lived in a village.

Ohimesama (lord's daughter) shakes the uchide no kazuchi (magic mallet) and Issun-boshi grows.

Ohimesama (lord's daughter) shakes the uchide no kazuchi (magic mallet) and Issun-boshi grows.

If you enjoyed this, why not visit another one of my Japanese Folktales.