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Japanese Folktale: The Tale of Issun Boshi

Illustration of Issun Boshi, c. 1725.

Illustration of Issun Boshi, c. 1725.

The tale of Issun Boshi is one which features many of the standard hallmarks of the sort of classic fairy-tales often told to children. There is a princess and a castle. There is magic and a tense encounter with a monstrous antagonist. There is the classic triumph of good over evil. And, at its heart, there is a brave and selfless protagonist off on a grand adventure.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the tale of Issun Boshi is also one which features exactly the sort of subtle moral lessons that you can imagine a parent wishing to impart to their child – it features deeply ingrained themes of honour, duty, and loyalty which are very central to traditional Japanese culture.

With its diminutive hero, the tale of Issun Boshi is also one which shares some fairly obvious parallels with the perhaps better known (depending on who you ask) English folktale of Tom Thumb.

The tale of Issun Boshi begins with a peasant farmer and his wife, a kind-hearted couple who has worked hard, in their years together, to build a modest life. They are not wealthy, but they are comfortable, and mostly content, except for one significant matter of constant concern to both husband and wife. In their years together, they had never been blessed with a child.

Often, husband and wife would travel together to a nearby temple where they offer prayers at the shrine to whichever gods might be listening, asking only that they be blessed in this way. Each time, though, their prayers seemed to go unanswered, as they made their way home.

After many such visits, over many years, both husband and wife began to doubt that their prayer would ever be answered. After all, if the gods had ever intended to answer their prayer, they each thought, then surely they would have done so by now. But, this doubt, though shared, remained unspoken between them, and, instead, they persisted. Over and over again, husband and wife would journey together, when their work was done, to this temple, to kneel at its shrine and offer their prayers. Over and over, again, they left, disappointed.

On one particular visit, though, the wife made an addition to her usual prayer. Kneeling at the shrine once more, she promised to love the child unconditionally, no matter what, even if the child should prove to be very small.

Whether it was intended as some manner of test, or simply the gods' sense of humour, it seems as though this was the prayer that was to be answered. As husband and wife made their way home together, once more, they heard the sound of a tiny voice crying, coming from a thick patch of grass. Concerned, they searched for the source of the noise, but, at first, they found nothing. As they poked through the thick grass, though, the wife soon caught sight of a tiny bundle of red – a bright red piece of soft cloth, wrapped around a tiny bundle.

Placing the small bundle in the palm of her hand, the wife unwrapped it, and was shocked to see a tiny baby boy, a child, barely as large as her thumb. Despite their shock, though, both husband and wife knew that this child must be the answer to their prayers that they had hoped for, for so long.

With the child carefully laid in the palm of her hand, wife and husband made their way home, together, feeling a mix of trepidation and joy at the thought of raising this tiny child as their own. But, their gratitude to the gods who had shown them such kindness was very genuine, despite the child's diminutive status, and they were each determined to love him unconditionally, as they had promised that they would.

They named the child 'Issun Boshi', which means 'Inch Boy', and in the years that followed he grew stronger and smarter, but he never grew any larger. Always, Issun Boshi remained no larger than his adopted mother's thumb. Despite this, both his mother and father remained true to the promise they had made years earlier, each treating their adopted son with love and care.

When he was sixteen years old, though, Issun Boshi told his mother and father that he felt it was time for him to leave — to head out into the world and seek out his own fortune. For the past few years, Issun Boshi had been able to dream of nothing more than to become a Samurai, in service to the local Daimyo. So, he intended to travel to the capital, to present himself to the Lord and plead his case.

Issun Boshi's mother and father tried to dissuade him, believing that such a journey would not be safe for their diminutive son, and that it would only end in disappointment. They found their adopted son to be entirely committed to his goal though. So, in the end, they were the ones to relent.

Realising that the best way to reach the capital was by river, Issun Boshi's mother and father gave him a wooden bowl to use as a boat, and a chopstick to use as a bowl. Realising, also, they their son would need a sword, if he had any hope of impressing the Daimyo, they gave him a needle which proved to be the perfect size for his tiny hand.

So, with promises to return once he had made his fortune, Issun Boshi set off. Floating down the river in his tiny boat, Issun Boshi guided himself with his chopstick oar, continuing in this manner for many days until the capital finally came into view.

Upon arriving at the capital, Issun Boshi wasted no time in making his way to the Lord's castle and presenting himself to the guards at the gate. As he attempted to announce his presence, though, Issun Boshi found that the guards ignored him, or, rather, that they simply could not hear him. With the sounds of the city drowning out his tiny voice, Issun Boshi stood at their feet, calling out to announce himself, but it was not until hours later, when the guard had chance, that one happened to glance down and catch sight of the tiny figure. Momentarily shock, but soon amused, the guard agreed to take Issun Boshi to see his lord.

While the Samurai struggled to stifle their amusement at the sight of diminutive figure, the Daimyo had the courtesy to listen politely as Issun Boshi made his request. As the Daimyo explained that he had no need for another Samurai, it seemed as though Issun Boshi's journey was to end in disappoint, as his adopted parents had feared – at least, until a new voice was heard.

Intrigued by the sight of this strange little figure, the Daimyo's daughter, a beautiful young princess, asked if Issun Boshi could be allowed to stay, as her own friend and companion. The Daimyo may have been a stern ruler, but he was also a doting father who loved his daughter, and, as such, the only possible response he could give to such a simple request was to acquiesce to her wishes. As such, Issun Boshi found himself offered a place at the Daimyo's court, an offer which he eagerly accepted.

While the princess may have viewed Issum Boshi with little more than simple curiosity, at first, she soon found herself won over by his earnest kindness and his clever wit, as they spent more time together. Soon enough, she came to view Issun Boshi as a genuine friend, one for whom she cared deeply. For his part, too, Issun Boshi soon came to admire the princess as much for her intelligence, and for a wit that matched his own, as he already did for her beauty.

In the weeks that followed, the two became inseparable. So, on the day that the princess left her father's castle and the capital to visit a distant temple, it was only natural that Issun Boshi would accompany her.

Travelling in the company of Samurai loyal to her father, the princess and Issun Boshi are enjoying what, at first, seems to be a peaceful journey on a pleasant day, but their enjoyment comes to a sudden end when they notice a strange rumbling on the ground beneath their feet. Fearing an earthquake, at first, the group comes to a stop. Soon enough, though, they come to realise that there is something odd about the way that the ground rumbles. It comes and goes in a manner that seems too rhythmic to be entirely natural.

As they ponder this strange puzzle, though, the answer soon reveals itself in the form of a massive figure making its way toward them – an Oni. It is the massive creature's footsteps that are responsible for the rumbling beneath their feet. As it sees them, the Oni moves faster, quickly closing the distance between them as it breaks into a run.

At the sight, the Samurai move to surround the princess, preparing themselves for battle. But, the massive creature is twice the size of even the largest of the Samurai, and the massive club it wields looks powerful enough to send them flying. So, one by one, the Samurai sent to protect the princess flee, leaving her defenceless. Soon enough, the only ones left standing before the Oni are the princess, herself, and Issun Boshi.

At that point, Issun Boshi rushes forward, planting himself between the Oni and the princess, and declaring his intention to protect her. The Oni roars with laughter at the sight of the diminutive figure with his strange little needle-sword, and reaching down to scoop him up in one hand, promptly stuffs Issun Boshi into his mouth and swallows him whole.

With the monstrous creature now focused solely on her, the princess lets out a startled scream. But, then, the Oni comes to a sudden stop just as it has began to reach out toward her. The expression on its face is an odd mix of confusion and pain.

Sliding down the Oni's throat, and toward its stomach, Issun Boshi thinks quickly. He may be small, but he is far from defenceless. And so, with his needle sword in hand, Issun Boshi begins to slash and stab at the Oni from within. Stabbing deep with that tiny sword, Issun Boshi begins to climb, forcing his way back up the Oni's throat. The Oni lets out a roar of pain and, as soon as it is able to do so, it spits out Issun Boshi. Then, still howling with pain, it turns and runs.

As it does so, though, it drops its club, leaving it forgotten as it flees. Realising that the club, itself, possesses the magic to grant a wish, the princess and Issun Boshi claim it for themselves. Wanting nothing more than to see her friend rewarded for his bravery, the princess offers to allow Issun Boshi to be the one that decides how the wish should be used. There is only one wish that Issun Boshi could ever imagine wanting to make though, and that is to be larger.

So, it is decided. Using the magic of the Oni's club, the princess wishes that Issun Boshi could be made as large as an ordinary person. And, as the club's magic takes effect, Issun Boshi suddenly began to grow, until he stood as tall and proud as the tallest of the Daimyo's Samurai.

As a reward for his bravery, Issun Boshi is offered an official position as a Samurai in service to the Daimyo – a position which also allows him to properly care for his ageing adopted parents. Issun Boshi and the princess remain close, and as is fitting for a story such as this, they eventually fall in love, and marry.

From there, as they say, the princess and Issun Boshi lived happily ever after.

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