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Japanese Folktale: the Tale of Momotaro

Updated on February 5, 2017
Illustration form 'The Japanese Fairy Book', Kakuzo Fujiyama, 1908
Illustration form 'The Japanese Fairy Book', Kakuzo Fujiyama, 1908 | Source

Momotaro is the well-known central figure of a popular folktale in its native Japan. It is a tale which has also, in the past, taken on distinctly nationalistic connotations, primarily during the second World War.

This is somewhat understandable, of course. With the tale placing such a great deal of emphasis on the nobility and bravery of its central protagonist in the face of overwhelming odds, it is easy to imagine it taking on elements of an analogy for Japan as a whole – at least, for the people of Japan during the time of the war. Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors, for example, was an animated propaganda film originally released in March of 1945, ironically, coming only months before Japan's surrender.

Momotaro's tale begins with a man and his wife. They were an elderly couple living in a small village in Japan. Throughout their lives together, this couple had wanted nothing more than to raise a child of their own. But, as the years passed, they each became increasingly resigned to the fact that they would never be blessed in this way.

One day though, the elderly woman was washing clothes by the side of a stream when she observed what appeared to be the largest peach that she had ever seen. Believing that a peach large enough to provide a full meal for both her and her husband would be a pleasant change from their usual fare, the woman set about trying to catch the peace before the current took it out of reach.

With the years having already taken their toll on the elderly woman, the task of proved to be surprisingly difficult. Still, with the aid of a large stick, the woman was eventually able to catch hold of the peach and bring it to shore. From there, it was a simple enough matter to carry the large peach back to the home that she shared with her husband.

It was not until the sun had begun to set that the elderly man also returned to the small house he shared with his wife. As his wife presented the peach she had recovered to him, he was suitably impressed, declaring it to be the most beautiful peach that he had ever seen. The elderly couple agreed to share this peach between them, but, as they cut it open, they were shocked to discover a tiny baby boy asleep within.

At first, the elderly couple was entirely at a loss about what they should do with this strange child. They did not know where this child could possibly have come from. They did not know if he had parents, or where they could be found. And, they certainly did not know how he could come to be sleeping inside of a peach. The one thing they were certain of, though, is that they had always wanted a child of their own, and so, in time, they came to regard the peach, and the baby boy that it carried as a blessing meant just for them.

So, with the aid of their neighbours, the elderly couple chose to raise the child themselves, treating him with the same love and care, and striving to instill within him the same virtues that they had always hoped to share with their own child. Realising that this strange baby boy also needed a name, they chose Momotaro, which means 'peach boy.'

The years that followed seemed to pass too quickly. But, there were still years that were filled with love and joy for both the elderly couple and Momotaro himself.

When Momotaro was fifteen, he decided that it would be necessary to repay his adopted parents and their neighbours for the kindness that they had shown him. But, of course, he had no idea how he might do so. While his adopted parents were adamant that there was no debt to be repaid, Momotaro proved to be just as adamant.

It was in conversation with his adopted father that Momotaro's plan was revealed. On a nearby island, a band of Oni (savage monsters of Japanese folklore and mythology) had gathered and constructed a stronghold for themselves. For years, these Oni had been reaching out from their island stronghold to raid villages, including the one that Momotaro had come to call home. So, now, Momotaro was determined to be the one to finally their threat ended.

Momotaro's adopted parents are naturally concerned, but the child they had taken such care to raise had grown to be both brave and strong, and he would not be dissuaded. When Momotaro left the village, he did so armed with a sword and carrying three rice cakes that had been prepared for him by his adopted mother.

While Momotaro had set out alone, he did not remain so for long. First, Momotaro encountered a dog (who, in the classic tradition of tales such as this one, possessed the gift of speech) who, impressed by both Momotaro's bravery and the nobility of his goal, agreed to accompany him in exchange for a rice cake. Later, the pair encountered a monkey who, similarly impressed by the pair, offered to help in exchange for another of Momotaro's rice cakes. Later, still, the trio encountered a pheasant, who once again was willing to help in exchange for the last rice cake.

Together, the four made their way to the island, making the final leg of their journey by boat. On the island, they found a formidable fortress with walls guarded by formidable creatures. Momotaro was not deterred though, and as the four companions searched in secret for a means of entering the fortress, they came upon a group of young women. These women, each wearing clothing that was torn and stained with blood, were captives of the Oni who had been taken during various raids.

Promising to see them freed from their captors, Momotaro asked only that these women aid him in entering the fortress unseen, something which they proved quite willing to do. Led to a secret entrance, Momotaro and his companions were able to catch the Oni by surprise as they launched their attack.

The four companions proved to be formidable combatants as they hurled themselves upon the unsuspecting Oni. The pheasent flew about their heads, and poked at their eyes. The dog dashed between the legs and bit at their heels. The monkey, proving to be too agile for even the most powerful blows to land, drove the Oni into a rage.

But, none were more formidable than Momotaro himself. As the battle raged around him, Momotaro engaged the leader of the Oni in one-on-one combat. The Oni was powerful, but Momotaro proved to be much faster – and, with one small cut after another, he began to wear his opponent down. Finally, he saw an opportunity to deliver the killing blow, and he took it. His blade cut deep as the leader of the Oni fell.

Seeing their leader fall, those Oni who were still alive took the opportunity to flee. Momotaro and his companions were victorious, and the Oni's stronghold was theirs. As the four companions left the island, they did so in a boat piled high with stolen treasure. Those young women who had been taken captive by the Oni were freed, and finally permitted to return home.

Momotaro returned to his adopted parents in triumph, and in the company of his new companions. With the treasure taken from the Oni, he was able to ensure that his adopted parents, along with the entire village that he had come to call home, was able to live in peace and comfort.

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