The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Discovery of Princess Kaguya (depiction from the Edo period, late 17th century)

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語, Taketori Monogatari) is a 10th-century Japanese monogatari (fictional prose narrative) containing Japanese folklore. It is considered the oldest extant Japanese prose narrative,[1][2] though the oldest surviving complete manuscript is dated to 1592.[3]

The tale is also known as The Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari), after its protagonist.[4] It primarily details the life of a mysterious girl called Kaguya, who is discovered as a baby inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo plant.


Taketori no Okina takes Kaguya-hime to his home (drawn by Tosa Hiromichi, c. 1600)

One day, while walking in the bamboo forest, an old bamboo cutter called Taketori no Okina (竹取翁, "old man who harvests bamboo") comes across a mysterious, shining stalk of bamboo. When he cuts it open, he is surprised to find an infant the size of his thumb sitting inside. The man and his wife, who have no children of their own, decide to raise the infant as their daughter, naming her Nayotake no Kaguya-hime (なよたけのかぐや姫, "Shining Princess of the Young Bamboo"). From that moment on, every time the old man cuts a bamboo stalk, he finds a small nugget of gold inside. The family becomes rich, and in the span of three months, Kaguya-hime grows from a small baby into a woman of ordinary size and extraordinary beauty. At first, the old man tries to keep Kaguya-hime away from outsiders, but news of her beauty spreads across Japan, attracting many suitors who seek her hand in marriage.

Among them are five nobles: Prince Ishitsukuri (石作皇子), Prince Kuramochi (車持皇子), the Minister of the Right Abe no Mimuraji (右大臣阿倍御主人), the Grand Counselor Ōtomo no Miyuki (大納言大伴御行), and the Middle Counselor Isonokami no Marotari (中納言石上麻呂). They eventually persuade the old man to tell Kaguya-hime to choose from among them. Uninterested, Kaguya-hime devises five impossible tasks, agreeing to marry the noble who could bring her the item specified for him: the stone begging bowl of the Buddha, a jeweled branch from the island of Hōrai, a robe of Chinese fire-rat skins, a colored jewel from a dragon's neck, and a cowry shell born from a swallow.

Realizing the impossibility of his task, the first noble presents a fake stone bowl made from a blackened pot, but is exposed when Kaguya-hime notices that the bowl does not glow with holy light. The second noble presents a branch crafted by the finest jewelers in Japan, but is exposed when a messenger of the craftsmen arrives at Kaguya-hime's house to collect payment. The third noble is deceived by a merchant from China, who sells him a false robe that burns when tested with fire. The fourth noble attempts to find a dragon at sea, but abandons his plans after encountering a storm. The final noble falls from a great height while trying to reach into a swallow's nest.

After this, the Emperor of Japan comes to see Kaguya-hime and, after falling in love, asks her to marry him. Although he is not subjected to the impossible trials that thwarted the nobles, Kaguya-hime rejects his request for marriage as well, telling him that she is not from his country and therefore cannot go to the palace with him. She remains in contact with the Emperor, but continues to rebuff his requests and marriage proposals. Three years pass as they continue to communicate by letter.

The receding Princess

That summer, whenever Kaguya-hime sees the full moon, her eyes fill with tears. Though her adoptive parents become very worried and question her, she is unable to tell them what is wrong. Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic until she reveals that she is not of this world and must return to her people on the Moon. In some versions, it is said that she was sent to the Earth, where she would inevitably form material attachment, as a temporary punishment for some crime, while in others, she was sent to Earth for her safety during a celestial war. The gold that the old man found was a stipend from the people of the Moon, sent to pay for Kaguya-hime's upkeep.

Kaguya-hime returns to the Moon

As the day of her return approaches, the Emperor sends many guards to protect her from the Moon's people, but when an embassy of heavenly beings descends upon the bamboo cutter's house, the guards are blinded by a strange light. Kaguya-hime announces that, though she loved her many friends on Earth, she must return with the beings to her true home on the Moon. She writes sad notes of apology to her parents and to the Emperor, then gives her parents her own robe as a memento. She then takes a little of the elixir of immortality, attaches it to her letter to the Emperor, and gives it to a guard officer. As she hands it to him, a feather robe is placed on her shoulders, and all of her sadness and compassion for the people of the Earth are apparently forgotten. The entourage ascends into the sky, taking Kaguya-hime back to Tsuki no Miyako (月の都, "the Capital of the Moon") and leaving her earthly foster parents in tears.

The parents become very sad and are soon put to bed sick. The officer returns to the Emperor with the items Kaguya-hime gave him as her last mortal act, and reports what happened. The Emperor reads her letter and is overcome with sadness. He asks his servants, "Which mountain is the closest place to Heaven?"; in response, one suggests the Great Mountain of Suruga Province. The Emperor orders his men to take the letter to the summit of the mountain and burn it, in the hope that his message would reach the distant princess. The men are also commanded to burn the elixir of immortality, since the Emperor does not wish to live forever without being able to see her.

Legend has it that the word immortality, 不死 (fushi), became the name of the mountain, Mount Fuji. It is also said that the kanji for the mountain, 富士山 (literally "mountain abounding with warriors"), are derived from the Emperor's army ascending the slopes to carry out his order. It is said that the smoke from the burning still rises to this day. (In the past, Mount Fuji was a much more active volcano and therefore produced more smoke.)

Literary connections[edit]

Elements of the tale were drawn from earlier stories. The protagonist Taketori no Okina appears in the earlier poetry collection Man'yōshū (c. 759; poem# 3791). In it, he meets a group of women and he recites a poem to them. This indicates that there previously existed an image or tale revolving around a bamboo cutter and celestial or mystical women.[5][6]

A similar retelling of the tale appears in the c. 12th century Konjaku Monogatarishū (volume 31, chapter 33), although the relationship between these texts is debated.[7]

Banzhu Guniang[edit]

In 1957, Jinyu Fenghuang (金玉鳳凰), a Chinese book of Tibetan tales, was published.[8] In the early 1970s, Japanese literary researchers became aware that "Banzhu Guniang" (班竹姑娘), one of the tales in the book, had certain similarities with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.[9][10] Initially, many researchers thought that "Banzhu Guniang" must be related to Tale of Bamboo Cutter, although some were skeptical.

In the 1980s, studies showed that the relationship between these stories is not as simple as initially thought. Okutsu provides an extensive review of the research, and notes that the book Jinyu Fenghuang was intended to be for children, and as such, the editor took some liberties in adapting the tales. No other compilation of Tibetan tales contains the story.[11]

A Tibetan-born person wrote that he did not know the story.[12] A researcher went to Sichuan and found that, apart from those who had already read "Jinyu Fenghuang", local researchers in Chengdu did not know the story.[13] Several Tibetan sources in Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture did not know the story either.[13]


The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is a popular folk tale in Japan.[14] It has been adapted, updated and reworked into numerous modern media, especially Japanese pop culture media such as manga and anime.[15][16]

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has been identified as proto-science fiction. Some of its science fiction plot elements include Kaguya-hime being a princess from the Moon who is sent to Earth for safety during a celestial war, an extraterrestrial being raised by a human on Earth, and her being taken back to the Moon by her real extraterrestrial family. A manuscript illustration also depicts a round flying machine that resembles a flying saucer.[17] Kaguya's story also has similarities to a modern superhero origin story, particularly that of Superman.[18]

Modern adaptations[edit]

Generally faithful adaptations of the original story include the following:

Modern updates and reworkings of the original story are found in numerous other works, which include the following:


  1. ^ "Japan: Literature", Windows on Asia, MSU,
  2. ^ "17. A Picture Contest". The Tale of Genji. the ancestor of all romances)
  3. ^ Katagiri et al. 1994: 95.
  4. ^ Katagiri et al. 1994: 81.
  5. ^ Horiuchi (1997:345-346)
  6. ^ Satake (2003:14-18)
  7. ^ Yamada (1963:301-303)
  8. ^ 田海燕, ed. (1957). 金玉鳳凰 (in Chinese). Shanghai: 少年兒童出版社.
  9. ^ 百田弥栄子 (1971). 竹取物語の成立に関する一考察. アジア・アフリカ語学院紀要 (in Japanese). 3.
  10. ^ 伊藤清司 (1973). かぐや姫の誕生―古代説話の起源 (in Japanese). 講談社.
  11. ^ 奥津 春雄 (2000). 竹取物語の研究: 達成と変容 竹取物語の研究 (in Japanese). 翰林書房. ISBN 978-4-87737-097-8.
  12. ^ テンジン・タシ, ed. (2001). 東チベットの民話 (in Japanese). Translated by 梶濱 亮俊. SKK.
  13. ^ a b 繁原 央 (2004). 日中説話の比較研究 (in Japanese). 汲古書院. ISBN 978-4-7629-3521-3.
  14. ^ a b c d e Zahed, Ramin (18 November 2013). "Hot Clip: Ghibli's 'Tale of the Bamboo Cutter'". Animation Magazine. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  15. ^ a b c d e Green, Scott (October 22, 2013). "VIDEO: Studio Ghibli's "Princess Kaguya" Featured in Ad". Crunchyroll. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  16. ^ a b c Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. A-Net Digital LLC. 2010. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-9845937-4-3.
  17. ^ Richardson, Matthew (2001). The Halstead Treasury of Ancient Science Fiction. Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales: Halstead Press. ISBN 978-1-875684-64-9. (cf. "Once Upon a Time". Emerald City (85). September 2002. Retrieved 2008-09-17.)
  18. ^ a b "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya". The Source Weekly. Bend, Oregon. 2014. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  19. ^ Shirane, Haruo (2008). Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production. Columbia University Press. p. 326. ISBN 978-0-231-51346-3.
  20. ^ Feez (9 April 2019). "Turn A Gundam's 20th Anniversary: A Reflection". Moon's Cocoon. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  21. ^ a b c Joy, Alicia (3 October 2016). "The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter, Japan's 10th-Century Sci-fi Folk Tale". Culture Trip. Retrieved 11 May 2020.


Further reading[edit]

  • Keene, Donald. "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." Monumenta Nipponica 11, no. 4 (1956): pp. 329-355. doi:10.2307/2382982.

External links[edit]