Urashima Tarō

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Portrait of Urashima Tarō by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
("Fukushima-juku" one of the 69 stations of the Kiso-kaidō).

Urashima Tarō (浦島 太郎) is the protagonist of a Japanese otogi banashi (fairy tale) about a fisherman who rescues a turtle and is rewarded for this with a visit to the Ryūgū-jō (Dragon Palace) which lies beneath or beyond the sea. There he is entertained for what he believes are a few short days, but upon his return to his home village, he finds himself 300 years in the future.

It is based on a legend of Urashima no ko recorded in the various pieces of literature dating to the 8th century or earlier, such as the Nihon Shoki, the Fudoki for Tango Province, and the Man'yōshū.


Urashima saves the turtle. Japanese watercolour from late 16th or early 17th century

The Urashima Taro tale that is most familiar to most Japanese now follows the storyline as retold by children's tale author Iwaya Sazanami (ja) in the Meiji period. A condensed version of it subsequently appeared in Kokutei Kyōkasho (ja) or Japan's nationally designated textbook, and became widely read by the schoolchildren of the populace.[1][2]

Commonly known version[edit]

The following summary shall reference a well-known example of such a textbook text, from the 3rd edition of the nationally designated textbook, commonly known as the Hanahato tokuhon (ja) from the period 1918-1932.[3][a]

Long ago, a man named Urashima Tarō found a turtle on the beach being tortured by a group of children, and rescued it. Later, while he was fishing on a boat as always, the grateful turtle came and told him he would carry him on his back for him to see the underwater palace known as Ryūgū (Dragon Palace). At the palace, the princess (Otohime) thanked him for saving the turtle, and was entertained for many days with a rich feast and dances performed by tai (snapper), hirame (halibut), octupi and other creatures.

But remembering his mother and father and feeling homesick, he bid his farewell to Otohime. The princess tried to dissuade him from leaving, but finally let him go with a parting gift, a mysterious box called tamatebako which he was told never to open.

When Tarō returned to his hometown, everything had changed. His home was gone, his mother and father had perished, and the people he knew were nowhere to be seen. Thinking that opening the box might do some good, and not remembering the princess's warning, he lifted the lid of the box. A cloud of white smoke arose and touched his face, turning him to a wrinkled old man, his hair and beard turned completely white.[b][5][6]


As always with folklore, there are many different versions of this story.

There are other versions that add a further epilogue explaining the subsequent fate of Urashima Tarō after he turns into an old man. In one, he falls to dust and dies, in another, he transforms into a crane and flies up to the sky. In another, he grows gills and leaps into the sea, whereby he regains his youth.[7]

This transformation into a crane is an ending motif alrady anticipated in the old Otogizōshi version.[8]

In another version Urashima ate a magic pill that gave him the ability to breathe underwater. In another version, he is swept away by a storm before he can rescue the turtle.[citation needed]

Seki's version in English[edit]

The tale of "Urashima Taro" in Keigo Seki's anthology (translated into English 1963), was a version told in Nakatado District, Kagawa. In this variant, Urashima is localized as being from "Kitamae Oshima". It incorporates both the motif of the turtle being caught while fishing, and that of Urashima transforming into a crane at the end.

Here, it was a "three-tiered " (三段重, sandan-gasane) box (see jūbako (重箱)) that was given to Urashima. When he opened the lid, the first box contained a crane's feather, and the second a puff of white smoke that turned him into an old man, and the third a mirror, which made him see for himself that he had suddenly grown old. The feather from the first box then attached itself to his back, and Urashima flew up to the sky, encircling his mother's grave.[9]

Versions retold in English[edit]

The story entitled "The Fisher-boy Urashima" (1886) retold by Basil Hall Chamberlain, was number 8 in the "Japanese Fairy Tale Series" printed by Hasegawa Takejirō, the issuer of many such chirimen-bon or "crepe-paper books".[10] Although the illustration is unattributed in the printing, it is credited to Kobayashi Eitaku.[11][12]

In this version, "Urashima" (not "Taro") releases a tortoise (sic) he caught while fishing on his boat. The tortoise reappears in her true form as the Sea-God's daughter, invites him to the Dragon Palace.[c] There the couple are married and live happily for 3 years, but Urashima misses seeing his parents and his brothers. The Dragon Princess reluctantly allows him to leave, giving him a box he is instructed never to open, for it will cause him never to be able to return to the palace. When he returns to his home village, his absence turns out to have been 400 years. Urashima now wishes to go back to the Dragon Palace but he does not know the means, and opens the box. He turns into a white-haired, wrinkled old man and dies.[13]

Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in Japan and translated or adapted many ghost stories from the country, rewrote the Urashima tale under the title The Dream of a Summer Day in the late 19th century, working off of a copy of Chamberlain's "Japanese Fairy Tale Series" version.[14]


The full name Urashima Tarō was not given to the character until the 15th century (the Muromachi period), first appearing in the kyōgen plays[15] and in a genre of illustrated popular fiction known as otogizōshi.[16]

The story itself is much older, dating to the 8th century (the Nara period), but the protagonist was known as "Ura (no) Shimako", as attested in earlier sources such as the Fudoki for Tango Province (Tango no Kuni Fudoki, 丹後国風土記) that survived in excerpts, the Man'yōshū and the Nihon Shoki.[17] Later in the Heian Period, the misreading "Urashima (no) ko" became current, because names with the suffix -ko ("child") came to be regarded as female, even though it once applied to either gender.[18] When the texts were written for the kyōgen theatre, the character's name underwent further change to Urashima Tarō: -tarō ("great youth") being a common suffix in male names.[15]

In the Otogizōshi version, Urashima upon his visit to the Dragon Palace, discovers that on each of the four sides of the palace it is a different season.[19] And it ends with Urashima Tarō transforming into a crane.[20]

Comparative mythology[edit]

The story bears varying degrees of similarity to folktales from other cultures. Rip Van Winkle is the foremost familiar example, although strictly speaking this cannot be called a "folktale", since it is a fictional work by Washington Irving loosely based on folklore.[21] Nevertheless, Urashima has been labeled the "Japanese Rip van Winkle", even in academic folkloristic literature.[22] "Urashima"[d] is also a Japanese metaphor similar to "Rip Van Winkle" for someone who feels lost in a world that has changed in their absence.[23]

This pair of tales may not be the closest matching among the motif group. Writing in the 19th century, Lafcadio Hearn suggested that Irving wrote another piece called "The Adelantado of the Seven Cities", based on Portuguese tradition, which bore an even stronger resemblance to Urashima.[24] Japanese art collector William Anderson also wrote that a certain Chinese tale was closer to "Rip Van Winkle" than Urashima was.[25]

That Chinese analogue is the anecdote of the woodcutter Wang Zhi,[e] who after watching immortals playing a board game discovers many years have passed.[25] The piece is a selection in the Shuyiji (ja)[f] or "Accounts of Strange Things", and is also known as the legend of Lankeshan[g] or "Rotten Axe Handle Mountain".[27][28] Sometimes this Chinese tale is conjectured as a possible source for Urashima, but there is lack of consensus among folklorists regarding their interrelationship.[27]

Other cognate tales include the Irish legend of Oisín[h] who met Niamh and spent his life with her in Tír na nÓg,[29][30][31] and the Vietnamese legend of Từ Thức (vi), who aids a fairy-child arrested for plucking a peony flower during the festivities.[32] In both these cases, the hero is united with a fairy woman who dwells in a land beyond the sea.


A shrine on the western coast of the Tango Peninsula in northern Kyoto Prefecture, named Urashima Jinja, contains an old document describing a man, Urashimako, who left his land in 478 A.D. and visited a land where people never die. He returned in 825 A.D. with a Tamatebako. Ten days later he opened the box, and a cloud of white smoke was released, turning Urashimako into an old man. Later that year, after hearing the story, Emperor Junna ordered Ono no Takamura to build a shrine to commemorate Urashimako's strange voyage, and to house the Tamatebako and the spirit of Urashimako.


The animated adaptation Urashima Tarō of the tale, premiered in 1918, is among some of the oldest anime created in Japan,[33] the same year that Oz author Ruth Plumly Thompson adapted it as "Urushima and the Princess of the Sea" for The Philadelphia Public Ledger.[34]

The story influenced various works of fiction and a number of films. In 1945, Japanese writer Osamu Dazai published Otogizōshi ("fairytale book"), which includes a much expanded version of the story. Urashima's tale, as the other three included in the Otogizōshi, is used mostly as a platform for Dazai's own thoughts and musings. Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "A Fisherman of the Inland Sea" (or "Another Story", 1994) is a reconcoction of the Urashima story set in the Ekumen or Hainish universe.

In popular culture[edit]

Manga and anime references include Clannad, Detective Conan, Evangelion, YuYu Hakusho, Urusei Yatsura, Love Hina (whose lead male character is called Urashima Keitaro, and with a girl named Otohime Mutsumi), Gintama, Yes! PreCure 5, Ultra Q, Kamen Rider Den-O (the namesake of the Imagin Urataros, given by Naomi), Cowboy Bebop,[35] Gravitation, Ōkami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi, Ghost Sweeper Mikami, RahXephon, [36] and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, One Piece (the Gyojin Island Arc). "Urashima Drive" is one of the episodes in the anime series Real Drive. Choudenshi Bioman (1984) includes references to Urashima in its episode 17. Urashima Tarō is the basis for Sweet Basil's visual novel Little My Maid.

Urashima Tarō is often referenced in Hideo Kojima's adventure video game Policenauts, and much of the game's plot elements were also inspired by the tale.[37] In Clover Studio's action-adventure video game Ōkami, the protagonist Amaterasu chases away a group of children bullying a fisherman named Urashima, setting up a major sub-plot in the game very similar to the tale of Urashima Tarō. In the video game Skies of Arcadia one of the game's discoveries (called Ryuguu Turtle) is inspired by Urashima Tarō. In the video game Ape Escape 2 one of the unlockable monkey fables is called "Apeshima Taro" and is a parody of the tale, featuring monkeys. Also, in the game Disgaea 4, the Fishermen Pirate that appears in the Item World references the story as he enters upon a giant turtle shell stating "I'm sorry princess, I didn't mean to open the box".

A Brazilian TV commercial for the airline Varig in the late 60s and 1970 (as a promotion for Expo 70) featured Urashima Taro.

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The nationally designated textbook (kokutei kyōkasho) in question here is the nationally designated Reading Book (Kokugo tokuhon (ja)). Its full title in the third edition became Jinjō shōgaku kokugo tokuhon 尋常小学国語読本, or "Japanese Reading Book for Elementary Schools".[4]
  2. ^ The text of the 3rd edition, beginning: "むかし、浦島太郎といふ人がありました。(Mukashi, Urashima Tarō to iu hito ga arimashita)".
  3. ^ Here, the Dragon Palace is not submerged in the ocean; the two of them reach it by rowing hard on the boat.
  4. ^ Or "Urashima Tarō Jōtai" (浦島太郎状態).
  5. ^ Wang Chih (王質[26]).
  6. ^ Shu i Chi
  7. ^ "Lan-k'o shan"
  8. ^ Ossian

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Holmes (2014), pp. 6–7 citing Miura (1989), p. 21
  2. ^ McKeon (1996), pp. 195–196
  3. ^ Holmes (2014), p. 77
  4. ^ Holmes (2014), p. 77
  5. ^ Ashiya (1936), pp. 179–182: reprint from Kokugo tokuhon, vol. 3
  6. ^ Miura (1989), pp. 22–: reprint from Dai 3 ki kokutei kyōkasho
  7. ^ Sherman, Howard J (2014), World Folklore for Storytellers: Tales of Wonder, Wisdom, Fools, and Heroes, Routledge, pp. 215–216 
  8. ^ Sugiyama (1964)
  9. ^ Seki (1963), pp. 111–114, reprinted Tatar (2017), pp. 167–171
  10. ^ Sharf, Frederic Alan (1994), Takejiro Hasegawa: Meiji Japan's Preeminent Publisher of Wood-block-illustrated Crepe-paper Books, Peabody Essex Museum Collections, vol. 130, Salem: Peabody Essex Museum, p. 62 
  11. ^ Tablada, José Juan (2006), En el país del sol, VIII, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, p. 155, n27 
  12. ^ Kyoto University of Foreign Studies (2007). "The Fisher-Boy Urashima". Crepe-Paper Books and Wood Block Prints at the Dawn of Cultural Enlightenment in Japan. Retrieved 2017-08-22. 
  13. ^ Chamberlain (1886), The Fisher-boy Urashima
  14. ^ Hearn, Lafcadio (1895). Out of the East: Reveries and Studies in New Japan. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin. pp. 1–27. 
  15. ^ a b McKeon (1996), pp. 102–107ff.
  16. ^ McKeon (1996), pp. 134–136ff.
  17. ^ McKeon (1996), pp. 7–8, 28, 35.
  18. ^ McKeon (1996), pp. 107, 228.
  19. ^ Seki, Haruo (2012), Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts, Columbia University Press, pp. 148149, 195 n30 , citing "Urashima Tarō" in Otogi zōshi, Ichiko Teiji (1958) ed., Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei 38, pp. 340–341
  20. ^ Sugiyama (1964)
  21. ^ Seal, Graham; White, Kim Kennedy (2016), Folk Heroes and Heroines around the World (2 ed.), ABC-CLIO, p. 47, ISBN 9781440838613 
  22. ^ Mills, Douglas E. (1972), "Medieval Japanese Tales", Folklore, 83 (4): 292 
  23. ^ Shin Wa-Ei Daijiten, 5th edition, entry "Urashima Tarō. Kenkyūsha. 2006.
  24. ^ Hearn, Lafcadio (1927). A history of English literature in a series of lectures (Notes on American Literature). 2. Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press. p. 827. 
  25. ^ a b Anderson, William (1886), The Pictorial Arts of Japan and Other Writings, Synapse, p. 107 
  26. ^ Mayers, William Frederick (1874), Chinese Reader's Manual, American Presbyterian mission Press, p. 239 : Anderson (1886)'s source; gives name in Chinese characters.
  27. ^ a b Sugiyama (1964).
  28. ^ Wu, Cheng'en (1980), Journey to the West, University of Chicago Press, p. 505, n13 
  29. ^ McKeon (1996), pp. 14–15.
  30. ^ Tagaya (2011), p. 99, citing Doi, Shinwa 1973 pp. 19–25
  31. ^ Briggs, Katharine Mary (1976), An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, Pantheon Books, p. 399 
  32. ^ Costineanu, Dragomir (1996), Origines et mythes du kabuki, Publications orientalistes de France, pp. 45–47 
  33. ^ "90yo Japanese anime recovered". 
  34. ^ "Tiger Tales #60 - Urashima and the Princess of the Sea". www.hungrytigerpress.com. Retrieved 2017-07-31. 
  35. ^ "Speak Like a Child". Cowboy Bebop. Season 1. Episode 18. 1998-06-19. WOWOW. 
  36. ^ Izubuchi, Yutaka (scenario) and Kiryu, Yukari (screenplay) RahXephon TV series episode 3
  37. ^ Kurt Kalata, Policenauts, Hardcore Gaming 101

See also[edit]

External links[edit]