Urashima Tarō

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This article is about the Japanese folklore figure. For the anime film based on it, see Urashima Tarō (anime).
Portrait of Urashima Tarō by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Urashima Tarō (浦島 太郎?) is the protagonist of a Japanese legend about a fisherman who rescues a turtle and is rewarded for this with a visit to Ryūgū-jō, the palace of Ryūjin, the Dragon God Nadraka, under the sea. He stays there for three days and, upon his return to his village, finds himself 300 years in the future.


The name Urashima Tarō first appears in the 15th century (the Muromachi period), in a genre of illustrated popular fiction known as otogizōshi; the story itself is much older, dating to the 8th century (the Nara period). Older sources such as Nihon Shoki[citation needed], Man'yōshū[1] and Tango no Kuni Fudoki (丹後国風土記) refer to Urashima Tarō as Urashimako. The change from Urashimako to Urashima Tarō reflects a shift in Japanese naming customs; while the suffix -ko ("child") was originally used in both male and female names, in medieval times it was largely restricted to female names, and replaced by -tarō ("great youth") in male names.

Comparative mythology[edit]

The story bears a striking similarity to folktales from other cultures, including the Irish legend of Oisín in Tír na nÓg[2], the Vietnamese legend of Từ Thức and the earlier Chinese legend of Ranka.[citation needed] The character is also used in everyday Japanese as a metaphor for someone who feels lost in a world that has changed without them, similar to the American tale "Rip Van Winkle".[3]


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

One day a young fisherman named Urashima Tarō is fishing when he notices a group of children torturing a small turtle. Tarō saves it and lets it to go back to the sea. The next day, a huge turtle approaches him and tells him that the small turtle he had saved is the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea, Ryūjin, who wants to see him to thank him. The turtle magically gives Tarō gills and brings him to the bottom of the sea, to the Palace of the Dragon God (Ryūgū-jō). There he meets the Emperor and the small turtle, who was now a lovely princess, Otohime. On each of the four sides of the palace it is a different season.

Tarō stays there with Otohime for three days, but soon wants to go back to his village and see his aging mother, so he requests permission to leave. The princess says she is sorry to see him go, but wishes him well and gives him a mysterious box called tamatebako which will protect him from harm but which she tells him never to open. Tarō grabs the box, jumps on the back of the same turtle that had brought him there, and soon is at the seashore.

When he goes home, everything has changed. His home is gone, his mother has vanished, and the people he knew are nowhere to be seen. He asks if anybody knows a man called Urashima Tarō. They answer that they had heard someone of that name had vanished at sea long ago. He discovers that 300 years have passed since the day he left for the bottom of the sea. Struck by grief, he absent-mindedly opens the box the princess had given him, from which bursts forth a cloud of white smoke. He is suddenly aged, his beard long and white, and his back bent. From the sea comes the sad, sweet voice of the princess: "I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age ..."


As always with folklore, there are many different versions of this story. In one, for example, there were three drawers in the box. After he turned into an old man he found a mirror, then took the body of a crane when touched by a crane feather from the last box, in another he 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. Also, there is a version in which he dies in the process of aging (his body turns into dust), as no one can live 300 years.


Statue of Urashima Tarō in Mitoyo, Kagawa

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.

In popular culture[edit]

The story influenced various works of fiction and a number of films. It was the favorite Japanese folktale of Lafcadio Hearn.[citation needed] Manga and anime adaptations 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, Ultra Q, Kamen Rider Den-O (the namesake of the Imagin Urataros, given by Naomi), Cowboy Bebop,[4] Gravitation, Ōkami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi, Ghost Sweeper Mikami, RahXephon,[5] and Space Pirate Captain Harlock. The oldest known animated adaptation Urashima Tarō of the tale premiered in 1918,[6] the same year that Oz author Ruth Plumly Thompson adapted it as "Urushima and the Princess of the Sea" for The Philadelphia Public Ledger.

It is retold in and used as the basis for the short story "Another Story" by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in her story collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, named for the character of this story. The story is also used to explain an aspect of Relativity in The Manga Guide to Relativity. The anime series Real Drive partly reflects the story of Urashima Tarō. In 1945, Japanese writer Osamu Dazai published Otogizōshi ("fairy tale 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.

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.[7] 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". Urashima Tarō is the basis for Sweet Basil's visual novel Little My Maid.

Choudenshi Bioman (1984) includes references to Urashima in its episode 17.

"Urashima Jōtai" (浦島状態) is a phrase used in popular culture to describe someone who has been left behind by the times, or otherwise rendered unaware of his changing environment. It can also be used describe someone who is unfamiliar with a formerly familiar surrounding, upon his return from an absence.

A Brazilian TV commercial for the airline Varig which aired in the late 60s and 1970 (as a promotion for Expo 70 did feature Urashima Taro as a fisherman who nursed a sick turtle - the retelling of the storyline was that he and the turtle ended up in Brazil and living among natives (with two mountain peaks resembling Sugarloaf and Urca Hill, (landmarks of Rio de Janeiro) where he is marooned for the remainder of his life, aging into an elderly man (with imagery of Brazilian landscape including Iguaçu Falls). Despite his old age, one of the natives gives him a sealed box - he opens it where he experiences reverse aging and it has a Varig Airways boarding pass (plane ticket) - a second TV commercial has him back in Japan where he meets up with his relatives and back in his village until a tsurumaru transforms the village into a futuristic scenery - the landscape of the Expo 70 grounds. In both TV commercials, Varig Airlines was promoting its Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo international route.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Rosenberg, Donna (1997). Folklore, myths, and legends: a world perspective. McGraw-Hill. p. 421. ISBN 0-8442-5780-X 
  2. ^ Shah, Idries (1991). World tales : the extraordinary coincidence of stories told in all times, in all places. London: Octagon. p. 359. ISBN 978-0863040368. 
  3. ^ Shin Wa-Ei Daijiten, 5th edition, entry "Urashima Tarō. Kenkyūsha. 2006.
  4. ^ "Speak Like a Child". Cowboy Bebop. Season 1. Episode 18. 1998-06-19. WOWOW. 
  5. ^ Izubuchi, Yutaka (scenario) and Kiryu, Yukari (screenplay) RahXephon TV series episode 3
  6. ^ "90yo Japanese anime recovered". 
  7. ^ Kurt Kalata, Policenauts, Hardcore Gaming 101

See also[edit]

External links[edit]