The story begins with an old, childless couple who live alone. The old woman wishes for a child, despite her old age, "Please, please let us have a child, no matter how small." Eventually, a son was born to them. But small indeed was the child—no larger than a grown man's fingertip. They named the miniature child Issun-Bōshi (Issun is a measure of approximately 3 centimeters. Bōshi means son). The child, despite being incredibly small, is treated well by his parents. One day, the boy realizes he will never grow, so he goes on a trip to seek his place in the world. Fancying himself a miniature samurai, Issun-Bōshi is given a sewing needle for a sword, a soup bowl for a boat, and chopsticks for oars.
He sails downriver to the city, where he petitions for a job with the government and goes to the home of a wealthy daimyo, whose daughter is an attractive princess. He is scorned for his height, but nevertheless given the job of accompanying the princess as her playmate. While they travel together, they are suddenly attacked by an oni, who deals with the pesky boy by swallowing him. The boy defeats the Oni by pricking him from within with his needle/sword. The Oni spits out Issun-boshi and drops the magical Uchide's Mallet as he runs away. As a reward for his bravery, the princess uses the power of the mallet to grow him to full size. Issun-Bōshi and the princess remain close companions and eventually wed.
There are many other versions of the story Issun-Bōshi, but there are some that seem to take on a completely different story of their own, and have stayed that way since their new retellings. These versions include the story of Mamasuke, the adult version of Issun-Bōshi, and the modernized version that are seen worldwide today.
The Mamesuke version of Issun-Bōshi is essentially the same, except for a few key defining factors. Rather than being born from his mother's womb, Issun-Bōshi was born from the swelling of his mother's thumb. He was also called Mamesuke, which means bean boy instead of Issun-Bōshi, even though the story is still called Issun-boshi. He does still set out on his own at some point, but instead of being armed with a sewing needle, bowl, and chopsticks, all he has is a bag of flour. He eventually finds his way to a very wealthy wine merchant who has three daughters. Mamesuke wishes to marry the middle daughter, so he begins to work for the merchant and live there. One night, Mamesuke takes the flour he has and wipes it on the daughter's mouth, then throws the rest into the river. In the morning, he pretends to cry because his flour is gone, so the family investigates as to where it went when they discovered the flour on the middle daughter. She gets upset because she had nothing to do with the flour, but her family turns her over to Mamesuke as payment. He then begins to lead the girl home to his parents, while along the way the girl is so angry that she tries to find ways to kill him, but she could not find one. When Mamesuke returned home, his parents were so delighted with the girl that they set up a hot bath for him. Mamesuke got in and called for his bride to help him wash, but she came in with a broom instead and stirred up the water in an attempt to drown him. Mamesuke's body suddenly burst open, and out stepped a full sized man. The bride and parents were surprised yet extremely happy, so Mamesuke and his bride lived happily with his parents.
The Love Affair of Issun-BōshiEdit
In other media such as the game Ōkami, Issun-Bōshi makes an appearance as the character Issun, and is depicted as a pervert of sorts. This depiction relates back to the adult version of Issun-boshi, also known as The Love Affair of Issun-Bōshi. The beginning of the story is essentially the same until Issun-boshi reaches the capital. When he comes upon the home of a wealthy lord, Issun-Bōshi convinces him that he can do anything, so he should let him work for him. The lord tells him to do a dance for him, and he was so amused by Issun-Bōshi's dance that he decides to make him a playmate for his daughter. For a while, Issun-Bōshi just listens to the daughter talk during the day, then he would tell her stories that she would fall asleep to at night. Issun-Bōshi fell in love with her, and was eventually invited to sleep in the princess' bed with her, where he would then pleasure her. One day the princess decides to head to a temple to go pray, and brings Issun-Bōshi along with her. They are attacked by ogres along the way, and Issun-Bōshi saves the princess, who then discovers the lucky mallet and makes Issun-Bōshi normal sized. It was thought they would live happily ever after, but the couple would get into horrible fights, especially about how Issun-Bōshi could not pleasure the princess like he used to. In his anger, Issun-Bōshi used the lucky mallet to shrink the princess down, who in turn snatched the hammer from him and shrank him down. They went back and forth shrinking one another to the point where all that was left was the lucky mallet.
The modernized version of Issun-Bōshi is very similar to the original, except there are different happenings that make it more universally acceptable. Rather than setting out on his own, Issun-Bōshi's parents send him off to go learn about the world on his own. He still travels to the capital and ends up in the home of a wealthy lord, but rather than his daughter disliking him, she immediately fell in love with him, as well as the other residents of the lord's home. Issun-Bōshi and the girl still get attacked by ogres and obtain the lucky mallet, which is then used to make him normal sized. He grows into a fine young samurai, but it was never made clear where Issun-Bōshi went from there. This abrupt ending is set up so that the audience can make their own guesses about what happened to Issun-Bōshi.
The story of Issun-Bōshi follows three common themes that appear in almost every Japanese folk tale. The first theme is that those who are devout and pray often are blessed with a child. Issun-Bōshi's parents prayed day after day until a child was born unto them. This theme also appears in the Japanese folk tale "Momotaro." The second theme is that the accomplishments of these children are so extraordinary that they achieve almost every task that the audience wishes them to accomplish. Issun-Bōshi gets the love of his life, attains a normal size, and becomes a well known samurai. The third theme is that said child grows up to have a good marriage and carries a special family name. In most versions, Issun-Bōshi marries some sort of official's daughter and becomes a very famous samurai.