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Kuniyoshi Station 38

"Urashima Tarō" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Urashima Tarō (浦島 太郎) is 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, under the sea. He stays there for three days and, upon his return to his village, finds himself 300 years in the future.

HistoryEdit

The name Urashima Tarō first appears in the 15th century (the Muromachi period), in a genre of illustrated popular fiction known as Otogizōshi; however, the story itself is much older, dating back to the 8th century (the Nara Period). Older sources such as Nihon Shoki, Man'yōshū 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 mythologyEdit

The story bears a striking similarity to folktales from other cultures, including the Irish legend of Oisín, and the earlier Chinese legend of Ranka. 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 legend of Rip van Winkle.

PlotEdit

Urashima Taro handscroll from Bodleian Library 1

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 ..."

VariationsEdit

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

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