Urashima Taro: What’s the Moral of this Japanese Folk Legend?

  • TRADITIONAL
  • CULTURE
  • How many folktales and legends do you know? Are there any fables or moral stories that are unique to your country? Folktales are often told throughout generations to simply explain morals and values to children with easy to understand stories. Some folk legends endure hundreds of years and are still well known today. Some examples of western folktales and fables include The Boy Who Cried Wolf which teaches children about the consequences of lying and The Ant and the Grasshopper, which teaches the moral of working hard and preparing for hard times. Although there are various versions of these folktales told through time, there is eventually one or two versions that people generally know. More importantly, the moral sticks in children’s minds in a way that is easy for them to remember.

    Did you know that Japan has its own share of popular fables and folk legends with their own morals and lessons?Urashima Taro is one of the most popular folk legends in Japan. It is a story often told to children and has been around in various versions since the 8th century, though it was standardized by children’s storyteller Iwaya Sazanami during the Meiji Period. There are a few variations of the story, but they are quite similar overall. Here is all you need to know about Urashima Taro!

    Summary of the Story

    In the popularly told version, Urashima Taro is a man who is fishing in the sea when he sees a turtle that is being tortured by a group of kids. Taro then saves the turtle and releases it back into the sea. A couple of days later while Taro is fishing in his boat as usual, a large turtle tells Taro that the small turtle he had saved was the princess of the sea and that her name is Otohime. The turtle gives Taro gills as a reward and takes him to the deep sea to the underwater Dragon Palace, where he meets Emperor Ryujin and Princess Otohime.

    After staying under the sea for three days with the princess, Taro gets homesick and wishes to return home to see his parents. The princess tries to stop him from leaving, but when he insists, she gives him a mysterious box called the “tamatebako” which she says will protect him. After giving him the box, she warns him not to open it no matter what.

    Upon reaching the shore, Taro finds that things have changed so much that even his house, his parents, and all the people he knew are gone. When he asks around, he is told that Urashima Taro vanished into the sea a long time ago. In confusion, he opens the box, which turns him into an old man. 300 years have passed on land even though he only spent three days in the deep sea.

    Another version exists which is quite different. Taro finds the turtle on a fishing line and releases it, and is later approached by a woman who asks him to take her home. Upon arriving at the Dragon Palace, she says that she was the turtle he’d released and proposes that they marry. The rest of the story is the same, except he stays for what he thinks is three years and returns to his hometown to find that 700 years have passed. At the end, Taro transforms into a crane, and his wife back into a turtle, where they lived on as Shinto dieties.

    Moral Lessons

    When I first read the story when I was a kid, I was perplexed by it as I did not understand the moral of the story. I understood that we should keep our promises which Urashima Taro did not do, so he ended up being an old man. But what other values are hidden in the story?

    However, overall, it seems to me that the story teaches us that helping others does not necessarily bring you good fortune. Perhaps that is a lesson in itself because in reality, doing good does not always result in good rewards and conversely, committing evil deeds does not mean that one will always get punishment or bad luck for it. This may sound quite dark, but it is arguably a much more realistic life lesson than “justice always prevails”. Another way of looking at the story’s meaning could be that when one commits a good deed, one should not expect a good reward, and should be humble enough to reject it when one is offered a gift for helping others. The last moral lesson I can think of is that ignorance is bliss sometimes and that not all knowledge is good.

    When I did some research about the story, I found some more meaningful moral lessons. The most profound one is that after a person has left his place of dwelling or comfort zone, things will not be the same again when he or she returns. Another lesson is that one should not indulge in pleasure for long as time does not wait for any man.

    Urashima Taro may seem like an unfortunate character in a strange story at first, but surprisingly, it has many good moral lessons behind it. This is especially so for the part about things changing after some time which I think is pretty difficult for kids to grasp by themselves. Nevertheless, this story and its moral lessons would likely stick in their memory until they experience and understand it as they grow older! Most western stories, in comparison, tend to have happy endings where the hero lives happily ever after. Do you think this is a good story to tell children to teach morals about breaking promises and things changing?

    1. Shae Le Fae says:

      Gosh, I wish there was more commentary on this. Im thinking of telling this story to 2nd graders tomorrow and not sure if I should just change the ending. I think Ill add it a part where U.T. looks out to see and longs for a better life, he gets one, and then he longs again for the one he had before, so he decides to go back and cant. It teaches a strong lesson that I learned way too late in life. Just find happiness in the life you got and don’t look to foreign places to find your happiness. I did this and travelled all over the world, only to come back again and still feel like I dont belong yet. But there’s a great German saying I learned when I lived over there.

      “Willst du immer weiter schweifen?
      Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.
      Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen:
      Denn das Glück ist immer da.”
      Why do you always look

      Will you always wander farther
      Look!, your happines lies so near
      Learn simply to grasp it
      Then your joy is always there

      -Goethe

      I will indeed tell the story to the 2nd graders

    2. Ayaan Ahmed says:

      I love this story since childhood. I am an Indian and I got to know about this story in “Doraemon” a Japanese cartoon extremely famous in India. I was 5 yrs old then. Now I’m 13 yrs old. I love Japanese folk tales very much.

    3. Ganesh Prasad says:

      I think this is a science fiction story about time dilation. The “turtle” was not a real turtle but an alien. Urashima Taro joined the alien on a space voyage at near-light speed. When he came back to earth, he realised that many years had elapsed on earth while he had felt the passage of only a few days.

      The box was a device that made a person age to the same extent that he might have aged had he stayed on earth. I think it was a device that was only intended to be used in case the traveller was away for a few short years, so he could slip back into society without people remarking about his unnaturally youthful appearance, but in Urashima’s case, too much time had elapsed, which is why the princess warned him not to use the device. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand the reason for the warning and used it anyway.

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