Learn Japanese Through Traditional Stories

Woman Enjoying a Book

Stories are how culture is passed on from generation to generation. When you think about it, the stories we grow up with form a huge part of who we are, how we see the world and how we process the emotions we feel. As such for one to truly understand a culture, one must be familiar with the stories that shape it. In addition to imparting cultural knowledge and wisdom, stories can also be a great way to study language. Many stories are aimed a children and therefore use relatively simple language designed to help one improve their vocabulary, grammar and linguistic understanding. Stories are also fun and entertaining! So check out this list of some of our favourite Japanese stories, perfect for improving your Japanese language skills and understanding Japanese culture!

Urashima Taro 浦島太郎

Urashima Taro is the name of the main character is this famous Japanese fairy tale. In most modern tellings, he is a simple fisherman who comes across some children bullying a turtle on the beach. He rescues the turtle and to reward his kind gesture the turtle carries him on its back to a Dragon Palace at the bottom of the ocean.

 

At the Dragon Palace he meets a princess called Otohime. They become friends and spend several days together but he eventually tells her he wants to leave and go home to see his family. She agrees and gives him a mysterious box called a tamatebako, saying it will protect him as long as he promises never to open it.

 

When he returns home however, he discovers he's been gone for over 300 years and everybody he's ever know has died. In his grief he opens the box and instantly turns into an old man. A voice from the ocean echoes "I told you not to open the box, inside it was your old age"


The origins of this story, which takes many different forms over its history, can be traced back to the legend of Urashimako, recorded in various scrolls and pieces of literature dating as far back as the 8th century. You will struggle to find a Japanese person who hasn't heard of this famous adventure and it even became the subject of one of Japan's first ever examples of anime:

Shita-kiri Suzume 舌切り雀

Shita-kiri Suzume literally translates to "Tongue-Cut Sparrow" and is a traditional Japanese fable designed to warn against greed.

It follows the story of a poor old lumberjack and his wife. One day, while out in the woods, the lumberjack comes across an injured sparrow. Being the kind man he is, he takes the sparrow home to nurse it back to health. He looks after it and feeds it what little food he has but his jealous, greedy wife complains, saying they shouldn't waste food on such an insignificant being.

One day the man leaves for the woods, leaving his wife to look after the sparrow. Not caring much for her new house guest, she leaves the sparrow alone at home and goes out for the day. When she returns, she finds the sparrow has eaten all her rice and in her anger she cuts out its tongue and sends it flying off into the forest. 

When the old man finds out he goes looking for the sparrow and finds it, living with hundreds of other sparrows who all greet him as a friend. they offer him the choice of 2 baskets, one big and one little. He chooses the smaller basket and heads home. When he opens it he finds it full of treasures and is happy. His greedy wife however is determined to go and get the larger basket as well. She finds the sparrows and takes the basket only to find it full of snakes, who either kill her or frighten her so badly she falls off a mountain, depending on which version of the story you're reading.

 

A grave lesson in the pitfalls of greed and the benefits of kindness, this story has helped to shape the moral world in which Japan has developed. To understand the lessons here is to understand a small pocket of Japanese culture as a whole.

Momotaro 桃太郎

Momotaro is a famous hero in Japanese folklore. Often referred to as peach boy, his story begins when an old childless woman and her husband find a giant peach floating down a river. They open the peach, trying to eat it and inside is Momotaro! He explains he was sent by the gods to be their son and they raise him as their own.

As he matures, his strength becomes more and more apparent. At five years old he cuts down a huge tree with an old rusty knife and as a teenager he leaves home to fight a gang of Oni (demons) who terrorise the land. On his travels to Oni island, he makes friends with a talking monkey, dog and a bird who help him on his adventures.

Momotaro is a household name in Japan and his stories can be traced back to handwritten texts in the early Edo period. The more traditional version of the story has the elderly couple find the child and eat a peach to regain their lost youth, presumably symbolic of the youth and vigour having a child can bring.

 

Not only does this story help to understand Japanese historical literature, it can also provide a great jumping off point if you want to have a conversation with a native speaking Japanese person!

Kaguyahime 竹取物語

Kaguyahime or "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter" continues the theme of supernatural beings being discovered inside inanimate objects by childless couples. Originating in the late 9th century , it's one of the oldest known forms or monogatari (a type of fictional prose developed in Japan).

The story starts when an old bamboo cutter finds a glowing stalk of bamboo in the forest. Inside he finds a small child the size of his thumb and him and his wife decide to raise her as their own. She is in fact a moon princess and every stalk of bamboo the old man cuts from now on contains a small nugget of gold. Within a year the family are rich and Kaguyahime has turned into a fully grown and very beautiful woman.

Hearing of her beauty, five noble men come to ask for her hand in marriage. Kaguyahime is not interested in any of them and sets them a series of impossible tasks such as plucking the gem from a dragon's neck or bringing her Buddah's stone bowl. All of them fail in these tasks and she doesn't have to marry any of them. 

Finally, the Emperor of Japan comes to meet her and falls in love. Although she does like the Emperor, she also rejects his request for marriage and starts to realise she must return to the moon to be with her people. Several months later, moon beings descend on the Earth to collect her and take her home. The Emperor sends troops to fight them but they are all blinded by moon light and the Princess leaves the Earth. Before she goes however, she writes a letter of apology to the Emperor and gives him an elixir of immortality so that he may live forever. 

When the soldiers return to the Emperor with the letter and the elixir he tells them to go to the mountain that is closest to heaven and burn the note so the Princess may see. He also asks that they destroy the elixir as he does not wish to live forever without seeing her. Legend has it that the Japanese word for immortality - fushi 不死 - gives rise to the name of the mountain today - Mount Fuji. The volcanic smoke billowing out the top of the mountain is said to represent the burning of Kaguyahime's note.

Bunbuku Chagama 文福茶釜 

Bunbuku Chagama literally translates to "Bunbuku tea-kettle" and is a Japanese fairy tale about a tanuki, a badger like creature common in Japanese mythology. The story begins when a priest gets a new chagama or tea kettle and puts is on the fire to make tea. As soon as it hits the flame the kettle sprouts legs and a head.

Terrified, the priest and his subjects immediately trap the creature only to watch it turn back into a normal kettle. Confused and scared they sell the kettle to a travelling merchant who quickly discovers its real nature and instead of being scared, treats it with kindness. 

The two of them travel around Japan and the tea kettle performs tricks and acrobatics to help earn money, while the merchant promises never to put the kettle on an open flame or in a stuff box for the rest of its days. After several years the merchant becomes very wealthy and helps the kettle to return to the temple from which it came.

 

Lessons in kindness are common in Japanese folklore and one of the key messages in this particular story is that religion doesn't necessarily equal moral value - the priest and his subject rejected the creature while a simple traveler was able to care for it. 

Now you know the best stories to start exploring it might be helpful to brush up on your Japanese language skills!

Luckily for you we offer group and private courses for all levels. You can take these courses either online or in person at our London offices where you will meet lots of like-minded Japanese learners and fans of Japanese culture!