A Tale from Japan
As retold by Alton Chung
Once upon a time there was a very kind old man and his wife living in a certain village. Next door to them lived a very mean old man and his wife. The kind old couple had a little white dog named Shiro. They loved Shiro very much and always gave him good things to eat. But the mean old man hated dogs, and every time he saw Shiro he threw stones at him.
One day Shiro began barking very loudly out in the farmyard. The kind old man went out to see what was the matter. Shiro kept barking and barking and began digging in the ground. “Oh, you want me to help you dig?” asked the kind old man. So he brought out a spade and began digging. Suddenly his spade hit something hard. He kept digging and found a large pot full of many pieces of gold money. Then he thanked Shiro very much for leading him to so much gold, and took the money to his house.
Now the mean old man had been peeping and had seen all of this. He wanted some gold, too. So the next day, he asked the kind old man if he could borrow Shiro for a while. “Why, of course you may borrow Shiro, if he’ll be of any help to you,” said the kind old man.
The mean old man took Shiro to his house and out into his field. “Now find me some gold, too,” he ordered the dog, “or I’ll beat you.” So Shiro began digging at a certain spot. Then the mean old man tied Shiro up and began digging himself. But all he found in the hole was some terrible smelling garbage-no gold at all. This made him so angry that he hit Shiro over the head with his spade and killed him.
The kind old man and woman were very sad about Shiro. They buried him in their field and planted a little pine tree over his grave. And every day they went to Shiro’s grave and watered the pine tree very carefully. The tree began to grow very fast and in only a few years it became very big. The kind old woman said, “Remember how Shiro used to love to eat rice-cakes? Let’s cut down that big pine tree and make a mortar. Then with the mortar we’ll make some rice-cakes in memory of Shiro.”
So the old man cut down the tree and made a mortar out of its trunk. Then they filled it full of steamed rice and began pounding the rice to make rice-cakes. But no sooner did the old man begin pounding than all the rice turned into gold. Now the kind old man and woman were richer than ever.
The mean old man had been peeping through the window and had seen the rice turn to gold. He still wanted some gold for himself very badly. So the next day he came and asked if he could borrow the mortar. “Why, of course you may borrow the mortar,” said the kind old man.
The mean old man took the mortar home and filled it full of steaming rice. “Now watch,” he said to his wife. “When I begin pounding this rice, it’ll turn to gold.” But when he began pounding, the rice turned into terrible smelling garbage, and there was no gold at all. This made him so angry that he got his ax and cut the mortar up into small pieces and burned it up in the stove.
When the kind old man went to get his mortar back, it was all burned to ashes. He was very sad, because the mortar had reminded him of Shiro. So he asked for some of the ashes and took them home with him.
It was the middle of winter and all of the trees were bare. He thought he’d scatter some of the ashes around his garden. When he did, all the cherry trees in the garden suddenly began to bloom right in the middle of winter. Everybody came to see this wonderful sight, and the prince who lived in a nearby castle heard about it.
Now this prince had a cherry tree in his garden that he loved very much. He could hardly wait for spring to come so that he could see the beautiful blossoms on this cherry tree. But when spring came he discovered that the tree was dead and he felt very sad. So he sent for the kind old man and asked him to bring the tree back to life. The old man took some of ashes and climbed the tree. Then he threw the ashes up into the dead branches, and almost more quickly than you can think, the tree was covered with the most beautiful blossoms it ever had.
The prince had come on horseback to watch and was very pleased. He gave the kind old man a great deal of gold and many presents. And best of all, he knighted the old man and gave him a new name, “Sir Old-Man-Who-Makes-Trees-Blossom.”
Sir Old-Man-Who-Makes-Trees-Blossom and his wife were now very rich, and they lived very happily for many more years.
My mother’s mother came to Hawaii from Japan and I grew up with my mother telling me this old folktale. Now, as an adult, I have come back to it with new eyes. In researching this story I discovered that there are many versions, each emphasizing various aspects of Japanese culture. In some versions, the kind old man shares his gold with the entire village illustrating altruism and emphasizing the value of community. In one version, the mortar produces rice, instead of gold and old man and his wife never go hungry again.
In some versions, the old man sits with the body of Shiro all night long showing respect for the dead. Some listeners may find the cruelty done to little Shiro distasteful, but the story itself revolved around the spirit of Shiro transcending that experience and coming back time and time again to bring prosperity to his old master and disappointment to his murderer. Shiro can sometimes talk to the kind old man in some versions and even after death, instructs the old man to make something useful from his tree, indicating a belief in life after death.
The mean old man is sent away to prison for his crimes in some versions and comes back a better man. In one version, the mean old man is threatened with prison and makes amends with the kind old man. They become friends and both come together in remembrance each year on the anniversary of Shiro’s death. Shiro means white, the color often associated with death and magical happens.
The kind old man never retaliates against his mean neighbor demonstrating forbearance and forgiveness. The renaming of the old man by the prince or magistrate is significant in that the kind old man not only gains wealth, but also honor and prestige. He is reborn. He is no longer a commoner and is raised in social rank, which affords privilege and wealth. This is of tremendous significance, as in ancient Japan, there was very little upward mobility between the social classes.
The cherry blossoms are significant in that they are very beautiful, but last for only a very short time, illustrating the beauty, mystery, and ephemeral quality of life. Cherry blossoms bloom in the spring, and herald in a time of awakening and promise, after a cold, gray winter of introspection. Dark dormant trees erupt with color and life, but in a few short days, showers of delicate pink and white petals all too soon give way to new leaves.
Japanese people are very conscious of seasonal changes and the hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is one of the most popular customs. Where the cherry blossoms are in bloom, people spread out picnic mats and enjoy themselves while celebrating the arrival of spring. The origin of hanami dates back to Heian period (794 -1191), when the aristocrats at court held parties to enjoy the beauty of sakura (cherry blossoms). Over the course of centuries the custom spread to the warrior class (samurai), but it wasn’t until Edo period (1603 – 1867) that hanami became popular among the common people.
In Japan and in some areas of the US, the blooming of cherry trees is celebrated with a festival, the Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival. These festivals are often held to promote Japanese culture and traditions. The message of the cherry blossom is that beauty and life are fleeting and that it is important to live in the moment and to live well, holding eternal spring in your heart.
McAlpine, Helen and William, Japanese Tales and Legends, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1958.
Ozaki, Yei Theodora, The Japanese Fairy Book, Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo, Japan, 1970.
Sakade, Florence, Little One-Inch and Other Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Tokyo, Japan, 1958.
About the Contributor
Storyteller Alton Chung combines a rich cultural heritage, drawing inspiration from his Japanese roots, as well as being influenced by the superstitions, stories, and magic of the Hawaiian Islands, where he grew up. Alton performs at schools, libraries, festivals, bookstores, and dinner theaters. His website is www.altonchung.com/