Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Old Man and the Crab: a Japanese Folktale

There was once an old couple who lived in a certian village in Echigo Province. One day the old man went to a nearby river, and while he was there he caught a crab. The man took the crab home and placed it under the low verandah encircling the house, intending to make a pet of the creature. He quickly grew fond of the crab, and if there was anything tasty in the larder, he was sure to share it with his pet. Furthermore, whenever he went into the neighboring town on some errand or other, the old man always returned with a baked potato, for of this delicacy the crab was inordinately fond. For its part the crab soon reciprocated the old man's feelings. The old man would speak to the crab in a manner he would have used with his own grandchildren-if there had been any. "Hey, Master Crab. Gramps is here. Come on out and see what goodies he's brought you." The old man doted so much on his little crustacean friend that the old woman gradually came to resent the creature. "My husband is always giving that crab some tasty morsel to eat. When he's not around see if I don't teach the little so-and-so a thing or two," mused the woman. Her opportunity was not long in coming, for a few days later the old man left for town and was gone longer than usual. "Now's my chance. Worse luck for you, Master Crab." So saying, the woman bent down to a level with the verandah and called out "Hey, Master Crab. Gramps is here. Come on out and see what goodies he's brought you." And the crab, thinking it was the old man himself (so good was the woman's impersonation), came scuttling eagerly out. When the crab saw that it was not the kind old man but the menacing figure of his wife, it panicked and attempted to retreat under the house. But it was too slow for the old woman, who whacked the hapless creature with a stick of firewood she had concealed behind her back. The old woman had not intended to kill the creature; she merely wanted to frighten it into running away. Unfortunately, her blow struck the crab in its most vulnerable spot, and writhing in agony, it perished before her eyes. "Oh, what a terrible thing," moaned the woman helplessly. "Whatever shall I do?" Her hesitation was short-lived, for finding comfort in the thought that "What's done is done, and in any case the dead can't be brought back to life," the woman speedily boiled and ate the crab before the old man should return, disposing of the crab's shell by tossing it into a grove of bamboo behind the house. Soon thereafter the old man returned from town, whereupon he went straight to the garden, with the crab's favorite treat in hand, and peered under the verandah. "Hey, Master Crab. Gramps has come. Come on out and see what goodies he's brought," he called out as usual. But the crab, who ordinarily made a prompt appearance, failed to come out. "This is strange," thought the old man. "I wonder if the crab hasn't gone to play in the bamboo grove behind the house?" The old man looked high and low for the crab there, but no matter how many times he called out, the creature failed to appear. " Where could dear crabbie have gone?" he sighed. The man fell into a mournful reverie, and for quite some time he stood before the grove, unmindful of his surroundings. The man was recalled by the sudden appearance of a beautiful little bird, which flew out of the grove and alit on a branch of a tree beside him. The bird sang for a few moments in a dolorous way and then flew back into the bamboo thicket. "What an unusual bird. I wonder what such a pretty little thing is doing here," thought the man, all the while admiring the creature. For its part the bird flew in and out of the bamboo grove repeatedly, as if urging the old man to follow it, whereupon the man decided to enter the grove after the bird. The man saw that someone else had  been there before him, for in one place the soil had recently been turned over. The bird stood beside this patch of ground, scratching it with its foot. Brushing away some of the soil, the man was horrified to discover the shell and leg of a crab, his own crab! "Who could've done such a terrible thing? Could it have been my wife?" he shouted. Seething with rage he stalked into the house to find his wife. "How dare you do such a horrible thing!" he shouted. So angry was the man that he fell in a faint at his wife's feet. The woman began to repent of what she had done. "Please forgive me," she implored. "I didn't mean to kill the crab, merely frighten it. I used too much force when I struck the crab. It was very bad of me. Please forgive me!" The old man was moved by her contrition, and he promptly forgave her. Thereupon the man and his wife constructed a crude monument to the departed crab. From time to time the bamboo grove was visited by a little bird whose beautiful voice rang in the stillness of the copse.
Translation: Brian Southwick, 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Animals Who Thwarted a Thief: an Old Tale

There was once a wealthy man in Echigo Province, as Niigata Prefecture was called in olden times. Although rich, the man was nevertheless kindly. He kept a number of animals as pets, and these he treated as though they had been his own children.
The man had never known an insidious thought in all his days, so he was unable to recognize treachery when it sidled up alongside him, as one day it did. The upshot: the man was forced to sell everything he had, his house, possessions, and his land.
“There’s nothing to do but sell our things and accept our fate,” announced the man to his family.
The man’s cat happening to be by just then, it overheard everything that passed, and it rushed outside to the stable where the horse was kept.
“Mr. Horse, Mr. Horse, I’ve terrible news!” said the cat.
When the horse had heard the story, it hung its head. “That’s truly awful. We must do something. Won’t you summon the dog and the hen?”
The cat rushed off to call the two animals, which were grieved by the news.
“I’ve lived here with master for too many years to count. In all that time the man has never beaten me. Instead, I’ve had none but the gentlest treatment,” said the dog. “As for me, the master still feeds me, even though I have stopped laying eggs,” added the hen.
Not to be outdone, the cat and the horse related stories of the many kindnesses performed by the man on their behalf.
"Well, that settles it. We must do something to show our gratitude. Can anyone think of a good way to repay these favors?"said the dog and the horse.
The animals deliberated, and they realized that the thieves who threatened the kind man lived in a cottage on a nearby ridge.
"What if we were to threaten them and get money from them?" suggested one of the animals.
"That's a swell idea. Let's be off," chimed in the others.
And so the four animals started off for the thieves' dwelling. When they arrived, the animals stealthily peered into the house, wherein they beheld the band of theives drinking sake before a mound of gold pieces. The horse called the others together, and they discussed a plan of attack.
"Sounds good! Let's get started!" they said a few moments later.
The horse stood before one of the sliding paper doors, and the dog stood upon its back. Atop the dog stood the cat, and topmost of all stood the hen.
"Here goes: 'Neigh, neigh!' 'Bow wow!' 'Meow, meow!' 'Cock-a-doodle-doo!' " cried the four together, each attempting to make his own voice as menacing as possible.
The occupants of the house were terribly surprised, and looking in the direction whence the noise seemed to issue, they beheld a bizarre outline against the sliding door.
"It's a monster! We're being attacked! Run away!" And the thieves ran out of the house in one body, leaving everything inside where it was.
The animals entered and filled bags with the gold pieces, being careful not to leave a single one behind. Then they returned home in high spirits.
"Here, master. Use this money. Accept this as repayment for the kindness you have shown us."
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart," replied the man.
As a result, the man didn't have to sell his property after all.
For their part, the animals returned to their former daily routine.
Translation 2009, Brian Southwick

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The "Brushless" Letter

There was once a terrible famine in a certain district of Japan. For a long time the peasants there had had little to eat- they were truly miserable. One day they gathered to discuss what course to take.
“We should write to the local lord and tell him of our troubles. Let’s ask him to exempt us from paying our taxes this year,” one of the peasants suggested. This plan was eagerly subscribed to by the others (for it was the custom in Japan for peasants to pay their taxes in the form of agricultural produce, particularly rice). But an obstacle to the idea immediately presented itself: none of the peasants could write. “Oh, this is awful”, they sighed in one breath.
Just then one of their number spoke. “Don’t worry. I have an idea. Leave everything to me.”
Not long afterwards the local lord received a letter of supplication. Opening it, he read the following: “一二三四五六七八九十”三, which are the cardinal numbers in Japanese, one through ten.
“I wonder what this means?” he said to himself. “I can’t seem to make head or tale of it.” The lord called one of his attendants and ordered that the bearer of the letter be brought before him. When the man had been ushered into the apartment, the lord questioned him.
“Is this really a letter of request?”
“Yes,” replied the man.
“If that is the case, as there is no misunderstanding, be so good as to read the letter yourself,” commanded the lord.
And the man proceeded to relate the villagers’ distress, enumerating each point with a cardinal number (the pronunciation of which sometimes also served as the first syllable of the first word in its corresponding article; the effect produced was clever, a bit like punning).
“At last I understand,” said the lord when the man had finished his tale. But tell me, why didn’t you just write a proper letter?”
“No one in the village is literate, so I came up with this mnemonic method of communicating our wishes.”
“I see. What does the “三” (san) at the end mean?” asked the lord.
“Yes, that’s the name of the village elder, Yokokawa Sanzo.”
Copyright 2009, Brian Southwick