Thursday, October 06, 2011

Issunboshi, or Little One-inch

Once upon a time there was an old man and an old woman. The couple had no children, so they prayed to god to give them a child. “Even a tiny little boy or girl no bigger than my pinky would be welcome”, said the old man in his prayer.

No sooner said than done, for the next instant a very small boy the size of the man’s little finger appeared. “We’ll call him ‘Little One-inch’” said the two.

One day Little One-inch announced, “I’d like to go to the town to look for work. Please help me to prepare for the journey." So the old man set about fashioning a sword just the boy's size out of a needle.  The woman in turn made from a miso soup bowl a little boat in which the boy could sail down to the town on a nearby stream.

When all was ready Little One-inch said, "Look, I'll carry this sword made from a needle.  Look, I'll use this chopstick to paddle the boat. Well then, I'm off." Expertly maneuvering the soup bowl into the current, Little One-inch set off for the town. 

On arriving Little One-inch went straight to the largest house in the town.  "You can rely on me, you can depend on me" he shouted repeatedly at the door, which was eventually opened far enough to admit the head and shoulders of one of the master's retainers.

The retainer's face wore a puzzled look as he inclined his head first to the right, then to the left. "Dear me, no one's here," he muttered.

"Over here! No, here!"

"If it isn't some kind of miniature child", said the retainer when he finally discerned Little One-inch under a wooden clog beside the entrance.

In due course Little One-inch became the attendant of the master's daughter, a girl famed throughout those parts for her beauty.

One day as Little One-inch was escorting his charge home from a visit to a temple, two ogres suddenly appeared ahead of them in the road.

"Such a beautiful girl, the likes of which we've never seen.  Let's get her," said one of the ogres.

Hearing this, Little One-inch drew his sword and flew at the attackers.

"What's this thing that looks like a tiny insect?  Come here, you!" said the other.

The ogre picked up the "insect" and swallowed it whole, whereupon he soon experienced acute pain in his stomach, as if some sharp object were pricking the inside of his belly.

"Ouch, ouch" he cried, spitting out Little One-inch.

"Let me at it, whatever it is, I'll grind it to nothing under my finger" said the second ogre, whose turn it now was to feel the keeness of the tiny sword, this time in the eye.

"Run away, run away" cried the two.

When the ogres had gone Little One-inch discovered a strange object lying in the road.  "It's a mallet of good fortune," explained the girl.  "If you make a wish and shake the mallet, your dream will come true."

"Pray that I may become the strongest and tallest boy in town, and shake the mallet for me,"  urged Little One-inch.  In a trice the little "insect" became a strapping lad.  And of course the two married and lived happily ever after.

* Translation by Brian S.

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