JAPANESE FOLKTALE : ISSUN BOSHI “INCH BOY”

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Issun Boshi “Inch boy” is a traditional Japanese folktale and is a very popular story.

The tale of Issun Boshi begins with a peasant farmer and his wife, a kind-hearted couple who has worked hard, in their years together, to build a modest life. They are not wealthy, but are very comfortable, and mostly content, except for one significant matter of constant concern as they had never been blessed with a child in their years together.

Husband and wife would often travel together to a nearby temple where they offer prayers at the shrine to whichever god who might be listening, asking only that they be blessed in this way. Every time, though, their prayers seemed to go unanswered, as they made their way home.

On one particular visit to the shrine, though, the wife made an addition to her usual prayer. Kneeling at the shrine once more, she promised to love and take care of the child unconditionally, no matter what, even if the child should prove to be very small.

Whether it was intended as some kind of test, or simply the gods’ sense of humour, it seemed as though this was the prayer that was to be answered. As husband and wife made their way home together, suddenly they heard the sound of a tiny voice crying, coming from a thick patch of grass. Concerned and terrified, they searched for the source of the noise, but found nothing. As they poked through the thick and tall grass, the wife soon caught sight of a tiny bundle of red – a vibrant red piece of soft cloth, wrapped around a tiny bundle.

Placing the small bundle in the palm of her hand, she unwrapped it, and was shocked to see a tiny baby boy, who was barely as large as her thumb. Despite their shock, though, both husband and wife realized that this child was the answer to their prayers that they had hoped for so long.

Then the wife and husband went home together with feeling a mix of trepidation and joy at the thought of raising this little child as their own. Their gratitude to the gods who had shown them this kindness was very genuine, despite the child’s diminutive status, both of them were determined to love him unconditionally, as they had promised that they would.

They named their child ‘Issun Boshi’, which means ‘Inch Boy’, and in the years that followed he grew to be stronger and smarter, but he never grew any larger. Issun Boshi remained no longer than his adopted mother’s thumb. Despite this, both his parents remained true to the promise they had made years earlier, each treating their adopted son with immense love and care.

When he was sixteen years old, he told his mother and father that he felt it was time for him to leave and head out into the world and seek out his own fortune. For the past many years, Issun Boshi always dreamt of becoming a Samurai in service to the local Daimyo. So, he intended to travel to the capital and present himself to the Lord and plead his case.

Issun Boshi’s parents tried to dissuade him, believing that such a journey would not be safe for their miniature son, and that it would only end in disappointment. They found that their adopted son was entirely committed to his goal , so in the end they were the ones to relent.

Realising that the fastest way to reach the capital was by river, Issun Boshi’s parents gave him a wooden bowl to use as a boat, and a chopstick to use as a paddle. Realising that their son would need a sword, if he had any hope of impressing the Daimyo, they also gave him a needle which proved to be the perfect size for his tiny hand.

So, with promise to return home once he had made his fortune, Issun Boshi set off. Floating down the river in his tiny bowl boat, Issun Boshi guided himself with his chopstick paddle, continuing in this manner for many days until he finally reached the capital.

Upon arriving at the capital, he wasted no time in making his way to the Lord’s castle and presenting himself to the guards at the entrance. He realized that the guards ignored him, or, rather, that they simply could not hear him. Then Issun Boshi stood at their feet, calling out to announce himself, but it was not until hours later, when the guard had chance, that he happened to glance down and catch sight of the tiny figure. Momentarily shock, but soon amazed, the guard agreed to take Issun Boshi to see his lord.

The Daimyo had the courtesy to listen politely as Issun Boshi made his request to be a samurai. But the Daimyo explained that he had no need for another Samurai. It seemed as though Issun Boshi’s journey was to end in disappoint, as his adopted parents had feared.

Intrigued by the sight of this amusing little figure, the Daimyo’s daughter, a beautiful young princess, asked if Issun Boshi could be allowed to stay, as her own companion and friend. The Daimyo was a stern ruler, but he was also a doting father who loved his daughter immensely, and, as such, the only possible response he could give to such a simple request was to acquiesce to her wishes. Issun Boshi found himself offered a place at the Daimyo’s court, an offer which he eagerly and gladly accepted.

While the princess may have viewed Issum Boshi with mere simple curiosity, at first, she soon found herself won over by his earnest kindness and his clever wit, as they spent more and more time together. Soon enough, she came to view Issun Boshi as a genuine and reliable friend, one for whom she cared deeply. For his part, too, Issun Boshi soon came to admire the princess as much for her intelligence and wit that matched his own, as he already did for her beauty.

In the weeks that followed, the two became inseparable. So, on the day that the princess left her father’s castle and the capital to travel to a distant temple, it was only natural that Issun Boshi would accompany her.

Travelling in the company of Samurai who was loyal to her father, the princess and Issun Boshi are enjoying what, at first, seems to be a peaceful and enjoyable journey on a pleasant day, but their enjoyment comes to a sudden end when they notice a strange and horrifying rumbling on the ground beneath their feet. Fearing an earthquake, at first, the group comes to a sudden stop. Soon enough, they come to realise that there is something odd and different about the way that the ground rumbles. It comes and goes in a kind of manner that seems too rhythmic to be entirely natural.

As they ponder over this strange puzzle, the answer soon reveals itself in the form of a huge figure making its way toward them – an Oni(demon). It is the massive creature’s footsteps that are responsible for the rumbling of ground beneath their feet. As it sees them, the Oni moves faster and faster, quickly closing the distance between them as it breaks into a run.

At the sight, the Samurai moves to surround the princess, preparing themselves for battle. But, the massive creature is twice the size of even the largest of the Samurai among them, and the massive club it wields looks powerful enough to send them flying across the sky. So, one by one, the Samurai sent to protect the princess flee, leaving her defenceless and helpless. Soon enough, the only ones left standing before the huge Oni are the princess, herself, and Issun Boshi.

At that point, Issun Boshi rushes forward, planting himself between the massive Oni and the princess, and declaring his intention to protect her. The Oni roars with laughter at the sight of the miniature figure with his strange little needle-sword, and reaching down to scoop him up in one hand, promptly stuffs Issun Boshi into his mouth and swallows him whole.

With the monstrous creature now focused solely on her, the princess lets out a terrified scream. But, then, the Oni comes to a sudden stop just as it has began to reach out toward the princess. The expression on its face is an odd mix of confusion and severe pain.

Sliding down the Oni’s throat, and toward its stomach, Issun Boshi thinks quickly and cleverly. He may be small and tiny, but he is far from defenceless. And so, with his needle sword in hand, Issun Boshi starts to slash and stab at the Oni from within. Stabbing deep with his tiny sword, Issun Boshi begins to climb, forcing his way back up the Oni’s throat. The Oni lets out a roar of immense pain and, as soon as it is able to do so, it spits out Issun Boshi. Then, still howling with pain, it turns and runs away.

As it does so, though, it drops its club, leaving it forgotten as Oni flees. Realising that the club, itself, possesses the magic to grant any wish, the princess and Issun Boshi claim it for themselves. Wanting nothing more than to see her companion rewarded for his bravery, the princess offers to allow Issun Boshi to be the one who decides how the wish should be used. There is only one wish that Issun Boshi could ever imagine wanting to make throughout his life and that is to be larger.

So, using the magic of the Oni’s club, the princess wishes that Issun Boshi could be made as large as an ordinary person. And, as the club’s magic takes effect, Issun Boshi suddenly starts to grow, until he stood as tall and proud as the tallest of the Daimyo’s Samurai.

As a reward for his bravery and courage, Issun Boshi is offered an official position as a Samurai in service to the Daimyo – a position which also allows him to properly care for his ageing but loving adopted parents. Issun Boshi and the princess remain close friends, and as is fitting for a story such as this, they eventually fall in love, and marry.

At last, as they say, the princess and Issun Boshi lived happily ever after.

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