Traditional Japanese Children’s Stories And Folk Tales

The Art Of Japanese Storytelling 

Storytelling is one of the best ways to keep traditions, culture, and imagination alive for as many years as it continues to be shared.

Since Japanese culture traces back centuries, storytelling is a crucial element in passing it on. 

Edo Era Neighborhood

Children’s stories can be one of a person’s earliest memories. Some traditional stories and folktales shared with Japanese children are so old that some of their origins cannot be determined exactly. 

Urashima Taro 

The story of Urashima Taro is meant to teach children about following rules and instructions. Taro was a fisherman who saved a turtle’s life, and in return, the turtle allowed him to travel to see the Dragon God under the ocean.

The princess under the ocean was so pleased with Taro’s good deed that she gave him a very special box. Her one condition was that Taro couldn’t open the box.

The box was meant to symbolize Taro’s happiness, as the princess promised him he would always be happy if he didn’t open the box. 

Of course, temptation got the better of Urashima Taro, and he decided to open the box, losing his opportunity for a happy life. 

Bunbuku Chagama 

One of the central characters in the tale of Bunbuku Chagama is a tanuki or raccoon dog. The tanuki is a prominent character in Japanese lore attributed to fun and trickery while also having the ability to shapeshift. 

The tanuki in this tale got caught in a trap, and a man came and freed him. As a reward, the tanuki wanted to help the man become rich.

The tanuki told the man that he would turn into a teapot, also known as a chagama, and the man could sell him. 

The man was able to sell the chagama to a monk for a fortune, only for the tanuki to partially change back into a tanuki once the monk tried to use it.

The tanuki ran away, the man was still rich, and the monk was without a teapot. Bunbuku Chagama also translates to the phrase “happiness bubbling over like a teapot.” 

Shitakiri Suzume

Shitakiri Suzume translates to the Tongue-Cut Sparrow and is a children’s story representing an important lesson about envy and materialism.

The story revolves around an old man, a woman, and a sparrow. The old man rescued the sparrow, but when the sparrow bit a piece of the old woman’s paste, she cut his tongue out. 

The sparrow flew away, and the old man was so upset he went off to look for the sparrow. He eventually found him, and the sparrow brought the old man home to meet his family. The sparrow sent the man home with baskets of gold and silver, which made the old woman go from angry to happy quickly. 

When she went to get gifts from the sparrows, he instead gave her baskets filled with elves that would cause her trouble while the old man went on to live a rich life. 

Kintaro The Golden Boy

Kintaro is a beloved children’s story that has been admired all throughout Japan for many years. There are many different tellings of Kintaro, though they all revolve around the main storyline of who Kintaro was. Often, the story is compared to Tarzan. 

Kintaro was a young boy who lived in the Japanese forest and became close with all the animals who lived there too. He was also said to be very strong, especially for a young boy.

It became a popular tale to tell young children, regardless of the version, to inspire them to live life with vigor and tenacity.  

Visu The Woodsman And The Old Priest

This particular children’s tale discusses how to prioritize what’s most important to us. Visu the woodsman was a hard worker, and the old priest wasn’t happy about it. The old priest told Visu that he needed to pray more and scared him with scary stories of what could happen to him if he didn’t pray. Visu was terrified, so he complied. 

However, Visu was so scared that he couldn’t stop praying, and his work began to suffer. His crops started to die as well, which made his wife and children sick due to starvation.

His wife finally had enough and scolded him and told him he needs to get back to work. Visu became overwhelmed and ran from his wife, telling her that God was too important to stop praying.

When Visu left, he climbed up Fujiyama with a white mist accompanying him up the mountain. Once there, he saw many beautiful sights, including two women playing a board game.

He got so lost in watching these women play the game that three hundred years passed before he was distracted by one woman making a wrong move. He was sore, his ax disintegrated, and his hair grew. 

Visu made his way back to his home, only to find it was no longer standing. He came across a woman who told him that three hundred years passed and his loved ones had long since passed away.

She told him he was punished with a long life with no family because he decided to abandon his wife and children. 

It’s now believed that the spirit of Visu remains on the mountain, and this story is meant to teach others about the importance of finding balance in life. 

The Two Frogs 

The Two Frogs is a charming story about two frogs who were both hoping to see different parts of Japan. One of the frogs lived in Osaka and wanted to see Kyoto, while the other frog lived in Kyoto and wanted to see Osaka.

It was a beautiful spring day when both frogs started to make their journey to the other city, though the journey was extraneous. 

Part of their journey was to climb a mountain. Once the frogs reached the top of the mountain, they were delighted to meet each other.

Kyoto Skyline

The frogs had some friendly conversation in which they discovered each other’s purpose for their long quest. To help each other, they would help each other stand as tall as possible on their hind legs. 

The issue was that the frogs didn’t realize that, when standing on their hind legs, their eyes faced behind them instead of in front of them.

Therefore, when the frog from Osaka looked down, they were still viewing Osaka and not Kyoto. The frog from Kyoto faced the same problem. 

Osaka Japan
Osaka Skyline

Not realizing their mistakes, both frogs were disappointed that the city they worked so hard to travel to looked the same as the town they already lived in.

The frogs then parted ways and made the journey back home. Neither frog ever realized they were looking at the wrong town. The story doesn’t have a resolution, but it’s quite a funny story to share with kids. 

Momotaro 

Momotaro is a happy children’s folk tale and is one that has remained popular in Japan for a long time. Momotaro is said to have been a heavenly child who was sent to Earth to bless a couple. A woman who didn’t have a child found him floating on the water inside of a peach. 

While they intended to eat the peach, they found Momotaro, who advised them that he is meant to be their son.

The woman and her husband adored Momotaro and were the ones to bless them with the name; momo means peach, and taro means the oldest son. 

When Momotaro got older, he traveled on a mission to fight demons. While making his way to the island where the demon resided, he became friends with a talking monkey, pheasant, and dog, who went with him to battle. 

They won, and Momotaro returned home to his parents carrying the demon’s treasure. Many pieces of the uncovered treasure contained mystical abilities. The family then lived happily ever after in prosperity. 

Hanasaka Jiisan 

This children’s tale has a few morbid details within it, but it teaches some important lessons about treating animals appropriately and avoiding being greedy. The story’s title, hanasaka jiisan, refers to a flower-blossoming old man, which gives some insight into the story. 

There was an old man who owned a dog with his wife, and the couple had a very strong bond with their dog.

The dog had a propensity to dig, and one day, he discovered some gold in the couple’s garden while digging. The couple’s neighbor decided to take the dog and have them dig in their own garden to try and find gold.

The dog ended up finding bones in the neighbor’s garden. Unhappy about this, the neighbor killed the dog.

Shortly after this devastating event, the old man dreamt of his dog, and the dog told him to chop down the fig tree that they buried him under to construct a mortar. The old man did so, and when the couple used the mortar for rice, the rice transformed into gold. 

When the neighbor learned of this magic mortar, he stole it, but his rice only turned into rancid berries. The neighbor burned the mortar angrily, but the old man took the ashes after his dog appeared in his dream again and told him to place ashes upon sakura or cherry trees

Shortly after the old man decorated certain cherry trees with the mortar’s ashes, the feudal lord, so impressed by the beautiful trees, blessed the old man and his wife with lavish gifts.

Once again, the neighbor did the same to get gifts from the feudal lord but ended up spraying ashes into the feudal lord’s eyes. 

The neighbor was thrown in prison and exiled from his village upon release. 

Tanabata 

Tanabata is a well-known folktale in Japan and is also one that comes in a variety of versions. However, the premise within each version of the folktale is similar. The tale is also referred to by the title The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. 

The story of Tanabata begins with Princess Orihime, a beautiful princess who was also a weaver of beautiful garments. She was sad, however, as she wanted to find a life partner. Her dad sensed this and set her up with a cow herder named Hikoboshi. 

They fell in love and got married and ended up forgoing their duties as weavers and cow herders as they couldn’t keep away from each other.

This angered Orihime’s father, who decided to split them up. He would only allow them to see each other on the 7th day of the 7th month, or July 7th, with the condition that Orihime began weaving again. 

Tanabata Festival Shrine

When Princess Orihime and Hikoboshi tried to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month, they were separated by the Milky Way.

Sensing Orihime’s despair, magpies arranged themselves into a bridge so the two lovers could be reunited. This tale has led to the Tanabata Festival, celebrated on July or August 7th throughout Japan. 

Issun-bochi

Issun-bochi is about a young boy and his family and is a very sweet children’s story. The story starts with an older couple who were longing for a child. As the woman prayed and prayed for a child, she was blessed with a child who was only one inch tall. The couple was delighted, and they named him Issun-bochi. 

Issun-bochi was a very beloved son and lived a wonderful life with his family. However, as he got older and didn’t grow, he wanted to explore the world and try and find some fulfillment.

Issun-bochi decided he wanted to become a samurai. In order to do so, he would use a sewing needle instead of a sword and would make his way on the water in a soup bowl. 

Issun-bochi has an interesting translation in Japanese, which is very fitting for the story. Issun is actually a Japanese term for a three-inch measurement, while bochi translates to son. 

The Mirror Of Matsuyama 

The Mirror of Matsuyama can be interpreted as a story about grief and family. The story features a mother, a father, and a young daughter, all of who share a close bond. One day, the father has to go on a work trip and tells his daughter that if she behaves, he will bring her back a present. 

When the father came home, he had a present for his daughter, as well as a present for his wife. He gifted his wife a beautiful mirror which appeared to have some kind of magical ability.

When the mother became sick, she told her daughter that when she was gone and the daughter gets sad, she should look inside the mirror, and she will see her mother. 

As to be expected, when the mother passed away, both the daughter and the father were devastated. The daughter soon learned that she could indeed see her mom in the mirror, and her mom looked as beautiful as she did before she became sick.

The father remarried, and the woman and the daughter did not get along. 

One day, the stepmother saw the daughter looking into the mirror and talking to it and suspected that the daughter was trying to perform a witchcraft ritual on the stepmother. The stepmother told the father, and the father became angry with his daughter. 

Once he learned the true reason why his daughter was looking in the mirror, he apologized, as did the stepmother. After this, they all lived happily together as a family. 

Kaguyahime 

Kaguyahime is also known as the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and is believed to be one of the oldest Monogatari stories to still exist today.

A Monogatari is a fictional prose narrative coupled with folktale elements. Kaguyahime is the story’s protagonist, sent down to the Earth from the moon so she couldn’t get hurt during the war on the moon. 

Kaguyahime ended up being discovered on earth inside of a bamboo stalk as a man saw it glowing from afar.

He adopted the child, and since they became a family, the man would find gold in each bamboo stalk he would cut. His family became prosperous quickly, and Kaguyahime soon grew into a woman. 

As a woman, Kaguyahime was incredibly beautiful, and many men tried to prove themselves worthy of being her husband, but she rejected them all, even the Emperor of Japan.

After a while, her adoptive parents noticed her sadness each time a full moon came. This is when she finally told them that she was from the moon. 

Eventually, Kaguyahime returns to the moon, which devastated her family and the Emperor. Before she goes, she gives her parents her robe and gifts the Emperor a letter and an elixir of immortality. 

The Emperor chooses to travel to the highest mountain – believed to be Mount Fuji – to burn the letter and throw the elixir of immortality inside, which is attributed to the frequent smoke from the volcano at the time. 

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.