Urashima Tarō (浦島太郎)is one of the most famous fairy stories in Japan, known to millions of elementary schoolchildren. One day a young fisherman named Urashima Tarō is fishing when he notices a group of children teasing a little turtle. Tarō saves the turtle, and it swims back out to sea. The next day, a huge turtle approaches and tells him that the turtle he saved was the daughter of Ryujin, the Emperor of the Sea, who wants to see him to thank him for saving her.

The huge turtle gives Tarō gills and takes him to the Palace of the Dragon God (Ryuuguujou 竜宮城) at the bottom of the sea. There he meets the Emperor and the small turtle, who has become a lovely princess called Otohime.

Urashima Taro going home on the back of a Tai fish, the King of the Sea seeing him off; Japanese, 19th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art. | Hokkei, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tarō stays with Otohime for three days, but soon wants to go back to his village to see his aging mother, so he requests permission to leave. The princess says she is sorry to see him go but wishes him well and gives him a mysterious box called a tamatebako (玉手箱 ‘jewelled hand-box’) which will protect him from harm but which he should never open. Tarō takes the box, jumps on the back of the huge turtle and is soon back on the seashore.

When he gets home, however, he realises that everything has changed. His home is gone, his mother has vanished, and the people he knew are nowhere to be seen. He discovers that 300 years have passed since the day he left for the bottom of the sea.

Grief-stricken, Urashima Tarō absent-mindedly opens the jewelled box the princess gave him. Out of the tamatebako comes a puff of white smoke and he suddenly sees that he too has aged. His beard is long and white, and his back is stooped. Smoke from the tamatebako also reaches Princess Otohime. From the bottom of the sea comes her sad, sweet voice, “I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age…”

Urashima's departure, on a Japanese hand scroll dating from late 16th or early 17th century. | Unknown authorUnknown author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As so often with folklore, there are many versions of the story. In one, Urashima Tarō turns to dust and dies; in another, he turns into a crane and flies away. In another, he jumps into the sea, where he grows gills, regains his youth and swims away; and in yet another, he eats a magic pill that gives him the ability to breathe underwater.

It is certainly a very old story. Variants can be found in Japan’s two oldest history books, the Nihon Shoki and Man'yōshū, both of which are well over 1000 years old. There was a time when the story was considered to be true. On the west coast of the Tango Peninsula in Kyoto prefecture is a shrine named Urashima Jinja. It holds an old document that describes how a man called Urashimako left his land in 478 A.D. and visited a land where people never die. He returned home with a tamatebako in 825 A.D. and when he opened it ten days later, a cloud of white smoke came out that turned him into an old man. It is said that after hearing the story, Emperor Junna ordered that a shrine be built to house the tamatebako and the spirit of Urashimako.

Basil Hall Chamberlain retold the story with some variations as The Fisher-boy Urashima in 1886. He wondered if the Dragon Palace mentioned in the story might be a romanticized notion of Okinawa, since Ryuuguu (Dragon Palace) and Ryuukyuu (Okinawa) sound so alike.

Basil Hall Chamberlain visited a temple dedicated to Urashima in Yokohama. It too was said to house the tamatebako. Chamberlain went there with Ernest Satow in May 1880 but, of course, they found nothing of the kind.

The story of Urashima Tarō is similar to many folktales from other cultures, Rip Van Winkle being the foremost example. Another is The Marsh King's Daughter, a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson. Then there’s the Irish legend of Oisin, who meets Niamh and spends the rest of his life with her in the enchanted kingdom of Tir na nOg. And the Vietnamese legend of Tu Thuc, who aids a fairy-child arrested for plucking a peony flower. It is also remarkably similar to The Land Where One Never Dies, one of the folk tales Italo Calvino collected in his Italian Folktales.

Indeed, the story of Urashima Tarō resembles so many other tales from so many other countries and cultures that they have all been catalogued by folklore etymologists Aarne, Thompson and Uther. Together, they have a catalogue number (ATU 681) and a collective title (‘The Relativity of Time’).

A sprawling, collectively appreciated metaphor for leaving a happy place, missing it, and returning only to find that it has changed in their absence will always be especially piquant in a country as fast-changing country as Japan.

Maybe that’s why there is a statue of Otohime, the daughter of the Dragon King, in Nihonbashi, at the north-eastern corner of the bridge. Standing as it does at the supposed heart of Japan, the spot from which all distances are measured, the statue reminds anyone who has ever returned home after years away that “underwater years are centuries on earth.”

By - George Lloyd.