The Japanese Rustic Life in 1950s .2

The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.

White Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby I cannot follow it.



Written by Y.Otsuki (Sendai, Japan)

Translated by Y. Otsuki (London)


People repeated what he had be done by their parents. Later in life, the same boy became a father and when his son reached the secondary school, he taught his son the authentic way of reading the poem from the textbook as you can hear on the radio. Of course, he remembered the sad story as I’ve just told, so he advised his son not to practise.
But his son was so decile when he read authentically at the school as he followed his father’s instructions that he received many laughs from his classmates. “What did the teacher say?”, the father asked his son. “Nothing”, he replied curtly. This is an example of the present state of the Japanese schools.


By the way, according to pioneer-like systematic study on folk tales by Vladimir Propp, the structures of folk tales can be divided into several patterns of stories, which are applicable to every country, even if there are small differences among them, or so I have heard.

Since Japan opened its door to the west in the mid-19th century, it learned many aspects that helped to build modern society as we know it today, especially post-war democracy. We have apparently been living in a modern society since that time. But the spiritual side of various aspects of contemporary Japanese culture are still influenced by the feudal society between 17th and 19th century. The emperor is the king of Japan, but had already lost his practical governing power before the start of the 10th century. During the Tokugawa period(from 17th to 19th century), Japan was divided into aboout 270 small countries. The shognate, however, held a power as practical dominator like scrap&build of countory, control of commercial activities, diplomacy etc. Therefore each country dared to dominate his people strictly to protect itself against neighboring countries as well as shognate, who could not travel to other places without their gevenment’s premission.  (They are now referred to as “prefectures” approximately.) In some countries, they even had their own languages, which were different from others, so that they could easily differentiate between foreigners, and especially find out (Ninjas), who were dispatched from the central government by Tokugawa. The information was circulated through only three routes, as an official injunction from Shogunate to the lords, domestic and illegal trades. Consequently, each country (country/prefecture in present time) had kept its own distinctive culture, which has continued to the present day. Nowadays, people can communicate with each other anywhere in Japan, thanks to mass media and education has spread the standard Japanese language. However, we can still see the diversity of the unique customs, festivals, foods and lives in every regional  prefecture. If you are planning to take a trip to Japan, I recommend that you take some time to enjoy the various regions, where great beauties are present-not in Tokyo, kyoto or near Mt.Fuji.

After you’ve acquired a taste of the regional/rural cultures and have seen the differences between them, you will become a true enthusiast of Japan.

About the folk tales in Japan – its prototypes were already made in 10th centure when Japan was unified by the centralised goverment in Kyoto, formed by the emperor and his nobility members. As the centralised government fell apart, folk tales also made various derivatives, depending on the regions and as a result, it became the huge number of folk tales. Most of them have happy-endings, like Cinderella.

example: Long time ago, there was a village, which suffered from droughts every year. One day, a village elder received a visit from some animals (eg.monkey, bear, frog, fish etc.) or ogre, that offered him a plan for saving the village. Of course, it indicated that it wanted to have one of the elder’s three daughters as its wife. This would act as  bargaining chip for successfully salvaging the village. The elder persuaded his oldest daughter to marry it, but she refused. He asked the second one, and she also refused. Finally, he asked the youngest one and she thought deeply and then accepted. Then the village got the rain fall, which resulted in abundant crops, such as rice, barley, vegetables etc.  After that the girl had to go to its residence and marry it tearfully. In some version of this folk tale, her husband was very good to her, and they lived happily together with their children. In other version, after several years later she killed her husband, came back to the village with a lot of treasures, or there was no place for her to live, even if she succeeded in gaining backing from the animal world. There are many versions like these, which are interpreted by modern studies.

Moreover, there are many folk tales about “repaying kindness”,”filial piety”, being born inside a peach or a bamboo shoot etc.  Essentially many stories of heroes were based on someone, who grow up to be a great adult through overcoming many hardships. These originated from the fact that Japan is based on a rice-growing agricultural society (unlike meat-eating hunting societies in Europe, middle-east etc.) That is, agriculture (traditionally, rice growing and producing) needs to make use of people, who can efficiently work at the same level (no need for Picasso type geniuses, who may be very unique, but find it hard to work in teams.) , while it is important to have a fantastic hero in in hunting societies (eg. western societies.).

Thus each village had a public education programme, which sought to bring up the children to become like-minded adults, and they used the folk tales as one form of textbook to achieve this. In some cases, children experience the community life for a short time to study the ways and rules of the village, including, living, cooperative work, rights and duties etc. And they usually have some adult-like ceremonies at the end of this training-nothing as wild as bungee jumping. In other words, agricultural society don’t need geniuses like Einstein, but equalled skilled groups of people, whose combined result would be as great as Einstein’s. Therefore, even if geniuses are born, according to probability, he/she is either ruined while they are growing up in Japan or they find better lives in the west. This remain much the same even today. Nowadays, such systems no longer exist, due to the modernisation of the agricultural industries, migration to the big cities, and changes in village society life, such as spreading of individualism and breaking free from closed society.

Such mutual estrangement has brought about democratic society, but is also the cause of new problems.  Some of the folk tales have been rearranged and rewritten by Lafcadio Hearn, and I would like to recommend that you read them if you are interested.

Fasten it up with rope!“, “No, no, say it loudly”,Fasten it up with rope!“, “No, no, say it loudly“.

Such a verbal exchange had taken place over and over again so many times between the boy and his mother. The boy shedded tears. “One more time!“, the mother shouted. The boy was made to say “Fasten it up with rope!” in the room, which was situated  furthest from the sitting room, where the mother and the elder sister were sitting there. Unlike western houses, traditional Japanese houses are divided by paper doors, which means that one can easily hear sounds coming from the other rooms. You can experience this in traditional Japanese inns, called “Ryokan”.

It was a custom at that time that every primary school held an annual entertainment festival all over Japan (This is still the case now, and usually in Autumn.). The festival programme consisted of the drama, dance, choirs, reading etc.

The boy was going to play the role of the one, who says, “Fasten  it up with rope!” in the drama, called “Taro Urashima”. The story of this drama is very famous in Japan, and it is known fact that it was established during the 12th-13th century, but its prototype was likely to have already existed before the 10th century. The plot of this drama is as follows:

A long time ago, the children in the village were bullying the tortoise when a fisherman was walking the seaside. The fisherman, called “Taro Urashima” took pity on it and bought it for some cash. He released it into the sea saying, “Never come back to the seaside, so that you won’t be captured again.” Later, same tortoise approached Taro as he walked around the same spot at the seaside. The tortoise said that it would take Taro to a place, called the “Dragon palace” as thanks for saving him. Taro rode on the tortoise’s back deep into the sea, and soon arrived at the palace.

In the castle, there was a mistress, called “Queen Otohime”, who governed the entire sea. Queen Otohime, who looked like a heavenly maiden, also had many servants, who looked like marine lives. Taro was given a cordial welcome by the Queen Otohime, and had a pleasant stay every day. After the stay, which seemed too long to count, Taro casually recalled home, and became eager to go back home. Queen Otohime recommended that he stayed there when he told her of his wish to go back home, but she was unable to change his mind. Queen Otohime gave him a beautifully decorated wooden box when he left the castle, and told him not to open it.

Taro went back home riding on the back of the tortoise. In his village there was no one, who knew him. So he opened the box that he was given by Queen Otohime as he didn’t have a clue what to do with it. Just as he opened the box, he suddenly became very old.

It means that he had spent a particularly long time at the dragon palace.

I suppose there are similar folk tales in every country. At any rate, the major players in this drama are the fisherman, Queen Otohime and the tortoise. On the other hand, the boy’s role is a comparatively minor role with only one line. As the cast of the drama was decided by its director(the class teacher), the pupils, who were cast, were chosen, because of their appearance, academic results, behaviours etc. In short, whoever won the teacher’s favour. The boy didn’t favour well, and that’s why he ended up getting the minor role.

Fasten it up with rope!“, shouted the boy. His mother said, “It’s not enough! No dinner until you can say it loudly.”

The festival was held at the assembly hall of the primary school for the whole day. After the last world war, there wasn’t much choice of the entertainments in the rural village. But this was one of the biggest festivals for the residents of the village as well as the families of the pupils. The audience were taking the opportunity to chat to one another or eat lunch, using the performance as a place to socialise, instead of appreciating the children’s play and only turned their attention towards the stage when they were struck for conversation. This is a similar situation as in a typical contemporary Japanese home, where people watch TV without really concentrating. The boy knew that even if he played his role earnestly, he would never get any attention. That’s why he couldn’t appreciate that night’s practise to shout his line loudly. But because dinner was dependent on the result of his practise, the boy had to practise hard. “Fasten it up with rope!“, the boy shouted as loud as he could. “OK, that’s fine. Why didn’t you say it like that from the start? Once more.” His mother said. Without the moment’s delay, his sister helped him to finish practising, “Mother, that should be enough”, she said.
The next day, the boy had been thinking and thinking until the moment that the performance started whether he should read his line as he did during the previous night’s practise (which would likely to result in a laugh) or whether he would get away with resigning himself to saying to say his line quietly and risk being scolded by his mother. The moment for his role came around quickly. “Fasten it up with rope!“, the boy shouted loudly and instantaneously. The roaring laugh of the audience suddenly hit the boy. He sweated heavily and he didn’t have any memory of what he did after that.