Urashima Taro (浦島太郎)

Urashima Taro is one of the Ryugu (Dragon Palace) legends which appear all over Japan. It is also a Japanese setsuwa (folk tale), and the name of the main character within it.


The outline of the plot, which is widely known in Japan today, is as follows.

Urashima Taro, a fisherman, happened to see children treating a turtle cruelly. After Taro saved the turtle, it took him to Ryugu-jo Castle as a token of it's gratitude. At Ryugu-jo Castle, the dragon Otohime (according to one theory, a daughter dragon of Tokai Ryuo, Dragon King of the East) welcomed Taro.
After a while, Taro told her that he would go home, at which point Otohime gave him a casket, saying 'Don't ever open this.'
When Taro arrived back at the beach with the turtle, there was nobody whom Taro knew. Taro then opened the casket, and the smoke which billowed out began to envelop him, turning him into an old man. Urashima Taro had spent only a few days in Ryugu-jo Castle, but in that time 700 years had passed.

There is no widely accepted version of the legend because in each region the story continues differently.

The story collected in "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan).

This is the oldest extant piece of literature in which Urashima appears, and 'Article 477 during the reign of Emperor Yuryaku' in the "Nihonshoki" contains only the beginning of the story, in which Urashima went to Mt. Horai. The content is based on concepts of Taoist immortality both in expressions used and the structure of the piece, and it resembles Taoist fantastic novels which were widely known in ancient China. It is thought that this story was created out of a yearning for eternal youth and immortality.

The story collected in "Tango no Kuni Fudoki" (Records of Tango Province)

It is believed that the model of the story in the Records of Tango Province (of which only part survives today) was Shimako TSUTSUKAWA and Mizunoe no ura no Shimako. The "Nihonshoki" and "Manyoshu" (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), written around the same time, contain the story, but the surviving fragment of "Tango no kuni Fudoki" provides more detail.

The story collected in the ninth volume of Manyoshu

In the ninth volume of "Manyoshu" a long poem composed by TAKAHASHI no Mushimaro (poem 1740, 'a poem concerning Mizunoe no Ura Shimako') expresses the following, and which could be called a precursor of Urashima Taro.

The name 'Urashima Taro' appeared in Medieval times, but before that the character was called 'Ura Shimako,' which was a shortened version of Mizunoe no ura no Shimako.

"Otogi zoshi"

The short story in "Otogi zoshi," completed in the Muromachi Period, established the present text of 'Urashima Taro.'
Following this, the story came to be widely known in Japan through various media as a traditional tale. The motif of the turtle returning the favor in gratitude was established after "Otogi zosh,i" and moreover, Otohime, Ryugu-jo Castle, and the tamatebako (Urashima's casket) appeared in the Medieval period, and so the appearance of "Otogi zoshi" marked a considerable change in the tale of Urashima.

In "Otogi zoshi" Ryugu was described not as somewhere in the sea but on an island or continent. Elements such as the spring, summer, autumn, and winter gardens were subplots, and were added to the main plot.

The 'crane and tortoise' variation

A part of "Otogi zoshi" created after the Muromachi Period contained a variation of the Urashima story, and its ending is as follows.

According to one theory, a Noh play called 'Tsurukame' (Crane and Turtle), in which a turtle lived for ten thousand years, while a crane had a life of a thousand years, was created from this version of the story, and the custom of having a turtle or crane as a good luck charm spread as a result of this.

The version of the story handed down in Kanagawa Ward, Yokohama City

Once upon a time, there was a man called Urashima Tayu in Miura-gun County, Sagami Province. He came to Tango Province to start a new job. His son, Taro, happened to see a turtle being treated badly by children on the beach. (The middle part is omitted as it is the same as the widely-known variation) Taro, who had become an old man, heard from a fisherman that his parents' grave was in Shirahata, Musashi Province.

Hearing this information, Taro hurried to Koyasu beach. Taro arrived at Koyasu, and looked for his parents' grave, but it could not be found. Otohime, wanting to help him, put a light to a pine tree and showed him where it was. Taro finally found the grave, and built a hermitage in order to live there. This temple later came to be called Kanfukuju-ji.

The version of the story handed down in Okinawa

This has minor differences from that told on the mainland.

Once upon a time, there was an honest fisherman in Yonaha village in Haebaru town, who picked up a kamoji (hairpiece) on the beach in Yonabaru town. He handed the kamoji to a girl who was looking for it, and she thanked him and said that she wanted to invite him to Ryugu. When the fisherman began to walk with the girl, the sea divided and a path to the Ryugu appeared. The girl called herself Otohime, and the fisherman spent his days in Ryugu, receiving warm and friendly treatment. When three months had passed the fisherman began to miss home, and he was given a paper parcel by the girl, being warned not to open it. Before long the fisherman returned home to find that his neighborhood was completely changed, and he lived there for many years, equivalent to about thirty-three generations. The fisherman opened the paper parcel, which he was not supposed to open, but inside there was only a bundle of kamoji. At that moment smoke enveloped him, and he became an old man with white hair, fell down, and died. It is said that the local people paid their respects to the old man and made a grave, which was called Usan Nidaki.

Changes in modern times

The behavior of Urashima Taro after he went to Ryugu-jo Castle was not appropriate for a children's story, so this part was changed when told to children. For this reason, the story was rewritten for a national textbook during the Meiji Period.

History and interpretation

According to an interpretation of the story in "Tango no Kuni Fudoki," the main characters are a man of refinement called Ura Shimako and a beautiful woman in a world of supernatural beings. Their love was described erotically, and the story showed us a vivid contrast in the sense of time, three years in the supernatural world (Mt. Horai) being equivalent to three hundred years in the world of human beings. The way of narrating the story was very unconventional for the period and it expressed a new concept. It was totally different from myths dealing with marriages between gods, or the legend of Umisachi Yamasachi. The story does not end with the main character growing old and dying, but rather his body disappears from this world, which is like legends telling of Taoist immortals.

According to a surviving fragment of "Tango no kuni Fudoki," the article was a compilation of works written by IYOBE no Umakai (one of the highest regarded family names) in Muraji. He was regarded as the greatest intellectual of the day, and was a scholar and government official in the late 7th century, selecting "Ritsuryo" (a kind of law), being involved in the compilation of history books, working as Kotaishigakushi (an official in charge of the education of the Crown Prince), and who left Chinese poems based on concepts of Taoist immortality in "Kaifuso" (Fond Recollections of Poetry). There is a great possibility that the original story of Urashima Monogatari in the 8th century, which can be seen in "Yuryaku-ki," "Tango no kuni Fudoki," and the ninth volume of "Manyoshu" among other sources, was written by IYOBE no Umakai as a bizarre novel based on concepts of Taoist immortality.

In the early Heian Period, people worshipped Ura Shimako at a shrine called Urashima Myojin in the Tango region, the setting of Urashima Monogatari. It is considered that this expression of faith appeared in response to Urashima Monogatari.

After the Heian Period it was written as a kanbunden (biography in classical Chinese).

The early 10th century: "Zoku Ura Shimako no Denki" (a biography of Ura Shimako, second series)

The late 11th century: 'Ura Shimako Den' (a biography of Ura Shimako), collected in "Honcho Shinsen Den" (Lives of Japanese Spirit Immortals)

The end of the 11th century: 'Ura Shimako Den', collected in "Fuso Ryakki" (A Brief History of Japan)

The early 13th century: 'Ura Shimako Den', collected in "Kojidan" (Talks of the Past)

After the 12th century, Urashima Monogatari appeared in books about waka poetry such as "Toshiyori Zuino" (Toshiyori's Poetic Essentials), "Ogisho," and "Waka domosho" (a waka handbook for beginners), and they were written in kana (the Japanese syllabaries), being widely read among nobles in the imperial court.

In the Medieval period, the 'Urashima Taro' from "Otogi zoshi" became a theme for picture scrolls, Noh plays, and Kyogen (a farce played during a Noh play cycle), and the story reached a much wider audience, becoming further popularized during the Edo Period. During the Meiji Period, Sazanami IWAYA changed the established story into one for children, focusing on the returning of the favor, and the summary of the story appeared in national textbooks for 35 years from 1910.

Apart from this story, there are no examples of stories which have a history spanning 1300 years, and appear in different forms in various works.

Background and Certain Mysteries

Mt. Horai (or Ryugu-jo Castle) where Urashima Taro stayed, was a legendary mountain on which sennin (immortal mountain wizards) lived, and behind the story were concepts concerning Taoist immortality in which eternal youth and immortality were prized in ancient China. It was an isolated island located at the far to the east, and the sennin lived there, knowing of the elixir of life.

The concepts of Taoist immortality are connected to the doctrine of Yin and Yang and the Five Agents or Elements in ancient Chinese cosmology, and the five colors of the turtle in the tale were derived from this Five Elements Theory. Mt. Horai was changed into Ryugu-jo Castle in later years. Due to the content of the story, it is also regarded as a pornographic novel based on concepts of Taoist immortality written by an ancient Japanese court noble.

Hoderi, the myth of Yamasachi, is a similar tale to Urashima Taro. The main plot is quite similar to Urashima Monogatari; Yamasachihiko, the deity from which the Imperial family is descended, was put in a waterproof palanquin called 'Manashikatama' by the god Shiotsutsunooji and taken to Wadatsumi no miya (a palace of the tutelary deity of the sea), and there gets married to Toyotamahime, a daughter of Wadatsumi, and after spending three years there he returns home and breaks a taboo. Also, according to "Rekishi-sho"(a history book), when the first Emperor Jinmu, a grandchild of Yamasachihiko, came to Yamato, a man with a fishing rod was riding on the back of a turtle. These two characters are strangely similar to Urashima Taro.

"A Collection of Poetry" contains a description of a person called 'Suminoe,' who is considered to be a model for Urashima Taro, and who is still worshipped as Sumiyoshi Myojin, one of the Sumiyoshi Sanjin (Sumiyoshi three deities), in Sumiyoshi, Osaka. His other name was 'Shiotsutsunooji' and he is said to have lived for a long time. The model of this character, TAKENOUCHI no Sukune, lived to a great age (however, as they lived much longer than a human life span, it is taken to be fiction). These three characters, Urashima Taro, Shiotsutsunooji, and TAKENOUCHI no Sukune, share the same characteristic in that they lived for a long time.

The letters '老翁' (old man) are closely associated with Urashima Taro, who became an old man. Sumiyoshi Myojin, Shiotsutsunooji, and Urashima Taro share the common feature of being represented by an image of an old man, in addition to their long life. Also, Shiotsutsunooji oversaw the descent to earth of the Sun-Goddess's grandson in the Yamato regal system, and it is said that he was a mysterious god that encouraged Emperor Jinmu's military expedition to the east. TAKENOUCHI no Sukune is considered the founder of Omi, a powerful family in ancient times, and led Emperor Ojin's military expedition to the east.

Like Urashima: a guide for Emperor Jinmu.

Shiotsutsunooji: encouraged Emperor Jinmu's expedition to the east.

TAKENOUCHI no Sukune: led Emperor Ojin's expedition to the east.

These three people are represented by similar images. Emperor Jinmu and Emperor Ojin took a similar route to the east, and there is a view that these two emperors could have been the same person.

The sea is an element that connects the Soga clan with Urashima. The Soga clan, who were at the height of their prosperity in the 7th century, had been the sole producers of green jadeite since the Jomon Period. Because green jadeite is brought from the bottom of the sea, it was considered to be sacred treasure given by the god of the sea. A slight connection can be found with Urashima Taro in that the Soga clan had an obsession with green jadeite, or the sacred treasure in the sea. This may be the reason Yamasachihiko, who was quite similar to Urashima, was also given green jadeite by the god of the sea in the story.

TAKENOUCHI no Sukune, the founder of the Soga clan, worked as a loyal subject to Emperor Jingu, the mother of Emperor Ojin, while Empress Jingu was strongly connected to the sea god of Toyo and created a stronghold at 'Toyura no miya.'
Because it was also called 'Toyo no minato no miya,' Empress Jingu was called Queen of Toyo. It has been said that the origins of the Soga clan, their relationships with Empress Jingu, and relationships between Empress Jingu and TAKENOUCHI no Sukune can be worked out from the legend of Urashima Taro.

According to a recent study conducted by Yuji SEKI, an author of historical novels, the fact that most of the ancient documents frequently mention Urashima particularly means that it can be interpreted that he was a significant, if shadowy, figure. The "Nihonshoki" tells us that the story of Taro happened around the late 5th century, during the reign of Emperor Yuryaku, and 300 years later (in this case really 300 years), in the 8th century, he returned to his birthplace. The interval between 5th and 8th centuries is important. Around this period Emperor Yuryaku tried to carry out a project of reforms, aiming to create 'a powerful Imperial family,' and the Soga clan supported him, thus establishing their political power, however, later this political power was taken by the sudden rise to prominence of other court nobles. It can be conjectured that the relevance of the 300 years in the Urashima Taro story reflects the period of time of Emperor Yuryaku's reforms and the ensuing difficulties.

Psychological synopsis

It can be suggested that the legend of Urashima Taro reflects the psychological features of Japan very closely. According to such an analysis, a snake or dragon at the bottom of the sea can be seen as a mother symbol. In Western tales, the main character vanquished a dragon, saved a princess from captivity, and got married to her (see also the tales concerning Tiamat, the goddess in the ancient Babylonian myth, and the goddess Andromeda in the Greek myth). It is said that this represents a symbol of matricide. In short, it means that a man becomes independent by driving away the influence of his mother. On the other hand, Urashima Taro lived in the residence of the dragon with the princess. This indicates that men become adults without breaking from the influence of his mother, which is very typical way of a boy becoming a man in Japan.

Kanfukuju-ji Temple (Kanagawa Ward, Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture)

This temple was burnt down in the Meiji Period. The pine tree to which Otohime put a light also died during the Taisho Period. The image of Sho Kanzeon Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara-bodhisattva) still remains at Keiun-ji temple today.

Urashima-jinja Shrine (Ine-cho, Yosa-gun, Kyoto Prefecture)

This shrine is located in an area noted in connection with a surviving fragment of "Tango no Kuni Fudoki," which is considered the oldest legend concerning Urashima. According to shrine records, it was built in 825. The Tango Peninsula also contains other shrines based on the Urashima legend.

Urashima-jinja Shrine (Mitoyo City, Kagawa Prefecture)

On the Shonai Peninsula, there are many place-names based on the Urashima legend, such as Namari, where Taro was born, and Mt. Shiudeyama, the smoke from which rose from the casket in the tale. Kameebisusha, where the turtle that Taro saved has been worshipped, is also located in the same city.

Nezame no Toko (wake-up bed)/Rinsen-ji Temple (Agematsu Machi, Nagano Prefecture)

Nezame no Toko is said to be the place where Urashima Taro, just back from Ryugu-jo Castle, opened the casket, and Urashimado Shrine stands on a rock in the center. Rinsen-ji Temple owns a fishing rod which is said to have been used by Urashima Taro. From the precincts you can look down over the picturesque scenery of Nezame no Toko.

A Song for School Children

There are two kinds of 'Urashima Taro' songs authorized by the Ministry of Education: 'Urashima Taro' published in "Yonen Shoka" (songs for little children) in 1900 (words by Kazusaburo ISHIHARA, music by Torazo TAMURA) and another 'Urashima Taro' published in "Jinjo Shogaku Shoka" (songs collected for common elementary education) in 1911 (words by Saburo Otsukotsu, music by a person unknown). The song, which is sung even today, is the "Jinjo Shogaku Shoka" version of 'Urashima Taro,' and begins with the words 'once upon a time Urashima was brought hither by the turtle he saved'.

Urashima Effect (Time Dilation)

According to the theory of relativity advocated by the physicist Albert Einstein, the elapsed time of objects in motion is relatively slower than that of objects at rest. This phenomenon is not observed in daily life, but when objects reach the velocity of light, it becomes more conspicuous; theoretically, time stops when it reaches the velocity of light. Therefore, people who are on a spacecraft reaching almost the speed of light enjoy space travel, and on returning to the earth they find that time passed on earth much faster than on the spacecraft, so the crew of the spacecraft feel as if they were Urashima Taro. That is why this effect is commonly called the Urashima Effect. (It is not a physical term, and generally written in the katakana syllabary as 'ウラシマ' (Urashima).

Several science-fiction writers, such as Aritsune TOYOTA, have made an interpretation of this story; Urashima Taro was caught by aliens, and brought to Ryugu-jo Castle (other planet) on the back of a turtle (spacecraft) at the velocity of light, therefore time passed in a different way to that on earth.

See also see Urashima effect (time dilation) and the paradox of twins for further details.

The 'Urashima Taro (Hanako) Condition'

Compared to Urashima Taro, who returned home from Ryugu-jo Castle to find that his neighborhood had become a completely unfamiliar place, those who have been away for a long time and who return to their home to find that it has totally changed were called 'Ima Urashima' (Urashima of the present) in the past, and today 'the person is Urashima Taro' or 'the person is in a state of Urashima Taro' is used. If the person is female, she is called Urashima Hanako.
The expression is used in a masochistic way about 'a person who has lived abroad and become ignorant of Japanese fashion or felt awkward,' 'a person who has just returned from his or her place of assignment and who gets confused by changes at the head office,' or 'a person who has been away from society and who doesn't know about current affairs or new technologies and feels that he or she has been left behind.'

When a patient who has been forced into 'social hospitalization' in a mental hospital for a long period of time leaves the hospital, he or she sometimes experiences such troubles, so it is necessary for them to receive careful counseling and training when leaving the hospital. This also applies to a prisoner who has been released from prison after serving a long sentence.

[Original Japanese]