The Dōbutsuen: Kame

The Dōbutsuen: Kame

Today’s entry to the dōbutsuen is a creature that you may have seen connected with Japan before. The kame is extremely prevalent in Japan’s modern culture but has, as all the dōbutsuen do, a rich folk history.

Kame [亀]

Many species of turtle are native to Japan’s shores, and so it is no surprise that they feature so strongly in Japanese culture. The kame has long been an important animal in Asian cultures, first as one of the four symbols of the Chinese constellations, Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ [北方玄武] the Black Tortoise of the North; known in Japan as just Genbu [玄武]. However, the turtle enjoys an extremely unique part of Japanese culture itself.

The kame can be seen everywhere in Japanese popular culture. The world-famous computer game Mario features turtles, as does the extremely popular anime and manga series Love Hina. The monster Gamera [ガメラ] is a giant flying turtle who first emerged in Japanese cinemas in 1965 in order to rival another Japanese super monster, Godzilla. The franchise is still extremely popular.

The Japanese treat the kame with reverence; it has powers of healing and protection, and is said to live for 10,000 years. Many families in Japan keep turtle statues in their homes to ward away bad luck. The rougly hexagonal pattern found on the turtle’s shell has been a popular motif, especially in kimono design, for hundreds of years. Because of its great age, the kame is endowed with great wisdom and is often connected with the immortals; in particular the Shinto god Kompira [金毘羅], who watches over seafarers.

The legendary Minogame [蓑亀] is a kame which features in Japanese art and folklore. It is so old that seaweed grows from its back, and is said to represent longevity and felicity. The Minogame plays an important part in one of Japan’s most famous folk stories, the tale of Tarō Urashima [浦島 太郎], which dates back to the 8th century Nara period. It is also recognised as the first story to feature time travel.

Tarō Urashima was a young fisherman who lived by the shores of the sea. One day he came out to inspect his nets and found a group of children huddled around something in them. Shooing the children away, he saw it was a small turtle, which had found itself caught with the fish. Being a kind man, he gently freed the turtle from the nets and placed it back into the shallows, from whence it swam swiftly back into the sea.

The next day he was tending his nets when up swam a much larger turtle, old and venerable and with seaweed growing from its back. The turtle addressed him, saying,

“You are to be rewarded for your kindness, Tarō Urashima. The turtle whose life you saved was the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea and I have been sent here to bring you to his palace under the sea so that he can thank you personally.”

Urashima was much surprised by his visitor, but then became afraid.

“I will gladly go with you, venerable turtle, but how will I breathe? I can not live underwater as you do.”

The turtle then cast a spell on Urashima, and the surprised fisherman found that gills had grown on each side of his head. Overjoyed, he left his nets behind and went with the turtle. Together they journeyed far into the depths of the sea and at last came to the great palace of the Emperor of the Sea. Urashima was welcomed as an honoured guest and was amazed by everything he saw; but most of all, by the lady Otohime, who was no longer a turtle but a graceful princess.

The Emperor thanked Urashima many times for saving the life of the beautiful princess, and bade him stay in the palace for as long as he wished. Urashima gladly accepted, for he had fallen deeply in love with the princess Otohime. Scarcely a day had passed before he discovered that the princess loved him too, and so they were married.

Urashima spent many happy days living in the Emperor’s palace under the sea with his beautiful wife. He lived like a prince and his every wish was granted. He completely forgot his old life above the waves, but after a month or two had passed, he became restless and unhappy. The princess tried in vain to cheer him, but failed. He took up the habit of roaming the grounds of the palace endlessly. His meanderings eventually took him to the palace gates, which to his surprise the guards would not open for him. He was a prisoner.

In that moment, he realised that he was homesick. Remembering his elderly mother left behind in the village, Urashima begged his wife to be allowed to return home to visit his mother. The princess Otohime then herself became sad and did not want him to leave; but seeing that Urashima was very unhappy, she allowed him to go.

“The great turtle will come to take you back to your home on the land; but I must give you this to take with you,” she said, and handed him a small box, which was fastened tightly shut. “You must promise me to keep this box safe, and never be tempted to open it.”

Eager to be home, Urashima took the box without question and jumped on the turtle’s back, who carried him back towards the land. He became excited as they reached the shore. However he soon became dismayed, as he could not even remember where his house was. He hurried to the house of a friend, but a stranger answered and angrily told him to go away. Confused, he called at many houses in the village, but no one could tell him where his mother was. No one even knew her name, and the people of the village sent him away, believing him to be a beggar. He did not recognise anyone he saw, and even the streets themselves had changed.

With nowhere to go, Urashima returned to the beach and sank down into the sand, despairing and wondering what to do. Urashima realised that leaving the magnificent palace had been a mistake and he missed his beautiful wife.

In his great unhappiness he forgot the princess Otohime’s warning, and taking the tightly-wrapped box from his pocket, he opened it. A mist emerged from the box which made him cough and jump up in surprise, but this caused him so much pain that he fell back down onto the sand. Every bone in his body ached and his fine clothes were in tatters. Gingerly, he crawled to the water to find the turtle. But to his dismay, he saw nothing but his reflection. He was an old man.

Photo credit: Toto-tarou

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