Issun Boshi


Once there were a man and his wife who were happy on the whole, but not completely because they didn't have any children. They would often pray for a baby, even if it were only a little one. The woman prayed like that often, but while she had great faith, she was surprised (and very happy) to discover one day she was expecting a child. She was even more surprised (and less happy) when the child was born. It was a little baby indeed-- a boy not so big as her little finger.

They named the boy Saemon, but it didn't matter-- everyone called him Issunboshi because he was so small. Issunboshi didn't get any bigger as he got older. But he grew brave, courteous and helpful. His father often said that Issunboshi certainly had big ideas.

When Issunboshi was about fifteen, one of his ideas got to big to be held in. One evening he knelt before his parents to explain his plans.

"Father! Mother! The time has come for me to leave you. I cannot forget my obligation to you, but it is clear I am not meant for life on a farm. I am going to the capital to seek a position better suited to my talents."

His parents agreed with Issunboshi's decision. That night his mother made him a new suit from a scrap of silk, and his father fashioned a a sword from a needle. In the morning Issunboshi set out for the nearest stream carrying an old rice bowl for a boat, and a chopstick with which to pole it toward the capital.

The trip downstream was a new adventure. Issunboshi learned much about winds and waves, and he came to regard large fish in an entirely new light. But all that was forgotten when he first spotted the bridges and temples of the capital before him. Reaching the shore, he abandoned his boat and pole. He made his way to an avenue so broad he had to climb partway up a tree to see across it.

While in the tree Issunboshi noted the approach of an ornate cart pulled by an ox. He could tell it belonged to a man of substance and quality, and he made up his mind to follow. The cart eventually entered the gates of Sanjo no Daijin. Issunboshi was not sure what to tell the guards, but in fact he was not challenged or even noticed.

In the garden, Issunboshi found Sanjo listening to his daughter sing. At an appropriate pause, Issunboshi shouted his apologies and begged Sanjo's attention. Sanjo looked around. Issunboshi shouted again, and soon a maid scooped him up and set him before the great man.

"My lord! I beg to be made your retainer. My experience is not great, but there is no limit to my willingness to serve you. Please forgive my presumption and accept me into your service."

"You seem to be unusually small. And my household is already large. What talents do you have?"

But Issunboshi did not have the opportunity to answer. Sanjo's daughter asked for Issunboshi as a companion, and that settled the matter.

In the months that followed, Issunboshi ground the girl's ink, polished her musical instruments, and helped her fold up poems written in reply to her suitors. Only once, when he seemed to the girl to be taking his job too seriously, was he asked to join her dolls. The girl soon came to think of Issunboshi as a close friend as well as a servant.

Issunboshi often escorted the girl to temples, and sometimes to shrines. He would wait at the entrance, usually practicing the fierce expression of Fudo, while the girl prayed about her private concerns inside.

One day as they were walking back from a temple east of the city, they heard the crude laughter of what turned out to be a huge blue oni. The oni snatched up Sanjo's daughter before she could cry out. Just as quickly, Issunboshi grabbed her hem and climbed to the oni's hand, where he began wrestling with a huge and hairy finger.

The oni was amazed when he discovered the little escort. He stopped running and stood with his mouth hanging open. But rather than ask questions, he tightened his grip on the girl and popped Issunboshi into his mouth.

By the time he hit the oni's tonsils, Issunboshi had drawn his needle sword and began thrusting and slashing. The terrible oni coughed and spit, but Issunboshi caught his wisp of mustache and climbed, slashing, past the flaring nostrils to the pale round eyes. The oni dropped the girl-- he dropped everything-- and ran back into the hills with no thought of ever returning.

Issunboshi made his way back to the dazed girl. She was soon able to stand, and when she did she discovered the magic wishing mallet the oni had dropped a few feet away. Sanjo's daughter did not need or take any time to consider her wish. She shook the mallet, then put her arm around Issunboshi and gazed up at his resolute but gratified face.

Sanjo no Daijin was also pleased with the new, full-sized Issunboshi (who kept the name even though it no longer fit). He had Issunboshi bring his old parents from their village to the capital, where a wedding to Sanjo's daughter was arranged before the new year came.