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Portrait of Urashima Tarō by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Urashima Tarō (浦島太郎?) is a Japanese legend about a fisherman who rescues a turtle and is rewarded for this with a visit to the Palace of the Dragon God (or Ryūgū-jō) under the sea. He stays there for three days and, upon his return to his village, finds himself 60 years in the future. The tale has been identified as the earliest example of a story involving time travel.[1]



The name Urashima Taro first appears in the 15th century (the Muromachi period), in the book Otogizōshi, but the story is much older, dating back to the 8th century (the Nara Period). These older books, such as Nihon Shoki, Man'yōshū [2] and Tango no Kuni Fudoki (丹後国風土記) refer to Urashima Taro as Urashimako, though the story is the same. This represents a change in Japanese naming customs; in the previous eras, -ko (child) was used for both male and female names, while in later times it was mostly a female name element, replaced with -tarou (great youth) in boys' names.


One day a young fisherman named Urashima Tarō is fishing when he notices a group of children torturing a small turtle. Tarō saves it and lets it to go back to the sea. The next day, a huge turtle approaches him and tells him that the small turtle he had saved is the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea, who wants to see him to thank him. The turtle magically gives Tarō gills and brings him to the bottom of the sea, to the Palace of the Dragon God (Ryūgū-jō). There he meets the Emperor and the small turtle, who was now a lovely princess, Otohime.

Urashima Tarō illustration by Edmund Dulac

Tarō stays there with her for a few days, but soon wants to go back to his village and see his aging mother, so he asks Otohime permission to leave. The princess says she is sorry to see him go, but wishes him well and gives him a mysterious box called tamatebako which she tells him never to open. Tarō grabs the box, jumps on the back of the same turtle that had brought him there, and soon is at the seashore.

When he goes home, everything has changed. His home is gone, his mother has vanished, and the people he knew are nowhere to be seen. He asks if anybody knows a man called Urashima Tarō. They answer that they had heard someone of that name had vanished at sea long ago. He discovers that 60 years have passed since the day he left for the bottom of the sea. Struck by grief, he absent-mindedly opens the box the princess had given him, from which burts forth a cloud of white smoke. He is suddenly aged, his beard long and white, and his back bent. From the sea comes the sad, sweet voice of the princess: "I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age ..." This story bears a striking similarity to many other tales, including that of Oisín and the earlier Chinese legend of Ranka.



As always with folklore, there are many different versions of this extremely famous story. In one, for example, after he turned into an old man he took the body of a crane, in another he ate a magic pill that gave him the ability to breathe underwater. In another version, he is swept away by a storm before he can rescue the turtle. Also, there is a version in which he dies in the process of aging (his body turns into dust), as no one can live 300 years.


Statue of Urashima Tarō in Mitoyo, Kagawa

A shrine on the western coast of the Tango Peninsula in northern Kyoto Prefecture, named Urashima Jinja, contains an old document describing a man, Urashimako, who left his land in 478 A.D. and visited a land where people never die. He returned in 825 A.D. with a Tamatebako. Ten days later he opened the box, and a cloud of white smoke was released, turning Urashimako into an old man.

Later that year, after hearing the story, Emperor Junna ordered Ono no Takamura to build a shrine to commemorate Urashimako's strange voyage, and to house the Tamatebako and the spirit of Urashimako.

In popular culture

The story influenced various works of fiction and a number of films. Among them are manga and anime such as Dragonball Z, YuYu Hakusho, Urusei Yatsura, Love Hina (whose lead male character is called Urashima Keitaro), Doraemon, Kamen Rider Den-O (the namesake of the Imagin Urataros, given by Naomi), Cowboy Bebop,[3] Ghost Sweeper Mikami and RahXephon.[4] It is retold in and used as the basis for the short story “Another Story” by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in her story collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, named for the character of this story. Urashima Tarō is referenced in the video game Policenauts, and is a character in Ōkami.

In the Dr. Slump manga chapter "The Time Slipper" Arale Norimaki who traveled back in time mentions that she rescued Urashima Tarō from drowning and was given a box. Senbei opens the box and turns into an old man.

The oldest known animated adaptation Urashima Tarō of the tale premiered in 1918.[5]

During the 1970s, VARIG, a Brazilian airline, used him in a series of commercials, with the turtle bringing him to Brazil. After a while, he enjoys his stay, but grows old and longs to return to his home in Japan, so a woman (presumably the princess) gives him a box with an airplane ticket home, which when he opens also becomes much younger.

Episode 17 of Choudenshi Bioman uses the story of Urashima Taro as basis for the main plot. In this episode, Doctor Man invents a device in order to read the genetic memory of Urashima Taro's descendant in order to locate the precise location of the Palace of the Dragon God, which he believes to be overflowing with treasures.

In the visual novel Clannad, a girl named Furukawa Nagisa who is repeating her senior year due to illness, left alone by her friends who graduated, said she felt like Urashima Tarō.

Notes and references

  1. ^ Yorke, Christopher (February 2006), "Malchronia: Cryonics and Bionics as Primitive Weapons in the War on Time", Journal of Evolution and Technology 15 (1): 73–85,, retrieved 2009-08-29 
  2. ^ Rosenberg, Donna (1997), Folklore, myths, and legends: a world perspective, McGraw-Hill, p. 421, ISBN 084425780X 
  3. ^ "Speak Like a Child". Cowboy Bebop. WOWOW. 1998-06-19. No. 18, season 1.
  4. ^ Izubuchi, Yutaka (scenario) and Kiryu, Yukari (screenplay) RahXephon TV series episode 3
  5. ^ 90yo Japanese anime recovered

See also

External links

Simple English

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