Tales from the Bamboo Grove reflects the values of the Kawashima household and—in a broader sense, of Japanese culture—as handed down through oral tradition. Good versus evil is the underlying theme of many of the stories, such as “Monkey and Crab,” and “Why Is the Seawater Salty?” Good wins in the end and evil is punished: The greedy older brother drowns at sea as a direct result of his avarice, and the sly monkey is crushed, pinched, burnt, and stung by the other characters in the story as a punishment for stealing the crabs’ persimmons. Reflecting harsh consequences for evil deeds, the tales nevertheless reveal the willingness to forgive within Japanese culture. After the monkey is punished, confesses, and asks Mrs. Crab for forgiveness, he is allowed to live with the others in peace, and harmony returns to the community. These tales reveal the shame that selfish deeds bring in Japanese culture and the importance of honesty, fairness, and harmony within the community.
Hard work and loyalty to family are other important values reflected in these Japanese tales. In both “Yayoi and the Spirit Tree” and “The Fox Wife,” the main characters devote themselves completely to the service to their loved ones. Although both characters are materially poor, their selfless devotion is miraculously rewarded, and they receive material blessings to meet the physical needs of their family. In contrast, the main character in “Dragon Princess, Tatsuko” concentrates her energies on self-devotion and vanity and ends up spending the rest of her life as a dragon, causing great pain to her devoted mother.
Folkloric explanations of physical aspects of nature is another characteristic of these Japanese tales. For example, “The Grandmother Who Became an Island” explains the origin of island weather patterns, and “Why Is the Seawater Salty?” explains how the oceans became salty and why they remain in this state. Similar to American Indian folklore in their explanations of physical events and geographical phenomena, such as earthquakes and the Creation, these nature folktales lend themselves to both language arts and science integration in the classroom.
Tales from the Bamboo Grove offers young readers an exciting glimpse of Japanese culture and tradition and an opportunity to consider the value of oral tradition. Although there are many single-title traditional Japanese folktales in the canon of juvenile literature, few publications offer a collection of tales with such poignant points of cultural reflection. Many folktales are simply stories of intrigue. For example, Yoshiko Uchida’s The Magic Purse (1993) tells the story of a poor young farmer who wanted to go with his friends to the Iseh Shrine. His passage (and more) is paid by the mysterious maiden in the swamp who wears a silvery blue kimono. They carry on a long-distance romance; he sends gifts of wine and rice cakes to her, and, in return, she sends a gift of a tiny flower and a shiny green leaf floating on a tray down the river. The Magic Purse entertains and intrigues the reader but does not offer the depth of Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ collection. Watkins’ tales not only invite readers to enjoy well-told stories but also encourage them to ponder morality, honesty, hard work, and family values.
The introduction to Tales from the Bamboo Grove describes Watkins’ childhood in the Kawashima household. Watkins’ father, who played an important role in the Japanese military service, was separated from the rest of the family, which lived in Korea during World War II. For Mrs. Kawashima, the physical and...
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