Early Short Fiction (900-1600 c.e.)
In ancient times, legends and folktales were assumed to be true, no matter how miraculous or weird they may seem to the modern reader. The local narratives that the Japanese wrote down in the seventh and eighth centuries, when they first adapted the Chinese writing system to fit their own very different language, generally belong in this category. Although they often make fascinating reading, they cannot really be called “fictions” since they were taken quite literally by their audience. By the late ninth and early tenth centuries, however, sophisticated and highly entertaining tales of the supernatural were making their way to Japan from Tang China, suggesting newer, more fictional forms of storytelling.
One of the best loved of the few Japanese stories that survive from this early period is “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” It tells of a tiny girl discovered by an old woodsman in the hollow stem of a bamboo, who quickly grows into a lovely young woman wooed by all the great lovers of the land. Although she shows not the slightest interest in any of them, five will not take no for an answer. She sets each of them an impossible task, demanding they bring her a jeweled branch from Paradise, for example, or the Buddha’s own stone begging bowl. Then, when all have failed, revealing their weakness or dishonesty in the process, she returns to the moon from whence she came, despite the entreaties of the lovelorn emperor and the girl’s aged parents. It is a wonderful tale, alternately amusing and touching, with the kind of highly structured plot that is rare in the short fictions that followed. In fact, it is likely that “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” although based on an existing story, creatively altered Chinese models to fit the Japanese context.