Cranes and turtles have a special relationship in Japanese folklore, despite being such different creatures. I became aware of this early during my fifteen-year stay in Japan, when I lived across the road from the main entrance of Atsuta Jingu, one of the three most important Shinto shrines. There is a splendid turtle pond inside the front gate:
One semi-submerged beast, forequarters and the shoulder portion of its shell dry, strained to haul itself up a fraction more out of the water onto a rock platform. The platform itself was rough-hewn in the shape of a turtle, assembled from natural slabs and boulders. Turtles resting on turtles, upon turtle shaped rock, upon the turtle-like earth itself: a living tableau of infinite regression. Turtles upon turtles, all the way down. “A crane lives a thousand years, a turtle ten thousand,” says a Japanese proverb – an ancient one, so it should know. A small shop along the street specialized in turtle products. You could buy canned flesh and bottled essences to help you live for a hundred years. Abstaining from these tonics, I’d be content with a shorter life.Michael Guest, Tatami Days: Getting a Life in Japan Chapter One
Jibun is, of course, enamoured of Tsuru, whose very name means ‘crane’. I wonder whether he senses aspects of the turtle in himself, in his and Tsuru’s rather asymmetrical relations?
There are a few clear reasons behind the crane’s symbolism of longevity, good luck, fidelity and love. They can live for up to eighty years and enjoy lifelong monogamous relationships. Their beauty, ability to ascend to the heights, and their soaring cry, further links them to heaven. It is estimated that the lifespan of the humble, dawdling turtle can, in reality, be as long as four or five hundred years. So who knows, perhaps they have gotten to know each over time. Moreover, opposites attract: turtle and crane are intertwined like yin and yang — but I am unaware of any symbiosis that they may possess in nature.
The story of Urashima Taro, with its resonance of Rip Van Winkle, is perhaps the most popular folktale in Japan. Among fifty variants, the primary one links crane and turtle:
[A] young fisherman named Urashima Tarō catches a turtle on his fishing line and releases it. The next day, Urashima encounters a boat with a woman on it wishing to be escorted home. She does not identify herself, although she is the transformation of the turtle that was spared. When Urashima rows her boat to her magnificent residence, she proposes that they marry. The residence is the Dragon Palace, and on the four sides of the palace, each gardenscape is in a different season. Urashima decides to return to his home after three years and is given a memento box (かたみの筥/箱, katami no hako) in parting. He arrives in his hometown to find it desolate, and discovers 700 years have passed since he last left it. He cannot restrain his temptation to open the box which he was cautioned not to open, whereupon three wisps of purple cloud appear and turn him into an old man. [The story] ends with Urashima Tarō transforming into a crane, and his wife reverting to the form of a turtle, the two thereafter revered as myōjin (Shinto deities).Wikipedia, “Urashima Taro“
There are some other quaint folktales concerning the two, which vary according to region. Here is one from Saitama Prefecture:
Once upon a time, there were a crane and a turtle. The crane was a very good-looking young woman, and the turtle a stout man.Narrated by Yao Inoue, Retold by Kuniaki Roku, minwanoheya.jp, my translation
One day, when they met, the crane thought the turtle looked very dependable, and said to him: “Mr. Turtle, Mr. Turtle, will you be my husband?”
The turtle replied: “I don’t like the idea. I don’t like it. Your legs are too long.”
”No, long legs are fine.”
”As well, you have a long neck.”
”No, it’s good to have a long neck.”
”Well, then, you have a long beak…”
”There is nothing wrong with a long beak.”
”But I still don’t want you to be my wife. Long legs, a long neck, a long beak, and everything else is fine. I accept that, but…”
”What? Say it.”
”You see, we turtles live for ten thousand years. You cranes live a thousand years. If you die in a thousand years, I will have to live in a birdnest for the remaining nine thousand years. This is hard. So, no matter how beautiful you are, I won’t be your bridegroom.”
”I’ll be your friend, then, and you’ll be mine.”
”Well, then, I hope that will come true.”
The crane and the tortoise became friends. Since they were so close, they were invited to many celebrations, to give blessings.
People still say that cranes live for a thousand years and turtles live for ten thousand years, and people still want to congratulate and thank them for their good fortune.
Now back to Jibun and Tsuru.
After I met her on May 12, I felt that Tsuru and I would finally become husband and wife. Then I wondered about what would happen after that.
We would be happy forever. It was simply unimaginable that life could become humdrum for us, as it usually did for ordinary married couples. We would be modest in our carnal desires and united in our mutual appreciation and love for each other, so that any discord was impossible. I am aware that more experienced people will scoff at such thoughts, calling them young and self-delusional. There is no one in the world more annoying than those who assume the guise of teachers, taking it for granted that the young, with their own experience upon which to rely, will follow the path they have taken. Such people will be amazed when they discover that I have the ideal marriage and family. I will not consider my wife to be a mere plaything, as they do. A woman with child will naturally become less lovely, and even suffer from hysteria. I am completely sympathetic and will be truly loving and tender. I will uproot sources of unhappiness that they are unable even to see. I will demonstrate that Tsuru’s and my love is of a totally different order to their own.
While it may take many forms, a true love between a man and woman is eternal and immortal.
If Tsuru’s and my love could ever end in misfortune—I would truly want to investigate how it might be possible.
Though others will probably ridicule me for marrying her, such ridicule will eventually turn to envy and respect, for ours will be the model of an ideal marriage.
There is no greater love than my love for her, a love that considers out intellectual destiny, work, and personalities. In fulfilling our love, we will learn many things, hidden things.
There was now little doubt we were going to become man and wife. Whether sooner or later was the only question. However, as one might expect, sometimes I experienced misgivings, momentary doubts. Then at some point, for no particular reason at all, I would arrive once again at the understanding that everything would turn out well.
Through May and June, I waited in vain for good news from Mr. Kawaji, then fruitlessly through July and August. I had been in Tokyo all summer, and at the beginning of September, I went to Senbonhama in Numazu. When I returned home after a week’s stay there, I was expecting a reply saying that he had finally received news from Tsuru’s family. I anticipated his return, but September also passed with nothing.
One day in October, I was walking in the garden, breathing in deeply the lonely autumn air, when a maid came to me. She handed me a letter.
My heart leapt into my throat. It was from Mr. Kawaji.
I cut the seal and read. I summoned all my strength, while my eyes filled with tears.
Tsuru had become a married woman.
I tried to bear it but could not, and I cried out aloud, not knowing what to do. I walked around the garden in a daze, then went into my room and wept on the desk.
* * *
Tsuru was the wife of the eldest son of a wealthy Kashiwagi resident, who had become an engineer this year.
I tried to bear it, but I could not, and I cried aloud.
Contextual-atmospheric Meiji photographs:
- Young woman 1: Albumin print made by Tamamura Kozaburo, who had studios in Tokyo and Yokohama between 1874 and 1909. The young woman was known as “Miss Tokimatsu, the Belle of Japan”, “The Smiling Geisha”, “The Laughing Geisha”, and simply “Emiko”. She smiles in all her photos – her trademark, for which she became famous. She appeared widely in postcards and advertising copy and in collections of images often purchased by tourists. The present photo is in a collection held by the Moscow Multimedia Arts Museum, and is one of her most popular images. It is a little risqué, with her yukata opened up at the top like that. It is almost as though she is at the seaside – the yukata and her hairstyle evoke a hot summertime, as does the uchiwa (oval shaped, non-folding fan) she is holding in her hand. See oldtokyo.com .
- Young woman 2: Japanese bride, late Meiji period. Source: ifuun.com .
English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022
Categories: Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man