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Chronological Evolution of the Urashima Taro Story and its Interpretation

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posted on 2021-11-14, 08:59 authored by Holmes, Yoshihiko

The present thesis examines the evolution of the Urashima story. In modern Japan traditional Japanese tales have been presented in the form of illustrated books for young children. It is generally regarded that these tales contain common motifs or moral lessons; however, the Urashima story, one of the most well-known stories in Japan, seems to differ greatly from other folktales.  Scholars believe that the Urashima story was a popular pre-written orality-based story among the coastal dwelling ama group of people in ancient times in Japan. The introduction of a writing system from China made it possible to record the Urashima story as a written text.  However, the first recorded version of the Urashima story, putatively in the late seventh century, was quite different from later versions in terms of plot, purpose and the characters. The ideology of immortality, suggesting Chinese Daoist origins, was the main purpose of the story for several centuries, overlain by Buddhist influences.  The present study finds that the major turning point in the tale from an orality-based story to a literary text was in Otogizōshi in the Muromachi Period (14th–16th centuries), when people still seemed to be attuned to orality-based puns and the satirical and witty use of word plays through the exchange of songs.  During the ensuing Edo Period, the Urashima story was transformed into a book for reading material. It changed at this time due to social developments, such as the widespread manufacture of paper and the technological development of woodblock printing. A shift in its themes and motifs such as immortality to Buddhist and social moral lessons occurred along with changing the cultural values of society, increase in literacy, and the appearance of new genres of literature and their writers in the Edo Period.  The establishment of the formal compulsory education system in the Meiji Period, accompanied by a shift in readership from educated adults to school children, further changed the story and its purpose, and resulted in the standardisation of the Urashima Tarō story that is well known today. Much of the well-known content of the current Urashima story in modern day Japan has appeared only within the last 150 years.  Therefore, from this thesis it is apparent that the Urashima story evolved as a reflection of Japanese society’s changing views. In short, this study identifies and analyses significant changes to the original recorded story that have appeared over the past fourteen hundred years.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Palmer, Edwina