The Story of Lazy Taro is one of 23 stories in Legendary Nagano: Folk Tales and Legends from the Roof of Japan, a collection translated by Peter Ninnes and Sachiko Miyairi. The book is available in Kindle and paperback from Amazon, and in other e-book formats from Smashwords.com.
We have a short interview with Peter, below, followed by the story of Lazy Taro, presented for your enjoyment. If you are interested in this story please consider purchasing the book!
An Interview with Peter Ninnes
JIS: You’ve written a number of travel books about Nagano. What inspired you to turn to folk tales?
Peter: While writing those other books I had come across a number of well-known and interesting stories, and I wanted to make these more widely available to an English-speaking audience. In the process, we also found some more obscure but very entertaining stories which we have also included.
JIS: Some of these stories are indeed very entertaining, but do you have any other reason to publish the stories?
Peter: Yes. In fact, the stories tell us a lot about Japanese culture and values. Take “Lazy Taro”, for instance. It is a funny story because on the one hand it is about the value of hard work, which most people would say is an important value in Japanese society. But on the other hand, it also tells us that different people have different talents. In this story, the “work” of composing and reciting poems is valued, and leads to a large reward. So that is a bit different to the kind of work that is commonly valued today, which in many cases is more about making money than being creative.
JIS: So what were your sources for the stories?
Peter: Back in the 1970s and 1980s a groups of primary school teachers from Nagano compiled these stories in Japanese and they were mostly published by a local education association. Public libraries still have copies of these books. So along with my co-translator, we went through these books, choosing stories that seemed worth translating. Then we had to get permission from the authors to publish the translations. This was a bit difficult in some cases because they had passed away. Fortunately, we found the President of the local folk tale association living nearby, and she was able to give us permission.
JIS: In the paperback edition, every story has a photo of the area where the story took place. How did you go about finding those places?
Peter: It was a combination of 10% research and 90% good luck. That photo of the statue of Lazy Taro is an example. We found the locality of Niimura and drove over there, but we couldn’t find anything related to the story. It was pretty quiet, and nobody was around. Even the Niimura station was deserted. We stopped to admire a temple with a beautiful maple tree in it, and just then a monk came out of the temple and was about to get into his car and drive off. We asked him about Lazy Taro, and he directed us to the statue, which is by the side of a field in the middle of nowhere.
JIS: And who do you see as the main audience for this book?
Peter: It is really a fun read for anyone interested in Japan, or in folk tales or short stories in general. We tried to make the translation relatively easy, so that Japanese people with high school level English could also read and enjoy it.
You can find more about Peter Ninnes and his books here on JIS as well.
The Story of Lazy Taro
A long time ago, in Niimura in Chikuma District, there was a man called Monogusa Taro. His name means “Lazy Taro”. He lay by the side of the road on a mat, with a little roof over his head made of bamboo poles and straw thatch. He would lie there singing a strange song that none of the other villagers could understand. The song sounded like a lullaby.
The adults just ignored Taro’s mumbles but the children in the village often stood nearby and made fun of him.
“Hey, Taro! Aren’t you bored? You just lie there all day. Why don’t you play with us?”
Taro replied, “You stupid kids! I just can’t be bothered!”
The adults said to the children, “Don’t go near Taro. He only lies around all day singing songs. Singing is for people who have nothing better to do. If you go too close to people like him, you’ll become stupid, too. Don’t be like him.”
So the children gradually stopped visiting him.
Lazy Taro had a long beard because he never shaved. What is more, he had never taken a bath, so he was quite filthy.
One day, one of the neighbors felt sorry for him. She brought him five dumplings. Taro quickly ate four of them. The last one he just played with. He would toss it in the air, catch it, and lick it. Then he dropped it on the road and it rolled away from him.
“Damn!” he said. He reached out for it, using a stick lying nearby, but he still couldn’t reach it.
“Never mind,” he said. “I really don’t have the energy. Someone will pass by and I will ask them to pick it up for me.”
Taro waited, but no one came. Birds pecked at the dumpling, and dogs sniffed it. Taro used the stick to chase them away. Still no one came by.
Four days passed. Then a man called Saemonnojo Nobuyori came along. He was the steward for the local lord. His job was to manage the lord’s properties and farms. He was accompanied by 50 or 60 of his workers.
Taro said to himself, “Oh, good timing!”
Then he asked Saemonnojo, “Can you please pick up that dumpling for me?”
The steward just ignored him. But Taro said in a loud voice, “If you cannot pick up the one dumpling as I asked, how can you manage this land? It should be easy to get off your horse and pick it up! You’re just as lazy as me!”
The workers said, “What a rude fellow!”
Some of the workers jumped off their horses and tried to grab Taro.
“Wait!” said the steward. “I’ve heard of a fellow called Lazy Taro. Is that who you are? Ha! You are just as lazy as everyone says! What do you live on?”
Taro replied, “I stay completely still, even for four or five days at a time, until someone gives me something.”
“I see. That’s interesting. Why doesn’t a young fellow like you feel like working? Isn’t it better to work in the fields like other people do?”
“I don’t have any fields.”
“Then I will give you one,” said the steward.
Taro said, “No thank you. I’m lazy. I don’t want any fields.”
Saemonnojo said, “But everybody wants their own land. Don’t you also want some? However, if you don’t want land, why don’t you become a merchant and sell things?”
Taro replied, “No. For one thing, I don’t have any money.”
The steward said, “Don’t worry. I will give you some.”
Taro said, “No, I don’t want anything. I prefer living in my little shanty and singing my little songs. That is what is best for me.”
The steward asked, “What, you sing songs? Tell me, what do you mean?”
Taro said, “Nothing. I’ve been singing since I was little.”
Saemonnojo said, “What? Since you were very young? Really?”
He turned to one of his workers and told him to bring some writing materials. He put up an official notice that said: “Feed him three cups of rice twice a day and give him sake once per day. Anyone who breaks this rule must leave the domain.”
When they saw the sign, some people said, “The steward is such a terrible person! Why do we have to give rice and sake to a lazy person like Taro?”
Other villagers said, “There is nothing we can do. As the saying goes, ‘We cannot win against crying children or the steward!’”
So the villagers took turns to deliver the rice and sake to Taro, even though they did not want to.
Three years passed. There was an important man from that area called Arisue. He was a first rank counselor in the national government. He needed to go to the capital to stay for a long period of time. He wanted to take with him one of the men from Niimura to work for him while he was in the capital. The local farmers said, “We have a big problem here. We need someone to go to the capital. No one wants to go. They will be separated from their families.”
Someone said, “Why don’t we get Lazy Taro to go?”
Someone else said, “Yes, he’s doing nothing here. He should do something for us!”
The farmers sent their representative to see Taro. “Hey, Taro! One of us has to go to the capital to work for the counselor. I’m sorry to have to ask, but can you go with him?”
The farmers told him all sorts of stories about how gorgeous Kyoto was, even though none of them had ever been there. In this way they tried to convince him to go.
Taro said, “No, I don’t want to go there,” and he shook his head.
Another villager said, “In Kyoto, there are many pretty girls!”
But Taro was unmoved.
Finally, someone mentioned that there are tanka poets in Kyoto.
Taro said, “You mean there are many poets in Kyoto?” His eyes began to shine. “Then, what kind of work will I have to do in Kyoto?”
The villagers asked, “Can you go?”
“OK,” Taro agreed. “It is very boring staying with idiotic villagers. It will be good for me to do something different.”
The farmers were delighted to hear that. And of course they were grateful to Taro. Before Taro changed his mind, they prepared new clothes and shoes for him, and readied him for his departure. They even went part of the way with him, to make sure he went.
Taro arrived in Kyoto safely, and worked really hard. It seemed he was a different person.
Taro worked for seven months. After that, the counselor no longer needed him and so he had some free time. He knew a lot of poems. Some he had made up himself and some he had learned. He wanted to do something with them. In those days, people sent poems to other people and they used another person to recite the poem. Taro wanted to be one of those poets. He told his idea to the person who took care of him in the house.
The person told him, “If you want to learn about poems, go to Kiyomizudera Temple.”
Taro was delighted. The next morning, very early, he went to the temple and stood on the big balcony.
Taro said out loud to the passersby, “Please teach me some poems.” However, everyone was afraid of him. He still looked like some wild country bumpkin. The people steered clear of him. Later, when the sun was setting, he thought he should go home. Just then, a pretty girl, about 17 or 18 years old, came up to him. When Taro saw her face, he felt a strange sensation, unlike anything he had felt before. It was as if some kind of power had flowed into his body.
“I’m Taro, from Niimura, Shinano. Please tell me all about tanka poetry.” Taro grabbed her sleeve.
“Please let go,” said the girl. “I cannot talk if you are hanging on like that.” Taro came to his senses, and let go of the girl’s sleeve.
Instead of telling him about tanka poetry, the girl simply recited the following tanka poem, which was in fact a riddle:
If you want to come
To my house on the corner,
It may be purple
Or on the edge of flowers
That we call karatachi
The girl recited the poem very quickly. She then rushed from the balcony. Taro dashed after her, but it was getting dark, so he lost sight of her.
Taro thought, “She recites so quickly! She’s the girl that is going to teach me poems!”
He puzzled over the meaning of the poem for many days. Finally he figured out where her house was, and found it. When Taro met her, he recited a poem to her in return. He put into it all of his feelings of delight at finding her. The girl was surprised, because he looked poor, yet he recited the poem very beautifully.
She thought, “He came to my house to learn poetry.” She was very moved. So she invited Taro into her house. From that time she taught him about poems. Not only did his poems improve, but his personality also changed.
Later, one of his poems became famous. The Emperor heard about him. Eventually Taro was invited to the Emperor’s Palace. Taro took the girl to the palace. When they got there, there was a Japanese bush warbler singing in a plum tree.
Taro recited the following tanka poem to the Emperor:
The warbler’s clear voice
Drifting sweetly on the breeze
As the raindrops fall
Upon the bright umbrella
Of plum flowers in the spring
The Emperor complimented him, and asked about Taro’s background. Taro could not tell him, because did not know himself. However, he had a lucky charm. It indicated that he was from the Emperor’s family. The Emperor therefore decided to appoint him to a position as a middle-ranking general and gave him some land in Shinano.
Taro married the girl who taught him poetry. They went back to Shinano and Taro gave some of his land to the farmers who took care of him a long time ago. And they lived happily ever after.
Original Japanese source: Takada Mitsunari. 1979. Lazy Taro. In Matsumoto no Minwa [Matsumoto Folk Tales] (pp. 171-185). Shinano Education Association Publishing Department, Nagano. Used with permission.