Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales The Flute Illustration Warwick Goble

Tales in Translation: “継子と笛”/”The Stepchild and the Flute”

In looking for more versions of “The Singing Bone,” I came across a certain story from Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales called “The Flute” (the source of the featured image by Warwick Goble).  In that tale, a father leaves his daughter behind with her stepmother when he goes to Edo, and while he is gone the stepmother kills her. Later, he comes across a flute made from bamboo that grew on her grave, and it sings of the daughter’s fate.

I couldn’t find any other versions of this Japanese tale in English, so I wondered if I could find it in Japanese. I eventually managed to find a similar (though not identical) tale called “継子と笛” or “The Stepchild and the Flute” (original version in link).

(Lest you be too impressed with my Japanese abilities, I got a fair bit of help from Google Translate and while translating this, plus the writing was pretty simple, as is usually the case with folktales.)

The Stepchild and the Flute

A long time ago/once upon a time, there were two Taros: one was the stepmother’s biological child, and the other was her stepchild.

One day, their father was leaving for Edo, and he called the two Taros and said, “If you get along while I’m gone, I’ll bring you back a flute and drum.” Leaving them with those words, he left on his long journey.

The stepmother couldn’t help but hate the stepchild Taro. She dressed her own child in a kimono padded with cotton, but the other Taro she dressed in a kimono filled with grass, and bullied him at every opportunity.

The stepchild was bitter, and every day cried wanting to see his father, so one day the stepmother filled a cauldron with water and heated it to a rolling boil.

“Hey, Taro, climb up on the pot. You will see your father in Edo!” she said, then helped the stepchild up onto the rim of the cauldron and pushed him in from behind.

The stepmother boiled down the stepchild’s meat in the cauldron, and if suspicious neighbors came by, she would feign innocence and say, “I’m boiling soybeans for miso!”

And when the stepchild’s flesh had completely boiled down, she buried the remaining bones in the back vegetable patch.

Then bamboo sprouted up one after another, unusual bamboo, and a passing flute-player cut some and made a flute.

The flute player went up to Edo, and when he played the flute as he passed through the city, Taro’s father heard it and tilted his head. He could hear a child’s voice blended with the flute:

I don’t want a flute or drum,
I want to see my father in Edo.

When the father asked the flute player, he said the flute was made from bamboo from such-and-such a house’s kitchen garden in Kyushu. The father took the flute and played it himself, and this time he could clearly hear the voice of his own child coming from it.

The father hurried back home, but, as expected, his child was nowhere to be seen.

When he went to the aforementioned kitchen garden, bamboo exactly like that the flute was made of was growing there. He dug and out came his child’s bones, with the bamboo growing from the skull’s mouth.

Infuriated, the father sliced off the stepmother’s nose, cut off her ears, gouged out her eyes, and killed her.

Besides “The Singing Bone,” this story strongly reminds me of “The Juniper Tree” and its variants, especially the part where the stepmother boils down the stepchild’s corpse. There are some differences: she doesn’t try to get anyone to eat the murder-stew, the kid’s sibling plays no real part in the tale, and instead of a singing bird we have a singing flute, and the ending is exceptionally violent even for this story type.

P.S. – If anyone who’s actually fluent in Japanese happens to read this, please let me know if/how I’ve screwed up.


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