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Gratitude of the Crane: A Japanese Legend

The legend of the grateful crane is an extremely old one in Japan, and is now known all throughout the country. References to it appear as snippits in cartoons, movies, and TV shows... it's so well know that a mere suggestion of the story can transmit a whole plateau of thoughts and emotions that the story conveys. The following version of the tale was translated from a book aimmed at teenagers, and containing a number of popular old Japanese tales.

The Gratitude of the Crane

        Once upon a time there was a young man named Karoku who lived in the mountains with his mother, where they got their livelihood by making charcoal.

        At the start of Winter, Karoku was on his way to town to buy a futon when he discovered a crane that had been caught in a trap. “How pitiful,” thought Karoku, who wanted to help; so he talked to the man who had set the trap.

        “I caught this crane,” said the man, “So it’s mine. Why should I release it?” Karoku brought out the money that had been intended for the futon. “Here, please let me buy the bird from you.” This pleased the man, and so it was agreed upon. Karoku released the crane after the man had freed it from the trap, and soon it soared away into the sky.

        That evening, when Karoku returned home to his mother, she asked where the futon was. Karoku explained to her about the crane, and she approved of his actions. “Ah, that is okay then. We can buy a futon next year instead.”

        On the following night, a beautiful girl unexpectedly came to visit Karoku’s home. “Please, would it be okay for me to stop here for the night?” the girl requested earnestly. “I know it must be small inside, but…”. Karoku politely declined the request, but the girl begged and insisted until both he and his mother relented, and allowed her to spend the night.

        On the following day, the beautiful girl spoke to Karoku… “Please let me become your wife,” she asked. Karoku was quite surprised by this request, and again politely declined the girl’s desires. “If I cannot be your wife, then I shall die,” insisted the beautiful girl. In the end, Karoku finally agreed to marry the girl, and so they became man and wife.

        About one month later, Karoku’s wife told him “I would like to weave on the loom in the storeroom for the next three days… but you cannot peek at what I am doing.” Karoku agreed to not disturb her, and his wife entered the storeroom. From noon till night, the sound of the loom working was audible through the small house… and though Karoku grew anxious and worried, he did not open the storeroom’s door.

        On the morning of the fourth day, Karoku’s wife emerged from the storeroom. Karoku was much relieved. “Thank goodness you’re alright! You were in there for so long… here, have something to eat!” After she finished eating, Karoku’s wife retrieved a bolt of beautiful cloth from the storeroom. “I have woven this cloth; please take it to the castle and sell it,” she asked Karoku.

        As requested, Karoku took the cloth to the castle to sell. The lord of the castle was very impressed -- “This cloth is superb!” – and he bought the bolt for 2,000 Ryou [a standard coinage from the 17th to 19th century in Japan]. Then the lord added “I am giving you an additional 3000 Ryou in advance for the next bolt of cloth. I expect it soon!” When Karoku returned home, he told his wife what the lord had said.

        “Very well then, I will weave one more bolt of cloth… but I cannot say how long it will take this time. Nonetheless, you must not peek at what I am doing.” Having said this, Karoku’s wife once more entered the storeroom to weave.

        Five days passed, and then six. Karoku became increasingly worried about his wife; but he respected her wishes, and left her alone. On the evening of the seventh day, however, he finally gave in to his worries and decided to open the storeroom door just enough to check on his wife.

        “Aa!” Karoku had unintentionally let out a little shout. In the storeroom was a crane, skillfully weaving a bolt of cloth using its beak, body, and feathers. This bolt of cloth was more beautiful than the last; but one look revealed that it was being woven from the crane’s own feathers, of which not a one was left on the bird’s body. As the naked crane folded the beautiful cloth, it began to speak to Karoku.

        “I am the crane you helped, and I am your wife. I wished to repay you for your kindness to me, by helping you in turn… and so I used my own feathers to weave a cloth for you. But now that you have seen my true form, I can no longer stay here. I fear I must say goodbye.”

        Karoku answered his wife; “I don’t care about any of that; I just want you to stay by my side forever!”

        Though the crane’s heart ached to stay, she knew it was now impossible. A flock of a thousand cranes appeared flying from the sunset in the west and came to Karoku’s house, circling it. They took up the naked crane, and the great flock flew back towards the setting sun as Karoku sorrowfully watched.

Observations of an Outsider

        The tale of the Grateful Crane falls into a folklore theme that is common in Japanese tales, of supernatural wives that vanish when their secret is discovered; but the tale of the crane seems to be unique in one aspect. In most other versions of the supernatural wife story --  be she a transformed animal or a unnatural being of some sort -- the wife generally flees either in terror or anger when her secret is revealed. The tale of the Crane seems to be the only version in which the couple does truely wish to stay together despite the obvious differences, although they end up being separated anyway. I suspect this difference in the emotional aspect of the tale has played a key part in its continuing popularity in Japan.

        And just so you know: the tale of the Grateful Crane is one of the few Japanese legends that I generally consider a necessity to know for anyone interested in Japanese culture, because references to it occur all throughout the country, and all the time... so understanding the underlying story can help explain many things that would otherwise be difficult to follow. (I tell my Japanese friends that they have to learn Mother Goose nursery rhymes to understand many American references, so just know I'm a pain either way!)