Earlier this year I released “Downfall and Other Stories”, an E-book containing my translations of several short stories by classic Japanese author Hayashi Fumiko (林芙美子), who has been called one of the most important Japanese woman writers of the 20th century.
Because of the positive feedback from readers I am planning on another book of this author’s stories, but as I was doing research I came across a sweet little fairy tale that she wrote, so I decided to translate it and post it here in full. It’s titled “The Crane’s Flute” (鶴の笛) and while it’s fairly short, keep in mind that fairy tales often have deeper meaning than their childish appearance (in this case, talking birds) would suggest. In fact, a 10+ page research paper was written in Japanese about this story in 2018, which you can find here (in Japanese). I’m not going to get into the interpretation of the story here––I don’t want to bias those who haven’t read it yet––but if anyone is interested I might write a follow-up article about the paper’s findings.
The original text for this story is on Aozora Bunko here; I think this story is particularly fitting for those learning Japanese since it uses minimal kanji, and much of the grammar is straightforward. There are a few areas where older Japanese is used, and a few long sentences, but overall it’s not that difficult.
There are several audio narrations available on Youtube of the original Japanese, which are good for listening practice. Here is a nice one with illustrations.
By the way, even though it could be said there are some shared elements, the stories of Hayashi Fumiko in my book are quite different from this fairy tale in many respects: adult themes (such love, career, and war), length, and literary style, to mention a few.
If you like this story and are looking to read more Japanese fairy tales, you can see this series of books containing translations of Ogawa Mimei, a major figure in modern Japanese children’s literature. Several of those stories involve talking animals, and one features a bird with a pretty voice.
The ukiyo-e illustration of a crane used in the feature image for this post is by Mochizuki Gyokusen (望月玉泉), available as a public domain image here on RawPixel.com. Editing was done using Canva.com.
Update: I have published a slightly edited, annotated version of this story in this e-book along with two other stories by the same author.
The Crane’s Flute
by Hayashi Fumiko
(translated by J.D. Wisgo)
Once, a long, long time ago, there was a year of great famine. There was a village, and in the village lived many cranes. The cranes wandered around day after day searching for food, but since there was no food to be found anywhere, the impatient cranes gathered their belongings and traveled far away.
And so, all that remained in the village was a crane with an injured leg and his wife. The injured crane stood on the edge of a once crowded, yet now deserted swamp where the reeds grew thickly, and he gazed up into the sky where the other cranes had flown off to.
Then one day, the crane wife was prodding desperately with her beak along the water’s edge, searching for something to eat. Tottering on weak legs, she searched hopelessly about here and there, hoping to find at least a tiny fish, even a measly loach. The morning light sparkled brightly, with a single cloud floating lazily through the expansive sky, heading westward. Within a forest of young trees, the sunlight filtered down through the leaves and fell gently on the ground in patches, forming a picturesque scene.
Sometime later, the inexpressibly beautiful tone of a flute rang out through the forest. “Oh my, what could that be?” thought the crane. As she stood there listening to the lovely sound of the flute, her stomach that had been empty suddenly felt full.
The crane quietly moved in the direction of the flute’s sound until she discovered, lo and behold, that it was being played by the crane with the injured leg.
“Oh, it was you that was playing the flute?” asked the crane wife.
With a look of embarrassment the injured crane turned to face his wife. “A few minutes ago, I thought there might be something around here and began to search the swamp. Then my beak struck something hard with a clink, and when I hurriedly picked it up the object turned out to be this flute. Wondering what it was, I tried placing it in my mouth in different positions until all of a sudden a beautiful sound came from its tiny hole, and as I played the flute I forgot all about my hunger…”
“Oh, is that what happened? I was surprised by the flute’s pretty sound. Pleasant memories from long ago somehow popped into my head, and a wonderful feeling came over me.”
The flute’s tone was so beautiful that the two cranes felt silly for having always worried about not having food.
Bearing a grudge against the many cranes that had flown away without any regard for them, the two cranes had spent their days complaining. But once they obtained the flute, with its exceptionally beautiful tone, they became satisfied with what little food they had, and from then on only spoke about pleasant memories and how they wished good fortune for the cranes who had gone far away.
“You know, when I’m listening to that flute,” said the wife, “I am no longer discouraged, even a little, and I grow hopeful that soon we will enter a period very different from this miserable famine, where the crops are bountiful every year. Today I am heading to a place a short distance away to search for fish, so now and then please play the flute for me.”
“Of course. But be careful to not get injured on the way.”
The crane wife immediately took flight. A little while later, she came to a small pond. Something was splashing around in the pond. Wondering what it might be, she set her sites on the pond and flew down to the ground to discover a place where many fish gathered of the likes never before seen. Heart beating fast, she grabbed one of the fish. Carrying the souvenir for her husband, the crane wife immediately headed towards the sound of the flute, when she encountered a family of cranes with three children, coming in from the west.
“Oh dear, it’s been quite a while. What happened to you all?” asked the crane wife.
“Well, we have had such a terrible time. Wherever we went there was hardship, and two of our children even passed away from illness. Just as we were wandering around, hoping to find a suitable place, we heard the inexplicably beautiful sound of a flute, and so we came here, thinking that there must be something good wherever the flute was being played,” said one of the parents.
“My, you were really able to hear the flute’s sound from such a great distance? That flute is being played by my husband, who has an injured leg.”
Guided by the crane wife, the family of cranes flew for a while, and were surprised to see the very village that they had abandoned. Having listened to the flute’s sound for a long time, the crane wife felt carefree and accepting of all things, finding pleasure in helping others no matter how bad off she and her husband were.
Without delay the crane wife took the fish she had caught and served it up for dinner, feeding it to the crane family, tired and hungry from their journey.
After taking only a single bite of the food, both the injured crane and his wife said insistently, “Please help yourself to the food. Eat plenty and regain your strength before you go,” and upon hearing this, the parents began to tear up. Until recently all the cranes––thinking only of themselves and hiding food from others––would fight over food whenever they came into contact, cruelly deceiving and hurting each other, and as a result the cranes, constantly concerned about food, never had even a single cheerful day.
The cranes would form groups, clamoring loudly, and prey on the weak; the strong would brag of the paltry food that they seized.
Naturally, even the behavior of the young cranes degenerated as they mimicked only the worst traits of the adults, using foul language and constantly getting in fights. The famine had stretched on for so long that everyone had abandoned their village, but now the village was even more peaceful than before, with the seven cranes talking amongst themselves about living and working together happily, never giving up hope no matter what happened.
Thanks to the crane wife they discovered a place with many fish, so the seven cranes were always able to have enjoyable meals as they lived simple lives.
Then one night, when a spectacular moon was high in the sky, a golden light radiated brightly all around, so the injured crane began to play the flute once more.
The three crane children turned towards the moon and felt a strong urge to sing.
“Wow, what a pretty, pretty moon that is…”
The youngest child began to sing. Then the second youngest boy began to sing as well, “Nothing beats the village where you were born.” The oldest boy joined in. “What a pleasant night. I can’t help but have a wonderful time.”
“Indeed, we are happy now,” said the mother crane leisurely. “Just considering that you three are no longer starving, I’m glad we came back here. But if only some of the other cranes were to come home too, things would be much livelier.“
Puffing on his pipe, the father crane listened carefully to the flute played by the injured crane. It sang out with a bright, clear tone––tweetely tweet.
“Oh my, I hear the noisy sound of someone’s wings flapping. Perhaps another crane has returned home.”
Before long, the cranes who had abandoned the village returned, one after another, lured by the flute’s sound.
“We gladly welcome back anyone who is not arrogant and shares their food with others,” said the crane with the injured leg.
Overjoyed, the cranes who had returned broke out in tears.
After that they all went to work, and everyone shared their food amicably among the group…Perhaps even to this day, the land of cheerful, lovely cranes is still around somewhere.
Our hearts are always pure
Poor we may be, but inside we are abundant
Always with pure hearts
We go on, loving each other
So went the gentle melody of the crane’s flute––tweetely tweet.
(English Translation Copyright © 2020 by J.D. Wisgo)