Japanese fairy tale translation: “The Soul Lives On” (by Mimei Ogawa)

By | November 30, 2020

With all the things going on this year, I haven’t been able to devote as much time to translation as I would have liked. Part of the problem is just committing to a project of any length, since it is hard to predict when I will be able to finishing things, and if I am not careful a project can become stressful instead of enjoyable (which is one of the reasons I am doing it, after all).

But to finish out 2020 I wanted to at least translate one more work, and I knew that short stories of Mimei Ogawa (小川未明) would be good candidates; not just because they can pack a lot of significance into a relatively low word count, but because I’ve already translated three books worth of his stories (each is priced at only $0.99, and you can read them all for free if you have Kindle Unlimited).

You can see the original Japanese text of “The Soul Lives on” (たましいは生きている) here, which was first published in 1948. You can find a great audio reading of this story here which I highly recommend for those studying Japanese.

If you are interested in more stories like this, besides my books on Amazon, you can read another one fully translated here (this one is also related to a musical instrument). Finally, if you want to check out yet another Japanese fairy tale related to music, see “The Crane’s Flute” by Hayashi Fumiko (林芙美子), an important Japanese female author of the 20th century.

Update: I did an audio narration of this story here if you prefer that format.

Update 2: I’ve released a bilingual version of this story along with a few others in this book.


The Soul Lives On

Mimei Ogawa

(Translated by J.D. Wisgo)

People of long ago once compared the passage of days to the flow of a river, and indeed, time is constantly disappearing off to somewhere. At each point in time we experience something––whether it be joy or sadness––but all that matters is that instant, and before long, that too is forgotten.

Certainly, a time will come when even this story is considered nothing more than a fairy tale.

       *   *   *   *   *

My older brother loved music, and even liked to play the harmonica. When he went to the coast, he would sit upon the sand and gaze out at the turbulent blue-green ocean while playing his harmonica happily. He would play sometimes with an air of innocence, and sometimes with a sense of yearning for something unfathomably distant. But on these days the sky didn’t always burn beautifully like a flower; on some days gray clouds hung dangerously low in the sky, and a storm bellowed out loudly. 

“Sho, Beethoven’s orchestra can’t compare with the ensemble of this sea,” my brother would say. “Because no matter how hard we try, humans can’t compete with the music of nature.”

The war gradually worsened and eventually even my brother received a draft letter. I’ll never forget that day. Our house that had been filled with laughter quickly fell silent as my brother began organizing his desk drawers and boxes of books.

 “Once I leave I don’t know when I’ll return, so I guess I’ll entrust my harmonica to you.”

Hearing this, I couldn’t help but tear up as I thought about how my brother must feel.

“Until you come back, I’m going to leave everything just as it is.”

“But if the war gets really bad, there is no telling what will happen to this house.”

It seemed that my brother planned on continuing his studies if he managed to return safely from war. He handed me his English dictionary along with the rest of his stuff.

But my brother never returned. There was a rumor his ship had headed somewhere south, but I never heard from him after departing.

I stood on the beach and gazed out at the distant horizon, my brother’s harmonica at my lips. Clouds floated through the twilight sky: gold that glittered like a lion’s mane, crimson like flowers in a painting.  Sometimes, whenever I remembered how my brother adored sunsets like this, I thought that at this moment maybe he was watching the same sky from an island somewhere, and my eyes began to tear up. Playing the harmonica, I hoped that, if nothing else, my brother would understand my feelings. 

Even on stormy days I headed out to the beach and played the harmonica. But I felt terribly lonely when I thought about how my brother’s harmonica was here, and yet he himself, who loved this harmonica so dearly, was nowhere to be found.

While there was no official notice, in the summer of the next year my brother’s death in battle became a near certainty.

Then one day, I was playing with my friend Sei on the shore.

“The waves are alive,” he said. “You mean they have a soul?” I asked.

Then he said something strange. “If you don’t believe me, try tossing out a rock. The waves will get angry and grow larger.”

I picked up a rock and threw it. Sei threw one too. Laughing mockingly as they observed us, the white frothy  waves gradually rose up before suddenly lashing out at our feet.

“See, you made it angry!” Sei screamed out.

In a frenzy, I picked up a rock and tried to throw it into the ocean as far I could; the oceans swelled up and a giant wave tried to wash us away, so we hurriedly retreated. Just then, a wave snapped up the harmonica laying upon the sand and took it away.

I waited for some time, hoping the waves would return my harmonica. But it was hopeless.

Then one night, when the moon was glowing brightly in the sky, I sat by my window and listened to the faint sounds of bugs buzzing outside. I could sense the approach of autumn. The next moment, there was the sound of a harmonica.

“I wonder who is playing that?” I said, and my attention shifted to the direction of the sound. It grew softer, louder, and then softer again, as if the person was walking around as they played.

“It’s brother!” I said and stood up, for the melody was quite similar to one he used to play. But as soon as I tried to go outside, the sound of the harmonica stopped.

Then, two or three days later when the mystery had not yet been solved, I was out watching the reddish sun sink into the sea. Suddenly, the sound of a harmonica came from a sand dune. The melody was identical to how my brother used to play, and this sent a warmth surging through my body.

“Now who could that be?”

I ran headlong in that direction as fast as I could, but before I knew it the sound had stopped, and the figure that had flickered about here and there until only a moment ago had disappeared and was no longer visible.

I went home and told my mother about what happened.

“It’s only your imagination. It’s because you think about your brother so much,” said my mother.

I couldn’t believe it was my imagination, although I was unable to argue this with my mother. But later on, I was surprised to hear the melody of my brother’s harmonica once more, this time coming from a whirlpool. Right away I went to get Sei. He listened intently, with an earnestness I’ve never seen in him before.

“I bet a fish is playing your lost harmonica with its little mouth,” he said. 

Even after that, there were times when I stood on the beach and stared vacantly out at the ocean. One day I discovered an unfamiliar man standing next to me, staring out wordlessly at the sea. His face was tanned darkly from the sun, and his eyes seemed to bulge out, giving a somewhat frightening appearance. I remembered how once at a temple I’d seen a wooden statue of Buddha with a similar shape. Thinking that speaking with a soft voice wouldn’t anger the man, I said, “Mister, what are you looking at?”

He didn’t get angry; instead he looked at me with a friendly smile. “I was thinking about my comrade from the war who remains on an island somewhere out there.”

“He hasn’t come back yet?”

“He’s asleep in the ground there, you see, so he’ll never come back.”

“When did you return from the war?”

I couldn’t help but think about my brother.

“It’s only been a month. No matter how painful it is, those of us who have returned are very fortunate. I feel sorry for my friend, who will never return.”

Hearing this, I felt this was a man of great compassion. So I said, “Mister, my brother also died on the battlefield.”

“I feared as much,” he said with a nod, a forlorn look suddenly on his face. When I realized it, we were sitting together on the sand, facing the ocean.

“I always come here and think of my brother,” I said. The man lowered his gaze to the ground and simply nodded.

“When someone dies, do you think their soul lives on?” I asked him, remembering the mysterious sound of the harmonica. I thought that maybe he had experienced something like that on the battlefield. The man seemed to become lost in thought for a while, but he eventually raised his head and spoke.

“I have heard a strange story about that.”

“What kind of story?”

“Maybe you would call it a ghost story…”

“What?” I said in surprise.

Just then, I felt a frigid wind gusting in from the sea towards us. 

The man began to speak.

“A soldier sent to the front line of battle to deliver a message got lost in the mountains on his way home. Just as he was struggling to get his bearings, he heard the sound of footsteps and tensed up to fight, thinking the enemy must have found him. But he was shocked when he saw that it was, of all people, his good friend. ‘Alright, let’s get away from here quickly before nightfall,’ the friend said and led him down a path that the soldier was surprised he knew about. When the soldier remembered that his friend was supposed to have died in battle, he decided to question him when they stopped to rest. But before there was time, he lost sight of his friend. Right at that moment, he heard the whinnying of enemy horses at the base of the mountain he had just passed through.” 

“I get it, the soldier was saved by his friend’s soul,” I said, touched by the man’s story. Then, when I told him about how lately I often hear the sound of my brother’s harmonica, he replied, “Surely, it’s because your brother has his mind on his family.” 

“Then what should I do?” I asked.

“Just do what you can to please him and put his soul at peace,” said the old man.

For some reason, I never saw the old man again after that. 

My brother was, above all, a peace-loving person. That’s why he was so fond of music. I asked my father to buy me the same kind of harmonica that my brother had. Whenever I played it, I always made sure to try to put myself in my brother’s shoes and understand his feelings.

My brother loved nature and was kind to everyone, acting with compassion in all of his endeavors.

Whenever I went to the shore, I sat upon the sand, just as my brother had, and played the harmonica. Each time it was like everything around me––the clouds flying high in the sky, the waves lapping on the sand, the wind blowing in my face––were listening attentively, saying, ”I’ve heard this song somewhere before.”     

I increasingly felt that my brother was now dwelling within me, a part of myself. And in the air I could hear the whispering: “The one playing that instrument is just like his brother. Peace has returned again to this beach, the peace that had been here ages ago.”   

After that, perhaps because my brother’s soul finally found solace from my efforts, the mysterious sound of the harmonica was never heard again.


English translation Copyright © 2020 J.D. Wisgo

(Note: The picture of a storm was taken from Pexels.com, taken by Johannes Plenio)

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