Book review, from Tokyo – Japan’s drizzly season bridging spring and summer officially ended in Tokyo in June for the first time, with one day to spare. With libraries having renewed their selections ahead of time, I found a slightly different tale of Tanabata (七夕), celebrated on 7 July in Japan, but based on the same date in the lunar calendar in Chinese tradition. Retold by Touru Tsunemitsu through Takaaki Nomura’s signature woodblock-print illustrations, 『たなばたにょうぼう』(Tanabata nyoubou, lit. The tanabata wife) tells a lesser-known version of the tale, rooted in a fox’s advice, given twice, to a peasant.
The first time was after he spared the fox’s life when he found it hiding in a barn. Go down to the river, it said. The peasant was skeptical, but did as he was told. Hanging on a branch by the river was a beautiful, delicate piece of cloth. Puzzled but pleased by his find, he brings this home.
Later that day, a girl named Tanabata comes round asking for her celestial dress, but he denies any knowledge of this. Living together, they eventually marry, and Tanabata gives birth to a boy.
One day, the boy finds a strange-looking box in the cupboard and shows it to his mother. Having found her celestial dress, she could stay no longer, taking her child with her to heaven.
The fox then returns to the despairing father with advice. Build some wings and I will send you to heaven, it said, and it barked as loud as it could to send the man with wings soaring through the sky.
Reunited in heaven, all is well until the Heavenly Mother sets repeated trials for the man to pass in order to stay on. The first test is to lug a huge rock back from the mountains. The second is to scatter three bushels of seeds, only to instruct him to gather every single one the next day. The third is to tend the melon patch.
For each test, Tanabata gave her husband sound advice: the rock is made of paper so bring it back as if it were heavy, bury the bushels intact and retrieve them the next day, and never eat even a single melon no matter what happens. The dutiful husband passed the first two trials comfortably, but Tanabata was worried about the third – the man would have to fight the desire to quench his thirst under the hot sun.
Inevitably, he takes one. It pops open, starting a chain reaction of all the other melons in the patch. As the man is washed away by the flood, Tanabata shouts repeatedly over the gushing waters to meet on the seventh day of the month, but the man hears this as the seventh day of the seventh month. The flood creates the Milky Way, and the couple would only meet once a year, as we know today, on the seventh day of the seventh month.
Tsunemitsu’s retelling offers a slightly different version of a familiar tale, where I see the tricky fox as the chief architect and the man falling to his opportunistic nature in the end despite his wife’s repeated advice.
Ahead of Tanabata, I often see wishes written on colourful strips of paper tied to bamboo branches. These have always remained somewhat unfamiliar, but now I know from Tsunemitsu’s afterword that the tradition was started by terakoya (temple schools) during the Edo period to encourage the pursuit of scholarly desires and ambitions.
Title: 『たなばたにょうぼう』(Tanabata nyoubou, lit. The tanabata wife)
Retold by Touru Tsunemitsu, illustrated by Takaaki Nomura
Publisher: Doshinsha, 2017