An old couple lived alone and prayed for a child, no matter how tiny. Their wish was granted when a son was born, the size of a man’s fingertip. They named him Issun (a 3 cm measurement) Boshi (son)., and loved him very much. When he grew older (but scarcely bigger) he was teased by the children at school, and realising he would never be accepted, he decided to set out to seek his place in the world. The old couple equipped him with a needle for a sword, a bowl for a boat and chopsticks for oars, and said fond and sad goodbyes. Issunboshi sailed down the river to the city, where he found a job in the home of a local lord, whose daughter was very beautiful. Although the staff ridiculed him, the princess was very attached to him, and made him her friend and playmate. One day when she and her maidens were taking a walk, they were attacked by an ogre (Oni). The maidens ran away, but Issunboshi leapt at the ogre and began to stab him with his needle. The ogre opened his mouth and swallowed him. But Issunboshi, down in the monster’s stomach, kept stabbing away, until the ogre finally spat him out and ran away, dropping his magic hammer as he went. The princess picked it up and recognised it for what it was – a tool of power that each time it was struck on the ground, would grant wishes. She used the hammer to help Issunboshi grow to full height, and after this they married and lived happily ever after.
About this story
This story is part of the Tom Thumb folktale tradition, found across Europe and in Chile and Russia as well as Japan. The tale dates back at least to the Muromachi period (1392–1573) where it features in an illustrated collection of legends and folktales, the Otogizōshi. (Tom Thumb appeared in print in the 16thC). Some of the themes relevant to disability include of course, bullying and ricicule; self esteem and confidence, and courage to face unknown risks. As is common in traditional folktales, disability/difference is seen as something to be cured if there is to be a happy ending. However, there is also a metaphorical, emotional interpretation which suggests that acting courageously helps us to feel tall inside. Issunboshi is extremely popular in Japan, and was familiar to all the pupils I worked with. An autistic man once told me the whole story in detail, and you can also see some of the beautiful pictures drawn by an autistic schoolgirl in Japan.
•Temple bells and hand clapping as the old people pray for a son; water lapping as Issunboshi goes down the river; noise of the city, knocking on the door of the Lord’s house, feeling the silk and the hair of the princess, smelling her perfume. Birdsong as they go out for their walk, roars of the ogre, sound of ogre running away, sound of hammer striking to help Issunboshi grow.
•Simulate being swallowed by the ogre by using fabric pop up tunnels. Or create a tunnel with two lines of children, through which another child must move.
•Contrast crouching down small and stretching up to grow tall in time with the hammer strokes.
•Make some small puppets to represent Issunboshi
•Imagine Issunboshi’s journey down the river, make a collage, or draw it; do the same for his journey down into the ogre’s stomach!
•Ask the children to suggest what he could use in daily life (this requires them to problem solve and think laterally – you could have some objects, appropriate and inappropriate to hand, and ask how Issunboshi could use them.
•What would you say to the children and adults who are teasing Issunboshi because of his size?
•What jobs would Issunboshi have been really good at? Compose his personal advert for the local paper.
Real world links
You might like to find out more about dwarfism http://www.udprogram.com. Dwarves tend to be treated comically in folktales, but the recent portrayal of Tyrian in Game of Thrones presents a complex, courageous and highly charismatic person.
©Betty Grove 2016