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A painting of a Japanese angel

The Legend of the Bamboo Cutter and the Princess of the Moon


One of Japan’s oldest legends is the story of a beautiful woman from the moon who one day visits Earth.

The extravagant culture of Japan has given many gifts that, even to this day, continue to inspire and perplex. From the legend of the red thread of destiny to intriguing haiku and even folkloric ghosts and demons, Japan’s traditions –  full of intuition and strange delicacies – also give us the Monogatari, Japan’s epic narratives in prose. The oldest and perhaps the strangest of all of these texts is Taketori Monogatari, the legend of the bamboo cutter and the princess of the moon.

Known also as Kagya-hime no Monogatari, the legend is the oldest surviving piece of Japanese fiction. It was written in either the late 9th or early in the 10th century – and the earliest written version of the work is a 17th-century parchment (available on the World Digital Library page). Multiple other texts provide more or less important variations on the story and have, over time, shaped both an eccentric story and myths deriving from the core tale.

The legend of the bamboo cutter and the princess of the moon is not only illuminated with a strange and pale lunar beauty. For many, it’s one of the oldest works of science fiction, coinciding with a Japanese spirit and taste for such stories. With beings from other planets, it’s a story of beauty, exile, belonging and love.

Painting of a girl

The tale of Kaguya-hime, she is a tiny woman from the moon who one day arrived on Earth…

A long time ago, an old and humble man who was cutting bamboo saw that one of the logs he’d gathered was glittering in a strange way as if it was illuminated by the moon. Taking the log in his hands, he realized that inside was a beautiful and tiny little girl, about 7 centimeters tall. The man took her home because he’d never had children, and between him and his wife, they took care of her as if she were their own daughter. She was named Princess Moonlight. The branch of bamboo in which the man had found the strange visitor began to produce gold and gems and the bamboo cutter became a rich man in a short time.

The strange girl grew into a beautiful woman of normal size, and over the years, people began to learn of the existence and beauty of this lady. Suitors traveled from all over to request her hand. On one occasion, five honorable gentlemen approached the house of the bamboo cutter trying to persuade him to allow his adopted daughter to marry. He was old and didn’t want to leave her alone upon dying, they argued. But she refused to take any husband, making impossible requests of her suitors in to avoid marrying them.

The existence of the beautiful young woman came to the attention of the emperor, who requested that she appear in his court. When she refused, he visited her and, upon seeing her, he too fell madly in love with her. The emperor tried to take the girl to his palace to marry her, but the young woman assured him that if she were taken by force, she would become a shadow and then disappear forever.

Each night, she watched the sky with melancholy. It was time to return to her place of origin, and it was then that she confessed to her adoptive father, in tears, that she had come from the moon and that her time on Earth was to end. Upon learning of this, the emperor sent guards to the house of the bamboo cutter, to try to prevent the princess from returning to her place of origin.

One night, the moon was covered by a cloud. This quickly began to descend towards the Earth, while the sky grew ever darker. A carriage manned by luminous beings arrived for the princess. She left a letter and a small bottle with the Elixir of Life for the emperor before leaving. Frightened, he ordered that both be taken to the top of the most sacred mountain of that land and there, burned.

To this day, it’s remembered that when there is smoke upon Mount Fuji, this is the letter and elixir that the Princess of the Moon left for the emperor, and these will continue to burn at the mountain’s peak.

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