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From The Birth Of Japan To Lucky Teapots
Tales from Japan - Helen McAlpine
Member Name: BlueMidget
Tales from Japan - Helen McAlpine
Date: 19/05/07, updated on 19/05/07 (133 review reads)
Advantages: Interesting tales, easy to read and enjoyable for all ages
Disadvantages: Slightly Westernised in places
When I decided I wanted to start learning Japanese as a language, (for no reason other than I was curious, I must be honest), I also thought it important to try and learn something about the culture as well. Never one to need much of an excuse to buy books and DVDs, I set about buying various items on the subject. It was whilst watching one of the anime DVDs I’d bought, (‘Pom Poko’ to be precise) that it occurred to me that there was an awful lot I didn’t know about the background to Japanese culture.
Myths and legends have always been something that has fascinated me and I’ve always believed that the mythology of a culture can be a great way to gain some insight into the people as a whole, as legends and folk tales can often become so engrained into a culture that they almost become ‘part of the furniture’ – so much so that anyone unfamiliar with those legends will often miss the subtleties and nuances. It was with this in mind that I decided to buy some books specifically about Japanese folk tales and legends and how I came across ‘Tales From Japan’.
~~~ ‘Tales From Japan’ – About The Book ~~~
The book itself is made up of traditional Japanese legends and folktales, retold by Helen and William McAlpine. All these tales are well known by children and adults alike in one form or another. It is divided into two main sections, ‘Epics And Legends’ and ‘Folk And Fairy Tales’.
‘Epics And Legends’ is subdivided into three parts and essentially these deal with both the mythical side of Japanese folklore, such as the creation of Earth and birth of Japan, with mention of its gods and goddesses, through to the more historical aspects, specifically ‘Tales Of The Heike’, which is about two clans and their battles for supremacy. (I must say that this really is only the most basic of summaries, as I don’t want to go into too much specific detail).
‘Folk And Fairy Tales’, as the title might suggest, deals with the more mythical and proverbial aspect of Japanese mythology, with tales such as ‘The Peach Boy’, who (in this version of the tale) is born when a peach is split in two; ‘The Lucky Kettle’, which is about the shape shifting abilities of “badgers”, (it’s been translated as ‘badger’, but should in fact be a ‘tanuki’ – more on this later) and several other more fairy tale-esque stories.
The authors’ writing style is very accessible and easy to read and I think readers of all ages would feel comfortable reading the book – the only possible source of confusion could be the pronunciation of certain Japanese names. Fortunately for me my brief, (and they have been very brief), studies of the language meant I was able to understand more or less how these should be read/spoken without any great difficulty. That said, I don’t think an inability to pronounce certain words will detract from the stories as a whole, (and if all else fails, I suppose you can always make up your own interpretation of the pronunciation)
As a side note, ‘Tales From Japan’ is actually part of a series, published by Oxford University Presses, which essentially is a ‘Tales From…’ series, offering books on Africa, China, Russia and various other countries.
~~~ BlueMidget’s Thoughts ~~~
On the whole, I quite enjoyed this book. Admittedly, it is quite short – the vast majority of people would easily be able to read it within a day – and whilst it is perhaps more targeted towards children, (with the possible exception of ‘Tales Of The Heike’, which is probably a little too on the blood-thirsty side for very young children), for adults I think it is still quite an enjoyable read - in fact I think it’s a superb choice for parents and their children to read together.
For me the book’s main interest lies in the discovery of foreign tales. I’ve heard it said that something exotic is often more appealing than something found at home and I think that is true in this case. Whilst there are certain similarities to be found with other mythologies and folk tales, it’s the subtle nuances that make them undeniably Japanese and therefore also tantalisingly exotic. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Birth Of Japan’ stories, as some of the ideas held in the mythology are relatively unique to Japan, at least in my experience of different mythologies, (mostly Greek, Welsh/Celtic, Scandinavian, Egyptian and a couple of others), my favourite concept being the descent of the gods from the High Plain Of Heaven to Earth on clouds, (anyone ever seen the ‘70s cult show ‘Monkey’?)
There isn’t any story in this book that I found uninteresting, although I will admit I noticed a recurring ‘moral’ to some of the tales that bordered on becoming repetitive, though ultimately never really descended into being samey. That said, having read the book as a whole, I found I was drawn to particular stories more than others. I think this is really down to personal preferences. I suspect that the stories I enjoyed the most will not necessarily be those that everyone else is drawn to. That said, I think there likely to be at least one tale the reader will be taken with enough to read several times and on the whole I think the book itself is something that most readers would be able to pick up more than once.
My greatest concern about this book is that, as a translation and therefore an interpretation of the tales, they were slightly westernised. Two examples I can give of this is referring to the Underworld as ‘Hades’ when, after a little research I discovered, it’s actually known as ‘Yomi’; the second example is the one already mentioned of ‘tanuki’ becoming ‘badger’, when the literal translation is actually ‘Badger/Raccoon Dog’, (though the animal is neither a badger nor a raccoon – see my ‘Pom Poko’ review for more details).
In many ways I’m not surprised by these changes and I can understand them: if you’re writing for an English speaking (or should that be reading?) audience, you need to use terms they are familiar with and capable of understanding without too much explanation. I don’t think they detracts from the tales overall, but for myself I would have liked a little more of the Japanese culture to have remained in tact on certain things.
Something to also bear in mind is that if you were to read these tales from another source, chances are you’ll find significant differences. Again, this isn’t all that surprising since, like many other folk tales if the truth is known, even in their native tongue there is not necessarily one definite version of any given tale. What this book does offer is a great introduction into the legends, which can fire the imagination and regardless of the specific details are interesting and often thought-provoking enough to not only keep the reader engaged and interested, but also make them want to re-read the tales.
~~~ BlueMidget’s Conclusion ~~~
For me, I can’t really fault this book as an introduction to Japanese mythology. I’m sure there’s probably more in depth books available, but nevertheless, I feel this holds some value for the majority of people. I can’t honestly think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend this book to. Unless you have a severe adversity to Japanese culture, or simply aren’t in the slightest bit interested in any kinds of folktales or legends, (which to me is like someone saying “I don’t like music”), then I think there’s truly something for everyone in ‘Tales Of Japan’ – a book I would highly recommend everyone read.
~~~ Technical Details ~~~
Authors & Illustrators: Written by Helen and William McAlpine, illustrated by Sally Taylor (cover art) and Rosamund Fowler
Publisher: Oxford University Press (www.oup.com)
Recommended Retail Price: £5.99 - though it is likely to be available for slightly cheaper, (I purchased my copy from Amazon for a little over £4 on special offer)
Number Of Pages - 150
Summary: Overall an enjoyable book, although perhaps a little short.