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The Myth of Eternal Youth: Two Japanese Perspectives

Raluca Nicolae


The people’s mind can conjure up a certain imagery that denies the reality of death and proclaims eternity and perpetual youth. The story of Urashima Tarō is well known across Japan and there is no child or adult who does not know the tale of the fisherman who rescued a turtle. In return for his kindness, the turtle assumed human form and took him under the sea, to the Dragon Palace, where he stayed three years, till he bacame homesick and wanted to go back to his village, but, upon his return, he learned that three hundred years had passed and his family was long dead. The story of Urashima first appeared in Tango Fudoki (713), then in Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan, 720) and, a few decades later, in 759, in Man’yōshū (Collection of the Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry. There is a “feminine” counterpart to this story, the legend of Happyaku Bikuni (The eight-hundred-year-old nun) about a quasi-immortal woman who wandered throughout Japan till she reached Wakasa/Obama, where she died at an age of eight hundred years. The woman had attained eternal youth after accidentally eating mermaid flesh. The two tales introduce different perspectives on immortality and eternal youth, but, interestingly enough, both are strongly connected with water, either by plunging to the bottom of the sea, into the Dragon Palace, or by eating the flesh of a marine creature. Even if the “immortality context” of Urashima Tarō and Happyaku Bikuni may differ—the fisherman’s immortality is topological, related to the special attributes of a given space; the nun’s immortality is circumstantial, rendered by a set of events that made her consume mermaid flesh—what unites the two characters is their “unintentionality.” They neither asked for eternal youth nor pursued immortality as desperately as Gilgamesh or Ponce de Leon, but they were involuntarily pushed towards that outcome.


Japanese folklore; immortality; time paradox; eternal youth; water; Urashima Tarō; Happyaku Bikuni

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