Momotaro: Akutagawa’s Concerns

“Of course, the fruit that bore Momotaro had long ago flowed away into the mountain stream. But an unknown number of prodigies still sleep within those fruits. When will that huge Yadagarasu next stir the branches of this tree again? Yes, an unknown number of prodigies still sleep within those fruits…”


This quote is the concluding sentence of one of the most famous Japanese writers Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Momotaro. Akutagawa criticizes the government’s repurposing of folk stories for propagating national ideology. This was because there was a background when Japan was in the time of imperialism facing China (Qing) and Russia during the Meiji era. The government was setting Momotaro as a symbol for heroism and propagating the need of war to the people of those days. As Gerow in the course reader says, while Momotaro became a central figure in Japanese moral education, he was frequently used during WW2 to represent nationalist military value. According to Morita, an instructor at Nagasaki University Japan, there are at least 63 Momotaro stories in Japan. Akutagawa was one of those who ironically criticized the government by publishing a whole new Momotaro story in 1924. I will compare the second Momotaro story in the reader with 3 versions of Momotaro which are “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle”, Iwaya Sazanami’s “Momotaro” and Akutagawa’s “Momotaro” in terms of “the motive for going to the demon’s island” through Momotaro’s characteristic. The reason why I compare them with the second Momotaro story in the reader is because it depicts the simplest and most generally known Momotaro story.

The Momotaro story itself is very simple. Long ago there was an elderly couple and they found a peach floating downstream. The old women brought the peach back home and when they tried to cut the peach to eat it, a boy appeared from inside who was named Momotaro. Momotaro grew up to become strong and was prepared to fight against the Demon. Momotaro sets off to defeat him, giving millet dumplings to a monkey, a pheasant, and a dog to enlist them as vassals (Gerow, 2007). After defeating the Demon, he brought back the treasures and lived happily ever after. This is more or less the plot of Momotaro, but the 3 stories slightly differ or include some other elements still sticking to this fundamental story. The reason why I focus on the motive for going to the demon island is because the second story in the reader does not provide a clear motive, but the other 3 versions do which will be discussed later. The “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle” is a movie animation made during World War 2 by the Ministry of the Navy of Japan. The plot of Momotaro vs. Demon is depicted in a war situation and there is a cute rabbit included in addition to the main three characters. Millet dumplings are also used as a ration before the animals attack the island. The animals successfully attack the demon’s island and eventually all came back safely. Iwaya’s Momotaro also pretty much follows the fundamental plot but the big difference is that it has a clear reason for Momotaro to defeat the demon which will be examined later on in this paper. For Akutagawa’s Momotaro, the plot is reversed: Momotaro is depicted as a lazy, evil character who tries to conquer the “palm trees soar over it, birds of paradise chirp in it, and it’s a beautiful land of natural paradise” as the demon’s island. Momotaro gets kicked out of the old man and women’s house after he tells them that he does not want to work at all. Since he did not want to work to live, he planned to go to the island to get the treasure and live a life with all the money. From the following paragraph will show each analysis for Momotaro.

The Akutagawa version is quite a shocking work of Momotaro showing many violent scenes when he pillages against the defenseless innocent demons. He depicts Momotaro and the animals as a complete “evil”. Momotaro says “Forward, forward! Kill the demons without leaving any behind as soon as you find them!” and “Like a storm, they chased after the fleeing demons. The dog killed a young demon with just one bite. The pheasant pecked demon children to death with its hard beak. And the monkey—the monkey, simply by being a cousin of us humans, before strangling a demon girl to death, ravaged her to his heart’s content.” Turning over the pages, your image of Momotaro and the animals will totally collapse. After Momotaro’s massacring of the demons, the demon chieftain (along with the other demons that narrowly escaped death) come up to Momotaro for forgiveness but he says “Now, with my exceptional mercy, I will allow you to live. In return, you will present me with every piece of treasure on Demon Island”. In addition he takes his child as a hostage. Akutagawa also includes the revenge by the demons: “When the demon children became adults, they bit the guard pheasant to death, and absconded to Demon Island at once. In addition, occasionally the survivors of Demon Island would cross the sea, and set fire to Momotaro’s mansion or try to break his sleeping neck.” Overall, obviously not the Demon but Momotaro and the animals were the “evil” in this story. This was Akutagawa’s way of cautioning the audience that since Momotaro is always a “hero”, there are people who take advantage of to make propaganda. He concludes his story by saying that even though this Momotaro is dead, the fruit within the 2nd or 3rd Momotaro will keep on condemning the predatory nation. Back in those days Japan was conducting wars of invasion and he was concerned about the cyclical battles for revenge: he feared that the cycle of war would continue.

The “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle” does not clearly convey any information on why Momotaro is attacking the demon’s island, but since the audience knows the immediate time is WW2, it is obvious that the attack represents the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. As it is a propaganda film, although Momotaro is shown as a person who exhibits strong rigid leadership against their enemy, Momotaro himself just gives orders to the animals and does pretty much nothing. Since the film is for children in Japan, the audience can see the cuteness of the animals which we cannot see in texts. There are no “treasures” but the victory at Pearl Harbor should be it. In spite of Akutagawa’s awareness of Momotaro’s use as propaganda, this film was made 20 years after his Momotaro.

Iwaya’s Momotaro has a clear, pure reason for going to the demon’s island: Momotaro is sent down by the command of god to protect Japan. Long ago Japan was inhabited by the Ogres and Momotaro needs to get the treasure back from them. The heroism of Momotaro was not only during WW2 but also in the Meiji era when this was published. Especially in the Meiji era, still the power of the Emperor was strong and it met people’s needs for a strong leader. Akutagawa’s concerns arouse from these days and leads to his version in the Taisho era.

There are a variety of Momotaro stories in Japan which has a strong connection to the history of Japan. Akutagawa was one of those who were concerned about Japan as a predatory nation and he was the one who repurposed the Momotaro story as no one has ever done before. Japan did move on to the war, but his work still stood out in literature because of his innovative work of reversing the image of Momotaro and the demon which brought a big impact to convey his critique.


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