The Story of Lazy Taro by Yei Theodora Ozaki
Long, long ago, in the province of Shinano there lived a lad called
Monogusa Taro. Monogusa was not his surname. The word means "lazy," or
"good-for-nothing," and he was so nicknamed because by nature he was so
lazy that he would not even take the trouble to pick up anything that
was lying in the way. When the neighbours asked him to do something for
them, saying, "Do this," or "Do that," he would shrug his shoulders and
say, "It is really too much bother," and go away without attempting to
obey, or even wishing to be kind to those about him.
At last all turned their backs on him, and would have nothing to do with
him. Strange to say, no one knew who his father or mother was, or from
where he had come. He seemed to be a waif and stray that had drifted
into the province of Shinano, and yet there was an air about him which
excited interest and respect.
But this lazy lad, Monogusa Taro, had his dreams and ambitions. He
wanted to live in a large house. In his imagination he pictured this
house like a daimio's palace. It was to stand in its own grounds and
be closed by four high walls, with large roofed gates opening out on
three sides of it. In the park-like garden he would have four miniature
lakes, laid out in the four directions, north, south, east, and west,
and each pond was to have an island in its centre, and dainty arched
bridges were to span the distances between the islands and the shores of
the little lakes. And oh! how beautiful the garden should be, with its
miniature hills and valleys, its tiny bamboo forests and dwarfed pine
trees, its rivulets and dells with little cascades. And he would keep
all kinds of singing-birds in the garden, the nightingale and the lark
and the cuckoo. And the house itself was to be large, with spacious
rooms hung with costly tapestries of brocade, and the ceilings were to
be inlaid with rare wood of fine markings, and the pillars supporting
the corridors must be adorned with silver and gold. And he would eat off
costly trays of lacquer, and the dishes and bowls should be of the
finest porcelain, and the servants who glided through the rooms to serve
him should be beautiful maidens clothed in silk and crape and brocade,
daughters of ancient families, glad to enter his house, so that they
might learn the etiquette and manners of a princely house. Such were the
day-dreams and visions of Lazy Taro. Once or twice he spoke of these
things to a kind neighbour who brought him food and little gifts, but
he was laughed to scorn for his pains, and so he kept silent henceforth
and dreamed only for himself.
But he had to come down to stern reality. Instead of the grand palace
that he dreamed of building, he had to content himself with a little
shed by the roadside. Instead of the fine pillars of his visionary
palace he put up four bamboo posts; and in place of the grand walls he
hung up pieces of grass matting; and instead of the fine cream-white
mats on which the foot glides softly and noiselessly, he spread a common
straw mat. Here Lazy Taro lay day and night doing nothing, neither
working nor begging for his living, only dreaming away the hours and
building castles in the air of what he would do and have if only he were
One day a near neighbour who felt sorry for the lad sent him by his
servant a present of five rice-dumplings. Lazy Taro was delighted. He
was in one of his dreamy moods and ate up four of them, without thinking
what he was about. When he came to the last one, somehow he suddenly
felt unwilling to part with it. He held it in his hand, and looked at it
for some minutes. It took him a long time to make up his mind whether he
would eat it or keep it. At last he decided to keep it until some one
was kind enough to send him something else. Lazy Taro, having made up
his mind on this point, lay down on his straw mat again to dream away
the hours with his foolish visions of future grandeur and to play with
the remaining rice-dumpling which he still held in his hand. He was
tossing it up and down when it slipped from his hand and went rolling
into the road.
"How tiresome!" said Taro, looking after it wistfully as it lay in the
dusty road; but he was so terribly lazy that he would not stir out of
his place to pick it up.
"It is too much trouble," said Lazy Taro; "some one is sure to come
along and pick it up for me."
So he lay in his shed and watched the dumpling in the road. When a dog,
however, came along or a crow flew down to steal it, he drove them away
by making a noise or by flapping his sleeves at them.
On the third day after this, the Governor of the District passed by on
his way home from hawking. He rode a fine horse and was followed by a
number of retainers. Now as Lazy Taro lay in his shed he saw the
Governor and his suite coming.
"Now this is lucky!" said Taro. He did not care whether the approaching
man was the Governor of the Province or a daimio or not. When the
Governor was opposite the door of the hut Taro raised his voice and
called out to the rider, asking him to pick up his dumpling and bring it
to him. No notice whatever was taken of him. The procession of riders
went slowly by the hut. Then Taro called out still more loudly to make
"Ho, there!" he shouted, "will no one do what I ask? It can't be much
trouble to get down from your horse and pick up that dumpling for me!"
Still no one heeded him.
Then Taro got angry and shouted still more loudly: "What a lazy person
you must be!"
Thus Taro arrogantly found fault with others, entirely forgetful of his
own laziness, and talked to those older and better than himself in this
hateful way. Had the Governor, whose attention was now directed to the
little shed by the roadside, been an ordinary man, he would have given
orders to his men to kill the presumptuous fellow on the spot; for a
samurai of high rank in old Japan, in his domain and along the road,
possessed the power of life and death over the lower classes. When a
lord or any great dignitary rode abroad, the peasants and the farmers
bowed themselves in the dust as he passed by. They dared not lift up
their heads on pain of death.
But this Governor was an unusual man, and renowned throughout the
district for his goodness and mildness of disposition. His curiosity too
was aroused at the queer proceeding. He had heard of the strange
Monogusa Taro, and he concluded that the boy in the hut must be he. So
the Governor got down from his horse, and sitting on a stool that one
of his retainers placed for him opposite the hut, said: "Are you
Monogusa Taro of whom the people talk?"
Taro, not in the least afraid, answered boldly that he was. He did not
even move from his position on the mat to bow to the great man. He
behaved just as indifferently as if he were a lord speaking to a
"You are indeed an interesting fellow," said the Governor. "Now tell me
what do you do to earn a living?"
"As my name tells you," answered Lazy Taro, "I do nothing. I lie in this
shed night and day. I am Lazy Taro!"
"Then you must get little to eat!" said the Governor.
"It is exactly as you say!" answered Taro; "when the neighbours bring me
food, I eat it; but when I get nothing I lie in this shed night and day
just like this, sometimes for three and four and five days without
"I am very sorry for you," said the Governor. "Now if I give you a piece
of ground, will you till it and grow your own rice and vegetables? What
you do not want you might sell to the neighbours and so make a little
"You are very kind," answered Taro, "and I thank you; but it is too much
trouble to till the ground to get my own rice. Why should I when I can
get people to give me just enough to live upon? No, thank you, I beg to
"Well," said the Governor, "if you don't like the idea of tilling the
ground, I will give you some money to start in business. What do you say
"That would be too much trouble too, so I will remain as I am," said
The kind-hearted Governor could not but be astonished at the
good-for-nothing boy's answer, but he was a man of great patience, and
he felt sorry for Monogusa Taro.
"You are," he said, "as everyone says, the laziest man in the whole of
Japan. In all my experience of all sorts and conditions of men, never
have I come across such a don't-care, happy-go-lucky creature as
yourself—but as it is your nature, I suppose there is no help for it.
Your condition is a pitiful one. I can't let you starve in my district
—which you certainly will do if you go on like this."
Then the kind-hearted Governor took out a piece of paper from his
sleeve, and on this paper with brush and Indian ink he wrote an order to
the effect that the people of his dominion of Shinano were to provide
Monogusa Taro twice daily with three go of rice and a little saké once
a day to cheer his spirits. Whoever disobeyed the order must quit the
district at once. This order the Governor had published and made known
throughout the whole province.
To the people of the province it seemed a strange command, and they were
lost in amazement; but however strange they thought it, they had to obey
the Governor's order. So from that day on Taro was taken care of and fed
by his neighbours with rice and saké daily.
Time slipped slowly by in the rustic place, and for three years Taro
lived in ease and plenty, as free from care as the birds of the air. To
all appearance he was perfectly satisfied with himself and his useless
life, and he seemed to desire nothing better.
At the end of three years the feudal Daimio of Shinano, who always
lived in the capital, advertised for a man-servant who was young and
strong. One of Taro's kindest neighbours suggested that this was a good
opportunity for Taro to make a beginning and that he ought to apply for
the place. But others shook their heads and said that Taro was a
good-for-nothing fellow, who would never do any good in the world—he
would only be a trouble wherever he went.
"Look," they said, "how he behaved to the good Governor, how he
dared—just think of it—to ask that great man to pick up the
rice-dumpling he had dropped in the road, because he was too atrociously
lazy to move out of his shed to get it for himself! Had the Governor
been any one else, he would have had him sworded to death on the Spot."
But in spite of all the neighbours' croaking and grumbling, the first
man persisted in his idea that the right thing for Taro to do was to try
for the place, regardless of opposition. To every one who raised an
objection, he answered wisely: "Don't you know the saying that 'Stupid
people and scissors depend on the way they are used for their
usefulness'; so even this Lazy Taro may change for the better if he is
taken up to the capital and made to work. Let us all persuade him to go
into service, and let him for pity's sake have a try at something or
other. Who knows but this may prove the turning-point in his life? Taro
may yet become a useful hard-working man in time, if he is given his
When the proposal was first made to Taro, he was very unwilling to do as
he was told. He said he knew nothing of the ways of a lord's house; and
how could he work, seeing that he was Lazy Taro, who had never done a
stroke of work in his life? But his neighbours and friends were
determined to make him go. Every day they came to his shed, and talked
to him, persuadingly, and at last Taro came round to reason and said
that, to please them, he would at any rate go and try to do his best—if
he failed, he couldn't help it. When Taro said this, his friends were
delighted, and said they would help him get ready. They gave him decent
clothes in which to make an appearance at the Daimio's house and then
some money for the journey. In this way Lazy Taro left the rural
province of Shinano, where he had lived for so many years, and started
for the capital of Kyoto. Just as Tokyo is the seat of government
nowadays, so Kyoto was in olden times. The Emperor—the Son of Heaven,
as he was called—dwelt there in a magnificent palace, and all the great
daimios lived near him in state, surrounded by their retainers. The
streets of the Imperial City were beautifully built and spotlessly
clean, and the houses were far grander than Taro had ever dreamed
of—with great sloping roofs and picturesque gates and park-like gardens
enclosing them. Very different indeed was the capital from the province
of Shinano, from which Taro had come.
The Japanese have a saying, "As different as the moon and the turtle,"
and what can be more utterly different from the Queen of Night, riding
above the clouds in her own bewitching radiance and beauty, attended by
innumerable stars, than the mud-burrowing turtle, who may sometimes be
seen crawling out from his slime to dry his back in the sunshine? As
Taro walked through the streets of the city of Kyoto, he thought of the
old proverb, and he said to himself that the Lady Moon was Kyoto and the
turtle his old-fashioned Shinano.
Then he noticed how fair of skin the people he met were, for the
citizens of Kyoto are famous for their white complexions; and some say
it is the purity of the water that gives them such fair skins, while
others say that they are of a different race from the yellow-skinned
people of the rest of Japan. And how elegantly every one was dressed!
Taro looked down at himself, and saw how dark his skin was, how long his
nails, and how rough his clothes were. For the first time in his life he
felt ashamed of himself, and repented of his past laziness.
Now he remembered that one of his neighbours in Shinano, kinder and more
thoughtful than the rest, had put in his bamboo basket a silken suit of
clothes, saying that Taro would be sure to want it in the capital, and
that when Taro got on, as he felt sure, somehow or other, that he would,
he might pay him back. Recollecting this, Taro stopped at a teahouse and
changed his rough cotton suit for the silken one. Then he inquired for
the residence of Nijo-Dainagon, the Lord of Shinano, and having made his
way there, he entered the large gate and presented himself at the porch,
saying that he had come in answer to an advertisement of the Lord of
Shinano for a servant, and he begged to be made use of.
When the lord of the house heard that a man had come from his own
province to ask for the vacant place in his household, he came out
himself to see Taro, and thanked him for his trouble in coming such a
"Work well and diligently, and you will not find service in my house
hard or bad!" said Lord Nijo.
Now, strange to relate, from the time that Lazy Taro was taken into the
service of this Daimio, a great change came over him. He was from this
time forth like another man. He showed great eagerness to please those
set over him and worked with great industry. Before any one else was
astir in the big household, he arose and swept the garden; he ran
errands more quickly than the other servants, and sat up late at night
to guard the gate. When Lord Nijo went out, Taro was the first to put
his sandals ready, and the most eager to accompany him. So assiduous, so
earnest was he in all he did, that his master was much impressed by his
faithfulness and industry.
"How true is the proverb," said the Daimio, "that even the beautiful
lotus blooms in the slime of the pond, and that precious gems are found
in the sand. Who would have dreamt that this rustic would turn out to
be such a jewel of a servant? This Monogusa Taro is a clever fellow,
quite unlike any countryman I have ever seen."
In this way Lazy Taro won the favour of his master, who gradually
promoted him from the position of a menial servant to the higher service
of a retainer.
One day, soon after his promotion, Taro had been summoned to the inner
apartments to wait upon O Hime San, or the Honourable Princess, the
Daimio's daughter. As he moved across the room, he fell over the
Princess's koto and broke it.
Now the Japanese have always considered it a virtue to repress their
feelings, whether they be feelings of joy or feelings of sorrow. No
matter what happens, one must learn to present an impassive countenance
to the world, whether the heart be bounding with joy or withering with
pain. Instead of making a display of your emotion, control it and
compose a poem or a beautiful sentence. Such is the training and
etiquette instilled by custom, and more especially amongst the upper
classes are these rules rigidly observed.
Now the Princess was a very high-born damsel, so, though she was sorely
grieved when she saw that Taro had broken her favourite koto, instead
of betraying any anger or impatience, she expressed her grief in an
impromptu verse and repeated aloud:—
Kiyo yori wa
[Oh! from to-day]
Waga nagusami ni
[For my amusement]
Nani ka sen?
[What shall I do?]
Then Taro, who was very, very sorry for the accident and for the
displeasure he knew he must have caused the Princess, was moved to the
heart, and the words of apology and regret suddenly rose to his lips, in
the form of the second half of the Princess's poem, and he said:—
Mono mo iwarezu.
This has two meanings, because of the play on the first word kotowari,
which means either a broken koto or an excuse. So Taro's couplet meant
first that there was indeed good reason for the Princess's sorrow, and
that he had no excuse to offer; and secondly, that as the koto was
broken, he had no words wherewith to excuse himself.
The Daimio was sitting in the adjoining room and heard Taro answer his
daughter in verse. His astonishment at finding that Taro was a poet was
great. "Certainly, appearances are deceptive," said the Daimio to
Now the next time that the Daimio went to Court, thinking to amuse the
Palace circles with Taro's story, he told them first how he had taken a
"potato-digger" (Japanese expression for a country bumpkin) into his
service, and then he told of the progress of the transformation of the
rough rustic, who had proved himself to be such a jewel, into a valuable
retainer, and last, and most astonishing of all, how Taro had turned out
to be a poet. Every one in the Palace listened to the tale with much
interest, and said that Taro's story was like a novel.
At last this story reached the ears of the Emperor, who felt interested
in the poetical rustic, and he thought that he would like to see Taro;
for literary and poetic talent has always been held in high esteem in
Japan and has in a special manner enjoyed royal patronage. The Emperor
sent word to Lord Nijo that he was to bring Taro to the Palace.
So the next time that Lord Nijo went up to the Palace he ordered Taro to
accompany him. So Taro at last had the highest honour that could befall
a mortal, for he was commanded to enter the august presence of the Son
The Emperor sat on a dais behind the closely slatted bamboo blinds, with
cords and tassels of gold and purple, so that he could see and not be
seen, for he was thought to be too sacred for the eyes of his subjects
to fall on him.
The Daimio Nijo prostrated himself before the throne three times, and
then presented Taro. The Emperor, from behind the screen that hid him
from view, deigned at last to speak, and this is what he said:—
"I hear that you are a poet. Therefore compose a verse for me on the
Taro obeyed without any hesitation whatsoever. Looking about him for a
moment for inspiration, he happened to glance into the garden, where he
saw a nightingale alight on a blossoming plum tree, and begin to warble.
So he made the nightingale and the plum tree the subject of his poem:—
Nuretaru koe no
Ume no hanagasa
Moru ya harusame.
The meaning of this little poem of thirty-one syllables is that the
nightingale's voice sounds tearful or moist because the flower-umbrella
of the plum-blossoms lets through the spring rain, which damps the body
of the bird sitting among the branches.
The Emperor was pleasingly impressed with Taro's talent and facility in
expressing his graceful thoughts, and addressed him again, saying: "I
hear you came from Shinano? How do you call plum-blossoms [ume-no-hana]
Then Taro answered the royal question again, saying in verse:—
Shinano ni wa
Baika to iu mo
Ume no hana
Miyako no koto wa
"In Shinano we call the plum-blossom 'baika,' but of what they may
call it in the capital I know nothing."
In this way Taro humbly confessed his ignorance of the ways of the
"You are indeed a clever poet," said the Emperor, "and you must be
descended from a good family. Tell me who was your father? Do you know?"
"I have no ancestors that I know of!" said Taro.
"Then I shall command that the Governor of Shinano make inquiries about
you," said the Emperor; and therewith he commanded his courtiers to
despatch a messenger to the far-away province of Shinano, with
instructions to find out all he could about Lazy Taro and his parents.
After some time the Governor of Shinano learned through an old priest
who Monogusa Taro really was, and the discovery was a startling one.
It appeared that many years before, a Prince of the Imperial House had
been banished from Court circles and had come to the Temple of Zenkoji
in Shinano. The Prince was accompanied by his consort. The royal young
couple made this pilgrimage to pray Heaven for a child, for they were
both sorrowful at being childless. Their prayers were answered by the
birth of a son within the year. This son was Taro. When the infant was
but three years old, his parents died and the child was left with no one
but the old priest to take care of him. When Taro was only seven years
old, he strayed away from his guardian and was lost.
The royal couple had kept their secret well, and the old priest had only
discovered who Taro was by finding some letters hidden away behind the
Buddhist altar. Taro was the grandson of the Emperor Kusabuka, the
second son of the Emperor Nimmu, the fifty-third Emperor of Japan.
Taro's father had been banished for some misdemeanour at Court, and had
hidden himself in disgrace in the rustic province of Shinano in the
heart of the country, far from the gay capital and all who knew him.
Thus it was that no one knew where Monogusa Taro had come from, who he
was, or anything about him at all, and he had grown up like a common
peasant, ignorant of his high estate and the exalted circle to which he
You may imagine the surprise of the Emperor when he learned that Taro
was descended from the Royal Family. It was no wonder that he had shown
such noble qualities as faithful service to his lord and love of poetry.
His Majesty now bestowed upon Taro the highest official rank, and made
him Governor of the provinces of Shinano and Kai.
Now Monogusa Taro returned to Shinano, the old province which had
harboured him in his days of poverty—in great state he returned. No
longer as Lazy Taro, the good-for-nothing rascal who lived in a straw
shed, content with living upon the charity of his neighbours and
friends, or whoever chose to take pity upon him, but as the new
Governor, the man who through industry and faithfulness had won the
esteem of Lord Nijo, and who through him was presented at Court. Once at
Court, his talent for writing verses had aroused the interest of the
Emperor, whose inquiries had established his high birth.
And so, greater than all expectations and more wonderful than dreams,
had the transformation of Lazy Taro been. No longer a despised beggar by
the roadside, he was now an honoured man, created new Lord of the
Province by the Emperor. Nor did he now forget in these changed
circumstances the kindness that had been shown to him in former times.
He repaid and rewarded all those who had ministered to his wants in the
days of his vagrancy; he forgot no one—neither those who had given him
rice, nor those who had interested themselves in his going to Kyoto, nor
those who had prepared him for his journey. He paid a visit to his old
friend and benefactor, the ex-Governor, now retired from active
service, and took him many handsome gifts. His visions of a fine house
were now realized, for he lived in just such a palace as he had seen in
his day-dreams by the wayside. The palace had sloping roofs, just as you
see in old Japanese pictures; it stood in the midst of beautiful
gardens, surrounded by high walls and approached by three large gates.
Lord Nijo gave him one of his daughters in marriage, and Monogusa Taro lived
happily to the great age of one hundred and twenty years, and he left the world
beloved, honoured, and lamented by all who knew him. Such is the wonderful and
happy-ending story of Lazy Taro.