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 rich.

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 them hear.

"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 servant.

"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 eating!"

"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 money."

"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 be excused."

"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 to that?"

"That would be too much trouble too, so I will remain as I am," said Taro.

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 proper chance."

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 long way.

"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:—

Kotowari nareba
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 himself.

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 of Heaven.

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 spot!"

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:—

Uguisu no
Nuretaru koe no
Kokoyuru wa
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] there?"

Then Taro answered the royal question again, saying in verse:—

Shinano ni wa
Baika to iu mo
Ume no hana
Miyako no koto wa
Ikaga aruran.

"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 capital.

"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 belonged.

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.