“Momotaro” — Contributed by Steve Sumida, Professor at the UW’s Department of American Ethnic Studies
A popular story that appears in Japanese American literature, “Momotaro,” famously appears in John Okada’s novel, “No-No Boy,” set in Seattle from 1946-1947. Ichiro, “No-No’s” title character, remembers (though he denies being able to remember his boyhood before the war) how his mother used to tell him about the “boy in the peach” who filled the hearts of the elderly couple who found the peach with him inside, “with boundless joy.”
“I was that boy in the peach,” Ichiro says, and you were the mother, he says as if he were talking to his mother. Momotaro is a boy hero because he and his army – a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant – defeat the demons who have been stealing the treasures of Momotaro’s village. By rescuing the treasures, Momotaro is recovering the history (which “treasures” represent) of his people.
In so far as assimilation is about rejecting the history of a dominated people, the Momotaro story is anti-assimilationist. It seems to appear in No-No Boy to hint that Japanese Americans need an anti-assimilationist understanding and hero to reverse the forced assimilation that their World War II incarceration tried to impose on them. Momotaro’s anti-assimilationism does not mean a rejection of the “demons’” ways and an exclusive embracing of “traditional” ways. It means restoring the history of the people that assimilation would destroy.
This is a story the fist-generation or “issei” told their second-generation or “nisei” children; the nisei then told their third-generation or “sansei” children, and sansei tell their — you got it — the fourth generation or “yonsei” children.
“Ye Xian” (also, “Yeh Shen”)
This story, much like the European rags-to-riches story of “Cinderella,” although written a millennium earlier, focuses on the beautiful and gifted Yeh Shen, whose mother dies after giving birth to her. Her father, a scholar named Wu, then marries Jin, Yeh’s evil stepmother, and they produce Yeh’s half-sister, Jun-li, who is spoiled, self-centered and lazy. When her father dies from a local plague, Yeh-Shen is forced to become a lowly servant and work for Jin and Jun-li.
Despite living a life burdened with chores and housework, she finds solace when she ends up befriending a beautiful, 10-foot-long fish in the lake. With big golden eyes and red fins, the fish is the reincarnation of her mother, who now watches out for her. Angry that Yeh-Shen has found happiness, Jin kills the fish and serves it for dinner for herself and her daughter. Yeh-Shen is devastated until a spirit appears and tells her to bury the bones of the fish in pots at each corner of her bed. The spirit also tells her that whatever she needs will be granted if she talks to the bones.
The spring festival, where many young women have the opportunity to meet potential suitors, takes place and Yeh-Shen is forced to stay home and clean. After her stepfamily has left, Yeh-Shen is visited by her mother’s spirit again who grants her wish to attend the festival and dresses her in magnificent clothes, including golden slippers, one of which she accidentally leaves behind at the festival. The king subsequently goes on a search for the maiden who lost her slipper, promising to marry her and discovers that the slipper belongs to Yeh-Shen. They marry and live happily ever after.
“Juan Gathers Guavas” (“Nang Namitas ng Bayabas si Juan”)
This is a short vignette about a naughty boy named Juan who is asked by his father one day to go out and get some ripe guavas for the neighbors who had come in. Juan went to the guava bushes and ate all the fruit he could hold, and instead of feeding them, decided to play a joke on his father’s guests. He put a wasp’s nest into his basket, instead of the fruit. Then, he gave the tightly closed basket to his father in the room where the guests were seated and left, locking the door behind him. As soon as Juan’s father opened the basket and the wasps flew all over the room, the guests (unable to get out through the door) fought to get out of the windows. After awhile, Juan opened the door. When he saw the swollen faces of the people, he cried, “What fine, rich guavas you must have had! They have made you all so fat!”
“The Hundred-Knot Bamboo Tree” (also, “The Bamboo of 100 Joints”)
A Vietnamese fable and parable, passed down through Vietnamese oral tradition, this story is about a laborer who is exploited by a rich and devious landowner. In order to motivate and encourage the laborer to keep working for him, the landowner promises to reward him with marriage to his daughter after three years of hard labor. But, after the three years passes, the landowner breaks his promise and offers his daughter to another man. When the laborer complains, the landowner attempts to fool him again by promising him a marriage to his daughter if he finds a bamboo stalk with 100 knots. After divine intervention from Buddha, the laborer triumphs in the end.