Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jesus and The Peach Boy

The story of Momotarō begins, as so many Japanese Folktales begin, with an elderly childless couple. One day, while washing their clothes in a nearby river, the wife sees a giant peach floating along, bobbing with the current. She grabs it from the water, and she and her husband prepare to enjoy it for their dinner that night, when suddenly the peach pops open and a small child emerges! Sources do not indicate whether the couple actually proceeded to eat the peach.


They name the boy Momotarō (literally Peach-boy), and raise him as their own. Years later, he embarks on a self-appointed quest to tame the demons from the nearby island of Onigashima. The demons have been preying on the coastal villages for years, plundering their stores and killing their people in night raids. As he walks the long road to a coastal town where he will book passage to the island, our hero befriends a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, who all agree to join him on his quest and take the fight to the demons.


Momotarō and his friends make their way to the island where they confront the demons and a terrific battle ensues. Each animal uses its own natural abilities to fight their enemies, and they win. The Peach Boy brings the demon leaders home as captives, and their treasure as plunder, and his family lives in luxury for the rest of their lives.


This story is pretty simple, and yet it remains one of the most popular folk tales in Japan. The use of animals makes the story an instant hit with kids, and who doesn't love a good versus evil story? I even narrated the story for my Japanese class's Christmas party. But what does it mean?


The Japanese Imperial Government made good use of this story for their own purposes during World War II. Momotarō represented the Japanese Armed Forces, the United States was the collective of demons, and Pearl Harbor was Onigashima, the demon isle. Suddenly this children's story is sending chills up my spine. It's a great example of how even the cute and cuddly can be used for twisted purposes.


Given this story's popularity (and the fact that no one interprets it according to 1940's Imperial Propaganda any more), I think it is time to give this story a Christian interpretation.


Let's start with the obvious: Momotarō is a Christ-Figure. He was born from a peach, therefore not conceived by human means, and he earnestly desires to help the poor and less fortunate by defending them from the forces of evil, which in this case happen to be manifested physically.


What about the animals? Well, you could argue that Momotarō was exercising humility in taking on companions and fellow warriors. Being a supernatural being (many versions of the story indicate that he knew he had been sent to earth to fight the demons of Onigashima), our Peach-boy didn't need the help of animal companions, but took them on anyway so that they could share in his victory and spoils. He even lets them participate in the fighting and they use their natural (dare we say God-given?) abilities to assist in the struggle.


Lastly, of course, there is his family. His parents have no real claim over him - he's not their natural son, and being poor they could offer him no material support for his journey. And yet he returns to them with the plunder he took from the demons, and the demons themselves bound as wartime slaves - forced to obey Momotarō and his friends and family. This couple did nothing in particular to deserve any of this, but the forces of heaven chose and blessed them to receive a child who would one day make them proud and alleviate their earthly burdens.


Is it a perfect analogy? Of course not. Is it a good potential starting point? I like to think so. As I understand it, everyone in Japan grows up hearing this story, and if it was good enough to profit warmongers and fascists, I think it should be good enough to start a conversation about Jesus.

Momotarō and his friends fighting the demons
Illustration from the 1885 book "Momotarō: the Little Peachling." Image public domain.


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