Reflections on “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow”

chaAs with most folklore there are variations on this story, but this is the basic tale–a poor but kindly old couple more or less adopt a sparrow because they like to hear it singing. A bad-tempered neighbor doesn’t like the sparrow at all, because it wakes her up in the morning. So she decides to catch it and split its tongue so it can’t sing anymore. This she does, and the maimed bird flies away. In sorrow, the old couple go looking for the bird, but when they follow in the direction it flew, what they find is a magnificent mansion where they are warmly greeted by a man who identifies himself as the sparrow. This is not so strange in context since, in Japanese folklore, almost all animals were thought to be shapeshifters. Regardless, the old couple are treated to great hospitality. When they are ready to leave, the sparrow offers the couple their choice of two baskets as gifts. One is  small and light, the other rather large and heavy. Still in sorrow for what happened to their friend and not wishing to impose on his generosity, they pick the small basket. Once they return home, they discover that the basket is magic, and will produce whatever they wish: rice, cloth, even gold. The poor old couple are no longer poor. The bad-tempered neighbor, seeing their good fortune, asks how they came by the basket and they tell her. At this point the neighbor resolves to visit the sparrow herself. Continue reading