A Moon Maiden Takes Flight - Princess Kaguya

Japan's oldest literary work is "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", which was written in the late 9th or early 10th century, predating the internationally more famous "Tale of the Genji" by a hundred years or more. That work actually mentions the story and refers to it as the "ancestor of all romances."

It is a story of a man who, while cutting bamboo, finds a tiny baby girl the size of his thumb inside a glowing stalk of bamboo and he and his wife raise her as their own daughter, naming her Kaguya-hime or Princess Kaguya - "radiant night princess". Over the following 20 years, under their loving care, she grows into a beautiful young woman. Kaguya-hime has a secret however, which she keeps from them. She is from the Moon, has been sent to Earth as punishment, and must one day return.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Princess Kaguya weeping.

I can't do the story justice in this short space, so I encourage anyone interested to track down a translation. I was fortunate to have worked in a bookstore for a time and thanks to a thoughtful co-worker who knew my interest in Japanese culture and alerted me to the one copy of this book that the store received, I obtained it. The book I purchased has both modern Japanese and English translations as well as the original old Japanese, with many beautiful illustrations by the master of "kiri-e" (paper cut art) Masayuki Miyata (1926-1997). I treasure it. But back to our story...

The truth threatens to come out when Kaguya-hime's adoptive parents try to arrange a marriage for her and she sends each of five suitors on what she knows to be impossible tasks to win her hand. All fail.

The situation becomes critical as the Emperor falls in love with her and she with him, and he tries to prevent her departure by sending archers to guard her. But Kaguya-hime's celestial people blind the guards with a strange light. In the end she takes an elixir of immortality, leaving some for the Emperor, dons a cloak of feathers (which relieves her of her emotional attachment to Earth, her parents and the Emperor) and is lifted on a chariot into the heavens to return to the Moon.

The emperor writes a sorrowful poem that translates as: "What use is it, this elixir of immortality, to one who floats in tears because he cannot meet her again?"

He gives the jar of elixir and the poem to a messenger and commands him to take them to the summit of a great mountain in Suruga and burn them together. His men, accompanied by soldiers did as he requested and to this day the mountain is called by the name that means immortal - "Fuji".

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Fast forward one millennium...

On Saturday morning, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) launched a rocket carrying a spacecraft called SELENE (SELenological and ENgineering Explorer) which is now on its way to the Moon. "Selene" is also, of course, the name of the Greek goddess of the Moon.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The spacecraft represents the most intensive exploration effort of the Moon since the Apollo missions of the 1960's and 70's. SELENE has fourteen different kinds of sensors and carries two small satellites with it. From a polar orbit, one will map the moon's magnetic fields, the other will provide a continuous relay of data between SELENE and Earth. SELENE will be orbiting just 60 miles above the surface and will map the entire Moon with radar and high definition television images in addition to recording the Moon's gravitational field. We should be treated to some spectacular images of the Earthrise in high definition TV as well. It is hoped that the information gathered will allow scientists to learn something that Apollo did not - the mysteries of the origins and evolution of our neighbor. At the same time, the observation equipment installed on the orbiting satellite will observe plasma, the electromagnetic field and high-energy particles - information critical to any future long term manned Lunar missions.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

SELENE has been nicknamed KAGUYA and is referred to by that name within JAXA and in press reports in honor of the ancient tale of the bamboo cutter's daughter. Once again Kaguya-hima has risen into the heavens on a chariot and is going home - to the Moon.

TRIVIA - The story refers to the smoke from the fire of the poem and elixir as being visible to this day. This reference is what dates the story to around the beginning of the 10th century as the last time smoke was visible from Mt. Fuji was in 905. The book I own is "The tale of the Bamboo Cutter" by Yasunari Kawabata.


Don Snabulus said...

Wow. This is exciting. It really bugs me when something this cool and important doesn't even break the surface of the American press because WE didn't do it. I know I should be used to it, but...sigh.

I hope for all the success in the world for SELENE.

Pandabonium said...

Don - I'm excited about too. In addition to the scientific data offered, projects like this have the potential to inspire a generation to study all the sciences, math, and engineering.

I don't know how they'll take the news down in Waco, Texas, where they
boo'd Bill Nye (the Science guy)
for saying that the moon does not produce its own light. The audience believes it does because it says so in the Bible.

More info about SELENE on the JAXA website in English.

ladybug said...

Ditto Snabby here! I feel just like a little kid back in the 60's and 70's when NASA was doing some real stuff!

I can't wait for the new, and I'm sure surprising and interesting, information about the moon becomes available to the general public.

As for the inspiration, you're right about that too. Carl Sagan (although he was quite controversial) I think inspired alot of kids into astrophysics and other technical fields. I wish there were more communicators like him around these days!

Pandabonium said...

LB - I don't remember Sagan as being controversial, but I guess he was to the science establishment. Science programming aimed at general audiences is one of the few good uses that television has been put to IMHO.

There are some really good science communicators around, but they don't get enough exposure.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing what Kaguya sends back. I remember how moved I was by the earth rise picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew as they orbited the Moon in December of 1968 which contrasted the bleak terrain of the Moon with our beautiful lifeboat Earth. Thought provoking stuff - and it seems we humans are in need of a lot of thought provoking in these times.

PinkPanther said...

Thanks for sharing a nice legend of Fuji with us. It is very similar with the Chinese legend [Chang’e and the Curel Emperor].

After reading it, I realized the Moon-Festival [Mid-Autumn Festival] for Chinese to celebrate is just around the corner.

Pandabonium said...

PP - Perhaps there should be a legend about the Pink Panther in the Moon...

The Moody Minstrel said...

SELENE (Kaguya) is definitely a significant step forward for Japan's space program and shows just how significant it has become. Japan's contribution to the ISS, on the other hand, tends to be overlooked.

It makes me proud that Japan's main space control center, i.e. Japan's Houston, is in Tsukuba, here in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Oh, and Pandabonium, Carl Sagan was controversial among scientists for the simple reason that he sought to make science more understandable to the layman. His monumental "Cosmos" series was created from the start with that in mind, and it was a big success because of it. Many of Sagan's peers attacked his "legitimacy" as a scientist because of his simple English approach to astro-physics.

Most people just thought it was fun imitating the way he said "BIL-lions and BIL-lions" in a nasally voice.

Pandabonium said...

Moody - Japan has had its problems with rockets, but what country hasn't in the beginning stages of space exploration? (none). They are contributing a great deal to science in that arena.

Sad and ironic that some academics consider people like Sagan was a threat. He was and those like him are the best salesmen around when it comes to getting public support for science programs.

And I loved the way the way he said "BIL-lions and BIL-lions"...

Derek said...

I was one of those intially impressed with Sagan but later disappointed with his science, some of which was either sloppy or perhaps motivated by his political views. I recall one very stretched article in Scientific American regarding "Nuclear Winter". (remember that scare of the early 70's) In that article, his own charts and graphs pretty well dissolved his arguments. His concerns about nuclear warfare were well meant but science is science. One must leave one's personal ideals out of scientific investigation. Nuclear winter and global warming both have a similarity in that the conclusions in both instances have been flung well forward of any reasonable confidence of certainty of our analysis.

One of my professors in college once chastized a classmate who was pressing a point based upon her emotional convictions rather than supporting her ideas with data. He suggested that she "might wish to consider seeking work in the field of Political Astrophysics like Carl Sagan".

It made a lasting impression on me.


This was a delightful blend of ideas that only a mind like yours would see the beauty of connecting. Someone needs to start an award for Blogs (The Googly awards? yuk. ) so that you could get the proper recognition.

Em will enjoy it. Thanks for enticing me to lift my head up from the sawing and hammering for long enough to look at it.

Pandabonium said...

Derek - I'd forgotten Sagan's political side.

Considering the immediate effects of nuclear war should be enough to deter it. If not, the fear of the "winter" isn't going stop it either, so I've always thought that whole discussion was superfluous anyway.

We disagree some on the other issue, probably not so much, but I don't want get into that can of worms on the blog. We'll discuss it sometime over a Fiji Bitter on Taveuni.

Thank you for your very kind words. (Blush.) I hope Em enjoys the story.

Swinebread said...

Good thing we have the news in the states that we do because I got to hear all about SELENE… …NOT!

Thanks for the tip this will be very interesting

The History Channel has a great series called the Universe, which had a wonderful episode on the moon. I know you don’t watch TV but if you come across this program I’d recommend it to you.

Anonymous said...

To infinity and Beyond (Buzz Light Year)

Pandabonium said...

Swinebread - well, you know they a busy covering more important things like the celebrity DUI of the week or the Republican sex scandal du jour.

Universe - thanks, if I come across it, I'll watch it. I received a series on DVD called Origins which I really like. It was a PBS NOVA series presented by astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Anonymous - far out. ;^)

Anonymous said...

Hey Pandabonium,

Came across this site on Japan.

Pandabonium said...

Anon -cool site, thanks.

Ida said...

this story is really cool except for the fact that i want to know the whole entire poem that the emperor said but if thats the entire thing then i am satisfied cause i heard it form somewhere else and it was really cool

Pandabonium said...

Ida - yes, that's the whole poem, at least the translation into English of it. Thanks for visiting.