Philosophical Concept of the Moon in Taketori Monogatari

The moon can be found in many literary works, and it is an element full of literary and narrative quality. The moon in the Taketori Monogatari, which is considered the ancestor of Japanese Narratives by the Japanese renowned writer Murasaki Shikibu, is without exception an indispensable part. According to NI, Jin-Dan, in literature, the concept of foreign land, which is a relative space to the world of human beings, has always been emphasized.

Through this foreign land, we can penetrate the underlying truth around us deeply.

In Taketori Monogatari, the moon in the sky, in contrast to the world of humankind on the ground, presented an image of an ideal world. Taketori incorporated materials and ideas from the Buddhist scriptures or the Chinese classics and thus is strongly influenced by the images and characteristics of the moon in these masterpieces. What kind of roles does the moon play in this literary work? What important view does the author intend to convey to readers through comparing the moon and the world of mankind? These are the main themes I want to explore in this essay.

The Main Subject

The image of “the capital of the moon” varies in different literary works. In Taketori, the world on the moon is a land of immortal life, or heaven, and is yearned for by people.On the other hand, the world on the ground is often portrayed as dirty and impure, these counterparts reveal that the moon world is a symbol of the Pure Land on the basis of Taoism or Buddhism related thoughts.

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There are many legends related to the moon, and specifically I want to talk about the one in The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, written by the famous Buddhist priest Xuanzang, in which a story of a rabbit burning itself was mentioned.

In order to test the virtue of a rabbit, a fox and a monkey, Śakra was under the disguise of an old man asking for food. While the fox and the monkey collected great amounts of food, the rabbit was not able to offer anything, so it offered its own body, throwing itself into a fire the man had built. The rabbit, however, was not burnt. The old man revealed himself to be Śakra, and touched by the rabbit’s virtue, drew the likeness of the rabbit on the moon for all to see. In comparison to the Chinese folklore about a rabbit pounding elixir, the Japanese version is about a rabbit pounding steamed rice into rice cake. In Japanese culture, rice cake serves as a divine food of a votive offering, and there are many examples supporting rice cake as a food possessing incredible power.

For instance, there was a legend saying a wealthy man used rice cake as a mark and shot an arrow through it, after which he experienced a miserable fall. In short, this divine food is a suggestion of the inhabiting of celestial beings on the moon. Also, in the “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”, we find many poems describing the moon world, saying that it is a place with katsura trees and moon people lying under them. Since katsura is a food for these celestial beings, katsura trees in the moon symbolize immortality. In the Chinese philosophical classic Huainanzi, there is a story about Chang’e, who stole her husband Hou Yi’s elixir and swallowed it, escaping to the palace on the moon.

From this point, we can see that the idea of a celestial being is highly connected with the capital of the moon. As for beliefs related to the moon, the works of the famous Chinese poet Bai Juyi were well-loved and widely read by Japanese people during the Heian Era, so it affected Japanese literature to an extent. There are two characteristics about the moon that Bai mentioned in his works: one is its beauty, admired by many people, and the other is that it is sometimes a taboo. The common way of thinking is that, on one hand, the moon is a place worshiped by people, and on the other hand, it is considered ominous, possessing a somehow bad image. In the end of the tale, there is an essential scene presenting the Kaguya-hime’s return to Tsuki-no-Miyako(月の都 “The Capital of the Moon”).

The moon people said that she was sent to the Earth as a temporary punishment for some crime, and the time she spent in human world is used to atone for her sin. Compared to the clean and immortal life and a world without pain and worries on the moon, the world on the ground is full of difficulties and troubles. However, as a supernatural being, Kaguya-hime possesses extraordinary qualities, and she successfully turned down the proposals made by powerful men, from the Imperial Prince to the most powerful person in the human world—the Emperor of Japan. Though she overcame various kinds of difficulties by her wisdom and unique power, she was still unable to avoid going back to her own country.

She was supposed to be happy that after going through frustrations and hardship in the human world, she was able to go back to her homeland, which is a world without any pain or worry, but she had been raised attentively by her parents, and regardless of the fact that she was from the moon, she had already gotten used to the life in human world, thus presenting herself as a moon person with a human nature. Therefore, besides her beloved parents, she cared significantly for the Emperor, who understood and protected her wholeheartedly. It is ironic that Kaguya-hime does not want to return to her own country on the moon. She has a noble identity, but she would rather live in the world which is considered filthy by people of her kind.

This is not simply because of the sad separation between Kaguya-hime and her parents, but also because the pure and clean world on the moon is not the ideal world in her mind, and rather than disappointment, she feels strong attachment to this human world. Apart from repaying the kindness of her parents and staying with the Emperor, what was the thing she was not willing to let go of? In the Heian Era, the thoughts from China related to Xian and the Pure land in Buddhism were embraced by people, and it was very common for people to adore the Xian-world.

Accordingly, the moon world appeared under this fundamental value. The moon is incredibly beautiful, and simultaneously it possesses a mysterious charm that attracts people. Bai Juyi emphasized its quality of wax and wane, comparing this to the repetition of life and death of human beings. Therefore, the moon world represents a world of eternal life, and it is adored by people who live a limited life. However, in Taketori there is a sentence said by Okina (Kaguya-hime’s foster father in human world.

竹取翁 means “the Old Man who Harvests Bamboo”), saying that staring at the moon for too long brings bad luck. This presents another respect of the moon, resembling the Chinese classics, suggesting that in spite of the beauty of the ideal land on the moon, there is something detestable about it. The robe of feathers and the elixir from the moon people will make Kaguya-Hime abandon her human nature and transform into one of their kind, forgetting all of the sadness and compassion for Earth people. That is to say, the world on the moon is without emotions and all kinds of desires. The pursuit of happiness is a never ending human endeavor throughout history, but is it true that living in the capital of the moon, or the world of eternal life, is a way to happiness? Is it correct that people worship and admire this kind of world?

These are questions that the author wanted readers to be aware of. In contrast to the moon world, how was the human world described in Taketori? According to Nanba-Hiroshi, “the social phenomena that the author depicted in the work is surly not an exception or happening by chance; rather, they are the essential and the most typical things happening in upper-class society at that time, and they are not acknowledgeable. Consequently, this is not simply mocking the era, but rather satirizing the tragic reality. It seems that the author looks coldly on the life of upper-class noble men with a sneer, standing aloof from the world. However, that is definitely not for the purpose of denying and mocking. What underlies it is the intention of insisting to find a way out, to lead a meaningful life regardless of living in such world.

There is some disappointment and discontentment toward the world, but not despair or denial of human life.” In the human world, there are miscellaneous kinds of ugly aspects, such as jealous and lust, but this is exactly the thing that is truly beautiful—the human feelings. Joy, sadness, or hardship–in a word, it is the human feeling that makes Kaguya-Hime eager to stay in the human world. She has a heart that is very human, but once she dresses on the robe of feather, or drinks the elixir, she will be deprived of this personality and become cold-hearted like the moon people, forgetting all of these things that happened in the human world and returning to her world in the sky. The very difference between human beings and moon people is the human nature and human feelings.

In the scene of Kaguya-Hime leaving for the sky, her foster father and the Emperor made a desperate effort to stop her, along with her foster mother crying with sorrow, while the moon people said, “It is nonsense that you cry for Kaguya-Hime’s return to the wonderful Pure land.” , and pressed Kaguya-Hime when she was reluctant to let go.

They wiped out all the worldly things on Earth, including her parents’ and the Emperor’s love for her, and took her away pitilessly. The value that the author holds is not about ignorance or deviation from reality; instead, he persistently focuses on the pursuit of something in the world, avoiding this tale to fall into escapism. As for the purpose of depicting the moon world as a world that seems ideal, Nanba-Hiroshi explains it this way, “Taketori does not just fantasize or romanticize the real world, but looks squarely at reality, portraying all the ridiculous and ugly things existing in the world without reserve.

Meanwhile, the beautiful and pure things are set off by his own way of portraying. At the late Heian Era, reality is filled with contradiction, and the society was lacking in order. Taketori talks about the struggles and worries of noblemen, and their feelings toward the real world, pursuing a balance between real and ideal world. Taketori draws a line between itself and the fantastic tales, handling the phenomena in the society intelligently.” To be brief, the moon in this work serves as a contrast to the human world, reflecting the uniqueness and revealing the world of human nature to readers, letting them consider what a truly ideal world is. Furthermore, it can be considered a critique of the nihilistic thoughts and the attitude of adoring the Xian world or pursuing eternal life, which is formed by a significant influence from the belief of Xian at that time.

If Taketori Monogatari had aimed at claiming an admiration toward the world in the sky, Kaguya-hime should have been happy rather than sad when returning to her own world. The Emperor also burned the elixir which would furnish him with immortality on the top of the Mt. Fuji, which is a symbol of nature and the spirit of Japanese culture, showing that the elixir of immortality returned to nature in the end. Life and death are just the workings of nature; individuals possess a life that is limited, but with the changing of the seasons, lives are handed down through generations.

Isn’t this in itself a way of continuation and eternality? On the contrary, the world without death or aging is a world of static time, just like the condition of death. In this work, the author presents the moon world not as a dead world, but presents an idea that a world of eternal life is close to death. That is to say, people cannot run away from the war against time; instead, they should live a splendid and meaningful life with their limited amount of time. We can find the discontent and satire from the realistic portrait of society in the work, but still, he expresses a strong attachment to the world. Though dishonesty and impurity exist in the world, the author incessantly praises the pure affections and sincerity in the world.


The author made a romantic world on the moon in comparison to the human world and revealed some silly or ridiculous behaviors in the human world through the eyes of Kaguya-hime, who possesses human nature. In this way, the author demonstrates that it is the imperfection which makes human-beings lovely and genuine, and that is why Kaguya-hime loves the Earth wholeheartedly. Furthermore, through the opposition of Kaguya-hime and the moon people, and the decision made by the Emperor to burn the elixir, the author proposes that the world on the Earth is preferable to the one in the sky, and from this tale we can find his love of human feelings. Like the two -sided quality of the moon, he conveys the value that instead of indulging in the pursuit of the Xian thoughts, people should live in an ingenuous and aggressive way.

References (in Japanese)

  1. 今昔物語集の世界 中世のあけぼの 池上洵一 以文社 5「天竺から来た説話―月の兎― (ぺージ148)
  2. 神野藤 昭夫 監修 物語文学研究叢書 第17巻 物語文学概説 物語文学 南波 浩著 クレス出版 第五章 物語文学の発生(ページ112,125)
  3. 神野藤 昭夫 監修 物語文学研究叢書 第19巻 平安時代 前期(上) 日本文学史 西下 経一著 クレス出版 第三章 前期の物語 第1~6節(ぺージ283,295)
  4. 日本文学史 物語文学硏究叢書 ; 第19巻 平安時代. 前期 (上) / 西下経一著東京都 : クレス出版, 1999
  5. かぐや姫の誕生 古代説話の起源 伊藤清司著 講談社現代新書 竹取物語の物語性―「月」をめぐって―倪, 錦丹 竹取物語研究―かぐや姫の罪と罰をめぐって―岡崎祥子 竹取物語 :論説 白河次郎
  6. 竹取物語と神仙思想―天の羽衣の由来―安藤重和 日本人の古層のスピチュアリティを求めて―『竹取物語』を資料にして―窪寺俊之 竹取物語における求婚難題譚の役割 島田絹子

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Philosophical Concept of the Moon in Taketori Monogatari. (2016, May 03). Retrieved from

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