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The Tongue-Cut Sparrow

With a story from Yei Theodora Ozaki

Episode 10 - Friday, 31 January 2020

Kon’nichiwa! Ikaga o-sugoshi deshita ka. Hello! How have you been?

This week, I have leapt several thousand miles that-a-way and landed in the forest of Japan for a famous and much-loved folk story. Shitakiri Suzume, or the Tongue-Cut Sparrow.

The Japanese love this tale, and famously it has been turned into a dance, the suzume-odori, which is often performed in parades with set moves and fans. It isn’t a hard dance, but it looks like a lot of fun.

This is my version of the story based on the one by Yei Theodora Ozaki. I have a different ending to hers to reflect a lot of other versions, plus a little twist of my own!

Although I have never been to Japan, it does interest me. A while back I recorded an audio book for a chap called Garrett Wilson. He is an English teacher living in Japan and his book, Lost in Tokyo, tells the story of his first year as an teacher in a Japanese high school. It was a lovely story to record, but I was also fascinated by the culture of Japan. Just enough different to ours to make it seem quite mysterious at times.

You can find the book here.

Don't forget to leave me reviews on Apple Podcasts of wherever. It all helps me spread these lovely tales around.

Kon’nichiwa! Ikaga o-sugoshi deshita ka.

And if you are wondering why I am massacring Japanese, it is because today we have a famous Japanese tale which I had so much fun messing around with and recording. Including puffing away on my new Dizi.  Yes, I know that’s a Chinese flute, don’t give me a hard time, but bamboo flutes are very similar across Asia.  And that opening meant, Hello, how have you been?  And I hope you have been wonderful.

Were are onto show number ten, and eleven stories in (we had two in show nine, remember?).  And if you have missed any of the earlier ones, you can listen to those shows in any order you please.  Last week I recorded the Little Match Girl, which I know is a favourite with a lot of people, especially those who love a really good cry!  You know who you are!  This week, I have been a little kinder.

But before I get into it, just a reminder to leave me a review on Apple Podcasts or where you listen to this, like Podchaser, or come and give me a big hug on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook.  All the links you need are in the show notes or on the website. Deep in the Dark forest dot com.  So back to the story.

The Japanese love their folk tales and their incredible array of mythical characters.  Many of them have been translated over the years into English, which is rather nice since, as you guessed, I don’t speak Japanese.  However, like all translations, they are often very different to each other.  But that is not such a bad thing. The joy of folk stories is they are not stuck in one particular version but evolve.  And I am more than happy to help them along.  This tale started as one translated an rewritten by Yei Theodora Ozaki. But her version differed in one notable way from many other others, and you find out what that is when you get to the end.  I have kept to most of her story line, but I have changed quite a lot to match my style.  So, here is my adaptation of The Tongue Cut Sparrow.


Shitakiri suzume - The Tongue Cut Sparrow

Adapted from the translation by Yei Theodora Ozaki

Tonto mukashi, a long time ago in Japan there lived an old man and his old wife. The old man was a good, kind-hearted, hard-working villager who was respected by all, but his wife had an angry heart, who spoiled the happiness of their home with her scolding tongue. She never had a kind word to say about anything, and she would complain from morning till dusk. The old man had long got used to his wife’s ways, for he spent his days hard at work in the fields, where he grew millet and rice. 

The man and wife lived by themselves and rarely talked, for any love between them had long since faded into the grasses of the valley.  But the old man kept a beautiful tame sparrow who he called Suzume-San. He loved the little bird just as much as if she had been his child. She would call him Ojīsan, meaning grandfather, and she called the old woman, Obāsan, which means grandmother, though the old lady had little patience for her husband’s bird.

When he returned from the fields at night, his hands sore from the hard work, and his back aching, he would talk and sing quietly to the little sparrow. He taught her little tricks, which she learned very quickly, and would laugh in joy as she bowed and sang and chattered in her little voice. The old man would open her cage and let her fly about the room.  She would land on his shoulder and talk, or stride across the table, her feet tapping a merry tune on the old lacquer.  Then when came the time for supper, the old man would always save some tasty scraps from his meal with which to feed his dear Suzume-San.

One windy day, the old man went to the forest to chop wood for their cooking fire, while the old woman stopped at home to wash clothes. The day before, she had made a bowl of rice starch which she would use to keep the clothes crisp and white.  But when she came to look for it, it was all gone, and the bowl quite empty.

The old woman’s face darkened, and she complained to the wind how thieves had stolen her starch and how she would have to spend many hours making more.  You would have thought she had lost all her precious things in one foul deed!  As she was moaning and muttering, down flew the little sparrow. She landed on the line and bowed her little feathered head, a trick taught to her by the old man.  She chirruped prettily to the woman.

“Obāsan, I beg forgiveness for it is I who have taken the rice starch. I thought it was food put out for me by Ojīsan in that basin, and I ate it all. I beg you to forgive me, for it was my mistake!” And she tweeted sadly.

Dear little Suzume-San had such an honest soul, and she felt she had to tell the truth. And the old woman should have forgiven the little bird on the spot.

But the old woman had never loved the sparrow, and had complained and quarrelled with her husband, saying he should not keep such a dirty bird in the house, and that she was forever cleaning up after it. Neither of which accusations held even the smallest mote of truth.  But now she had a real reason for her anger, she believed, and she scolded and cursed the poor little bird for her bad behaviour. The little sparrow sat upon the line with her wings outstretched and she bowed her head again and again to show how sorry she was.

But the old woman’s ire was not satisfied with just whipping the bird with her harsh and cruel words. She reached out and grabbed poor little Suzume-San around the neck and marched her into her room, whereupon she snatched up her scissors and cut off the bird’s tongue.

“You ate my precious rice starch with your tongue, so now we can see how well you do without it!” And with these heartless words she drove the bird away with her brush.  And so hard of heart was the old woman, that she did not care one whit what would happen to the little bird, or where she would go, or how she would live!

The old woman snatched up her bowl and ground more rice to make fresh rice starch.  Then, complaining and grumbling without even taking a breath, she spread it on the clothes and hung them on the line to dry in the wind.

As the sun slowly settled over the hills, the old man stood slowly and stretched his aching back.  He climbed from his fields, dried his feet, and made his way slowly home.  But despite his toil, he smiled softly as he thought about the little bird.  For when he reached the gate, she would come flying from her cage, chirruping and chatting, ruffling out her feathers to show her joy. And she would land on his shoulder and tell him about her day and sing to him to ease his aches and pains. But this night as the old man reached his gate, she did not appear.  Not even a shadow of the little bird passed behind the paper walls of their home.

He walked quickly up the stone path, slipped off his straw sandals, and stepped up onto the wooden veranda. And still the little sparrow had not come to greet him.

What could have happened?  Had his pitiless wife in one of her ill tempers, locked the cage, shutting the little bird in?  The old man called to his wife, his heart fluttering.

“Kāsan, Where is Suzume-San today?”

The old woman stepped in from the garden. 

“Your dirty little bird? Why would I know, Tōsan. I haven’t seen her all the afternoon for I have been busy with the washing and starching your shirts. The ungrateful bird has probably flown away and left you!”

The old man did not believe his wife, for he knew how much the little sparrow loved him, and knew the little sparrow knew he loved her too.  So he asked his wife again, what had happened to Suzume-San, and followed her around the house. At last, the wife turned on him, and she told him the truth as she would remember it.  She told him how the sparrow had eaten the rice starch in spite, and had then landed on the line and laughed at her.  And she told him how she had taken the bird into the house, cut out her tongue, then driven her away, forbidding her ever to return.

“See here, Orokana rōjin!” Which means foolish old man.  She showed her husband the sparrow’s tongue. “Here is the tongue which I cut from the birds mouth.  Such a horrid little bird.  How dare she eat all my starch!”

The old man wailed.  “How could you be so cruel? Oh! how could you so cruel?”

He went to his room and sat in front of the empty cage.  “My poor Suzume-San. To lose her tongue in such a dreadful way.  She will have lost her voice, she will no longer be able to sing and to chirrup so prettily.  And poor little bird, she must be in so much pain and so frightened!” For he knew his wife’s words were harsh, and the bird would not have stolen the rice starch intentionally.

The old man was too kind of heart to punish his wife for her cruelty.  But after the old woman was peacefully asleep he shed many tears, and he went from the room and sat by the empty cage.  And then, as he wiped his old, damp cheeks with the sleeve of his robe, he smiled.  “In the morning,” he said, “I will not go to the fields, but I will search for my Suzume-San.”  And feeling comforted by the thought, he curled up on the floor by the cage and went to sleep.

Early the next morning, as the sun rose over the hills, and the mist rose in the valley, the old man took a hasty breakfast of rice, slipped on his straw sandals, took up his stick, and set off on his search.  He wandered over the hills and through the woods, crying out whenever he reached a thicket of bamboo.

“Shitakiri Suzume! Shitakiri Suzume!  Oh, where oh where is my tongue-cut sparrow?”

He rested not a moment, not even to eat when the sun reached high into the sky.  And it was late in the afternoon when he reached a large, dense, forest of Bamboo.  In Japan, bamboo groves are much loved by sparrows.  And Japanese artists will often draw the little birds dancing and singing amongst the tall stalks and green leaves.

The old man stopped at the edge of the forest, and there, waiting for him, was Suzume-San.  His cried out in joy and rushed to her, bowing low in shame for what his wife had done.  She, in return, bowed back, then danced and did all the tricks he had taught her to show how thrilled she was to see him.  And then she opened her beak and sang, so he could see that she had a new tongue that had grown in place of the one the wife had snipped out.

She sat on his shoulder and begged him not to feel anger and shame, and to forget the past, for she was well now and recovered, and that was all that mattered.  The old man stroked the little bird’s head, and in that moment he knew that his Suzume-San was no ordinary sparrow, but Yōsei, a fairy.

Oh, how the old man rejoiced. He forgot all his troubles, he forgot even how tired he was, for he had found his lost sparrow, his best friend, and she wasn’t ill, and she wasn’t in danger, but was happy and bright and with a new tongue. And her wonderful fairy heart was full of forgiveness.

Suzume-San flew from his shoulder and beckoned to him to follow her.  She flew in and out of the tall bamboo, chirruping merrily, and she led him to a beautiful house in the heart of the bamboo grove.

The old man put his hand to his chest in surprise. The house was built of the whitest wood, the floors dressed with soft cream-colored woven mats which were of the finest quality he had ever seen. And the cushions that the sparrow brought out for him to sit on were made of the finest silk and crape. Around the room in all the tokonoma, which are the alcoves where Japanese people display their most favoured possessions, were beautiful vases and lacquer boxes.

The sparrow led the old man to the place of honour, and then, taking her place at a humble distance, she thanked him with many polite bows for all the kindness he had shown her over the long years.

Then Suzume-San, introduced all her family to the old man.  Her mother and father, her grandmother, who was the head of the family, and her children. Her daughters, dressed in dainty crape gowns, brought him a feast of delicious foods, all laid out on lacquer trays decorated with paintings of the family and the bamboo forest.  The old man began to think he was dreaming. In the middle of the feast of fish and fruits, the sparrow’s daughters performed the wonderful dance called the “suzume-odori,” the sparrow dance, which is so loved by the people of Japan.  They ducked and whirled to the sound of Taiko drums and Shinobu flutes, turning their wings this way and that. And to this day, you can see the dance performed in parades up and down Japan by the oldest grandparents, to the tiniest children, their fans flicking around them like little wings.

Never had the old man enjoyed himself so much. The hours flew by too quickly in this lovely spot, with the Yōsei and her fairy-sparrow family to wait upon him, to bring him fine food, and to dance before him.

But when the sun began to set and the evening drew close, the old man knew he must take his leave and find his way home. He thanked his kind hostess for such a wonderful evening and for her gracious forgiveness for all she had suffered at the hands of his cross old wife.

“And it brings me such joy and comfort, Suzume-San, to find you here in such a beautiful home, surrounded by your honourable family, and wanting for nothing.  I so feared that you would have come to the greatest of harm, unable to eat or sing, and I felt I must seek you out.  I will return with a lighter heart, even though I feel such shame for what has happened to you.  Should there ever be anything I can do for you, or you need, please, send one of your daughters and I will come at once.”  He bowed low, if stiffly to the fairy sparrow.

Suzume-San begged him to stay, to enjoy the gentleness of the forest for a few more days and to rest his old, tired bones.  But the old man said he should return to his wife, as was his duty, though she would be angry and hurtful that he had not been in the fields and had not come home at the usual time. But he thanked the sparrow for her kind invitation, and he promised he would visit whenever he could spare time from his rice and millet fields.

When the Yōsei saw she could not persuade him to stay, she leant down and whispered to one of her daughters.  The little bird hopped from the room and returned with all her sisters, carrying between them two boxes, one large and the other small.

“Please, Ojīsan, choose one of these boxes as a present from me.  For that will give me great joy.”

The old man could not in all politeness refuse such a request, and he touched his finger upon the smaller box.

“Suzume-San, I am now too old and feeble to carry the big and heavy box all the way home. As you are so kind as to say that I may take whichever I wish, I will humbly choose the small one, for it will be easier for me to carry.”

Then the daughters helped him put it on his back with a fluttering of exited wings, and they flew with him to the edge of the bamboo forest to see him safely on his way,  bidding him farewell with a flurry of wings and many little bows, and pleading with him to come back as often as he wished.

And so the old man and his favourite little sparrow, who he often thought of as a daughter, parted quite happily, the fairy sparrow not showing the least ill-favour for all the unkindness and cruelty she had suffered at the hands of the old wife.  And in her heart, she felt pity for her Ojīsan, her grandfather, for all the years he had had to put up with the angry, bitter woman.

When, later in the evening, the old man stumbled up the path, carrying the small box, he found his wife even crosser than usual, for she had been waiting for him all evening, their bowls of rice going cold on the table.

“Where have you been, Tōsan!” she shouted.  “Why have you come back so late, and why are you not stained with the water from the fields?”

The old man tried to calm her with kindly smiles and bows, and her showed her the box which he carried.  He told her that he had found the sparrow and her family, and that she had forgiven them for what had happened, welcoming him into her house.

“She offered me a choice of two boxes as a present and I chose the smaller one, for though her generosity was so wonderful, I could not carry the larger one, and this was enough. Let us see what is in the box. You must help me open it.”

They knelt on the mat, either side of the box, and lifted the lid. Inside was pure wonderment, for the box was filled to the brim with gold and silver coins, jewels, fine silks, and other ornaments of beauty. The poor mats of their little house glittered and shone as they spread the gifts over the floor and handled them over and over again. The old man was overjoyed at the sight of the riches that were beyond his brightest expectations.  The sparrows gift was worth more than all his years spent.  He would be able to give up the fields and live in ease and comfort the rest of his days.

“Thanks to my good little Suzume-San! Thanks to my good little Suzume-San!” He said over and over again.

But the old woman, was not so pleased.  For however wonderful these gifts were, her husband had told of the other box. She scolded and reproached the old man for not having brought home the big box of presents, for, she said, that was what she deserved.

“Orokana rōjin! You foolish old man.  Why did you not bring the large box?  Just think what we might have had then; twice as many riches as this pathetic offering.  You should have brought it home, even if you had to drag it along the paths all night. You baka!  You fool!” she screamed, and then went to bed as angry as ever.

Early the next morning, the woman woke up determined to get the large box.  She twisted the old man’s ears until he told her how to find the bamboo forest and the sparrows house. When he saw what was in her mind, he tried to keep her from going, but it was useless. She refused to listen to his pleas and laughed at his humble bows.

The woman, so cold of heart, felt not a beat of shame for going to see the sparrow after the cruel way she had treated her, had cut off her tongue in a fit of rage. But her greed to get the large box was the only thing in her heart. It did not even enter her thoughts that the sparrows might be angry with her.  To forgive is a noble act, but one might not want to invite the sinner into your home!

And indeed, though the sparrow had forgiven, her family were still angry.  They had seen her sad plight when she had fluttered home, her mouth bleeding, and weeping at being driven away from the old man who she loved like a grandfather.  Though they had welcomed the old man with open and joyous hearts, they still spoke about the cruelty of the old woman.  “How could she punish someone so harshly for such a mistake as eating rice starch?” said her daughters.  “And not then forgive that person, good of heart, who apologised so humbly?”

They were angry, and their hearts held no love for the old woman.

After walking for some hours, the old woman at last found the bamboo forest which her husband had described. She stood before it, and she cried out:

“Where is the tongue-cut sparrow’s house? Shitakiri Suzume! Where is the tongue-cut sparrow’s house?”

She pushed into the bamboo forest and at last saw the eves of the beautiful house peeking through the leaves.

The Yōsei was surprised that her old mistress should visit after all that had happened, and she wondered at the boldness of the woman to travel so far and to come to a strange house.  Still, the sparrow was a polite bird, and she bowed to the old woman as she stepped up upon the veranda.

The old woman had no interest in politeness, however, and came straight to the point without an ounce of shame.

“You need not trouble to entertain me as you did my old man. I have come myself to take the box which he so stupidly left behind. I shall take my leave at once should you give me the larger box. That is all I want from you!”

Suzume-San, wishing to see the old woman leave as soon as possible, at once consented, and told her daughters to fetch the big box. The old woman seized it greedily, and hoisted it on her back.  She did not even thank the sparrow or her daughters, but rudely turned about.  And the only bow she gave was from the weight of the box as she marched down the forest path.

The old woman was anxious to get home and open the box.  But it was so heavy, that she could hardly walk, let a lone run as she would have wished.  And time and again, she had to stop and sit down, to regain her breath.

But as the day grew hotter, so too did her desire to open the box.  It became irresistible, and it tormented her step after step.  She was desperate to see how many more jewels and bags of silver and gold would be inside, for the box was heavy indeed.  If there was enough, she would drive away her husband and find herself a new man to wait on her every desire, and never again have to clean clothes stained in the poor fields of rice and millet.

At last this greedy and selfish old woman put down the box by the side of the path and opened it carefully, her eyes round as she waited to see what treasure lay inside. But all there was, was a deep, swirling blackness.  And then, from the dark mists inside the box, rose dire creatures. The one hundred-eyed demon Dodomeki. Yato-no-kami, the deadly snake god of the fields. Gaki, the starving ghost of the greedy. Yamauba the ogres, who feasts upon human flesh.

The old woman screamed and tried to run away, but the beasts pulled at her robe and at her hair, and they dragged her headfirst into the box, slamming the lid closed behind her.  And she was never seen again.

And the old man?  He knew not what had happened to his wife, but he was content to live out his days in the little house.  He visited the sparrow as often as he could, and when he grew too old and stiff, they visited him, the daughters dancing for him.  And when, at last he came to the end of his time, they sat with him as his eyes closed.  They cleansed his path with salt, and the fairy Yōsei, Suzume-San, took his spirit by the hand and guided it to join his ancestors, and to be at peace evermore.




I took a few liberties there! I read through several versions of the stories, and normally the wife dies at end in some way or another.  But in the version this is based on, the one given by Yei Theodora Ozaki, she is frightened by the serpents, runs home to her husband, and tells him it is all the sparrows fault until he tells her to shut up.  To be honest, it wasn’t a very good ending.  So I went with the other versions and killed her off, but I concocted my own end for her which involved digging through the internet to get the names of some tasty Japanese beasts and demons.

In other ways, I stuck to her story, but I changed the wording in a number of places, to try to give it a little more feeling of Japan.  Ozaki who was half Japanese and half European, was known for being quite liberal in her retellings, so I thought I would be the same.

I have never been to Japan myself, but I think I would like to go one day. I recorded an audiobook for chap called Garrett Wilson, an English teacher who lives and works in Tokyo. His book, Lost in Tokyo, tells the story of his first year as an Assistant Language Teacher, trying to navigate working in a Japanese lower high school with young, often emotional Japanese teenagers, and of negotiating the often complex Japanese society through Izakaya bars and far too much Asahi beer! I loved recording it, and I have linked to the audiobook in the show notes.

So that is all for this episode.  I hoped you enjoyed our trip to Japan, and we will head back there again, I promise, including lots of slightly painful Japanese pronunciations from me.

Thanks for listening to Deep in the Dark Forest. I am CC Hogan, and I wish you good fortune as you travel on your way.