How The Jelly-fish Lost Its Shell
: Japanese Fairy World
Parts of the seas of the Japanese Archipelago are speckled with thousands
of round white jelly-fish, that swim a few feet below the surface. One
can see the great steamer go ploughing through them as through a field of
frosted cakes. The huge paddle-wheels make a perfect pudding of thousands
of them, as they are dashed against the paddle-box and whipped into a
froth like white of eggs or churned into a thick cream by the propeller<
blades. Sometimes the shoals are of great breadth, and then it veritably
looks as though a crockery shop had been upset in the ocean, and ten
thousand white dinner-plates had broken loose. Around the bays and
harbors the Japanese boys at play drive them with paddles into shoals,
and sometimes they poke sticks through them. This they can do easily,
because the jelly-fish has no jacket of shell or bone like the lobster,
nor any skin like a fish, and so always has to swim naked, exposed to all
kinds of danger. Sometimes great jelly-fishes, two or three feet in
diameter, sail gaily along near the shore, as proud as the
long-handled-umbrella of a daimi[=o], and as brilliantly colored as a
Japanese parasol. Floating all around their bodies, like the streamers of
a temple festival, or a court lady's ribbons, are their long tentacles or
feelers. No peacock stretching his bannered tail could make a finer
sight, or look prouder than these floating sun-fishes, or bladders of
But alas for all things made of water! Let but a wave of unusual force,
or a sudden gust of wind come, and this lump of pride lies collapsed and
stranded on the shore, like a pancake upset into a turnover, in which
batter and crust are hopelessly mixed together. When found fresh, men
often come down to the shore and cutting huge slices of blubber, as
transparent as ice, they eat the solid water with their rice, in lieu of
A jelly-fish as big as an umbrella, and weighing as much as a big boy,
will, after lying a few hours in the sun leave scarcely a trace on the
spot for their bodies are little more than animated masses of water. At
night, however where a jelly-fish has stranded, the ground seems to crawl
and emit a dull fire of phosphorescence which the Japanese call "dragon's
But the jelly-fish once had a shell, and was not so defenceless, say the
fairy tales. How it lost it is thus told.
* * * * *
In the days of old, the jelly-fish was one of the retainers in waiting
upon the Queen of the World under the Sea, at her palace in Riu Gu. In
those days he had a shell, and as his head was hard, no one dared to
insult him, or stick him with their horns, or pinch him with their claws,
or scratch him with their nails, or brush rudely by him with their fins.
In short, this fish instead of being a lump of jelly, as white and
helpless as a pudding, as we see him now, was a lordly fellow that could
get his back up and keep it high when he wished to. He waited on the
queen and right proud was he of his office. He was on good terms with the
King's dragon, which often allowed him to play with his scaly tail but
never hurt him in the least.
One day the Queen fell sick, and every hour grew worse. The King became
anxious, and her subjects talked about nothing else but her sickness.
There was grief all through the water-world; from the mermaids on their
beds of sponge, and the dragons in the rocky caverns, down to the tiny
gudgeons in the rivers, that were considered no more than mere bait. The
jolly cuttle-fish stopped playing his drums and guitar, folded his six
arms and hid away moping in his hole. His servant the lobster in vain
lighted his candle at night, and tried to induce him to come out of his
lair. The dolphins and porpoises wept tears, but the clams, oysters and
limpets shut up their shells and did not even wiggle. The flounders and
skates lay flat on the ocean's floor, never even lifting up their noses.
The squid wept a great deal of ink, and the jelly-fish nearly melted to
pure water. The tortoise was patient and offered to do anything for the
relief of the Queen.
But nothing could be done. The cuttle-fish who professed to be "a kind of
a" doctor, offered the use of all his cups to suck out the poison, if
that were the trouble.
But it wasn't. It was internal, and nothing but medicine that could be
swallowed would reach the disease.
At last some one suggested that the liver of a monkey would be a specific
for the royal sickness, and it was resolved to try it. The tortoise, who
was the Queen's messenger, because he could live on both land and water,
swim or crawl, was summoned. He was told to go upon earth to a certain
mountain, catch a monkey and bring him alive to the Under-world.
Off started the tortoise on his journey to the earth, and going to a
mountain where the monkeys lived, squatted down at the foot of a tree and
pretended to be asleep though keeping his claws and tail out. There he
waited patiently, well knowing that curiosity and the monkey's love of
tricks would bring one within reach of his talons. Pretty soon, a family
of chattering monkeys came running along among the branches overhead,
when suddenly a young saru (monkey) caught sight of the sleeping
"Naru hodo" (Is it possible?) said the long-handed fellow, "here's fun;
let's tickle the old fellow's back and pull his tail."
All agreed, and forthwith a dozen monkeys, joining hand over hand, made a
long ladder of themselves until they just reached the tortoise's back.
(They didn't use their tails, for Japanese monkeys have none, except
stumps two inches long). However, he who was to be the tail end of this
living rope, when all was ready, crawled along and slipped over the whole
line, whispering as he slid:
"'Sh! don't chatter or laugh, you'll wake the old fellow up."
Now the monkey expected to hold on the living pendulum by one long hand,
and swinging down with the other, to pull the tortoise's tail, and see
how near he could come to his snout without being snapped up. For a
monkey well knew that a tortoise could neither jump off its legs nor
climb a tree.
Once! Twice! The monkey pendulum swung back and forth without touching.
Three! Four! The monkey's finger-nails scratched the tortoise's back. Yet
old Hard Shell pretended to be sound asleep.
Five! Six! The monkey caught hold of the tortoise's tail and jerked it
hard. Old Tortoise now moved out its head a little, as if still only half
Seven! Eight! This time the monkey intended to pull the tortoise's head,
when just as he came within reach, the tortoise snapped him, held him in
his claws, and as the monkey pendulum swung back he lost his hold. In an
instant he was jerked loose, and fell head-foremost to the ground, half
Frightened at the loss of their end link, the other monkeys of the chain
wound themselves up like a windlass over the branches, and squatting on
the trees, set up a doleful chattering.
"Now," says the tortoise, "I want you to go with me. If you don't, I'll
eat you up. Get on my back and I'll carry you; but I must hold your paw
in my mouth so you won't run away."
Half frightened to death, the monkey obeyed, and the tortoise trotted off
to the sea, swam to the spot over the Queen's palace, and in a fillip of
the finger was down in the gardens of Riu Gu.
Here, let me say, that according to another version of this story the
monkeys assembled in force when they suspected what the tortoise had come
after, and catching him napping turned him over on his back so that he
could not move or bite. Then they took his under shell off, so that he
had to travel back to Riu Gu and get another one. This last version
however is uncertain and it looks like a piece of invention to
suppose that the monkeys had a sufficient medical knowledge to make them
suspicious of the design of the tortoise on the monkey's liver. I prefer
the regular account.
The Queen hearing of the monkey's arrival thanked the tortoise, and
commanded her cook and baker to feed him well and treat him kindly, for
the queen felt really sorry because he was to lose his liver.
As for the monkey he enjoyed himself very much, and ran around everywhere
amusing the star-fishes, clams, oysters and other pulpy creatures that
could not run, by his rapid climbing of the rocks and coral bushes, and
by rolling over the sponge beds and cutting all manner of antics.
They had never before seen anything like it. Poor fellow! he didn't
suspect what was to come.
All this time however the jelly-fish pitied him in his heart, and could
hardly keep what he knew to himself. Seeing that the monkey, lonely and
homesick was standing by the shore of a pond, the jelly-fish squeezed
himself up near him and said:
"Excuse my addressing you, I feel very sorry for you because you are to
be put to death."
"Why?" said the monkey, "What have I done?"
"Oh, nothing," said the jelly-fish, "only our queen is sick and she wants
your liver for medicine."
Then if ever any one saw a sick looking monkey it was this one. As the
Japanese say "his liver was smashed." He felt dreadfully afraid. He put
his hands over his eyes, and immediately began to plan how to save both
his liver and his life.
After a while the rain began to fall heavily, and the monkey ran in out
of the garden, and standing in the hall of the Queen's palace began to
weep bitterly. Just then the tortoise, passing by, saw his captive.
"What are you crying about?"
"Aita! aita!" cried the monkey, "When I left my home on the earth, I
forgot to bring my liver with me, but hung it upon a tree, and now it is
raining and my liver will decay and I'll die. Aita! aita!" and the poor
monkey's eyes became red as a tai fish, and streamed with tears.
When the tortoise told the Queen's courtiers what the monkey had said,
their faces fell.
"Why, here's a pretty piece of business. The monkey is of no use without
his liver. We must send him after it."
So they dispatched the tortoise to the earth again, the monkey sitting
a-straddle of his back. They came to the mountain again, and the tortoise
being a little lazy, waited at the foot while the monkey scampered off,
saying he would be back in an hour. The two creatures had become so well
acquainted that the old Hard Shell fully trusted the lively little
But instead of an hour the tortoise waited till evening. No monkey came.
So finding himself fooled, and knowing all the monkeys would take the
alarm, he waddled back and told the Queen all about it.
"Then," said the Queen after reprimanding her messenger for his silly
confidence, "the monkey must have got wind of our intention to use his
liver, and what is more, some one of my retainers or servants must have
Then the Queen issued an order commanding all her subjects to appear
before the Dragon-King of the Sea. Whoever did this wicked thing, Kai Riu
O would punish him.
Now it happened that all the fish and sea animals of all sorts, that
swam, crawled, rolled or moved in any way, appeared before Kai Riu O, the
Dragon-King, and his Queen--all except the jelly-fish. Then the Queen
knew the jelly-fish was the guilty one. She ordered the culprit to be
brought into her presence. Then publicly, before all her retainers and
servants, she cried out:
"You leaky-tongued wretch, for your crime of betraying the confidence of
your sovereign, you shall no longer remain among shell-fish. I condemn
you to lose your shell."
Then she stripped off his shell, and left the poor jelly-fish entirely
naked and ashamed.
"Be off, you tell-tale. Hereafter all your children shall be soft and
The poor jelly-fish blushed crimson, squeezed himself out, and swam off
out of sight. Since that time jelly-fishes have had no shells.