This story, Issun-Boshi the Inchling, or the Inch-High Samurai, is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Tom Thumb. It is a much loved story that reminds us that physical courage is not reserved for the big and strong among us.
Long ago there was an old couple who had reached old age with no children. They prayed every day and every night to have a family, and at last they were blessed with a little boy. Little boy. Very very little boy, only the the size of your finger. His parents’ joy was unlimited, however, and they called their treasure Issun-Boshi, Inch Boy.
Issun-Boshi ate and ate and ate like any baby, any toddler, any child, but he did not grow. As he grew older he grew strong and agile, but he did not grow any taller. One day, while looking at the river that flowed past their village, Issun-Boshi asked his father, “Where does this river go?”
“The river goes to great Kyoto, Issun-Boshi. It must be a wonderful place, but I have never seen it.”
“I will,” Issun-Boshi decided. “I will see it. Help me get ready, Father.”
His parents knew he was old enough to go on his own, so his father fashioned for him a sword (it was a needle) and his mother gave him a boat (it was a rice bowl) and an oar (it was a chopstick) and they waved farewell to their brave son. “Be safe!”
The voyage took many days, and was fraught with peril. Large fish tried to eat him, and often the rice bowl crashed into rocks and nearly tipped over. Whirlpools spun it around and around and hungry herons peered in at Issun-Boshi with bright bead eyes. But undaunted Issun-Boshi paddled and steered with his chopstick, and at last came to great Kyoto.
With great excitement, Issun-Boshi tied his sword at his side, and strode to the door of the finest, largest house he could see. He pounded as large as he could, and gave a shout. “Hello! Hello! I’m looking for work!” The guard at the door looked around with a puzzled frown, but saw nothing until Issun-Boshi yelled, “Down here!”
“Ah!” The guard bent over and picked up Issun-Boshi for a clearer look. “Well, someone as brave as you can work for me, young man. You may join the guard of my master’s daughter.”
This suited Issun-Boshi very well and he joined the household guard. One day, he went with the lord’s daughter to the temple. As they walked the path two goblins leaped out, their red eyes gleaming. They were about to kidnap the young lady, when Issun-Boshi leaped upon the first one with a cry of anger. “You will not take her!” he cried, stabbing the goblin on the shin with his needle sword.
“What’s this?” The goblin picked him up by his coat, and thinking that Issun-Boshi looked just the right size for a snack, swallowed him whole. But Issun-Boshi continued stabbing and jabbing at the goblin from inside, and within moments the goblin was howling with pain. “Ow! Ow no!” And he choked up Issun-Boshi and spit him on the ground. Without skipping a beat, Issun-Boshi then attacked the second goblin, scrambling up his legs and onto his head, where he poked the goblin in the eye.
Both goblins took to their heels and ran away, screaming in pain. The young lady and Issun-Boshi stood laughing on the path, and then she noticed something gleaming behind a rock. “Look, a magic hammer!” she exclaimed, bending over to pick it up. “One of the goblins must have dropped it. It will grant you any wish you ask.”
Issun-Boshi looked at the hammer, and he looked at the beautiful young lady, and he said, “I would like to be bigger.”
So she waved the hammer, and chanted, “Grow, Issun-Boshi, Grow!” Before her eyes he grew into a tall (and of course, handsome) young man, as fine as any samurai.
And they were married, as you can imagine, and Issun-Boshi remained just as brave as he had been when he was one inch high.