The Woman Diver: Discovering East Asian Values in an Ancient Japanese
One of the oldest professions is that of the diver for pearls or humbler
offerings of the sea. Akiko Takemoto and Steve McCarty have translated
a heart-rending story from various Japanese versions, as a prehistoric
legend moved from oral to written traditions over millenia. To help readers
ponder its significance, brief discussion points for college or secondary
school classes follow the story.
'The Woman Diver'
About 1,300 years ago, a very handsome young man sailed over from Nara
to the small seaside village of Shido. Nobody knew who he was or what he
was there for. However, the young man fell in love with a lovely girl in
the village. She was a humble seaweed diver like many others in that area.
Soon they married and had a pretty baby boy, whom they named Fusazaki after
a place name in the vicinity. They should have been as happy as anyone,
but the husband was often seen brooding over something, to the great apprehension
of his loving wife. One day she said to him,
"Please tell me, my darling, what makes you so sad?"
"Nothing, my love."
"Nothing? Oh my darling, I do see you have something on your mind. Please tell
me what it is if you really love me," said the wife with tears in her eyes.
Then the husband told her the following story, revealing his noble origins
and what had brought him to this hamlet so far from his home in the Capital.
The young man was Tankai [Fuhito]; son of the late Fujiwara Kamatari, a
most distinguished aristocratic statesman of the central government. Tankai's
younger sister, who was married to the Emperor of the T'ang Dynasty in
China, had sent forth three very precious things as her offerings to the
Fujiwara family on the occasion of a grand memorial service for the deceased
patriarch Kamatari. One of the gifts was a magic drum which, once beaten,
never ceased emitting a most exquisite sound until it was covered with
nine layers of silken robes. Another was a unique inkstone, which if rubbed
with an inkstick, could produce the finest ink without applying a drop
of water to the stone. The last was a crystal ball enshrining an image
of the Buddha who never failed to face you at whichever angle you looked
into the ball. These three things of rarity were meant to gratify the departed
But while the ship was sailing through the Inland Sea off the coast of
Shido, a Dragon King got wind of the treasures and wanted them. He at once
sent out a tremendous thunderstorm as well as legions of dragons against
the small vessel. The men fought bravely, but to avoid losing everything
they were forced to give up the Ball of Buddha to appease the dragons.
The memorial service for his father was a magnificent one; the two offerings
from his sister the Empress of China were immensely admired. But Tankai
could not forget the last one - it was the treasure of treasures. Thus
he sailed over to Shikoku and came upon the coast closest to the sea-battle,
but he could find no way to retrieve the crystal ball from the dragons.
The nobleman heaved a deep sigh when he finished his long story.
But the woman said, "I am a diver. I could bring it back to you, my
"Oh, could you?... But what if?..."
"Let me try my best if it may please you. But..." Turning her tearful
eyes to her baby son, she added, "If I could bring it back to you, then
could you make this son of ours, Fusazaki, your heir?"
Tankai consented without hesitation, assuring her that the boy would have a
brilliant future as his heir.
The next day they sailed out into the sea. The woman put a long lifeline around
her waist and said, "Hold the end of this line, will you? Haul me up when
I pull on it. That means I've got it." Her husband nodded, gripping the
end of the line. Then, with a knife in her hand, she quietly disappeared into
Down, down she went, through the cold darkness of the deep. It seemed fathomless.
But the love of a devoted mother and wife had made the little woman fearless.
On and on she went until she found herself in front of a towering palace
ferociously guarded by eight dragons and swarms of crocodiles. For a moment,
she hesitated, but praying once more for the help of Kannon, she burst into the
palace brandishing her knife, dashed to the ball, snatched it and ran, closely
pursued by the infuriated sea-monsters.
As they caught up with her at the gate of the palace, she quickly cut herself
below the breast, inserted the crystal ball and fell down as if dead. Abhorring
blood and death, the dragons fell back, while the woman pulled on the lifeline
held by her husband above.
The man hauled and hauled until he had hauled up his wife. But to his horror,
she was dying, terribly wounded and empty-handed. He held her in his arms,
only to hear her last gasp: "... my breast."
There in her breast the husband did find the Ball of Buddha for which he had
come to these shores. He left for the Capital with the crystal ball and his son
Fusazaki, to fulfil his filial duty and his promise to the poor woman diver.
Discussion Questions: What East Asian values are portrayed in this story
that are more important than survival? What value conflicts are involved,
and ultimately why does the woman diver willingly sacrifice her life? Which
values are East Asian, and which may be universal?
Source: Steve McCarty's East-West Perspectives from Japan.
New York City: The Education Companion, Issue #6 (November 1999)
Web page by Steve McCarty, Professor, Osaka Jogakuin College, Japan;
President, World Association for Online Education. Uploaded on July 4,
Go/return to the Japancasting podcast blog.
Read an analysis of the "Woman Diver" legend and its history.
Multilingual guidebook to the Shikoku region where the story is set.
Go/return to Steve McCarty's Online Library | in Japanese
(an Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library 4-star site).