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Learning From a Japanese Folk Story – Taro Urashima : The Time When We Suffer Dementia


Let me first introduce one of the most famous Japanese folk stories – “Taro Urashima”, briefly. It is about the main protagonist, who is a kind fisherman. One day, he helped a sea turtle who was being abused by some kids on the seashore. The next day, the turtle approached him and showed its gratitude by taking him under the sea to the Dragon Palace. He rode on the turtle’s back as they travelled under the sea. He was received with a warm welcome by many fish and a beautiful princess, and spent an incredibly happy time there. When Taro decided to go back home and bid them goodbye, the princess gave him a present – a box, as a remembrance of the palace. But, the princess warned him not to open it. He then went back home riding on the back of the turtle once again.


When he arrived home, to his surprise, things were not the same. Everything was changed; his house was gone, the scenery was totally different and everyone was a complete stranger. Everyone he knew from his village was gone. Since he went to the Dragon Palace, 300 years have already passed. As he was at a loss, he carelessly opened the box. Suddenly, a smoke emanated from the box and Taro transformed into a very old man.


From this story, we might take away various lessons – “Happy times fly by so fast.”, “Taro broke his promise and opened the box, so he was punished”, etc.


But, a wise man once said that this Taro Urashima possibly signifies “suffering from Dementia”.


When people suffer from dementia, they lose their general memories. Even the most recent memories, things that happened just minutes ago, are also easily forgettable for a person suffering from dementia. So they can’t remember basic information and tasks such as when they last ate. Some people even forget their loved ones, their spouse, and even children. They won’t remember if they’re married or if their parents are still alive or not. They may have sudden rushes of emotions and confusion to the point of asking “Where am I,” or “Who are you?” Or, outbursts of emotions may sound similar to this – “I don’t know you, you are not my son. Get away from me! I want to go home!”


In addition to failing to recognize others, they may also not be able to recognize themselves when they see their reflection in the mirror. They may have a difficult time believing the old, wrinkly person staring back at them is themself. Some can be heard saying things such as, “Is this my face? Such an old woman she is! No way!”


The box which Taro Urashima got from the princess can be compared to a mirror which reveals the realities of the present moment.


People with dementia only remember specific times and memories randomly. Sometimes it may seem that they are stuck in the past and not living in the present. For them, “reality” is the most cruel thing. Maybe their loved ones already passed away, perhaps they lost a huge amount of money in the past, or made grave and regrettable mistakes. Possibly, “forgetting” can be a mental medicine. They have a break from remembering what they couldn’t retain or regain what they already lost.


What do you think is the morale of the story?