Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hats for Statues: An Elder Tale

Photo by Aaron Webb.
Once a month I retell a fairy tale featuring a mature person.

The main characters are often poor--highlighting the loss and hardships that can accompany late life.

Nevertheless, there's a silver lining in advanced age.

Hardships are often ameliorated by the main characters' hard-won knowledge, their development of virtuous character, and the gifts they give to the rising generation.

The story I chose for this month comes from Japan. I found several versions of it online.

Hats for Statues

There once was an old couple who were very poor. Nevertheless, they wanted a small feast to celebrate the New Year.  In order to raise enough money to buy fish and rice cakes, the couple decided to sell straw hats to the local villagers.

Despite the cold weather, the old man gathered up five straw hats and trudged through the snow into town. He called out, "Straw hats for sale."  Alas, people were so busy with last-minute preparations for the New Year that they brushed him aside. He didn't sell a single hat.

Walking more slowly, he headed for home.

On his way, he passed a row of six Jizo statues. These statues protect women, children and travelers from suffering.

The old man noted how the snowfall was covering the statues' heads.  He stopped to brush off the snow. He realized that his five hats could be put to good use.  He placed the five hats on five of the statues and then removed the hat from his own head for the sixth statue.

When he returned home, he explained all to his wife. She replied, "How could I be upset about being married to such a generous man?  At least we have a roof over our head. At least we have each other."

Just before dawn, they heard footsteps outside their hut. They held very still and listened more intently. The footsteps drew closer and they heard a small "thud" just outside their door.  They cracked the door open to find a sack. In the distance towards the rising sun, the old couple saw the six Jizo statues treading down the road, disappearing into the distance.

The old woman stepped outside to grab the sack.  She reached inside it and exclaimed to her husband, "They brought us found fresh fish and warm rice cakes! We have a New Year's feast after all."

What Does This Story Say about Aging?

As with other elder tales, the main characters do not turn young or become filthy rich or become powerful.  Instead, they get a modest recognition for a character trait.  In this tale, the virtue is generosity.

It's interesting that the Jizo statues protect the vulnerable: women, children and travelers. The old couple don't horde what little resources they have because of their vulnerability borne of age. Instead, they maintain a generous outlook by counting their blessings and giving to others.

Virtue is its own reward here--excepting items for one holiday meal.

Source and Other Versions

I first read this tale as it appears in Allan B. Chinen's In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life.  However, I read about a dozen other versions before summarizing it in my own words.

In these other versions, some of the details change, but the central conflict and resolution remain the same: an old couple has no money, but the old man places hats on Buddhist statues out of kindness. Then the statues give them objects to celebrate the New Year.

Here is a version where the old woman gives her wedding kimono away to a young bride.

Here is a version where the statues chant and talk as they approach the hut.

Here is a version where the feast items are laid out carefully and the snow is tinted with the colors of dawn.


Shifting from Doing to Being

The Magic Forest: An Elder Tale from Croatia

The Old Alchemist: An Elder Tale from Burma

Kitchen Wisdom: An Elder Tale from Japan


  1. I love how you crafted this for us. So touching and spiritual. I adored it, Karen. Marvelous. I will remember this tale for a long time.

  2. I hope it's not only in fairy tales that generosity and a good, solid character gets its just rewards! Lovely story.

  3. What a great story! We should all be some generous and thankful for what we have.

  4. A delightful post, Karen. Very original and entertaining. I have never heard of Jizo statues and will now look for more info. Thanks!!

  5. what a wonderful allegory on aging and poverty and modest expectations.

  6. Yes, some real wisdom, thank you. We should live this way, all of us.

  7. You do such a beautiful job weaving this tale and infusing it with the idea that virtue is its own reward.... Thank you.

  8. Wow, I don't think I have had the pleasure of reading one of these posts previously, I love the idea of stories form different cultures, they are SO fascinating! I am definitely going to check out some of these other links!

  9. What a fantastic story, and I love the whole idea of retelling fairy tales as elder tales. Going back to read the ones I missed.