the white butterfly
Japanese art, culture, mythology, and folklore all reflect a deep and inherent love of nature. Unlike most of Western culture, Japanese tend to see themselves as a part of nature rather than separate from it. One of the most persistent images from nature in Japanese art and literature is the beloved choco, the butterfly whose powers of transformtion echo our own hopes of transformation.
This charming folktale from Japan touches upon the mythic theme of the power of love to transform. In Japan, similar to the symbolism of Cupid and Psyche, the soul is like a butterfly and love is the power that transforms.
There was once an old man named Takahama, who lived a very quiet life. Many thought it was strange that, althought he had come from a distinguished family and served an apprenticeship for a powerful merchant, he chose the profession of a caretaker at a cemetery and lived in a very humble house on the cemetery grounds, amid the tombs. Since he had never married, his sister and her son frequently came to look in on him. It was a trial for them, as it was very eerie to have an uncle who lived in a cemetery; the nephew frequently tried to make excuses to avoid visiting his uncle and always suggested that they invite the uncle to visit them instead.
One day his sister and nephew went to see him and found him mortally ill. As old Takahama fell asleep, a little white butterfly flew around the old man’s face and rested on the pillow. The nephew was annoyed and three times tried to shoo it away; still the butterfly appeared determined to be near old Takahama.
When Takahama drew his last breath, the butterfly flew out of the house. Knowing that this might be an omen, the nephew followed the butterfly, which flew to the grave of a young woman named Akiko and then disappeared. The grave of Akiko was old and covered with moss. This Akiko had died some sixty years earlier, but still there were fresh, recently watered flowers by the grave. Seldom does one see such things on an old tomb.
The nephew came back and told his mother what had happened. The mother closed her eyes and smiled knowingly. „What was the name of the grave?“ she asked. When the son said, „Akiko,: she told this story.
„Many years ago old Takahama was hopelessly in love with a beautiful girl named Akiko, and they became engaged, but she died before the wedding day. Takahama could not bear to be separated from her and left his promising career to always be near her. Takahama would tend to her grave. In the spring, summer, and autumn, he always brought fresh flowers; in winter, he plaved evergreen boughs on her tomb. This must be the first day that he has missed tending to her tomb in over sixty years! That little butterfly was her soul. She probably was concerned when Takahama didn’t show up today and decided that she should look in on him. And she didn’t leave until his soul left to be with her.“
The crux of this story is selfless love is stronger than death. Love defines Takaham in death as in life. Like Paris and Aphrodite, Takahama chooses love over wealth and power, but it is a selfless love not lust. As he is faithful to Akiko in life, so she is faithful to him in death.