How The Jelly-fish Lost Its Shell

: Japanese Fairy World

Parts of the seas of the Japanese Archipelago are speckled with thousands

of round white jelly-fish, that swim a few feet below the surface. One

can see the great steamer go ploughing through them as through a field of

frosted cakes. The huge paddle-wheels make a perfect pudding of thousands

of them, as they are dashed against the paddle-box and whipped into a

froth like white of eggs or churned into a thick cream by the propeller<
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blades. Sometimes the shoals are of great breadth, and then it veritably

looks as though a crockery shop had been upset in the ocean, and ten

thousand white dinner-plates had broken loose. Around the bays and

harbors the Japanese boys at play drive them with paddles into shoals,

and sometimes they poke sticks through them. This they can do easily,

because the jelly-fish has no jacket of shell or bone like the lobster,

nor any skin like a fish, and so always has to swim naked, exposed to all

kinds of danger. Sometimes great jelly-fishes, two or three feet in

diameter, sail gaily along near the shore, as proud as the

long-handled-umbrella of a daimi[=o], and as brilliantly colored as a

Japanese parasol. Floating all around their bodies, like the streamers of

a temple festival, or a court lady's ribbons, are their long tentacles or

feelers. No peacock stretching his bannered tail could make a finer

sight, or look prouder than these floating sun-fishes, or bladders of

living jelly.

But alas for all things made of water! Let but a wave of unusual force,

or a sudden gust of wind come, and this lump of pride lies collapsed and

stranded on the shore, like a pancake upset into a turnover, in which

batter and crust are hopelessly mixed together. When found fresh, men

often come down to the shore and cutting huge slices of blubber, as

transparent as ice, they eat the solid water with their rice, in lieu of


A jelly-fish as big as an umbrella, and weighing as much as a big boy,

will, after lying a few hours in the sun leave scarcely a trace on the

spot for their bodies are little more than animated masses of water. At

night, however where a jelly-fish has stranded, the ground seems to crawl

and emit a dull fire of phosphorescence which the Japanese call "dragon's


But the jelly-fish once had a shell, and was not so defenceless, say the

fairy tales. How it lost it is thus told.

* * * * *

In the days of old, the jelly-fish was one of the retainers in waiting

upon the Queen of the World under the Sea, at her palace in Riu Gu. In

those days he had a shell, and as his head was hard, no one dared to

insult him, or stick him with their horns, or pinch him with their claws,

or scratch him with their nails, or brush rudely by him with their fins.

In short, this fish instead of being a lump of jelly, as white and

helpless as a pudding, as we see him now, was a lordly fellow that could

get his back up and keep it high when he wished to. He waited on the

queen and right proud was he of his office. He was on good terms with the

King's dragon, which often allowed him to play with his scaly tail but

never hurt him in the least.

One day the Queen fell sick, and every hour grew worse. The King became

anxious, and her subjects talked about nothing else but her sickness.

There was grief all through the water-world; from the mermaids on their

beds of sponge, and the dragons in the rocky caverns, down to the tiny

gudgeons in the rivers, that were considered no more than mere bait. The

jolly cuttle-fish stopped playing his drums and guitar, folded his six

arms and hid away moping in his hole. His servant the lobster in vain

lighted his candle at night, and tried to induce him to come out of his

lair. The dolphins and porpoises wept tears, but the clams, oysters and

limpets shut up their shells and did not even wiggle. The flounders and

skates lay flat on the ocean's floor, never even lifting up their noses.

The squid wept a great deal of ink, and the jelly-fish nearly melted to

pure water. The tortoise was patient and offered to do anything for the

relief of the Queen.

But nothing could be done. The cuttle-fish who professed to be "a kind of

a" doctor, offered the use of all his cups to suck out the poison, if

that were the trouble.

But it wasn't. It was internal, and nothing but medicine that could be

swallowed would reach the disease.

At last some one suggested that the liver of a monkey would be a specific

for the royal sickness, and it was resolved to try it. The tortoise, who

was the Queen's messenger, because he could live on both land and water,

swim or crawl, was summoned. He was told to go upon earth to a certain

mountain, catch a monkey and bring him alive to the Under-world.

Off started the tortoise on his journey to the earth, and going to a

mountain where the monkeys lived, squatted down at the foot of a tree and

pretended to be asleep though keeping his claws and tail out. There he

waited patiently, well knowing that curiosity and the monkey's love of

tricks would bring one within reach of his talons. Pretty soon, a family

of chattering monkeys came running along among the branches overhead,

when suddenly a young saru (monkey) caught sight of the sleeping


"Naru hodo" (Is it possible?) said the long-handed fellow, "here's fun;

let's tickle the old fellow's back and pull his tail."

All agreed, and forthwith a dozen monkeys, joining hand over hand, made a

long ladder of themselves until they just reached the tortoise's back.

(They didn't use their tails, for Japanese monkeys have none, except

stumps two inches long). However, he who was to be the tail end of this

living rope, when all was ready, crawled along and slipped over the whole

line, whispering as he slid:

"'Sh! don't chatter or laugh, you'll wake the old fellow up."

Now the monkey expected to hold on the living pendulum by one long hand,

and swinging down with the other, to pull the tortoise's tail, and see

how near he could come to his snout without being snapped up. For a

monkey well knew that a tortoise could neither jump off its legs nor

climb a tree.

Once! Twice! The monkey pendulum swung back and forth without touching.

Three! Four! The monkey's finger-nails scratched the tortoise's back. Yet

old Hard Shell pretended to be sound asleep.

Five! Six! The monkey caught hold of the tortoise's tail and jerked it

hard. Old Tortoise now moved out its head a little, as if still only half


Seven! Eight! This time the monkey intended to pull the tortoise's head,

when just as he came within reach, the tortoise snapped him, held him in

his claws, and as the monkey pendulum swung back he lost his hold. In an

instant he was jerked loose, and fell head-foremost to the ground, half


Frightened at the loss of their end link, the other monkeys of the chain

wound themselves up like a windlass over the branches, and squatting on

the trees, set up a doleful chattering.

"Now," says the tortoise, "I want you to go with me. If you don't, I'll

eat you up. Get on my back and I'll carry you; but I must hold your paw

in my mouth so you won't run away."

Half frightened to death, the monkey obeyed, and the tortoise trotted off

to the sea, swam to the spot over the Queen's palace, and in a fillip of

the finger was down in the gardens of Riu Gu.

Here, let me say, that according to another version of this story the

monkeys assembled in force when they suspected what the tortoise had come

after, and catching him napping turned him over on his back so that he

could not move or bite. Then they took his under shell off, so that he

had to travel back to Riu Gu and get another one. This last version

however is uncertain and it looks like a piece of invention to

suppose that the monkeys had a sufficient medical knowledge to make them

suspicious of the design of the tortoise on the monkey's liver. I prefer

the regular account.

The Queen hearing of the monkey's arrival thanked the tortoise, and

commanded her cook and baker to feed him well and treat him kindly, for

the queen felt really sorry because he was to lose his liver.

As for the monkey he enjoyed himself very much, and ran around everywhere

amusing the star-fishes, clams, oysters and other pulpy creatures that

could not run, by his rapid climbing of the rocks and coral bushes, and

by rolling over the sponge beds and cutting all manner of antics.

They had never before seen anything like it. Poor fellow! he didn't

suspect what was to come.

All this time however the jelly-fish pitied him in his heart, and could

hardly keep what he knew to himself. Seeing that the monkey, lonely and

homesick was standing by the shore of a pond, the jelly-fish squeezed

himself up near him and said:

"Excuse my addressing you, I feel very sorry for you because you are to

be put to death."

"Why?" said the monkey, "What have I done?"

"Oh, nothing," said the jelly-fish, "only our queen is sick and she wants

your liver for medicine."

Then if ever any one saw a sick looking monkey it was this one. As the

Japanese say "his liver was smashed." He felt dreadfully afraid. He put

his hands over his eyes, and immediately began to plan how to save both

his liver and his life.

After a while the rain began to fall heavily, and the monkey ran in out

of the garden, and standing in the hall of the Queen's palace began to

weep bitterly. Just then the tortoise, passing by, saw his captive.

"What are you crying about?"

"Aita! aita!" cried the monkey, "When I left my home on the earth, I

forgot to bring my liver with me, but hung it upon a tree, and now it is

raining and my liver will decay and I'll die. Aita! aita!" and the poor

monkey's eyes became red as a tai fish, and streamed with tears.

When the tortoise told the Queen's courtiers what the monkey had said,

their faces fell.

"Why, here's a pretty piece of business. The monkey is of no use without

his liver. We must send him after it."

So they dispatched the tortoise to the earth again, the monkey sitting

a-straddle of his back. They came to the mountain again, and the tortoise

being a little lazy, waited at the foot while the monkey scampered off,

saying he would be back in an hour. The two creatures had become so well

acquainted that the old Hard Shell fully trusted the lively little


But instead of an hour the tortoise waited till evening. No monkey came.

So finding himself fooled, and knowing all the monkeys would take the

alarm, he waddled back and told the Queen all about it.

"Then," said the Queen after reprimanding her messenger for his silly

confidence, "the monkey must have got wind of our intention to use his

liver, and what is more, some one of my retainers or servants must have

told him."

Then the Queen issued an order commanding all her subjects to appear

before the Dragon-King of the Sea. Whoever did this wicked thing, Kai Riu

O would punish him.

Now it happened that all the fish and sea animals of all sorts, that

swam, crawled, rolled or moved in any way, appeared before Kai Riu O, the

Dragon-King, and his Queen--all except the jelly-fish. Then the Queen

knew the jelly-fish was the guilty one. She ordered the culprit to be

brought into her presence. Then publicly, before all her retainers and

servants, she cried out:

"You leaky-tongued wretch, for your crime of betraying the confidence of

your sovereign, you shall no longer remain among shell-fish. I condemn

you to lose your shell."

Then she stripped off his shell, and left the poor jelly-fish entirely

naked and ashamed.

"Be off, you tell-tale. Hereafter all your children shall be soft and


The poor jelly-fish blushed crimson, squeezed himself out, and swam off

out of sight. Since that time jelly-fishes have had no shells.