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A shape-shifting, cart-wheeling, badger teapot tale from Japan


Choosing the best stories for a collection of children’s tales is a delicate balancing act between which stories to include and which to leave out. Here’s an example of why a shape-shifting, cart-wheeling, badger teapot story from Japan made it into the final selection for my new collection of traditional folk tales.

During Scotland’s Year of Stories and Storytelling in 2022, I worked for the Scottish Badger Trust, telling badger stories and helping people write new tales that showed badgers in a positive light. I shared two badger tales at the Falls of Clyde Nature Reserve events. The first, a witty story from a collection of 19th Century Macedonian Folktales by M. Cepenkov, ‘The Fox With One Hundred Ideas and the Badger With Two’, and the second from Japan, ‘Bumbuku Chagama’, about a tanuki, or badger. The multicultural groups of badger enthusiasts enjoyed both tales, laughing enthusiastically at each telling. This encouraged me to put one of the stories in my new collection of Funny Folk Tales for Children. One badger tale would be enough, but which should I include? My audiences had been made up mainly of adults at the nature reserve, so I needed to try the tales out with younger listeners.

Soon, the opportunity to share the tales at a family garden event in Glasgow arrived. The Macedonian fox and badger story is filled with repetitive action and familiar characters - a farmer, fox, badger and chicken run. That seemed like the best fit for children, but too many gruesome elements made it unsuitable for young children. Still, when a seven-year-old boy came to me for a story, and no other children were within earshot, I suggested I tell him the tale. His parents were on a picnic rug nearby, so I explained I was trying the story out and would appreciate an honest opinion. After I’d told the tale, the boy asked me if the farmer had killed the fox. I could see he was deeply concerned. Fortunately, we had time to sit and discuss what had happened in the tale and put the fox’s death into historical, cultural and storytelling contexts. I recognised this child could not stand animal cruelty. I’d had this opportunity to tell the story in a safe place with a boy and his parents, and they had given me valuable feedback. I now knew that if this story was too brutal for a sensitive seven-year-old, then it was not suitable for my new collection of tales for children.

However, the Japanese tale of Bumbuku, a badger who transforms into a bronze tea kettle, is filled with more gentle humour and much wisdom. A message of kindness to all creatures underpins the story. The children who heard me tell this tale at the community garden listened intently and laughed with delight at the funny scenes. Then they asked me to tell the story again and insisted on drawing badger teapots for the rest of the afternoon. The badger character in the tale uses creativity and friendship to overcome obstacles. As the teapot, the creature represents an outpouring of happiness and so becomes a symbol of joy and good fortune. The name, Bumbuku Chagama, translates to ‘Happiness bubbling over, like a tea kettle’. This was the funny badger story my listeners loved, the themes resonating with children and adults alike. Therefore, it's the one I chose to include in Funny Folk Tales for Children. A little bubbling happiness is something we all need in our lives.

Here is an excerpt from the tale:

Once upon a time, in Japan, there lived a woman who loved animals. Although she was poor, she always helped injured or hungry creatures. She gave them shelter, cleaned and bandaged their wounds, and gave them food and water. One time, during a drought, the tanuki (badgers) became so desperate for water that they travelled far from their homes to get a drink. Many died of thirst, and others were killed by wild dogs.

The kindly woman found a dying badger at the side of the road. She carried it to her tiny hut and gave it water and fruit from her cherry tree to eat. Soon, the badger recovered. But this was no ordinary badger. This creature knew the ancient art of shape-shifting. It winked at the kind woman and thanked her for saving his life. ‘If you bring me a leaf from your cherry tree, I will do something magical to help you,’ said the badger. The woman fetched a cherry tree leaf. Badger put the leaf upon his head. He shivered and shook and turned himself into a bronze teapot. The leaf flew up in the air, and the badger sucked it down into the teapot’s spout. ‘Now, I am a tea kettle,’ the badger told the woman. ‘I am made of solid bronze and must be worth much of your human money. You may take me to the curiosity shop and sell me to the shopkeeper. Then you will have enough money to live on and eat well for the rest of your life. This is how I wish to repay you for saving my life.’ The poor woman was overjoyed. She thanked the badger tea kettle and took him to the curiosity junk shop. The shopkeeper was impressed with the beautiful teapot and paid the poor woman an excellent price. The kind woman was now rich. She went home and continued to care for sick and hungry animals for the rest of her life.

The badger tea kettle was looking forward to a new adventure in the shop. At first, he was displayed in the window. But no one could afford the shopkeeper’s price for the teapot. Then he was put on a shelf in the corner of the shop, and no one noticed him any more. As time passed, the teapot became dusty, forgotten, and lonely. One day, a holy priest from the Temple of Morinji went shopping in the village. This priest loved to go bargain hunting. When he went into the junk shop, he searched every corner for good deals. He couldn’t believe his luck when he saw the dusty, antique tea kettle under a pile of old, broken fans. The shopkeeper had forgotten that the teapot was there, so she let the priest have it for just three copper coins. The priest was pleased; he could use this teapot for his evening tea ceremony. Back at the temple, the priest gave a novice monk the job of cleaning the old tea kettle. It was scrubbed and scoured until all the dirt was removed, and the bronze shone and gleamed. The priest was delighted with his magnificent teapot. He placed it on a wooden lacquer box in the middle of his room. Then he sat and admired the tea kettle – it was exquisite, a fine work of art. He sat and gazed at the bronze pot; its beauty hypnotised him. He stared until his head nodded forward, and he fell fast asleep. While the holy man slept, the teapot began to shimmy and shake. It blew the cherry tree leaf out of the spout. The leaf flew up and landed on the tea kettle. Then it opened its two bright eyes; they peeped out from inside the spout. A small black, shiny nose popped out and sniffed the air. The lid jumped up as the bronze pot sprouted thick fur over its back. Four hairy paws appeared, and a bushy tail sprang out of the handle. One furry paw picked up the leaf and tucked it inside an ear.

The magic tea kettle looked around the temple room and grinned with delight. ‘Ahh, so comfortable a room, like a palace,’ he said. ‘And a fine lacquer box for my throne!’ The badger tea kettle patted the box proudly. Then he jumped down and began to hop and dance around the priest’s room. The strange creature leaped and skipped on his black leathery paws. Then he began to sing for joy. ‘I am so happy to be out of that shabby junk shop!’ he warbled at the top of his voice, ‘and even more pleased to be in this beautiful temple.’ As the badger teapot tap-danced and sang in the priest’s room, the boys studying in the next room looked up from their books. ‘Our teacher is happy tonight,’ they whispered together.

By Allison Galbraith

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