PLEASE NOTE: I wrote this a while ago, before the release of Kaze no Takuto/Wind Waker, but the other day, me and my friends were playing Four Swords and kind of lamenting how badly it did, when I mentioned its probably out in the States by now and maybe it’d do better there. In any case, coincidentally, a certain communication reminded me of this old pseudo-article I’d written a long time ago. I’m not sure if Qt3 crowd reads the site this eventually got posted to (Tokyopia), but I wanted to share it again to commemorate the release of yet another great Zelda game. I hope you enjoy it:
Once upon a time, there was a poor young man who did not have his own home. Instead, he traveled the land, from village to village and town to town. In his wanderings, he ate by helping out in the fields of many farms, and thereby received food to eat from the farmers he helped.
But since he did not have a house of his own, he found shelter and sanctuary only in the temples of the land. Every night that he slept at such temples he would pray to be fortunate to find food and a place to rest his head at the end of the next day. “Every day I work hard. Please O Kannon, Goddess of Mercy guide me so that I may be able to find food and shelter every day.”
It is said that this tale demonstrates the bountiful and benevolent nature of the Goddess Kannon. For one night, moved by the pure wish of the young man, she came to him in a vision. She said to him, “You are a worthy man, for though you are very poor and have nothing of your own, you help others and do not complain. Therefore, tomorrow know that the first thing you touch will bring you a happier life and be rewarded for your faithful kindness.”
The young man slept soundly that night and when he awoke the next morning, he remembered the vision he had of Kannon. It just so happened that very day as he was on his way to town, fortune smiled in a most odd way when he fell and tripped. Normally, I think we’d agree that this is not a very fortunate thing, but this time, when he got back up again, he found one solitary blade of straw in his hand. (Which is called a warashibe in Japanese.) Remembering the vision, he decided to keep it for good luck.
When he got to town, the young man found himself most irritated at the company of a persistent fly buzzing noisly about him. Annoyed, but ultimately compassionate, the young man tied the fly to the end of his blade of straw. He watched, amused, as the fly made funny attempts to escape from his bond, circling the air as the young man held onto the blade of straw. At this time, a rich boy following his mother walked by, obviously belonging to a great family. The boy saw the young man’s amusing diversion and cried to his mother, “I want it! I want it!” The young man gladly gave his makeshift toy to the boy, and in gratitude, the mother gave him three oranges.
Now the young man thought this was a pretty good trade, three oranges for a fly and a blade of straw! But as he walked on he came across a young woman who was so incredibly thirsty she was about to faint. “Oh, it’s so hot, I don’t think I can make it any longer,” she said! The young man gave her the three oranges, telling her, “Well, it isn’t water, but perhaps these three mouth watering oranges will do the trick.” She took them, thanked him and found her strength returned by the tasty oranges. In gratitude, she gave him three bolts of silk cloth.
As the young man traveled on, he ran into a horse lying on the road, looking exhausted and in very bad shape. As he came closer, he saw the poor horse had heat exhaustion and could go no longer, so it had lain by the side of the road. Just then, some samurai came by and said, “What a useless and stupid beast, what are we going to do with it?”
The young man, not really liking the attitude of the samurai, but wanting to do something for the horse, offered to trade the horse for the bolts of silk cloth. As they were very valuable and high quality, the samurai was overjoyed, wondering why the young man would want such a useless horse for such good silk. Nevertheless, he took it and left the young man the horse.
The young man gave the horse water and helped it recover its strength. As it was now strong again, the young man rode the horse in order to search for a farm to work at that day and was able to cover much more ground with his new horse. Though he had not come at a suitable farm to work for food yet, near the end of the day he came to a large manor on the outskirts of a great town.
Looking at what appeared to be the owner of the manor, the young man offered to the obviously wealthy man the horse for a reasonable price. “Certainly,” the man replied. “That is an excellent specimen of a horse you have there, but I will not be able to pay you in money today as I am going on a long trip and will need it. Why don’t we trade? I get the horse and you can have a part of my rice fields, and can stay and live here while I am gone.”
The young man found this to be great deal, for finally he would have a stable home, if at least for only a little while. He was so happy that he did his best to treat his new home the best he could. He spent long days in the field toiling with the rice, and harvested it expertly. He cleaned the entire manor and made it nicer than ever and also organized things so the fields ran more efficiently than ever before. When the owner returned, he was impressed at the young man’s obvious talents and found that his daughter was likewise enamored.
The owner caught on to an idea and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to the young man and become partners. The daughter blushed in happiness when the young man accepted, for she had fallen in love with the hardworking guy. The young man continued to work hard and give to all those who needed it, as he lacked for nothing he ever wanted ever again.
He was so well regarded by the people of the village that he came to be called Warashibe Chouja, or The Lord of a Blade of Straw.
Warashibe has now become a word denoting a exchange of some sort that it is to the mutual benefit of both parties. In the spirit of the fairy tale, people in Japan will often offer things out in warashibe style because you never know who needs what, and what coincidences will cross your path. It is a thing that cuts to an important value in Japan. That of karma, which I believe you know is the force that rewards us for good deeds and punishes us for bad beeds with the often said saying, “What goes around comes around.”
So what does this have to with videogames? Well, clearly Miyamoto derived the trading game that started in Link’s Awakening from warashibe. Nintendo called it warashibe from the start and every person who played the game was undoubtedly reminded of the classic fairy tale when they began to trade, and the trades helping out people out of coincidence eventually led to a great reward for Link. This is showing the concept of karma in action. It was a big hit and greatly loved by the Japanese public, who all praised it as a lovely nostalgic nod to the childhood tale. Since then, its become a tradition in the series and something Japanese players look forward to seeing what kind warashibe Link will find this time.
Several Japanese people will even try to create warashibe for themselves by starting out with an item and beginning to trade it with people, traveling around to see what sort of things they can get. Warashibe is a very alive concept today.
In Majora’s Mask, warashibe was taken one step further with the ancient fairy tale by way of the masks. Many of the masks in this game are taken from old fairy tales and Shinto spirits (it isn’t contradictory, or uncommon at all and in fact normal for Japanese people to believe in both Buddhism and Shintoism at the same time). For instance, the fox or the rabbit are from fairy tales, and the deku scrub and goron masks are taken from Shinto tree and rock spirits, much like Secret of Mana’s eight elemental magic spirits. Warashibe, this time, is literally giving Link a variety of access to old tales and spirits that fuel the spirit of warashibe in the first place.
Why the ultimate reward for this warashibe is a demon form would take more time than I have right now to explain and is a darker subject to tackle. Suffice to say if you’re interested in learning more about the many allusions in Zelda and especially reference rich Majora’s Mask, you should seek out some literature on Japanese masks and how form is emptiness and emptiness is form (by all means not exactly a Japanese concept, but carried off in certain unique ways throughout Japanese history). But either way, I just wanted to throw that out there, just in case someone hadn’t heard of it and didn’t know some of the things that are going on in Zelda that might not be obvious. I realize a lot of other games also give you rewards for helping others, but the specific trading game in Zelda is a bit different than normal. If I insult your intelligence because your already knew, you have my apologies, I’m not trying to say Zelda is Hamlet or anything, just thought some people might not know some if the common cultural and myriad spiritual influences that fuel the series.