Once upon a time there was a boy called Lazy Taro who lived all by himself in a little house by the roadside in Japan. The house was made with an open front and raised a very little from the road so that Taro lay all day on a sort of covered platform, from which he could watch every one going by and where he could see the rice-fields and the wild geese and the river and the distant mountain.
He was not ill; he was merely lazy. No one knew where he came from nor who his parents were, nor did he. He had been found in a basket tied to a persimmon tree, and had been taken into the home of a farmer, but he was such a nuisance with his lazy habits that the farmer was glad to be rid of him.
You may wonder that he did not turn Taro out into the road without a home, as he would not work, but Taro was very handsome and very cheerful and amusing, so the farmer could not help being fond of him. He gave Taro this little house all to himself, just a covering for his head, you might say, and left him to watch the people going by and talk and joke with them.
You will ask how Taro got his food. Well, people were kind-hearted and used to give him what they could spare.
Taro soon grew to consider himself superior to the people who worked, in fact, he felt quite like a king, lounging there doing nothing, with the people passing and coming up to him to have a chat. He knew what every one was doing, you may be sure, how many times they went to the town, and what they brought back, and whom they went with.
Taro was a sort of newspaper to the country folk, for they could always find out about their neighbours when they talked to him. But, dear me, how lazy Taro became as the years went by and he grew up till he was quite a big boy, handsome and strong enough to be of real use in the world.
One day the farmer’s wife brought him some rice dumplings which she had just made and wanted Taro to eat while they were hot. Taro thanked her in his delightful way, for he had practised thanking people so much, he could do it most beautifully now; in fact, people were eager to bring food to Taro so that they might have the pleasure of being thanked by him. I can tell you the farmer’s wife went off, feeling that Taro had done her quite an honour in accepting her dumplings.
But Taro did not enjoy them hot after all; the dumplings had been put down on his platform a little distance from him, and when he stretched out his hand to take them, he knocked the dish over and they rolled into the road.
Now on the days when there was no market few people passed, and for three whole days Taro lay there looking at the dumplings in the road, too lazy to lean over and pick them up.
On the third day, he saw some one coming at last. It did not matter to Taro that the traveller was riding on a fine horse and attended by several servants; as he came up, Taro bawled out, “Hi, hi, pick up my dumplings, please.” You will notice Taro said please; he prided himself on the fact that he always took the trouble to do that.
The gentleman was so surprised at being shouted at like this, that he actually pulled up his horse and, telling a servant to get the dumplings out of the dust, came to the side of Taro’s little house.
“What is the matter with you?” said he.
Now it seemed so natural to Taro to be lazy, that he explained that he had dropped the dumplings three days ago, and no one had come by to pick them up, in a most injured voice.
“And my dear friend particularly wanted me to eat them when they were hot,” said Taro.
“Why did you not pick them up yourself?” asked the gentleman, who was no other than the Governor of the Province.
“Oh, well, you see, it is such a trouble to move,” said Taro, as if that were a perfectly good excuse. “I’d much rather not have the dumplings than move. But as you are in the road and actually passing my dumplings, I thought it would be no trouble for you to stop and pick them up.”
“Well, you certainly are the laziest fellow I have ever met in my life,” said the Governor. “Do you intend to spend all your life, lying there?”
“One day is enough to live at a time,” said Taro easily. “The tree yonder never moves and is contented enough.”
“Yes, but the tree is bearing fruit, and giving shade to the wayfarers and shelter to the birds in its boughs,” said the Governor. “You are encumbering the ground with your idle body; see, how you have hindered us. Is not our time as valuable as yours, pray, that we should have to stop to wait on you? Come, you look a good-natured fellow, and I can see you have plenty of strength and good sense. I will give you that rice-field yonder and start you in a useful activity.”
“Oh, dear, no,” said Taro. “That is far too big a gift. The only rice I want is rice cooked up into dumplings or broth. I certainly don’t want a field to take care of, through winter and summer.”
“Well, maybe the work would be hard, as you are used to lying still all day,” said the Governor. “I will give you some money to start a shop.”
“Dear, dear, no!” said Taro very firmly. “A business of my own would be much too much trouble. If you will just hand me my dumplings, that is all I desire, thank you very much all the same.”
The Governor could not help smiling at Taro’s coolness and leaving him with his dumplings, he rode on.
Of course Taro told this story to every one, pointing out what a fool a man was to be a Governor and have to go riding about the country wherever the Emperor sent him. Every one thought Taro more wonderful than ever, when they heard how the Governor himself had stopped to wait on him and Taro became more and more conceited until he thought himself better than any king in the world.
But one day when there was a group of people around his platform, begging him to accept their dainties, an old peasant came along the road. He had been fishing in the river and carried his nets on his back and his catch of fish dangled from his hand. Now Taro was fond of fish, and when he saw the peasant, he said to one of his friends, “Now you are here, you can build me a little fire and roast one of those fine fishes for me.” Then, raising his voice, Taro called out in his politest tones, “Honoured Sir, what a wonderful fisherman you are. I have never seen such a fine catch come up from the river. Pray, let me taste a sample of your skill.”
“My fish is ordered in the town,” said the fisherman quietly. “Why do you not go down to the river yourself and catch some, if you are fond of fish?”
“Because I do not care to run hither and thither as other men do,” said Taro, as if he were very superior because of this. “I have quite enough to look at here, the river is no more beautiful when one is on its shore than when one sees it from across the rice-field.”
“You remind me of the frog who went to Kyoto,” said the fisherman, and as Taro and every one begged for the story, the fisherman spoke as follows:
“A frog lived in a well by the city of Kyoto, and another frog in a lotus pond at Osaka by the sea. Now the Kyoto frog used to listen to the people who came to draw the water from the well, and he often heard them use this proverb: ‘The frog in the well knows not the great ocean.’ At last he made up his mind to go to Osaka and see the ocean for himself. At this same time, the frog at Osaka, heard the monks as they walked in the garden, say, ‘The lion’s cub is thrown into the valley,’ and at last he too made up his mind to hop out of his pond, and travel to Kyoto, to show he was as great as a lion’s cub.
From Wonder Tales of the World, Constance Armfield
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920.