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The 1,000-year-old legend behind a Japanese orbiter’s stunning photos of the moon

By Selina Cheng
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hundreds of luminous photos and flyover videos of the moon were recently released by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and they are stunning. Taken by the Kaguya lunar orbiter between 2007 and 2008, they’re not the first high definition moon images, but they come with a beautiful backstory: the mythical origins of the orbiter’s name, Princess Kaguya.

Princess Kaguya is a popular fairy tale figure in East Asian folklore, much like Cinderella to those who grew up in Western culture. It is unclear when the fairy tale first originated, but according to the British Library, at least some elements can be traced as far back as 7th century Japan.

In Clarence Calkin’s 2000 translation, the poetic tale begins like this:

Though this seems like a dream, we, mankind living on this earth, have been visited by others in this universe, as if they flew here from other stars.
They came first from the moon our closest neighbor. When we became adults, perhaps we thought, “Surely, this must have been a dream and we forgot.”

According to the story, a tiny baby girl was once discovered by an old bamboo cutter in a bamboo forest, who raised her as his daughter. The young girl grew up to be a beautiful young woman, and the rumor of her incredible beauty attracted marriage proposals from wealthy men in Japan, including the Emperor. But Kayuga was often shy and melancholic, and always rejected their advances. She never left her house.

One day, Princess Kaguya revealed to her adopted father that she had came from the moon, and that she was constantly sad because that year, on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, she would finally have to return home.

She eventually did return to her lunar abode, where she truly belonged.

Princess Kayuga heading for the moon, in 18th century book “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari). British Library.

Kaguya has an equivalent in China, known as Chang’e, the moon goddess. China’s lunar exploration program named its own spacecraft after her. Both the Japanese and Chinese versions of Kaguya are associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, when Kaguya returns to the moon. This year, the moon festival took place on Sept. 15.

Considering how long humans have looked at the moon to wonder what (and who) hides behind its shine, it’s no wonder Kayuga’s serene moon shots continue to compel, over 40 years after Apollo 11.


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