Hyakunin Isshu No. 13: Male and Female Peaks

By: Retired Emperor Youzei (869-949)     陽成院

From Tsukuba’s                                               筑波嶺の
Male and female peaks                                 峰より落つる
The Minano River falls                                   みなの川
And gathers a pool                                         恋ぞつもりて
Of passion deep                                              淵となりぬる


Emperor Youzei was the 57th emperor of Japan, reigning from 876-884.  He ascended to the throne early in his life when his father Emperor Seiwa (清和天皇) ceded the throne to his son at eight years of age.  As he grew older, Youzei began to display violent tendencies, often executing prisoners himself, and when angered would chase after the offenders, sometimes with his sword drawn.  Eventually, his chief assistant Fujiwara no Mototsune realised that Youzei was not fit for rule, and organised a way to take Youzei from his palace and confronted Youzei about his behaviour and announced his dethronement.  He was succeeded by his father’s uncle, Emperor Koukou (光孝天皇), and had nine imperial sons after his abdication with seven consorts.

abc50142

The twin peaks of Mt. Tsukuba | siawasedog

Mt. Tsukuba is located in Ibaraki Prefecture, and there is a private train line called the Tsukuba Express that goes from Akihabara in Tokyo to Tsukuba town.  The notes in my book remark that, as the source of the Minano River is Mt. Tsukuba’s twin peaks, which reminded people of a man and a woman, this led to the naming of the Minano river, written as 男女 in kanji and meaning man-woman.

Although the poem is describing the scenery at Mt. Tsukuba and Minano River, I feel like the purpose of this tanka is similar to No. 6, which described secret rendezvous between lovers in the night, and No. 10, which talked about meetings at the gate of Osaka.  Despite already leaving the palace, as a courtier, his interactions would still have been restricted, and the wording that Youzei uses leads me to think that he had addressed this to one of his consorts about the passion that he felt for her.

201311232038320fc

The sign marking the start of the Minano river | bunkatorekisi

Even though this was probably not intended by Youzei at all when he penned the tanka, I feel like the emotions that he describes in this poem reveals just how passionate the Japanese people can be.  Despite seeming calm, collected, polite, and reserved to strangers and even to their own partners and family members a lot of the time, underneath the smooth façade, the Japanese are just as emotionally charged, if not more so, than their outspoken Western counterparts.

This is definitely something that I have realised during my year in Japan as I got to know many more Japanese people, becoming close friends with some of them.  And I cannot wait to see more glimpses into these emotions in future tanka, because if they are considered suppressed now, the ancient Japanese would have been hiding their emotions even more strongly, only expressing their true feelings through their imagery and wordplay.

Advertisements

Hyakunin Isshu No. 8: My Hermit Hut

By: Monk Kisen (early Heian)                             喜撰

My hermit hut                                                          わが庵は
Above the capital,                                                  都のたつみ
I live with just a deer –                                           しかぞすむ
The world a mountain house                            世をうぢ山と
And the people, abandoned                              人はいふなり


Apart from being a monk, being an accomplished poet, and living near Ujiyama near Kyoto, nothing much is known about Kisen.  He was chosen by Ki no Tsurayuki as one of the six poetic sages, whose work was acknowledged to be superior over other poets.  However, only two known works can be confidently traced back to him, of which this tanka is one.

In the tanka, shika can be read as either deer or ‘but’ or ‘thus’.  And both translations work, given where shika is placed in the tanka.  Because there is no kanji given for it, technically ‘deer’ works too, but really, it makes more legitimate, serious sense if its meaning is ‘but’/’thus’.  Apparently, according to the notes, ‘but’/’thus’ is actually the main reading anyway, but he liked the sound of ‘deer’, and so put ‘deer’ instead.  If that is true, then the tanka now reads:

My hermit hut
Above the capital,
Thus I live –
The world a mountain house
And the people, abandoned

Personally, I like the reading with ‘Thus’ more (choosing ‘thus’ because it sounds more grammatically correct than ‘but’), because it then shows that Monk Kisen is commentating on the simplicity of his life, with only his hut and his own self to replace the world and its people.  And the quiet he captures in those five lines makes me feel peaceful, just by reading it.  It makes my once-serious thought of becoming a hermit sound wonderfully attractive again.

SONY DSC

Hyakunin Isshu No. 7: The Sky’s Meadow Above

By: Abe no Nakamaro (701 – 770)                             阿倍仲麻呂

I gaze into the distance                                                天の原
And the meadow of the sky above                           ふりさけ見れば
Becomes the Kasuga Shrine                                      春日なる
On Mount Mikasa                                                            三笠の山に
In the coming moon                                                      出でし月かも


Abe no Nakamaro | Katsushika Hokusai | Galerie Zacke

Abe no Nakamaro | Katsushika Hokusai | Galerie Zacke

Abe was descended from a previous emperor, and growing up was applauded for his academics and intelligence.  Since he was active during the Nara period, as a smart young man he became part of the mission to China during the Tang dynasty.  Somehow or other, he was the only person to stay, and became an official Chinese.  He first tried to return to Japan when he received a Japanese employ, but his ship sank not long after leaving China.  When he attempted to return to Japan again after several years, his ship was wrecked again.  After that, he gave up trying to return to his homeland, instead becoming a high class Chinese official and living the rest of his days in Hanoi (then part of Chinese territory).

Abe never really lost his academic prowess, and was a prolific writer and close friend of prominent Chinese poets.  However, although he lived quite successfully in his adopted land, Abe never really forgot his homeland, and this tanka is supposedly written at his farewell party before his second departure.  In my notes, this tanka is apparently a reflection of his reminiscing about how he prayed at Kasuga Shrine (a symbol for departure in Japanese classical literature) for a safe trip to China, and seeing the same moon that now hung in the sky before him.

Katsushika Hokusai | Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Abe no Nakamaro | Katsushika Hokusai | Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

The intense longing for Nara, his homeland, the anticipation that he must have felt at finally being able to set homeward bound, the stillness and quietness of the night as it enveloped him in memories.  Nothing is quite like home, and the fact that he never really made it back to his beloved Nara is kind of (read: very) heartbreaking.  He wanted to stay for a while, and ended up staying forever.  For everyone who has been on long long holidays, or lived overseas, or been away from home for extended periods of time, I’m sure there have been times where you just wanted to go home.

And Abe never really got to go home.  Sure, he became a Somebody in China, with the career and the friends, but this tanka just shows how much he missed Nara.  It’s not evident in the translation that my book provides, but an alternative translation reads this:

When I look up into the vast sky tonight,
is it the same moon that I saw
Rising from behind Mt. Mikasa
At Kasuga Shrine
All those years ago?

And I can’t help but think about my own imminent departure for Japan, and the moment that I realise that I’m not quite home, that home is far far away, and I wonder how this tanka will feel then, when I gaze up at the sky at the moon that is shining on the distance that separates my home from me.

optictopic | Flickriver

optictopic | Flickriver

Hyakunin Isshu No. 5: In the Mountain’s Heart

By: Sarumaru no Dayuu (active ~ 708 – 715)   猿丸大夫

In the mountain’s heart                                           奥山に
Through crimson leaves                                          红葉ふみわけ
A trampling deer lets out a cry                             鳴く鹿の
A voice that is heard                                                 声きく時ぞ
In Autumn sadness                                                   秋は悲しき


Compared to the preceding poets in this anthology, Sarumaru is relatively unknown.  The only things really known about him is that he lived no later than 800AD, and that his time active as a Second Assistant Minister was from approximately 708 – 715.  Apparently, he was also a member of the Thirty Six Poetic Sages (according to Wikipedia).  However, there’s so little known about him, that some scholars suggest that this Sarumaru never really existed, and was instead an alias for Prince Yamashiro no Oe (also according to Wikipedia).

IMG_0420

Deer in autumnal forest | Pinterest

In any case, this tanka that Sarumaru has created is a classic example of Autumn poem (秋歌).  Although there are, once again, no notes on this tanka, it is clear that both crimson leaves – presumably maple – and deer are symbolically synonymous with Autumn in Japanese culture.  And with the deer’s cry ringing through the sadness and emotion that the poet can feel, you can almost feel the sadness for the passing of Summer and warmer, brighter times and the loneliness that the port anticipates with the onset of harsh Winter.

What’s interesting though, is that the last tanka expressed the awe-inspiring beauty of cold clean Winter, while the beauty of Autumn is described here with a little melancholy. Even though both poets were inspired by different emotions as they absorbed scenic nature surrounding them, already it is clear that nature and scenery and the environment and things are important to Japanese culture.  And now that I’m soon going to be in Japan, it’ll be amazing to see how it translates from these ancient tanka to modern Japan.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 3: If I’m to sleep alone

By: Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (662 – 710)                 柿本人麻呂

On a mountain slope                                                        あしびきの
The copper pheasant’s tail                                            山鳥の尾の
Just flows and flows –                                                      しだり尾の
So long, like this night                                                     ながながし夜を
If I’m to sleep alone                                                          ひとりかも寝む


Legend has it that poet gained his name because he was found at the foot of a kaki, or persimmon, tree as an infant and subsequently adopted. As an attendant of Emperor Monmu, the grandson of Empress Jitou (the poet of No. 2), Kakinomoto no Hitomaro had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his poetic prowess.  He definitely showed off his skills, because he became known as one of the great poets of early Japan, and after his death was deified as a god of Poetry, complete with temples dedicated to his name.

In this tanka, the translation notes merely say that the night will seem to be as long as the tail of the copper pheasant if he cannot be with his lover tonight.  However, the fourth line can be interpreted as also ‘To drift, like my life’ instead of ‘So long, like this night’.  If you add that interpretation into the poem, then instead of just being just a pining lover in the night, the poet could be instead yearning for a companionship in his life of solitude.

Copper pheasant | Internet Bird Collection

Copper pheasant | Internet Bird Collection

Even though both interpretations are about longing for a lover in a relationship, I personally like the second interpretation about drifting in life.  Because it’s true.  If a person lacks companionship, whether it be a lover, or a partner, or a friend, or family, then regardless of how introverted a person may be, life will seem long and dreary.  Without anyone to share with, or any person to rely on, nights would seem long, and life would drift like and flow just like the tail of a copper pheasant, in solitude as it follows unquestioningly the pheasant, without its own purpose, without its own meaning.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 2: Spring has past

By: Empress Jitou (645 – 702)                                      持統天皇

Spring has past                                                                 春過ぎて
And summer begun;                                                        夏来にけらし
The strange, shining                                                        白妙の
Robes of royals dry –                                                       衣ほすてふ
At Kagu, perfumed mountain of the sky                  天の香具山


In Japanese history, there were only ever eight empresses, and Empress Jitou was the third.  When I say empress though, they were only ever regents, people in power until a suitable emperor was chosen, or grown-up, because Imperial Japan follows male succession.  Following that vein, Kagu Mountain is the mountain of a stone door behind which resides the Sun goddess, whom, in Japanese religion, bore the first Japanese emperor.  Which means that all Japanese royalty are descended from gods, supposedly.

In the poem, my translation notes says that the speaker merely realises that spring has passed before they knew it with the mention of drying summer robes, and Mount Kagu is there to give the poem imperial symbolism, and as a hint that the poem is about succession.

I agree about the succession, and the fact that it is written by one of rare female empresses means, to me at least, that the poem is about what the Empress Jitou feels about passing  on her rule.  The passing of Spring – the promise of new beginnings and refreshing – and the beginning of Summer – strong with the pulse and energy of life – means that she is either realising that she was only there like Spring to pave the way for the ‘true’ emperor, the Summer, or that her reign has already entered its peak and she will soon have to abdicate her rule to the following emperor.

KisaragiChiyo | DeviantArt

KisaragiChiyo | DeviantArt

In any case, I feel that, despite the brightness and vivaciousness of Summer, Empress Jitou is feeling nostalgic for the power that she only temporarily has, and that looking onto the bright summer robes drying in the sun has woken her to the inevitability of the passing of time.  However, it also gives off a sense of purpose and of hope, that she is here to prepare the way, and that her work during her rule will be fundamental in maintaining a strong Japan and will stay as a guide for her successor.

And who hasn’t felt like this before? Feeling the inevitability of moving on… losing the powers of being in the highest grade as you graduate from primary school, losing a sense of innocence and being a child as you graduate from high school, losing a sense of freedom as you graduate from whatever and enter the work force… we may not ever lose the powers to rule a country, but every time we move on from one stage of life into the next, the same sense of helpless nostalgia for lost times and the hope that we have for the future is and will, I believe, remain the same.