Hyakunin Isshu No. 14: Dyed and tangled/Trapped in secret love

By: Kawara no Sadaijin (822-895)               河原左大臣

Surrounded by this                                          みちのくの
Intricate print,                                                    しのぶもぢずり
Becoming                                                            誰故に
Dyed and tangled,                                           乱れそめにし
Trapped in secret love                                   我ならなくに

Kawara no Sadaijin was a title for Minamoto no Toru (源 融), a statesman and poet who was the grandson of Emperor Saga and a part of the Saga Genji clan.  Claimed by some to be the model for the protagonist of The Tale of Genji, the only other really notable claim for Minamoto is this tanka that he wrote, which is also included in the Kokin shu as No. 724.


Shinobu Mojizuri ferns | 宮代NOW

In my notes, it states that the poet saw an intricately print of ferns on cloth, which reminded him of the tangled and chaotic state of his own feelings towards the woman he loved.  Furthermore, Michinoku (the first line of the tanka) was renowned in Ancient Japan for printed cloth, and Shinobu (the start of the second line of the tanka) was an area within Michinoku, which emphasises how intricate and fine the poet’s emotions would have been.


Fukushima Prefecture | Must Love Japan

A quick Google search revealed that Michinoku is in fact, the ancient name for Fukushima-shi, in Fukushima prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan.  Although it gained fame (or infamy?) internationally as the site of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, during the Nara and Heian years, Michinoku was actually a frontier area, and famous for its shinobu mojizuri fabric (the second line of the tanka).

The translator also notes that the pronunciation for fern is the same as for remembrance or concealment, which therefore gives the poem the meaning of either concealment through the fabric or the ferns, or remembrance through seeing the cloth or ferns.

Another translation gives this meaning clearer:

Whose fault is it
that my feelings have begun to tangle
like the tangle-patterned prints
of Shinobu from the distant north?
Since it is not mine, it must be…
(Mostow 1996)

This alternative translation also shows how Minamoto addresses this poem, as though to entangle his love with him within the fabric.  Accompanying notes to this translation additionally shows that this poem has been interpreted as a defense by Minamoto of his faithfulness to his lover, which, due to the interesting choice in imagery to symbolise how upset he is at being doubted, could also be argued as a way of showing a secret love to another.

I mean, ‘whose fault is it’ could be both Minamoto reinforcing that it was not his fault that he fell in love with and is in love with his lover and that his feelings for her are as tangled as the prints of Shinobu, or that his heart has, against his will, begun to stir for another, tangling the feelings that he held for his current lover with his emotions for his new interest.  I personally like the argument that he is trying to sort through his emotions for another, because it gives the poem more layers, which suits the imagery that he chose with the fabrics and ‘tangle-patterned prints’.


Shinobu Mojizuri fabric | わかればいいのに I Wish I Knew

It is also amazing that so much meaning can be conveyed within thirty one syllables, and it makes me respect Japanese poetry so much more, because as much as I love poetry, sometimes the way Western poets write seems so excessive and clunky, but here?  It is so clean, and so sparse, but still containing so much meaning.

And the more I read these poems, the more I realise how lacking my copy of the Hyakunin Isshu is.  It is enough to get me started, but it doesn’t provide enough information for my liking, and its translation seems clumsy or lazy compared to alternative translations that I can find on the internet.  But maybe I just expect too much from my books.


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.


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.


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.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 12: I see a maiden’s form

By: Monk Henjou (816-890)                                           僧正遍照

Heavenly wind,                                                                  天つ風
The cloud’s commute,                                                    雲のかよひ路
Stop your blowing, please –                                          吹きとぢよ
I see a maiden’s form                                                       乙女のすがた
And want to stay awhile                                                   しばしとどめむ


Henjou was born Yoshimine no Munesada, the eighth son of Dainagon Yoshimine no Yasuyo, a son of the Emperor Kammu who was relegated to civilian life.  Henjou actually started as a courtier, and even became the Japanese equivalent of a chamberlain to Emperor Nimmyo.  However, after Emperor Nimmyo died, Henjou became a monk and priest of the Tendai school of Buddhism out of grief.  After he became a monk, he founded Gangyō-ji in southern Kyoto, stayed active in politics, and was later also given Unrin-in in northern Kyoto to manage.  He is rumoured to have had an affair with Ono no Komachi (poet of #9), and had a son who composed #21 of the HI.


Monk Henjou | One Thousand Summers

As a poet, he is listed as one of the six best waka poets in the Kokin Wakashu, and known as one of the thirty-six poetry immortals.  I feel like all the poets that have been featured so far in the Hyakunin Isshu have been one of these poetry immortals, but I have also noticed that if they have been included in the HI, then they will probably either also be featured in the Wakashu, or be regarded as a poetry immortal, or both.

For this particular tanka, my translation states that apparently Henjou wrote this after seeing young ladies dance at a festival, which he therefore referenced as Buddhist mythological maidens living in the sky.  An alternate translation changes the sentences’ structures around, so that it reads:

Let the winds of heaven
Blow through the paths among the clouds
And close their gates.
Then for a while I could detain
These messengers in maiden form.

Originally, I thought that Monk Henjou was asking the winds to help stop the clouds so that he could stay outdoors and observe the maiden that he had seen.  However, this other translation shows that he wanted the winds to close up the sky with clouds so that these maiden messengers would stay with him for longer.  This also makes the Buddhist mythological maiden remark from my translation make more sense, and to me, this tanka echoes a meaning that previous tanka had also displayed: the expression of the emotions of the present moment and the significance of the now (for example, #1, #3, #4, #5, #7, #8).  Henjou is capturing a moment that he finds beautiful, and he knows this moment will not last, but he wishes for this moment to last longer.


Henjou may have possibly been watching the Gosechi dances when he got inspired for this tanka | epidote | photobucket

This knowledge of the fleeting moment reflects the beauty of what Japanese call wabi-sabi, or the beauty of the imperfect, of the transient.  It is reflected in how sakura blossoms and the autumn colours are so loved due to their impermanence, in how nature is shaped within Japanese gardens to reflect the passing of time, and in how most Japanese traditional arts such as Noh and the tea ceremony calls for inhabiting a moment through ritual and stillness.  Although Monk Henjou probably wanted to just capture a moment, the way in which he has done so shows more depth into his culture than he probably intended.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into thirty-seven syllables.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 11: Tell the people

By: Ono no Takamura (802-852)                           参議篁

Rowing out                                                                    わたの原
Past Eighty Islands                                                     八十島かけて
And the plain of sea –                                                こぎ出でぬと
Tell the people                                                            人にわ告げよ
Of this heaven-tempting boat!                              あまのつり船

Ono no Takamura was known as a noted poet and a state counselor in the early Heian period.  After a quarrel with the envoy he was supposed to join to go to China, he feigned illness to avoid the mission, and thus received two years’ worth of banishment to an island in then-Oki province (now Oki district in Shimane prefecture).  His departure for his banishment inspired him to write this tanka as he set to depart to his temporary home.


Katsushika Hokusai’s impression of the banishment of Ono no Takamura  | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For this tanka, the Eighty Islands is representative of the islands of Japan.  And since the emperor is believed to have descended from the gods in Japanese mythology, the ‘heaven’ in the last line of the translation, I believe, is a symbol for the emperor, who Takamura had ‘tempted’ by defying his orders regarding the mission to China.  Furthermore, I think the ‘people’ in the second last line literally means more the ‘people of the sea’, or fishermen, since he would have seen many as his boat sailed away from the Japanese mainland.  However, the ‘people’ could also denote the Japanese population in general, which would make the last two lines mean for the ‘people of the water’ to tell the ‘people’ of his transgressions and his punishment of exile.


A typical Heian Japanese boat | Japan Times

This directive to spread the word of Takamura’s exile as he sails onto the ‘plains of the sea’ could be a call for the people not to forget his name, since he would have had no idea of how long his banishment was to last.  It could also be to serve a warning to others of the result of disobeying the emperor, or it could be a call of regret for his actions.  Personally, the tone of this tanka seemed more hopeful and assertive when I first read it, and so I think that it is a call for people to not forget him because he’ll be back.

Compared to the previous few poems, there are not very many deeper meanings to ‘Tell the People’, but that is good too.  I mean, it’s not like people only went around lamenting their fates and their feelings in thirty-one syllables (although it seems like it, with the amount of deep and meaningful tanka present in this representative anthology of a hundred such poems…).

Also, tangent.  But I really don’t like the new format for writing posts.  When I have to add pictures or add links, I have to keep scrolling back up to the top, and ain’t nobody got time for that.


Recommended: Hiroshima Bugi

Hiroshima Bugi, by Gerald Vizenor, was introduced to me through my professor for one of my exchange classes, Contemporary Japanese Literature.  The whole class is about reading Japanese science fiction and then breaking them apart and thinking about how it deals with society and life, but I have no idea now for which story Hiroshima Bugi was used as an example.  I only know that, when it was put up on the screen, the format, the writing style, the content was so very innovative, so original, that I wanted to read more.

First page to Hiroshima Bugi

First page to Hiroshima Bugi

So naturally, being a fanatic reader, I asked my professor where I could find the book so I could read the rest.  It turns out that it got a super limited print because it was an independent publication by a university press (the University of Nebraska), and somehow or other a copy landed in the hands of my professor, so I ended up borrowing the book to read.  And the read was so worth it.

To be honest, when I read that first page in class, I thought the work was an independent poem, and not the opening to an entire novel.  The novel separates its paragraphs using indents, and the third indent is always used throughout the novel for direct dialogue, where the speakers alternate lines and the speech is short, staccato and symbolic.  And the most amazing thing was, the writing style is so experimental that I assumed the book was a translation from Japanese, but no.  The author is American, and so the book was already in English.

The book itself is a novel written with alternating chapters between two voices.  The first part is written through the eyes of Ronin Browne, a half Japanese half Native American who recounts the history of Japan using a mainly autobiographical style from the moment of the first atomic bombing, and keeping Hiroshima as its focal point.  The second half is written by Manidoo Envoy, a friend of Ronin’s father, and the one who gives explanations to what Ronin is doing, what historical references we need, and what background story to which character we need to know more of to understand what is going on.  His chapters are written more conventionally, and without his voice, I think the whole book would become super pastiche and experimental and not an approachable read at all.

Ronin’s sections are very poetic, Manidoo very factual.  They are so contrasting, but the author has done such a great job on interweaving the two voices together that I didn’t feel any sense of misplacement whilst reading the book.  However, the content is quite heavy, and even though things are explained to you, it is not a leisure book.  I’m pretty sure that I fell asleep quite a few times reading this book simply because it takes concentration to read.  Although the language isn’t particularly complex, the density of the content meant I couldn’t just skim over the paragraphs and understand what was going on; I really needed to focus on the words.

Regardless, if you manage to find it sometime, this is definitely worth dedicating a few days of your life to read.  Even if only to marvel at how the author has crafted each sentence in Ronin’s sections to show so many things in minimal words.

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.


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