Hyakunin Isshu No. 6: On the Bridge that Magpies Cross

By: Counselor Otomo no Yakamochi (718 – 785)
中納言大伴家持

On the bridge                                                      かささぎの
That magpies cross                                          渡せる橋に
The frosty white                                                 置く霜の
Is laid across                                                       白きのみれば
As night grows old                                            夜ぞふけにける


Finally! After two tanka without translation notes, this one does, and with two relatively lengthy paragraphs too wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee but first, introduction of the poet!

Counselor Otomo was active during the Nara period as a Japanese statesman and prominent waka poet.  Although he never quite made it to the level of becoming a god of poetry, his skills did qualify him as a member of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals (三十六歌仙), being proficient at not only writing poetry, but also transcribing, rewriting and refashioning ancient poems and folklore.  Otomo was the most prolific and prominent writer of his time, and as a result was one of the compilers of the Man’yōshū, the first Japanese poetry anthology created, and had a great influence on the Shika Wakashū, an imperial waka anthology.

Magpies | Warren Photographic

Magpies | Warren Photographic

So.  Moving on to the actual tanka

According to the notes, the bridge that the magpie crosses could be symbolic of the night sky, as the black-and-white colours of a magpie is reminiscent of the streamers of stars trailing across the night sky.  Another reference to the night sky could be the white frost, which could symbolise the swirls of star dust between the clusters of the stars.

Supposedly, another layer of meaning to the tanka is to view the magpies as representations for Japanese people secretly meeting their lovers on a lonely bridge during the night, white frost building up as the night grows old.  Since this mode of communication was apparently very very common in the Japanese aristocracy, Otomo probably wrote it with both meanings in mind.

And it could be true, since the legend for the tanabata festival is based on the meeting of two separated lovers, who can only meet once a year from their exile on opposite sides of the world, with the road between them a bridge of flying magpies.  That explains both the magpies as an arc in the sky and looking like the stars of the Milky Way, and as a symbol of the secret meetings between lovers during the deep hours of the night.  However, since tanabata is traditionally celebrated in July, which is summer in Japan, I wonder what inspired Otomo to reference this legend in the depths of winter, as snow heaped along the shores and across bridges…

Tanabata | overdoor | zerochan

Tanabata | overdoor | zerochan

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Hyakunin Isshu No. 4: White Cloth on Fuji’s Peak

By: Yamabe no Akahito (700 – 736)       山部赤人

At Tago Bay,                                                  田子の浦に
I’m hit by the sight of                                 うちいでて見れば
White cloth                                                    白妙の
On Fuji’s peak                                              富士の高嶺に
And falling snow                                         雪はふりつつ


DP141071

東海道江尻田子の浦略図 | 葛飾北斎

Surprisingly, there are no translation notes provided with this tanka.  The only information that I have is that the poet, Yamabe Akahito, was a contemporary for the poet for No. 3, and that he, like Kakinomoto,  was regarded as one of the greatest of the early poets and subsequently deified as a god of Poetry.  Looking up Tago Bay, according to the interwebs, Tago is a seaside town/village/place that is known for its amazing views of Mt. Fuji.  Tago is also one of the locations in the super famous Mt. Fuji/boat/wave art series (No. 36 in a series of 36 paintings), so it is most probably a place that Yamabe would have strolled along before being struck by inspiration to write this tanka.

In a way, it’s kind of refreshing to read a tanka that wasn’t inspired from some sort of intense emotion (I’m only on No. 4; by the time I get to No. 100 I’ll be all drained out of emotions haha).  It really shows how the Japanese people appreciated and enjoyed nature and the environment around them, I think, and how the beauty of the environment could connect so strongly to their spiritual selves or souls.  I know Western poets get inspired by the beauty of the environment too, but I’ve found that they don’t capture the simplistic depths of nature and its reflection on the human spirit quite as well as Eastern poets.  This tanka, in any case, paints such a reverential scene of falling snow, and it could mean something deeper, with the cleanliness of snow and the passage of winter, or it could just be a poet enjoying the scenery as he walks along the shores of Tago Bay.

T. Enami | Flickr

Morning Light on the Shores of Lake Yamanaka | T. Enami

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.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 1: Harvest-time in the field

By: Emperor Tenji (626 – 671)             天智天皇

Harvest-time in the field                      秋の田の
A hut that’s coarsely-thatched          かりほの庵の
An autumn refuge –                              苫をあらみ
My sleeves                                                 わが衣では
Are wet with dew                                    露にぬれつつ


Supposedly, the emperor was inspired to write this poem when he was scaring birds away while harvesters were gathering crop in the fields.  However, sudden rain forced to him to take shelter in a thatched hut that offered zero protection from the rain anyway, and so he and his sleeves became wet.

According to my translation, the vignette is of a hard working harvester wiping away his sweat with his sleeves as he takes a rest in a hut.  Or that the speaker is separated away from his love as he sits alone in a hut, wiping away his tears with his sleeves.

Since the Japanese are all for meaning upon meaning, layer upon layer, I personally like the idea of the forlorn lover in a hut.

And since Autumn is a symbol of loneliness, of drifting away from the warm brightness of Summer, and harvesting is usually a solo activity, who knows? The Emperor could have been travelling on the road, passing by fields full of lone harvesters and something unexpected forced him to take shelter in a road side hut, delaying his return to the side of his beloved person.

HoshiKouken | Youtube

HoshiKouken | Youtube

Recommended: Hyakunin Isshu 百人一首

I recently impulse bought a book of Japanese poetry called the Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首).  An anthology of one hundred, five-line waka (和歌), or now more commonly called tanka (短歌), structured with lines measuring 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, and compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in around 1237 A.D., each is written by a different Japanese poet from the 7th to the 13th century.

Time to start reading!

Time to start reading!

Why did I decide to buy this anthology randomly? Because I had just caught up to Chihayafuru, a manga on competitve karuta which features the tanka in the Hyakunin Isshu prominently.  And being a fangirl, I decided to buy the book so I could understand all the layers of meaning in each tanka.  Such is the life of a fangirl.

At least I’m being educated whilst spending my time in imaginary worlds.

And since reading poetry needs reflection, and reflection comes easiest when writing down thoughts, I thought I would share my reflections.  After all, this blog is a Diary of sorts.

But for sure, these poems I would recommend/10.  Even just hearing the descriptions as I watch the anime or read the manga was enough to kindle my interest in Japanese poetry.  They are so layered, so full of meaning and double meaning, so subtle and yet so passionate underneath all the refinement.  There are online translations of them everywhere, and if you have time, read a few~!  I just like having a book in my hands.

Once I run out of these one hundred poems… I’ll see what I move on to.  Until then… stay with me.

Proud to be Australian

It’s been nearly 48 hours since the Sydney siege was resolved when the police stormed into Lindt cafe in Martin place.  There have been many many news stories and extensive coverage by local and international news networks during the entire situation, and so I won’t go into any detail about that.  But the aftermath… the aftermath has been so supportive, so understated.  It is so surprising, but it is amazing.

Australia | EUI

Isolated Australia | EUI

First of all, no one in Australia actually expects anything to happen in Australia.  Despite being a developed nation and an important global influence, we are so isolated from everyone else in the world as a country that no one ever takes any terror threats seriously.  After 9/11, there were many threats of bombings and other terrorist activities, but the only increase in security were the removal of bins from major train stations (which were re-installed a few years ago), and increased surveillance and customs screenings at the airports.  During the War on Terror, everyone followed the news and grieved when another Australian soldier was killed in combat, but the war was so far away that it wasn’t really a significant impact in society, apart from an increase in tension against the Muslim communities in Sydney.  During all the outbreaks of diseases, of which the Ebola epidemic being the most recent, people fear, but again, we are so far away from everything that the disease probably died out before it even reached Australia.

With this apathy for all the significant world events, to have a hostage situation happen in the heart of Sydney, and to have it potentially linked to the ISIS groups in the Middle East?

Totally unexpected.  Totally unthinkable.  Totally unbelievable.

Although it turned out to be the actions of one person, and a known person to the police with a record of past racial hatred and sex crime offences, the fact that it happened, and that two lives were lost in the process, has sent Sydney and Australia into shock.  Many people are still avoiding the Sydney CBD.  Hundreds of thousands of flowers have been placed near the cafe.

And people are reflecting.  Reflecting on how Australia may not be so safe after all.  Reflecting on the importance of valuing your life, and valuing all the people around you and the relationships that you hold with them.  Reflecting on how to support others around you, those who may have been more affected by the tragedy than you.

The results of these reflections?

Solidarity in the Australian community.  I often cringe at how Australians pride themselves at being ‘mates’ and how we’re all in this together because ‘mateship’, but in these times, it becomes the bond that brings the community together.  Many people have expressed similar sentiments, about how terror only works when it instills fear, and how it will never work in Australia because people become unified through mateship to become strong, and to repel and fight back against these fears and terrors and their instigators.

The first sign of solidarity happened during the siege with the rise of the hashtag #illridewithyou.  Although many people were hating on the Muslim community and blaming them for the siege, many more were supporting them and showing them love and support.  Some comments have expressed incredulity about how Australians were naive and stupid for not caring about the hostages, and instead supporting members of a community that were feeling at risk, but as outsiders, they don’t understand how racial hatreds run in Australian society.  Riots have happened before between racial groups.  Slurs and threats are chucked at people during times of risk.  It happens. The fact that so many people were willing to support and protect Muslims who feel scared at being who they are through no fault of their own has shown clearly for the first time, the ‘Aussie spirit’ of mateship and comradeship.

Martin Place Memorial | Daily Telegraph

Martin Place Memorial | Daily Telegraph

The impromptu public memorials at Martin Place and at other sites around Australia, one being the Melbourne Lindt cafe, shows this solidarity too.  You may not know who put down the bouquet next to yours, you may not know the people standing around you, but everyone is thinking the same thing, feeling the same things.  The responses on social media have been the same.  People are going about their daily business and people aren’t allowing this to affect their lives, but sentiments that have been expressed have largely been positive, supportive and understanding.

Australia’s great and all, but I generally don’t have much of a positive opinion on Australia (probably because I live here and I see all the dirty shady things that happen).  However, although it ended in tragedy, the siege has brought Australia together in a way that I have never remember experiencing.

For the first time, I am proud to be Australian.

Other articles
More on #illridewithyou
The victims of the siege
A response to the siege by the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia Inc.
Response by the Police Commissioner on the storming of the cafe