Some Thoughts on the “Personal Names” in Genji Adaptations

Hi Blog. This is going to be a much more “off the cuff” entry than my last two. I have had a somewhat busy week (yesterday, following a bit of planning, I finally got a Zoom meeting with some old and new friends off the ground after postponing it several times since June because of other commitments, and today I attended an Osaka-ben performance of Euripides’ Orestes), and I just wanted to get something that has been on my mind a bit lately down here before I forget.

Earlier this year, I watched the 1951 Yoshimura-directed film adaptation of The Tale of Genji for the first time. I found it quite compelling. I’m not sure how much of that was Tanizaki, who apparently was a consultant (?) on the film, but I’ve always rather enjoyed Shindō Kaneto’s work, and any Genji adaptation from the golden age of Japanese cinema is going to be a valuable cultural artefact even if it lacks any intrinsic quality. I was also very intrigued by the musical score, composed by the great Ifukube Akira some three years before he composed the soundtrack for Godzilla. (It includes several pieces that are reminiscent of his more famous work, and at least one track, later known as “Frigate March I”, which was apparently recycled wholesale from this earlier and lesser-known film, wherein it plays as Genji rides north to his first encounter with Murasaki. Anyway, I digress…)

Naturally, a film (or play, or manga, or…) in modern Japanese would have a difficult time referring to virtually all characters by titles and the like, so the film applies the characters’ “traditional” names given to them by readers. This is acceptable in most cases (“Aoi” is, at least today, an actual name that some Japanese women have, even if in the literary work in question it’s essentially a “spoiler” in that it tells you in what chapter the character is going to die), but one particular instance made me perk up my ears.

Kokiden Consort to Genji: “You surely know the social position held by Lady Oborozukiyo.”

“Oborozukiyo” makes a lot of sense as a romantic pet name that Genji has for his lover. She is a relative of his rival political faction at court—in the film, she is the daughter of the Minister of the Right and the niece of the Kokiden Consort, Genji’s two greatest enemies, whereas in the original both she and the Kokiden Consort are daughters of the Minister of the Right (an adaptational change that might merit some analysis in itself: film versions seem to make a habit of aging up the Kokiden Consort). Oboro-zuki-yo means “night of the mist-shadowed moon”, and alludes to the night of Genji’s first tryst with her, and has been used by readers of Genji to refer to this character who, like most of Genji‘s characters, goes unnamed in the actual text. In a film adaptation, it makes sense that they would need to give names to the characters, but it struck my as awfully odd that the Kokiden Consort, Genji’s enemy, would refer to her own niece by a name that is a pretty explicit allusion to said niece’s love affair with Genji. This connection is even made in the film itself, when one would think, if they were going to make “Oborozukiyo” a personal name used by members of her family who disapprove of the affair, they would play down the actual origin of the name.

Genji’s first meeting with Oborozukiyo, roughly 28 minutes earlier in the film, in a sequences adapted relatively faithfully from the “Hana no En” chapter
Japanese text screen-capped from

Needless to say, this is not a “criticism” of the film, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Indeed, I rather think these little references and deliberate anachronisms provide another layer of enjoyment for those of us who derive pleasure from recognizing them.

Oh, and just for fun, two more screenshots:

A ninja assassin straight out of the Ryūtei Tanehiko version
The great Kyō Machiko as “Lady Awaji”, a fusion of Lady Akashi and the Third Princess
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The Gender-Neutral Third-Person Pronoun Kare in Classical Japanese

Recently, a column was posted on the English website of the Mainichi Shimbun (a translation into Japanese is also available). The column, by Damian Flanagan, was apparently written in response to a tweet by a historian of Japan that stated what I thought to be a widely-accepted fact: that the pronoun kare, now normally translated “he”/”him”/”his” (depending on whether it’s followed by the nominative wa or ga, the accusative o, e or ni, or the genitive no), was gender-neutral and applied to women until the Meiji period, when Japanese started translating European literature en masse and needed a word for “she” or “elle” or … sorry, the one other European language I can pretend to be deeply familiar with is Irish, and I think very few Japanese in the 19th century were interested in translating literature written in the Gaelic-Irish language. In order to convey the meaning of this European female third-person pronoun, they invented the word kano-onna, later kanojo.

Indeed (as I happened to hear just under two weeks before reading the Mainichi column), outside the areas of Japanese etymology and Japanese literature, linguist John McWhorter has cited Finnish and Japanese as two examples of languages that do not distinguish between “he” and “she”. He does this in at least two of his Great Courses lecture series, specifically this one and this one—thus far the only two I’ve listened to in their entirety. He may or may not be correct in saying this of modern Japanese, as he seems (according to “A to Z”) to be basing it on the experience of speaking in English with a native speaker of Japanese, who repeatedly said “he” when speaking of women. This is something I too have experienced once or twice, and maybe if I didn’t speak Japanese I would have noticed it happening more often. I do not know how widespread this belief is among western historical linguists who have not studied Japanese as a foreign language, but if (as I believed after listening to “Story” but before listening to “A to Z” today) the belief is based on descriptions of how people actually spoke Japanese before around the early 20th century, it wouldn’t surprise me if the belief is widespread among non-japonophone linguists.

The etymological information on kare and kanojo cited above can be found in practically any good dictionary of the Japanese language. The Seisen-ban Nihon Kokugo Daijiten‘s entry on kare, for example, says “話し手、相手以外の人をさし示す。明治期まで男にも女にも用いた。” (“Used to refer to a person other than the speaker and the listener. Up to the Meiji period, it was used for both men and women.”) and cites two examples, one from the 8th-century Man’yōshū where it means something like “Who is there?” or “Who is it?” (like when someone knocks on the door) or more literally “Who is that person?” (except that it is clearly a single pronoun) and another from the 16th-century Nobunaga Kōki wherein it seems to refer to an unnamed woman. As for kanojo, even the fairly bare-bones entry in Daijisen says “西欧語からの訳語「かのおんな」の「おんな」を音読した語。” (“A word formed by reading the onna in kano-onna, a translation from languages of [western] Europe, in the Sino-Japanese way.”), so it seems to be pretty common sense that the “pronoun” (actually formed from kano, meaning the demonstrative determiner/adjective “that”, and the noun onna, meaning “woman”) originates in the modern period as a translation from European languages.


Well, the Mainichi column seems to disagree. To quote it:

until the Meiji period (1868-1912), […] there was in fact no third person pronoun in Japanese at all.

This, needless to say, is quite an extraordinary statement that would require extraordinary evidence to be taken seriously, but no evidence is presented. Instead, it goes on to say:

the word “kare” (“over there”) was adopted to fulfil this role, and at first, for a brief period, was equivalent to both “he” and “she.”

This is even more problematic. For example, why, when translating literature from western Europe (the column refers to “English” several times), would Meiji translators decide that they needed to create a word that means “he”, “she” or “it” (or perhaps “il” and “elle” would be better), and not separate words? If they were going to translate into the natural Japanese of their time (or one of the traditional styles of artificial written Japanese), then they wouldn’t need to create any new words to represent the basic function words of their source text, and if they were going to create a new style called ōbun-chokuyaku to directly represent the words of the European texts into Japanese, then they would need separate words for “he” and “she” (perhaps less so “it”).

Another issue, perhaps less obvious, is that kare simply does not mean “over there”. The morpheme ka- (and the related a-, which is more common in modern colloquial Japanese but predates Meiji) refers to things that are far from both the speaker and the listener. It is found in, for example, kano/ano (a demonstrative determiner/adjective, as in “That woman is very pretty, isn’t she?”) and kare/are (“it”, “that thing over there”, etc.; kare now tends to be used for people and are for things).* In classical Japanese, “over there” could be kashiko or asoko, not kare: the latter refers to people and things, but not locations.

* a-, though seemingly not ka-, is also used in the adverb ā (“[doing something] like that”) and the adjective anna (“such [a thing]”).

And yes, it did refer to people. Here are some examples beyond the Seisen-ban Nihon Kokugo Daijiten ones referred to above, with some of their translations into English:

Kotohito yori wa keura nari to oboshikeru hito mo, kare ni oboshi-awasureba, hito nimo arazu. (Japanese text from NKBZ: XII, p. 63; accessible online here; translated by Donald Keene as “The Palace ladies who usually served him were not comparable to Kaguya-hime and scarcely seemed human beings at all to the Emperor.” and by Frederick Victor Dickins as “But the Ladies of the Court were disdained, for their beauty paled before that of the Lady Kaguya, aye the fairest of them, when compared with her image, lost all her charms.”)

Kore wa hito no on-kiwa masarite, omoi nashi medetaku, hito mo e otoshime kikoetamawaneba, ukebarite akanu koto nashi. Kare wa hito no yurushi kikoezarishi ni, mi-kokorozashi ayaniku narishi zo kashi. (Japanese text from NKBD: XIX, p. 22; accessible online here or here; translated by Dennis Washburn as “Fujitsubo, however, was of undeniably higher birth, and that status protected her from criticism, since the courtiers were predisposed to judge her a superior woman. […] The court had never accepted His Majesty’s love for the lady of the Kiritsubo, and so his affection for her was viewed as inappropriate and inopportune.”, by Royall Tyler as “since [Fujitsubo] was of far higher standing, [she] commanded willing respect, and could not possibly be treated lightly, she had no need to defer to anyone on any matter. His Majesty had clung all too fondly to his old love, despite universal disapproval”, by Edward Seidensticker as “Because she was of such high birth (it may have been that people were imagining things) she seemed even more graceful and delicate than the other. No one could despise her for inferior rank, and […] [t]he other lady […] had been the victim of a love too intense”, by Arthur Waley as “She was however of much higher rank, so that everyone was anxious to please her, and, whatever happened, they were prepared to grant her the utmost license: whereas the dead lady had been imperiled by the Emperor’s favor only because the Court was not willing to accept her.”, and by Kenchō Suematsu as “[There was, indeed, both in features and manners a strange resemblance between her and Kiri-Tsubo.] The rivals of the latter constantly caused pain to herself and to the Emperor; but the illustrious birth of the Princess prevented anyone from ever daring to humiliate here, and she uniformly maintained the dignity of her position.”)

As can be seen from the above, not only can kare be used to refer to human beings but was very much used to refer to women as well as men. Indeed, the latter is the first appearance of one of the major characters in The Tale of Genji, in the first “chapter” of that work. Note that in the translations quoted, generally the words corresponding to kare are not pronouns (“she”); this is the result of the original text using two separate personal pronouns, kore and kare, to refer to the “near” woman (Fujitsubo, the emperor’s new beloved) and the “far” woman (Kiritsubo, who has passed away), in a manner that could not be intelligibly replicated in English. Seidensticker comes closest, but he also changed the text in question around quite a bit more than the other translators. But these are still, of course, both pronouns, and both are being used to refer to women. Similarly, in the former example, kare is used to contrast the woman of the emperor’s thoughts, Princess Kaguya, with the other women (kotohito) mentioned earlier in the sentence, in a manner that could not be easily translated with “she” or “her”.

All of this can tell us a lot of how pronouns are used in (classical) Japanese and how that differs from how pronouns are used in English. It may even tell us something about the idiosyncrasies of the translators: I and presumably most other native English-speakers who have learned Japanese learned early on that kare meant “he”, which might explain a reluctance to translate it as “she” even when one would have no compunctions about translating it as “he”. Flanagan, in that Mainichi column that prompted me to write this, actually says that when translating Natsume Sōseki’s “Rondon Shōsoku” he wondered if, when Sōseki repeatedly referred to a maid as kare, he was “deliberately, and perhaps cruelly, highlighting her lack of womanly charm”.

Okay, so I have… certainly not analysed this matter in the detail that it perhaps deserves, but I hope that I have at least been coherent and have managed to dispel some of the troublesome misconceptions about the gender-neutral and personally-pronominal (I’m 99% certain there’s a better word for that) nature of the Japanese pronoun kare in pre-19th-century usage. I may write a “sequel” to this little essay later, discussing some more examples from texts that I either don’t have on-hand this evening (oh, so many…) or from texts that I do possess copies of but appear in passages that I couldn’t locate without a digital copy or a thorough read-through. I actually brain-stormed this topic with an associate the other day, and was discouraged from going into detail on the Man’yōshū examples because they “just” mean “Who’s there?”, but given that (i) that poetry anthology predates the texts quoted above by well over a century and (ii) one of the relevant poems was actually quoted in a globally successful Japanese animated film from a few years back, so I’d really like to talk about them for those reasons.

Anyway, thank you for reading, and see you next time!

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Seven Misconceptions about Japanese Literature

First off, a disclaimer: This is my first WordPress blog in the better part of a decade, the markup seems to have changed quite a bit since the early 2010s, and I was originally planning on making this a list of 10 misconceptions but made it shorter when I thought of another idea—an analysis of the gender-neutral third-person pronoun kare in a number of its uses in classical Japanese literature—that I’d like to write but not until this first of the “revived” Japanography entries is published.

Note that this is not a “Top 7” as (i) they are not arranged in order (although I did choose a major one for the No. 1 slot) and (ii) the list is not definitive and I hope to expand it later with “Another 7 Misconceptions about Japanese Literature” or maybe even “Another 10 Misconceptions about Japanese Literature”.

7. A haiku does need to contain a seasonal word

Since “haiku” is a modern development of the early modern hokku, and hokku, as the first link in a collaborative linked verse composition, needs to establish the seasonal setting, haiku, by definition, include seasonal words. A haiku that does not include a seasonal word is a senryū, and falls into a different poetic genre with a different history. Many modern English “haiku”, including seemingly all possible “haiku” in the American video game Ghost of Tsushima, play it fast and loose with this rule, but doing this means they are technically English senryū, not English haiku. (Source: Haruo Shirane “Satyric poetry: Kyōshi, Kyōka, and Senryū”, p. 509 IN The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature, Cambridge University Press 2016)

6. Vernacular prose fiction did not occupy a high place in the literary hierarchy of pre-modern Japan

During the Heian period (late 8th to late 12th century), a number of works of vernacular (Japanese, as opposed to Chinese) prose fiction began to appear in imperial court circles. The most famous of these, Murasaki Shikibu’s masterpiece The Tale of Genji (early 11th century) is often referred to as “the world’s first novel” because of the way it brilliantly and beautifully represents the inner thoughts and personal conflicts of multiple characters, whose responses are not only realistic for their own cultural context but feel more true-to-life than those of many characters in works written closer to our own time. Many other such works, such as The Tales of Ise and The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter (both late 9th or early 10th century), have had a similarly enormous impact on later Japanese culture, with the former being seen as the apotheosis of the Heian courtly elegance and the latter being adapted as major motion pictures on multiple occasions.

But the prestige of these works was not something that they enjoyed in their own time.

A fact that is widely known among scholars, but seemingly not well-understood among either the general public in Japan or casual consumers of Japanese literature overseas, is that, under the influence of early Chinese literary theory, vernacular fiction was at the very bottom of the hierarchy of literary genres, below vernacular poetry (waka; see 1), literary poetry and prose in classical Chinese (kanshibun), and histories, with philosophical and religious (i.e., Confucian and Buddhist) texts occupying the highest rung on the ladder. While waka, the second-lowest, did receive imperial patronage, with 21 imperial waka anthologies being compiled over a period of around five centuries, it was not until relatively recently that kokugaku (sometimes translated “nativist”) scholars like Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) argued for the overturning of the traditional hierarchy that prioritized writing in Chinese, and it wasn’t until the educational reforms of the Meiji period (1868–1912) that this attitude began to set in beyond a relatively small number of scholars.

Needless to say, during earlier times both the semi-literate majority and even the functionally literate minority—all the way up to Fujiwara no Teika, arguably the most important poet and literary critic in Japanese history, and to an extent recognized as such even during his own lifetime—frequently chose to read and write vernacular prose fiction, but this did not constitute a rejection of more prestigious categories of literature as it would perhaps be characterized by people describing it today. A comparison might be drawn to contemporary cinema: many people enjoy watching Marvel movies, including plenty of people who have also seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Citizen Kane, and Kwaidan, and their choosing to indulge in—and likely spend more money on—the former would never be taken as meaning they see it as more important or artistically valuable than the latter.

5. Not all Heian–Kamakura vernacular prose fiction was written by women

I don’t think this misconception is particularly widespread among people who could name more than one work of Heian vernacular prose fiction, but I’ve definitely seen the idea promoted on at least one blog (which I won’t link as a courtesy), so here we go. The misconception seems to originate with works describing The Tale of Genji, which often emphasize that the text is written in vernacular Japanese as opposed to Chinese because, at the Heian court, Chinese was seen as “unladylike” and that male courtiers of the time preferred to write Chinese.

Fair enough, but if one looks at the other surviving monogatari (“tales” or “romances”, apparently having originally referred to accounts of the gods), the best-known today are almost certainly The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter and The Tales of Ise. Of these two, the former was likely written by a man, based, apparently, on content; the author is not known and none of the various attributions (all to men) have received much acceptance among scholars, but the consensus view seems to be that it was likely written by a male author (Donald Keene, Seeds in the Heart, p. 435; Katagiri Yōichi, NKBZ XII Taketori Monogatari, Ise Monogatari, Yamato Monogatari, Heich Monogatari, pp. 87–88). The latter is also of uncertain authorship, but it is most widely attributed, at least in an early form, to its apparent protagonist, the male waka poet Ariwara no Narihira.

Including these two and Genji, a total of around 20 monogatari from the Heian and Kamakura periods survive today, mostly by unknown or uncertain authors, and many of these are presumed, based on stylistic grounds or an interest in more “feminine” topics, to have been written by women, and indeed they likely were, with “Takasue’s Daughter” and a daughter of Minamoto no Yorikuni given the moniker “Senji” being important examples. But one of the few tales whose author is known beyond a reasonable doubt, The Tale of the Matsura Palace was written by Fujiwara no Teika. Teika, a male waka poet, was arguably the single most important figure in the pre-modern Japanese literary canon, having been responsible for editing and copying what would later become the definitive texts of Genji, Ise and other prominent works that were written centuries before his time and are now household names in Japan. Indeed, he is also responsible for a number of the attributions to the aforementioned Senji and Takasue’s Daughter.

It should go without saying that none of this is meant to imply anything stupid like that “women can’t write great literature” or to take away from the achievement of Murasaki. But on that subject…

4. The Tale of Genji wasn’t really the “first” anything

This is a bit iffy, but Genji‘s reputation as “the world’s first novel” is somewhat misleading without further clarification. It was one of a genre of what its author’s contemporaries called monogatari. The Tale of Genji itself, in the “Picture Contest” chapter, refers to an earlier work, which is still extant, as the ancestor of the monogatari. That work, The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter, is substantially shorter than the Genji, and in contemporary English terms it is closer in size to a “short story” than a “novel”, but the distinction is less one of length than of literary style, and it is not one that was recognized in pre-modern Japan. Or even in contemporary Japanese literary scholarship—modern scholars classify both The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter and The Tale of Genji as tsukuri-monogatari (i.e., works of pure fiction rather than quasi-biographical or historical accounts). And while Genji is the longest of the surviving monogatari (at least the longest of the ones that survive in a more-or-less intact state and whose length can be reasonably estimated), at least two earlier monogatariThe Tale of the Hollow Tree and The Tale of Ochikubo—are of a length that, if translated into a European language, they would be closer to a “novel” than a “short story”.

The Tale of Genji is really notable for its combining of elements found various earlier fictional narratives and “diaries” like The Tales of Ise and The Izumi Shikibu Diary that, if they were written in Europe or America today, would be called autobiographical or even historical novels into a massive, intricately detailed work of psychological fiction, which the others had done to varying degrees but never with the mastery of Murasaki Shikibu.

3. Women in the Heian period did read Chinese poetry and prose, even if they did not write it

If we accept that The Tale of Genji was written by a woman—a proposition accepted by virtually every modern scholar who has studied this question—then no one who has read an annotated Tale of Genji in either modern Japanese or English can doubt that its countless allusions to Po Chü-i and other Chinese poets demonstrate a strong familiarity on the part of the author. Meanwhile, Emperor Ichijō himself is said to have remarked that the Genji‘s author clearly had an understanding of the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, compiled in Chinese in the early 8th century).

2. The Man’yōshū is not “Japan’s oldest poetry anthology”

This (and this and this and this and this and this) is a simple mistranslation: 日本最古の和歌集 translates as “Japan’s oldest anthology of waka poetry” (see 1 for what waka poetry is), but translations produced for western tourists of general newspaper readers tend to want to avoid specialist terms like waka. For this reason, 和歌集 is often carelessly mistranslated as “poetry anthology”, without a check being done to confirm that Japan’s oldest waka anthology is the same as its oldest poetry anthology. It isn’t: the Kaifūsō, an anthology of kanshi (poems in classical Chinese) by Japanese poets was completed at least a decade before the Man’yōshū.

Curiously, the most notable instance of an English-speaking lay person getting this one right appears to be none other than Donald Trump. Or, rather, whoever wrote Donald Trump’s speech for his visit to the Imperial Palace. Trump side-stepped the problem by calling it “a collection of ancient Japanese poetry”, and interestingly the text of his speech uses the Hepburn romanization Man’yōshū rather than the simplified Manyoshu. These two factors strongly imply that Trump either had a specialist in Japanese literature write his speech (not likely) or whoever wrote the speech got their information from English Wikipedia rather than any of the major news sources that got it wrong: I’m frankly not sure if that’s a good thing or not. 😅

1. Haiku is not the only genre of classical Japanese poetry

The standalone hokku, later to be renamed “haiku”, was actually a relatively late development of classical Japanese poetry.

The origins of Japanese poetry actually go back to the pre-historic, pre-literate period, as many of the poems/songs included in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (two historical works compiled in the early 8th century) appear to have been passed down orally. Such verses are referred to by modern scholars as Kiki-kayō (“songs in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki“), and are primarily in the tanka (5-7-5-7-7) and chōka (5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-…-5-7-7) metres. Other poetic forms that existed in the 8th century and earlier are the sedōka (5-7-7-5-7-7) and bussokuseki-ka (5-7-5-7-7-7). These forms are all found in the Man’yōshū, a monumental anthology that was completed in the late 8th century but includes a substantial number of poems going back to the mid-7th century. The bussokuseki-ka, although under-represented in the Man’yōshū, also survives in a stone inscription on a Buddha’s Footprint monument at Yakushi-ji Temple, dating to the mid-8th century.

These four forms—the tanka, the chōka, the sedōka, and the bussokuseki-ka—are collectively called uta (“poetry”) or waka (“Japanese poetry”, as distinguished from kanshi, or poetry in classical Chinese), with the former term being more common in pre-modern times and the latter being preferred by modern scholars. However, by the early 10th century, when the next major anthology of Japanese poetry was compiled, all but the tanka had practically gone extinct, and so from this point on uta or waka came to refer almost exclusively to poetry in the 5-7-5-7-7 metre. For this reason, modern scholars tend to refer to this type of poetry in a classical (pre-Meiji) context as simply waka, and use the word tanka to refer to either (a) modern (post-Meiji) poetry or (b) the 5-7-5-7-7 poems included in the Kojiki and Man’yōshū as opposed to their other poetry.

There was also linked verse, or renga, whose traditional origins are attributed to a poetic exchange in the Kojiki between the pre-historic Prince Yamato-takeru and an old man. During the Heian period, renga were mostly tan-renga, or “short linked verse”, typically either with one poet composing the first part of a waka (5-7-5) and another poet completing the waka (7-7) or the inverse (7-7 then 5-7-5). This would later evolve into the chō-renga or kusari-renga (“long linked verse” or “chain linked verse”), which typically involved more than two poets and could go on much longer than 31 syllables. Renga became the dominant literary form in the Japanese middle ages (late 12th to early 17th century); while waka maintained a certain amount of prestige due to its association with courtly culture, and many nobles as well as members of the ascendant military class composed waka, modern literary critics generally show much more favour to the renga of this period. The Shinkokin Wakashū, compiled at the very beginning of this period, is generally seen as the last of the great waka anthologies, while the prestige and popularity of the renga continued to grow.

Toward the end of the middle ages, poets started to compose haikai, consisting of the first verse of a haikai (literally “humorous” or “irreverent”) renga. It wasn’t until more than a century later that Matsuo Bashō would elevate this new genre. But waka continued to enjoy great literary prestige: it remains to this day Japan’s national poetic form, and is the form practiced at the New Year’s poetry gathering at the Imperial Palace each year. And yet, every time I speak to other westerners about waka, I get the question “Oh, is that like haiku?” and when a Japanese period film includes a reference to waka this is frequently distorted in the English subtitles (or at least in the film’s reception in English-speaking countries).

Hopefully, this blog entry will have sufficiently explained why, no, waka isn’t like haiku; haiku is like waka.

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Did Kurosawa really give a “samurai sword” to John Sturges?

Hi blog, long time no see.

Just been reading around a bit and noticed this article.

Now, the English phrase “samurai sword” is problematic. The word “samurai” is almost exclusively used in English to refer to a member of the medieval/early-modern Japanese social class known as buke (武家), but probably the vast majority of the physical blades that are referred to as “samurai swords” have no direct connection to the pre-modern buke, as they were produced after the old Japanese caste system was abolished and could be freely owned (purchased) by people regardless of their former social class.

I think the phrase more often than not just means “Japanese or Japanese-looking gently-curved single-edged sword”.

The question then arises: What kind of sword did Kurosawa give Sturges, if this anecdote is accurate?

Now, Kurosawa Akira was (as far as I have heard) himself of historically buke stock. This means that it is at least possible he owned a sword that had actually been carried by a “samurai” and so could be accurately called a “samurai sword”. But if this was the case, such a sword would have been a priceless family heirloom. Would he give such an item away to a fellow filmmaker, just because he enjoyed the latter’s movie? Or even because he appreciated what a tribute it had been to his own movie? Let alone a foreign filmmaker whose understanding of such a sword’s significance would probably not be much greater than that of one who would mistakenly call any mass-produced Japanese military sword a “samurai sword”?

So I would say that, if this anecdote is basically accurate, the “samurai sword” in question was not a priceless and irreplaceable heirloom that had been passed down through Kurosawa’s samurai lineage for centuries, but rather a trinket that Kurosawa bought for the occasion; pricey, maybe, but not something one should normally call a “samurai sword”, especially given that Kurosawa himself was a descendant of real Samurai.

But this is not the real issue here. I’m still not convinced that the anecdote is even accurate. I searched around a bit, and couldn’t find any source for the story prior to 2002. Now, a professional film critic might possibly have heard the story from one of the people involved (given that Ryan’s career appears to have begun in the 1980s, I doubt he himself was present at the event).

But if this story originated with something Sturges (who died in 1992) had written or said, wouldn’t it have appeared in some source prior to the article I linked to at the top of this post? And if the story had originally come from something Kurosawa had written or said in an interview, would there not be more sources available in Japanese than English?

I’m seriously asking — the problem of translating “samurai sword” into Japanese makes it difficult to locate sources for it in that language. Anyone else have any ideas?

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うちの課の 忘年会で 梅の酒
それは昨夜で 今二日酔い

十二月 師走ともいう それでもさ
我走らぬは 師ならぬあかし

わが庵に 降れる白雪 しずかなる
けれども除雪 めんどうくさい

三博士 星を見上げて ユダまでは
ラクダに乗りて 腰は痛そう

サンタさん 北極に住み 一夜中
外で働く 寒くならぬか

薔薇色の 服着て空を 飛んで来る
ヒゲも剃らない 変なおじさん

どこからか ホホホの声が 聞こえてく
恐ろしい人 サンタクロース

我今や 現代狂歌 詠みつづく
難しければ 適当に詠む


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Sankyoku-bu Concert

So yesterday I went to the Teiki Ensōkai. I had been looking forward to it since … well basically since the previous one last November.


It was amazing. There was a repeat of the piece whose premiere I attended last year (the 50th concert), and I was privileged to see the final performance in a Sankyoku-bu concert of my o-sewa ni natta senpai M. The kimono of the 4th-years were all beautiful. Two of the pieces were moon-themed; the first of these made creative use of a disco-ball, the other a spotlight against the upper-right rear of the stage. It was beautiful.

I also ran into Other M (a lot of the members of this group have names beginning with the same letter in English) for the first time in eight months. She had graduated and moved down to the Quantow to work. I was only able to exchange a few words with her, but I was still very happy to see that she is doing well.

That morning I had had my first Santa gig of this year. It’s going to be a long December. This was undoubtedly the best possible way to start it out, though. 🙂

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My mother in front of the tengu of Kurama Station

Me with Fumie at the same site, June 2010


最初はもちろん英語版ウィキペディアを見てみました。「Tengu」という記事に立派そうな参考文献のリストがあったので、それらの書籍で調べようと思いましたが、特に僕の目を引いたのはロアルド・ヌットセン(Roald Knutsen)の『Tengu – The Shamanic and Esoteric Origins of Japanese Martial Arts』(天狗:日本武道の神秘的なシャーマニズムの起源)でした。日本の古い伝説についての百科事典的な記事には少し不思議なタイトルだと思いました。それでも、僕の大好きな源義経も鞍馬山の天狗から武術を習ったというので、このような天狗と武術を繋げた伝説などを論じる民俗学の本だろうし、とても興味を持ちました。

牛若丸僧正坊隋武術覚圖 "Ushiwaka-maru (Yoshitsune) learns martial arts under Sojobo"


話は戻りますが、ヌットセン氏の本をGoogleブックスーで調べても少しガッカリしました。無料プレビューもダウンロードできる電子版もなく、読者が書いたレビューももちろんありませんでした。アマゾンもあまりためにならず、レビュー一つもなくて、自分で読んでみるのに7600円 かかるということです。しかし出版社の公式ページには不思議で興味深い要約文は載っていました。その真ん中のところに「the early discovery that the tengu of the Muromachi period were interacting with the deadly serious bugei masters(室町時代の天狗達が武芸の天才達と関わっていたことに気づいた[のが一生続く研究するきっかけだった])[…]Here were beings(この生き物達は[仏法僧が考えたジャータカや俗なおとぎ話に登場する妖怪ではなく恐ろしい]存在だった)[…]As this study shows, the part-hidden tengu under review passed on and taught the clearest theory of tactics and strategy to bushi(この研究論文が論証するように、隠れていた天狗達は武士達にもっとも鮮明な戦術や兵法を伝えたのだ)」とありますが、この本によると天狗が実際に存在して中世日本の武士に武芸を教えたということだそうです。


著者ヌットセン氏について」というセクションによると、数十年日本の伝統武術を習ったそうですが、「After studying Art and Design he served as a regular in the Intelligence Corps and followed with a successful career in graphic design, choreographing complex medieval combat sequences for a computer film project in England and the USA, and writing(造形芸術の勉強をしてから情報軍団に入って、それからグラフィックデザインのキャリアを始めて、イギリスや米国で複雑な中世戦乱のシナリオをコンピューター・フィルム・プロジェクトで計画したりして、本も書きました)」という学歴を説明する文に日本語、(日本の)歴史、俗学、神話学などの話はありません。

僕も数年間アイルランドで剣道を習いましたが、そこでもう一つ習ったことは、上級の剣道家になっても日本語や日本史を知るわけではないということです。剣道を習うのに日本史の研究は必要ではないし、日本史を正しく理解するのにも剣道の必要はありません。ヌットセン氏の作品はそれぞれ面白いはずですが、どんな参考文献を使ったか気になります。上に引用した要約文のように天狗が実際に存在したと本当に書いているかも少し知りたいです。学術的な書籍の出版社としての300年の歴史を持っているブリル社に信頼性があり、擬似説(fringe theoryは日本語で何っていうの??)なんて出版しないと思うので、好奇心がわいてきています。


ところで、もう一つ英語版ウィキペディアで気になった点ですが、よく聞く日本語表現「天狗になる」は、うぬぼれる人が死後(地獄などに行かないで)天狗になるということからできたということです。この情報源は『ゲゲゲの鬼太郎』の作者水木しげるだそうで、水木氏は信頼性が高いでしょうが、僕は今までこの表現と「鼻が高い」という他の慣用句に関係があると思っていました。よく考えれば天狗の鼻は「高い」というより「長い」ですが・・・ 😛

「天狗」についての随想ですが、これぐらいで切っておきたいと思います。またいつかこの話題に戻ってみようと思います。楽しかったから。 😀

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On Tengu: Some Musings

In July, when my parents visited me, we visited Mt. Kurama (鞍馬山) in Kyoto. As I predicted, they were impressed by the huge tengu (天狗) face just outside the station, as I was when I first visited here three years ago.

My mother in front of the tengu of Kurama Station

Me with Fumie at the same site, June 2010

I decided recently to do a bit of research on tengu and write a short essay. It’s been a while since I looked into old Japanese folk-tales of ghosts and monsters, which one could say was how I got my start in studying Japanese, so it seemed appropriate.

I started, of course, by checking Wikipedia. Their article on “tengu” contains what looked like a relatively good bibliography, so I figured I’d look into some of those books. Doing so, I noticed Roald Knutsen’s Tengu – The Shamanic and Esoteric Origins of Japanese Martial Arts. An odd title, I thought, for a book cited in an article on folklore. But then, my hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune did, according to legend, learn his martial skill from the tengu of Mt. Kurama, so maybe it is a folkloric study of the relationship between tengu and the martial arts, which of course peaked my interest.

牛若丸僧正坊隋武術覚圖 "Ushiwaka-maru (Yoshitsune) learns martial arts under Sojobo"

“Yoshitsune (right) learns martial arts under Sojobo”

(As an aside, the central part of the above image actually appeared on the cover of the copy of Mitford’s famous Tales of Old Japan that I read back in 2006. No one told me that it was an image of the story of Yoshitsune, who as far as I recall doesn’t appear in that old book.)

Anyway, checking the Google Books page for Knutsen’s book proved disappointing. No preview or E-book, and no reviews. Checking Amazon was not much better: not a single review, and apparently if I want to read it I need to import it at the hefty fee of at least 7,600 yen. However, the publisher’s website included an interesting summary. The middle part of this summary (the early discovery that the tengu of the Muromachi period were interacting […] Here were beings […] As this study shows, the part-hidden tengu under review passed on and taught the clearest theory of tactics and strategy to bushi) seems to imply that at least some tengu actually existed and taught their martial skills to the warriors of medieval Japan.

Now I’m more curious than ever about the contents of this book.

The publisher’s “biographical note” on Knutsen describes him as having spent decades studying traditional Japanese martial arts, but the sentence After studying Art and Design he served as a regular in the Intelligence Corps and followed with a successful career in graphic design, choreographing complex medieval combat sequences for a computer film project in England and the USA, and writing interestingly mentions no serious qualifications in Japanese, history or folklore studies.

I studied kendō in Ireland for a few years and I can tell you being a high-ranking kendōka does not automatically grant one a degree of knowledge of the Japanese language or of Japanese history. One does not have to know about Japanese history to be good at kendō, and one does not have to be good at kendō to understand Japanese history. I am sure Knutsen’s books are all good reads, but I am curious about what kind of sources he uses, and if he actually makes the claim that appears to be attributed to him in the summary. I trust Brill not to publish something on the fringe, so I’m really curious.

Has anyone read this book, or otherwise have access to any of Knutsen’s other works?

Anyway, a point mentioned in the Wikipedia article on tengu that I found interesting was that the common Japanese phrase 天狗になる (tengu ni naru, literally “become a tengu”, but meaning “put on airs” or “become arrogant”) comes from the belief that arrogant people become tengu after death. This statement is cited to the writer of GeGeGe no Kitarō (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎), who probably knows what he’s talking about. But I had always assumed that this had something to do with the other Japanese idiom 鼻が高い (hana ga takai, literally “having a high nose”, but meaning “be arrogant”) and the fact that tengu … well, their noses are more “long” than “high”, but still. 😛

I think this is enough musing on the subject of tengu for today. I may return to this subject in the future. It has been fun.

UPDATE: I translated the above into Japanese, which can be viewed here.

Posted in Blog entries with Japanese translations, Essays, Japanese Mythology and Folklore, Martial Arts, Sightseeing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Storm is Coming, or, Climbing Mt. Iwate

So, tomorrow is a typhoon. I’ve been in Japan in this general typhoon season at least four times so far, but never really seen anything more than the accompanying rain. Tomorrow, I’m wondering whether I’ll be able to make it to work. (>.<)

Anyway, on Sunday myself and other AJET members, as well several Interac ALTs, other members of Iwate’s foreign community, and Japanese comrades, climbed Mt. Iwate. The mountain is the largest in Iwate, and one of the largest in Tohoku. It towers over the Morioka skyline, and last time I tried it I had muscle pains for a week.

Last time, of course, I was wearing runners, jeans and a shoulder bag.

This time I bought proper hiking boots, an epic rucksack, and packed appropriately. But it was still very difficult. When I bought my boots I had a choice between 28.5 with broad width, or 29 but too tight on the edges. Apparently, my feet are about 28.7. On the way up, I stayed comfortably ahead of the other members of the self-dubbed “Slow Group”, even on a somewhat slippery and very windy 500-metre stretch (I actually deliberately stayed ahead there, since I didn’t want to interact with anyone in a way that might draw my attention away from not falling). As we neared the cabin, I got so far ahead of the rest of my group that I could no longer see them. It was the first snow. It was very cold, and with none of my companions in earshot I got a bit lonely. I sat down and waited for them to catch up.

This was not a good idea. I think sitting down in the snow almost added a nasty cold to my muscle pain.

Anyway, once the others caught up we were not far from the cabin. I sat down there. I joined about six others in deciding not to climb the cliff-face up to the summit. (Did I mention the strong winds and the snow?) The ones who came down an hour or so later apparently agreed that we were the smart ones. 😉

ashibiki no/Iwate no yama ni/noboru kana/Iwate no mine ni/hatsuyuki furite
On Mt. Iwate/that great and tall Mt. Iwate/will I climb;/on its peak/is that the first snow.

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Belated overview of the last week-and-a-half

Sorry not to post for a while. Not long after I started this blog, I entered a very hectic work week, part of which saw me on an overnight trip (Skills Development Conference for Iwate’s ALTs) and staying in a dormitory with limited internet access. Then my summer holidays were this week, so I’m currently in Kyoto.

Last weekend was a long weekend, so I had trouble getting a hotel for the full nine days, and so I took a chance with a ryokan I found on by the name of Ryokan Hinomoto. They also didn’t have internet access, and circumstances forced me to have to change rooms in there twice. I moved to the Shijo-Karasuma Toyoko Inn on Monday and am there now. But as it turned out this week most of my friends were free in the evenings but not the afternoons, so in the afternoons I went sightseeing alone, then went out for dinner with friends in the evenings (twice in Osaka), and when I got back I tended to sleep rather than post here.

Brief outline of my activities in Kinki since last Saturday:

Saturday, 21-09-2013: Traveled to Asuka Village in Nara Prefecture to see the oldest Daibutsu statue in Japan (飛鳥大仏), on the way visiting the Soga no Iruka grave (蘇我入鹿首塚), and then stopping by the Manyo Culture Museum (奈良県立万葉文化館). I was pleasantly surprised to find that Nara’s prefectural museums are free entry for foreigners. Then I went to the Moon-Viewing Party (月を観る会), which is apparently held annually in Asuka Village, and heard lectures on the moon and the homophonous tsuki tree (槻) as themes in Man’yōshū poems and other classical literary works. (As for what tsuki is in English, apparently it’s the old name for the keyaki tree [欅], which in English is primarily known by it’s Japanese name…) This day I was overwhelmed with the majesty and age of what is in a way the oldest part of Japan. The sights of the old temple ruins, of Mount Kagu, and of the great Buddha statue were enough to move me almost to tears.

Sunday, 22-9-2013: Walked around Kyoto, met my friend N in the evening for drinks in and Irish pub in Gion. Good times all round.

Monday, 23-9-2013: Changed hotels, visited the Museum of Kyoto (京都文化博物館), which was massive, then went for a walk around the Imperial Palace Garden (京都御苑), visited the site where Murasaki Shikibu supposedly wrote The Tale of Genji. Unfortunately the Kyoto City Historical Archives (京都市歴史資料館) were closed.

Tuesday, 24-9-2013: Re-visited the Archives, which was interesting. Went to Kyoto University (京都大学) to retrieve documents related to grad school. The entrance exam looks very intimidating, so I need to brush up my ability to read not only classical Japanese grammar (古文) but also kanbun (漢文) and calligraphic script (草書体). Lot of work ahead of me. While drinking tea and waiting for the School of Letters office to open after lunch, a man approached me and asked me about the difference between the English words “atmosphere” and “ambiance”. We had an interesting chat and I gave him my e-mail. In the evening I had dinner in a Spanish restaurant in Osaka with my friend M. I realized sangria is quite tasty, but this particular restaurants “vegetable sangria” was not. (>_<)

Wednesday, 25-9-2013: Went to Osaka to meet my friend A in the afternoon. Before meeting her I tried to get the equivalent documents as mentioned above in Kyoto U from Osaka University, but it turns out their main campus is not where the literature school is, so after much to-ing and fro-ing I found it. They have a system in which prospective students contact a professor who interests them and studies under them as a kenshūsei for 6 months before starting grad school proper. It seems very interesting, but I’m not sure if any of their professors’ research interests match my own. From 17:30 I went for okonomiyaki with A from 17:30, and then afterwards to the Starbucks in Nanba, which had a surprisingly extensive library. I must go back there again …

Thursday, 26-9-2013 (today): I went back to Osaka to finish my grad school inquiries in Kwansei Gakuin University and Kansai University. Kwansei’s campus was gorgeous, but very closed off and over a kilometre uphill from the train station. Kansai was also difficult to navigate, as it is the first place I have been where neither the literature school nor the grad-school office were able to answer my questions, and I had to go to the entrance exam center. But when I got there they were very helpful. Still, I think of all the places I have been in the last few days, Kyoto University would be my first choice. I realized this week just how much I have missed this town. 😀

Now, I’m going out to get more okonomiyaki with my friend I. I’ll give more detailed descriptions of the above later, hopefully.

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