Christ, what an

Election! Let's get political just one time, and take a trip down Painful Memory Lane before the LDP fade away for good. Soon-to-be-ex-Prime Minister Asō Tarō (I wrote this on Saturday night) has been famous for his shitsugen 失言 ("mistaken speech", i.e. verbal goofs, usually insulting or offensive) ever since an early speech in 1979 when he addressed his supporters as "little people" (下々のみなさん). Here are a few of his more recent hits.

One of his most recent blunders was at a Town Hall-style meeting with a bunch of university students. One of them asked if he didn't think that Japan's droopy economy had contributed to the population problem by discouraging people from getting married. Well, duh, agreed Asō: "If you haven't got any money, you're better off not getting married" (金がねえで結婚はしねえ方がええ — note beranmē-style accent, flattening /ai/ and /i:/ into /e:/).

No doubt realizing that people weren't going to take this well, Asō then explained that he himself had always had plenty of money, and yet he hadn't gotten married until 43! So it isn't like money = marriage or anything, right? (Seems Asō is not aware of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions.) He then dug the hole yet deeper by explaining that marriage-readiness was really about respect, best earned by finding a steady job. You know, like the ones which have become much rarer as a result of the economic decline over which his party has presided.

As J-Cast points out, this incident wasn't as bad as it was widely reported: many stories were simplified to "PM TO POOR SINGLES: DROP DEAD" levels. Still, the tone-deafness alone makes it worthy of this list.

Another classic Asō moment was his August 2008 campaign speech in Ehime after torrential rains (豪雨) had devastated the prefecture. In front of Nagoya station, Asō mused on the mysteries of fate: "In Okazaki, there was 140 mm of rain in one hour. Fortunately this was in Anjō and Okazaki, but if the same thing happened in Nagoya, this whole area would be flooded" (岡崎の豪雨は1時間に140ミリだった。安城や岡崎だったからいいけど、名古屋で同じことが起きたら、この辺全部洪水よ). You can imagine how Anjō and Okazaki took that.

Or there was the time in 2005 when Asō attended the opening of the Kyushu National Museum and pronounced Japan "the only country" with "one culture, one civilization, one people, and one language" (一文化、一文明、一民族、一言語). This was a mistake on many levels. There's the huge cultural and linguistic variation even within the population that identifies as unambiguously Japanese. There's the wider variation found in communities who were citizenified more recently — your Ryukyu Kingdom, your Ainu. And, of course, there's the fact that the museum's maiden exhibition was all about... Japan's historical ties with the rest of Asia, and the intrajaponic multiculturalism that had arisen as a result.

And of course, there are the kanji goofs. It's not really worth detailing these — there's a Wikipedia section, and if you read Japanese, a quick Googling of 麻生太郎 漢字 will get you what you need.

These errors are often attributed to low intelligence and/or the decadent effects of reading too many comics (which Asō is known to love). I understand why people were prone to assume the worst — constantly spouting off like an arrogant, callous, bigoted toff doesn't make you a sympathetic figure — but I don't buy the simple "kanji error = mental defect" argument.

Take, for example, his two well-known mispronunciations of 有 as /yu:/ instead of /u/ in the words 有無 umu and 未曾有 mizou. The thing is, /yu:/ is a much more common pronunciation of 有 than /u/. Asō's mistake is the kanji equivalent of saying "goed" instead of "went." It indicates ignorance of the exception, not the rule.

Thus, I would argue that Asō's problem is insufficient practice connecting kanji with the spoken Japanese language (or dyslexia preventing improvement despite practice), not insufficient g. And in any case, jeering at kanji pronunciation errors is a stone that my glass homeowner's insurance won't allow me to throw.


Honkyoku as number 1

Via the Shakuhachi Forum, KITAMORI Shinsuke's MA thesis: Shakuhachi Culture Taking Root in the U.S.A: The Construction of "Japanese" Authenticity and the Lifeblood of American Players [PDF]. tl;dr summary: US shakuhachi players dig the historical connection to Buddhism and premodern Japanese tradition, Japanese players not so much.

[T]he globalization of shakuhachi has occurred in an area that I term the "myth-scape," which is composed of imagined Japanese space Americans have perceived in Zen, bonsai, samurai, ukiyoe, haiku, Noh, etc. In other words, "myth-scape" means "authentic space." Authenticity is mostly different from the actual real situation, but creating authenticity has a significant meaning for people who are involved with different cultures.

I've been thinking about these things for a long time too. The most popular organized shakuhachi tradition (ryū 流) in Japan, particularly western Japan, is the Tozan ryū. This was founded in the late 19th century by NAKAO Tozan 中尾都山 as an attempt to bring what he saw as the modernity and rigor of European art music to the shakuhachi world. Accordingly, the Tozan ryū does not transmit the pre-Meiji komusō pieces most strongly associated with Buddhism, generally known today as (koten) honkyoku ("[classical] core repertore"). Instead, they have new compositions by Tozan and his associates (which, interestingly, are referred to within the Tozan ryū as "honkyoku"), only a couple of which borrow titles or themes from the classical honkyoku tradition. Another huge difference is that most Tozan-ryū honkyoku are for two or more players, while almost all classical honkyoku are played solo.

Contrasting with the Tozan-ryū you have various modernized komusō traditions, the most well-known of which is probably the Kinko ryū. Their honkyoku tradition began as a collection gathered from Buddhist temples around the nation by 18th-century monk KUROSAWA Kinko 黒沢琴古, and even today Kinko-ryū players resist attempts to force the round peg of their music into the square hole of the European art-music tradition.

There is resistance and there is resistance, of course; some players prefer instruments that match European scales and concert pitches so that they can jam with non-shakuhachi players more easily, some favor older instrument designs with less compatible tunings, and others follow aesthetic ideals leading them to reject even late-Edo developments in shakuhachi design like smoothed-out bores in favor of what they understand to be more authentically komusō (or fuke) designs. All, however, share the understanding that they are part of an unbroken tradition stretching back through the centuries to a time when shakuhachi was part of a religious practice.

Now, min'yō (folk song) players are also a significant presence in Japan, at least as important as the organized ryū. Min'yō are an important part of regional identity in Japan, and arguably the most accessible and therefore marketable of any traditional Japanese musical form. But min'yō have no universal component: if you're from Akita, then Hideko bushi might evoke all kinds of feelings in you, but if you're from Ohio, it's just another pentatonic folk song.

So while a Japanese person might take up shakuhachi because they want to participate in their local (or national) min'yō scene, i.e. the instrument is a means to an end, non-Japanese players who decide to take the instrument up are likely to have been attracted by the instrument specifically, and therefore to some form of honkyoku, which are after all the pieces in which the shakuhachi is most striking and distinctive. And this is self-perpetuating: if no-one outside Japan bothers to learn min'yō, and you are outside Japan too, then even if you wanted to learn it, who would teach you?

So that leaves Tozan vs Kinkoid — but it's not a level playing field here either. There are fewer Tozan teachers outside Japan, which means that there are also fewer students and fewer people to play those multi-flute compositions with. Kinko teachers are easier to find, the Kinko repertoire is more solo-friendly, and most of the resources available in libraries and online are Kinkocentric. And, Japan-specific mythologizing aside, the backlash against cultural imperialism in all its forms has put ideas about "authenticity" and "purity" in the spotlight in a way that undoubtedly favors Kinko (200 years of explicit tradition + misty centuries of wandering monks) over Tozan (invented 100 years ago by a dude seeking to make the music more Western).

Further: if you join the Kinko ryū, your teacher is likely to be seriously dedicated to the shakuhachi, impressing on you the gravity of what you are doing: learning tunes passed on orally for centuries, another link in a very long chain that leads back to a religious community containing many ex-samurai. And, arguably, you can't learn to play Kinko-ryū music unless you internalize certain aesthetic ideals that are specifically Japanese. It's not just about getting the right pitches.

Thus, Kitamori's "myth-scape" — the zen, the samurai, the nature-centrism, the wabi-sabi — is of necessity transmitted along with the music, because the main tradition transmitting the music has made it part of the tradition. This is equally the case in Japan. The differences are that in Japan teaching of cultural issues doesn't have to be so explicit, and (more importantly) the "shakuhachi as culture" diehards are such a minority compared to the vast numbers of "shakuhachi as instrument" (Tozan) and "shakuhachi as ensemble voice" (min'yō) players, who are much rarer outside Japan for the reasons described above.

It may well be the case that the pre-existing "myth-scape," particularly interest in zen, was part of the reason that the Kinko ryū spread faster and wider outside Japan than the Tozan ryū. But at some point along the line, the extra-Japanese shakuhachi community entered a feedback cycle, self-sustaining and self-"correcting." It's surprising, actually, how many shakuhachi players report having no interest in Japan before being struck by the sound of the instrument alone.


Chicken ramen

Tomorrow marks 51 years since the first instant ramen ever went on sale, produced by Andō Momofuku 安藤百福's company Nissin Foods. The cost to the consumer was 35 yen per serving, and you could have any flavor you wanted as long as it was chicken.

Note that cup noodles would not be invented for another decade or so. Chicken ramen was and is BYO bowl (and lid). This mild inconvenience was elevated to prime Showa nostalgia by Miyazaki Hayao in Ponyo, and indeed served as the plot for innumerable Nissin commercials, such as these examples from the 80s.

Dig that pseudo-Chinese music — one of the voices either is or is supposed to evoke a charumera, the double-reed instrument noodle-sellers play at night. In Japan, you see, ramen is a member of the set of Chinese cuisine (although things get confusing when the chicken ramen is curry-flavored). The Wikipedia article linked above even claims that the word "ramen" wasn't a nationwide thing until Nissin made it so — it seems that it displaced local variation that included multiple terms translating to "Chinese soba." All of these are now extremely shibui, and one (Shina soba) is actually offensive to many.

In closing, here's an earlier commercial from the mid-60s showing the role instant ramen plays in the busy pre-Bubble young male professional's life: something to snack on while drinking.


Searching out an old letter

Michael Dirda's recent essay on Sei Shōnagon's Pillow book (specifically, the new-ish translation for Penguin by Meredith McKinney) is a fine 101 on the book, complete with balanced appraisal of its treatment in English so far and even suggested European reading along the same lnes. One passage that caught my eye was this comparison of McKinney's style with that of Ivan Morris, previous Penguin translator and go-to Heianographer:

[... A]mong "Things that make you feel nostalgic," McKinney includes this item: "On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it." But here is Morris: "It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love." The McKinney version is doubtless accurate in its succinctness and may even reflect a slightly different original text, but Morris's words catch us by the heart.

I'm not sure which text McKinney used — both Penguin Classics and ANU's Asian Studies department have woefully inadequate web presences — but Morris says that his work is "based primarily on the Shunshō shōhon [春曙抄本] version as edited by Kaneko Motoomi [金子元臣] in 1927 and on the Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei edition of the Sankanbon 三巻本 ["three-scroll manuscript"] version edited by Ikeda Kikan [池田亀鑑] and Ikigami Shinji [岸上慎二] in 1953." According to Wikipedia, the Shunshō shōhon was edited by Edo scholar Kitamura Kigin 北村季吟 and based on the Nōin 能因 manuscript.

Let's take a look at a few versions of the original from three-scroll- and Nōin-based manuscripts, then:

1. また、をりからあはれなりし人の文、雨などふりつれづれなる日、さがし出でたる。
2. また折からあはれなりし人の文、雨などの降りて徒然なる日さがし出でたる。
3. あはれなりし人のふみ。雨なとふりて。つれ/\なる日さがし出たる。

"1" is from Ikeda Kikan's version for Iwanami, based on the "three-scroll" manuscript. (I have it in bunko form.) "2" is from the University of Virginia's e-text of the Nōin manuscript. And "3" is transcribed from Kyushu University's online scan of an Edo-period published version of the Nōin text.

Both content and form are similar in all three. The main differences are use of kanji, and the missing mata + worikara ("and" + "at the time") at the start of KU's version, which could be scribal error. I suspect that this passage is much the same in all manuscripts, and in particular I doubt that any has it chopped up into sentences the way Morris's translation is. (Note that Edo usage of "。" doesn't correspond to a full-stop "。" today. Think of it as a general "pause" character.)

A painfully strict translation retaining clause order would go something like this:

[And] when a letter from a person that moved one's heart [at the time] is, on a rainy, idle day, searched out.

The succinctness of Meredith's version does, as Dirda suspects, hug the outline of the original more closely. Morris's technique of dividing one polyclausal Heian sentence into several simple English ones makes his version more cinematic and immediate, but does not convey to the reader the texture of Heian literature, the long and twisting chains of thought finally tied off by a verb in the form reserved for ending statements.

The other trade-off is that the assumptions Morris makes to set the scene are not always justified by the source. Here, Morris's image of someone hit by a wave of forgotten emotions when they stumble across an old love letter is certainly more moving than the idea of someone searching out the letter because they want a fix of those emotions to pass the time. But the fact remains that the verb sagasu means "search for" or "search out", and never (as far as I can tell) "come across [by chance]." Maybe Kigin disagreed.

In closing, just because this information should be Googlable, here is McKinney's treatment of the famous first line:

In spring, the dawn — when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.


Endless summer

Goi 語意 ("The meanings of words") was written by influential kokugaku scholar KAMO no Mabuchi 賀茂真淵 in the 18th century, as both propaganda for and explanation of the Japanese language.

The first half of the book elaborates on the superiority of Japanese when compared with the languages used in the lands of "the receding sun" (China) and the "setting sun" (India). Summarized, Kamo's claim is that continental tastes for "cleverness" (巧みなる事) and other vices have resulted in unwieldy, unnecessary, and unpleasant. Japan, on the other hand, boasts a population with "directness of spirit" (人の心なほければ): it therefore has no writing system and only the 50 sounds available during the age of the gods (voiced variants are excluded here).

"I hear a lot of love for the period before Japan borrowed its writing system from the mainland," some hypothetical joker asks in part four, "But without borrowing writing, wouldn't it be impossible to transmit ideas from age to age and place to place?" Kamo responds:

This is like blaming the pure upper reaches of a river for the muddied waters one draws at its mouth. [...] When the people of this land were direct in spirit, there were few things and few words, no-one erred when they spoke, no-one forget what they heard. When no-one errs when they speak, all understand well; when no-one forgets what they hear, words travel far and endure through the ages; when the people have directness of spirit, the Emperor need speak only seldom, and when these rare pronouncements are made, they travel like the wind to the four corners of the nation, and flow like water into the sprits of the people.

I see a terrible beauty in this spare utopian vision. I imagine rich green hills under a deep blue sky, the midday air hot and still. No people in sight, nothing moves, just the cries of birds and insects, and perhaps an imperial prescript ringing from afar like a distant bell. An endless, divine summer holiday, with no adulthood to come after.


Miyagi Michio thinks of the children

Asian Music, Volume 36 has an excellent article by Anne Prescott on MIYAGI Michio 宮城道雄's koto works for children. Turns out that Miyagi not only revolutionized koto performance and composition, he also redesigned koto pedagogy from the ground up. Why? Compassion.

The first koto piece that Miyagi learned was reportedly "Shiki no Hana" 四季の花 (Flowers of the Four Seasons) (Kikkawa 1990: 62), a short, easy piece with the following lyrics: "Spring is sakura, Summer is citrus, Autumn is chrysanthemum, Winter is daffodil and plum blossoms."

Although this earliest recollection of learning to play the koto was pleasant, Miyagi’s experiences soon turned painful. Miyagi found the piece "Musume Dōjoji" 娘道女寺 to be so difficult that regardless of the threatened consequences, he was unable to memorize the lyrics. After finally admitting to his teacher that it was impossible for him to recall this piece, his teacher replied, "You can’t remember it because you don’t understand the meaning" (Kikkawa 1990: 67). This is a portion of the lyrics with which Miyagi struggled: "The great temple bell harbors myriad malices. Struck at midnight, the bell echoes the evanescence of all things. Struck at the ghost hour, the bell echoes the birth and death of all beings. Struck at daybreak, the bell echoes supreme enlightenment. Struck at sunset, the bell echoes the gospel of Nirvana" (Tsuge 1983: 77).

The English version is clearer than the original Japanese, but even in English it requires some effort to understand. Imagine then a ten-year-old child who, because he was blind, had never attended school, had never studied classical literature and archaic language, and had never seen the kabuki play from which this jiuta piece is thought to have been taken. No wonder Miyagi had difficulty remembering the lyrics. Miyagi often mentioned this particular experience in his writings and conversations, and he cited this as one of the main reasons he took to composing simple works with lyrics that were attractive to and easily understood by children.

Lyrics for Musume Dōjoji variants are all over the internet, but here's one version of the Japanese corresponding to the English above:


Eventually, Japanese temples learned to tone their bells down a bit. Today, struck at daybreak, they mostly just echo breakfast.

And can you hear Miyagi's "little songs" online? You can! here are some recordings of the koto songs, and here are some of the partially overlapping sangen set. (Sangen:Shamisen::Violin:Fiddle.) I like "Yuki no penkiya" 雪のペンキ屋 (Snow, the painter):

Snow the painter paints the roof,
The gate roof, the storehouse roof, the temple roof,
He paints the roads, he paints the fields, he paints the mountains too,
He must have a big, big, brush!


Tokyo Fiancée, administrivia

My review of Amélie NOTHOMB's new-to-English Tokyo Fiancée is up at Néojaponisme. My verdict: it's fun, but offers insight only into its narrator's psyche. For a dissenting opinion from elsewhere within Japan, try Japan Navigator's take (good comments, too).

In other news, my wife recently opened the Suzunoki Cafe すずの木カフェ five minutes from Chigasaki station. The website is now online (design by fellow Néojaponiste Ian LYNAM, photography by SUZUKI Ayako 鈴木綾子 and MATSUNAGA Naoko 松永直子), so if you're visiting the area this summer, do drop by. (I fought for the spelling すゞの木, but was outvoted.)

Finally, I am tweeting.


No-sword tips for hanabi season

1. Get drunk. Viewing seasonal things is a Japanese tradition. Viewing them sober is not. In cherry-blossom season, your drunkenness should be directly proportional to the amount of time you spent in a suit over the past twelve months, but fireworks are an active spectacle and they are best enjoyed only slightly tipsy.

2. Be miles away. The pause between flash and bang speaks of transience, human vanity, and hetu-phala (因果). The light blooms in silence, then wilts and fades. The sound arrives later, an attenuated, indifferent reminder that glory is fleeting but consequences inexorable.

3. Watch through the branches of a tree. A pine tree is best. There are many poems in Japan about the moon in the trees. These poems are not about the moon. A pine looming dark in the near distance, dignified, silent, and silhouetted by half-seen spheres of fire in the sky beyond: thus is the spectacle pulled near, entangled with the still night-sounds of the park where you sit. Before long the fireworks will fall silent. The tree endures.


When all things are God's things

I ran across a provocative blog post about translating Dōgen the other day: "Philosophy of translation", at Numenware, Bob Myers's "blog about neurotheology" (that, sadly, seems to be defunct). tl;dr Myers's thesis: using words like "Buddhadharma" in translations of Dōgen's writings is a copout.

But then what can we use instead? Well...

Here in the West, we have the concept of "God." No-one knows exactly what it means, but in a way everyone does. It refers to something external, if you prefer, or something internal, if you prefer, an unknown essence. This is precisely the sense of the "buddha" in Dogen's "buddha-dharma" phrase. In other words, "buddha-dharma" refers to God's law, or things of God. As such, that is exactly how it should be "translated". That is why I insist that shohou no buppou naru jisetsu [諸法の仏法なる時節] should be translated exactly as:

  When all things are God's things.

This is what Dogen "meant." It is not "interpretative." It is the precise expression of Dogen's intent, to the extent possible, in English.

This is a bold claim. The underlying idea is markedness: since 法 and 仏 are unremarkable in Japanese, but "dharma" and "Buddha" are exotic in English, connecting the two via translation gives the reader a false sense of exoticism, much like literally translating a more or less lexicalized NP like osu お酢 "honorable vinegar."

But deities are not condiments. Three comments in, someone raises the obvious objection: "What about the association with Christianity that comes from using God?" Few English speakers may claim to know exactly what "God" means, but most everyone knows what it means to them: loving all-father, irrational superstition, figure of myth, impersonal force permeating all... only that last one even comes close to 仏法, and writing for an assumed readership of post-Enlightenment Deists is probably even less inclusive than just assuming that your audience knows what a "buddha-dharma" is in the first place.

So while I enjoyed reading Myers's argument, and I might even enjoy reading a determinedly Judeo-Christianized sutra, I don't find myself convinced that this is a "precise expression of Dōgen's intent." Dōgen was a lot of things, but Unitarian was not one of them.

In fact, it looks as if Myers didn't even convince himself: his freely available full translation of the fascicle in question retreats into fairly orthodox Buddhography, even going so far as to use the word "satori":

Viewing various things as Buddhistic things, then we have wisdom and we have practice, we have life and we have death, we have buddhas and we have sentient beings. Stripping all things of their essence, we have no delusion and no satori, we have no buddhas and no sentient beings, we have no beginnings and no endings...

Another translation available online, prepared by one Rev. Hubert Nearman and free as in both beer and Waley, puts it thus:

In that period of time when Buddhas give voice to the Teachings on existence in all its variety, there is talk of "delusion and enlightenment," of "practice and training," of "birth," of "death," of "Buddhas," of "ordinary beings." In that period of time when it is no longer relevant to speak of an "I" along with its "whole universe," there is no delusion or enlightenment, no Buddhas or ordinary beings, no being born, no extinction...

I wouldn't get too hung up on the extra information that Nearman includes; he is an interpolator, as revealed in explanatory notes such as "I have translated the title as The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching, though a fuller, more comprehensive rendering would be The Treasure House for What the Spiritual Eye of Wise Discernment Perceives from the Vantage Point of the True Teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and His Heirs." Somewhere Fiona Apple is taking notes.