Pictured here is 菊慈童, Kikujidō, "the Grace-Child of the Chrysanthemums," who obtained immortality by writing Buddhist scripture on flower petals and drinking the dew that trickled theredown. (The scripture itself was taught to him by King Mu of Zhou, and possibly written on a pillow.) He then achieved literary immortality by becoming a character in a Noh play, which was the smarter move, career-wise: an endorsement deal isn't just going to float down the chrysanthemum-fed stream out in the mountains, no matter how hard you shred on your flute.

And what were those two lines of scripture, you ask?

具一切功徳慈眼視衆生 福寿海無量是故応頂礼

Translation: "Endowed with all virtue, viewing living things through eyes of grace/ Fortune and longevity, a limitless ocean; therefore reply by giving thanks," I guess?

This is apparently a slightly modified extract from the Lotus Sutra, where the second verse starts 福海無量 ("Fortune gathers limitless as the ocean"?) instead. The 福寿海無量 version is also found in a separate, Kannon-related sutra, though, and is a common theme for calligraphy too.


V, I, C, T, O, R, Y/ Sain wa V!

Over at Néojaponisme, I am determined to solve this V-sign thing once and for all. Any who can better my information, I choose you!

A3a. V-sign for “Victory” (Japan, pre-Bubble): Enters popular consciousness in late 1960s via baseball manga/anime Kyojin no Hoshi 『巨人の星』 ("Star of the Giants"). Hero Hyūma believes father has not come to say goodbye at train station as he departs for Kōshien, but father appears at last moment and throws up V. Hyūma recognizes it as "the V-sign of victory!" ("Shōri no V-sain!") and resolves to win.






Work is literally grinding me into a paste, so here is a short, poorly-edited entry about why I prefer to read my pre-war books in pre-war printings.

Consider these two versions of the same sentence, from Akutagawa's Rashōmon. The first is in the original orthography. The second is modernized.


Futari wa shigai no naka de, shibaraku, mugon no mama, tsukamiatta: "The two of them among the corpses, briefly, without words, grappled," or, more naturally, "The two of them grappled among the corpses, briefly, wordlessly."

First of all, I want to direct your attention to the bad-assedness of this sentence. It starts with the two characters, immediately lowers our gaze to the corpses surrounding them, then slowly, silently returns us to the characters again, to discover that they have been silently grappling. I might also point out that this is the only sentence in the story to use the word futari (the two people), joining them textually as well as physically. And, of course, it is the moment at which the horror of the woman's life spreads to the man — note that the next sentence says that the outcome of their encounter was never in any doubt, but doesn't specify a "winner".

But all of this comes through in the postwar orthography too. So why do I prefer the older one? In a word: 暫.

I am not some Poundian who sees mysticism and hieroglyphics instead of phonetic radicals and squared-off patterns. But the effect of that solitary 暫 (shibaraku — "briefly", "for a moment"), poised alone between commas without even okurigana, is powerful. After the brutal scene-setting clause that begins the sentence, it suspends the reader in a single, concentrated character for four whole morae: shibaraku.

You don't get that when shibaraku is drawn out into four kana. There's no effect on meaning or pronunciation, of course, but the visual rhythm of the text becomes loose and bland — not when the text is a claustrophobic meditation on darkness and desperation.


Mingei and the genius

Daring Fireball linked to this article by Alice Rawsthorn on the 1957 Arne Jacobsen flatware used in Kubrick's 2001. Rawsthorn on why the design of these pieces is so great:

Ignoring convention, Jacobsen started from scratch by imagining what eating utensils would be like if they were natural extensions of the human body, and came up with abstractions of the traditional shape for knives, forks and spoons. The light, slender slivers of metal are designed to fit neatly into the hand at one end and the mouth at the other, with wide, flat surfaces for the fingertips to hold on to. [...] By basing his design on an intuitive physical gesture, something as natural as how food is placed in the mouth, Jacobsen took it out of the realm of period or style.

It so happens that we own a wooden cooking spatula, a kibera 木篦, designed by Studio Nanaya 工房菜や along surprisingly similar principles:

Look at those splinters and scorch marks. I am not exaggerating when I say that this spatula hits the teflon in our kitchen virtually every night. (Significantly, the principle exception is curry duty.) That uncompromising wedge design may look a little stark, but it feels like genius.

This is the edge that "design" has over "mingei" and related movements. Mingei rejects genius by definition, in favor of anonymous tradition and refinement of what came before. It's a great way to get everyone to local maxima cheaply and efficiently, but offers no built-in processes for integrating advances in ergonomics and materials science. In particular it is not very welcoming to the idea of tearing the tradition down and starting over (that sort of puts you in outsider art territory).

The irony of course is that the mingei movement itself was heavily reliant on lone geniuses — it's just that they were in editorial rather than primary-creative roles.



Up now on Néojaponisme: Caleb Deupree's "Sound and Vision: Takemitsu's Corona", a leisurely tour of one of Takemitsu Tōru's most interesting but least obtainable scores. I've been a fan of Caleb's writing since discovering his blog and was delighted to get him on board for this.

[...] Takemitsu created ring graphics on separate sheets for five Studies: Articulation, Conversation, Expression, Intonation, and Vibration. In each graphic, there is a narrow band for the circle, and each one has its own distinctive ornamentation both inside and outside the circle. Each sheet is printed in different colors and is cut from the middle of one edge to the center of the circle, so that the sheets can be overlaid to create unique configurations for each performance. And each sheet has its own performance instructions (ironically, except Conversation, which has no instructions or annotations whatsoever) which direct the pianist to perform inside the piano and on the keyboard. The score for Corona for Pianists has been displayed in museums and is a high point of Takemitsu’s aleatoric music.


Goat mail

Noticed in this month's Mina: the picture for Capricorn on the horoscope page:

The illustrator here is IWASAKI Ayumi 岩崎あゆみ, and as you can see from her gallery (direct link) the rest are pretty obvious: Taurus has a cow-print hat, Aquarius has a glass of water, etc. So why does Capricorn have a letter?

Answer: It's a reference to a Japanese kid's song called "Goat mail" (Yagi-san yūbin) with lyrics by MADO Michio:



A letter arrived from White Goat
Black Goat gobbled it up unread
Nothing for it but to write a letter right back:
"I'm sorry, what was it that your letter said?"

A letter came from Black Goat
White Goat gobbled it up unread
Nothing for it but to write a letter right back:
"I'm sorry, what was it that your letter said?"

(Repeat forever.)

(Alternate translation by Aesun KIM here.)

Everyone knows this song; it even pops up as a Who moved my cheese?-style metaphor in self-improvement books (e.g. Why couldn't Black Goat read White Goat's letter?). I'm not even sure if appropriating it to symbolize Capricorn originates with Iwasaki, although her gallery reveals that she's been using the gag for at least a couple of years.


Other emperors

Recently, in a languagehat thread about the era name Genroku and the dyad seppuku/harakiri, I mentioned as a source a 2003 book edited by YONEDA Yusuke and named Rekidai tennō/nengō jiten 歴代天皇年・号事典, literally "Encyclopedia of successive emperors and era names" (2003, ed. YONEDA Yūsuke 米田雄介). Note the word rekidai 歴代, "successive [generation-wise]": why such a specific title?

Because there are dozens of figures in Japanese history who, though referred to with the title tennō (emperor) or an equivalent in at least some sources, were not included in the succession chart for one reason or another when it was finalized in the early 20th century. Thus, they are not rekidai tennō, and not included in Yoneda's book.

Wikipedia has a nice list of such persons, divided into categories that include:

  • Tsuison tennō 追尊天皇, granted the title posthumously. Example: Emperor Kyōkō, who was only recognized as such by the Meiji court in 1884 despite his son Emperor Kōkaku having agitated so vigorously for this in the 1790s that the shogunate put him under temporary house arrest — this "Title Incident" (尊号事件) is now considered significant as an example of the re-emerging disagreements regarding imperial authority that would eventually culminate in the Meiji Restoration.
  • Sonshō tennō 尊称天皇, granted the title while living despite not actually being emperor. Example: Go-Takakura-In, who upon the accession of his ten-year-old son Emperor Go-Hirokawa in 1221 was declared 太上天皇 da(i)jōtennō, "grand upper [previous] emperor", a title usually reserved for emperors who had abdicated, so that he could run things from behind the scenes as was customary at the time.
  • Self-declared emperors whose reigns either never got off the ground or did not end well. Examples: Self-declared "New Emperor" (新皇) TAIRA no Masakado (beheaded by cousin, nasty business); "Emperor Kumazawa", a Nagoya man named KUMAZAWA Hiromichi who rose to fame during the post-WWII occupation claiming that his (alleged) descent from the 14th-century Southern Court made him the true emperor of Japan, which in turn meant that the responsibility for the war lay on the shoulders of a pretender instead. Ironically, Kumazawa was himself besieged by a wave of "Kumazawa Pretenders" who agreed with all his claims except for the one about him being next in the line of imperial succession. (No doubt this didn't sound quite as zany in the 1940s, when the validity and structure of the imperial system was under serious attack from many sides — note that the GHQ report linked above reports that left-wing newspapers supported Kumazawa as an attack on the actual emperor and his authority.)


Izuru iki

Chapter 16 of the Tannishō 歎異抄 is about whether it is necessary to re-"convert" (廻心, literally "turn your spirit around") every time you get angry or mouth off to someone. The answer given is no: "conversion" happens only once, when news of Amitabha's marvelousness first pierces your ignorance and you realize that he's your ticket out of this dump.

The chapter elaborates as follows:


This is not a strict translation, but in summary, if it were necessary to re-convert after every single event, morning and evening, in order to be reborn in the Pure Land, we would be in trouble, because "the departing breath does not wait for the arriving one." Every time we breathe out, we don't know if we'll ever breathe in again. We might die at any moment, without having re-converted or reconnected with virtues like gentleness and forbearance. If dying in such a state excludes people from coverage under Amitabha's vow to get everyone into paradise, well, that wouldn't be much of a vow, right? Ergo, that must not be the case, and conversion must not be necessary every time you sneak an extra cookie.

The breath imagery in that passage is a well-known proverb, but I was surprised to find the inhale/exhale pair called into service on the opposite point in a poem by Ryōkan 良寛. ABE Ryūichi and Peter HASKEL's Ryōkan book Great Fool sez:

Someone recited a poem that read:

  The breath going out, the breath coming in
  Over and then over again
  Only leaves me to reflect
  What a fleeting world this is

(izuru iki mata iru iki to bakari nite / yo o hakanaku mo omooyuru kana)

To which the Master replied:

  The breath going out, the breath coming in
  Over and then over again
  Know that this is itself the proof
  That this world never ends

(izuru iki mata iru iki wa yo no naka no / tsuki senu koto no tameshi to zo shire)

Stephen D. CARTER, in his anthology, translates the second poem quite similarly:

The way breath goes out,
and then again breath comes in:
know this as a sign
  that this world we live in
    never comes to an end.

I'm not sure I get what Ryōkan means here. Is it "there's plenty of breath to go around, life goes on; it's not a fragile world, though we who live in it might be"? Or could it be that the translators above are mistakenly adding the "never" and Ryōkan is pointing out that over the course of our lives, every individual inhalation is triumphant proof of our continued existence?