Heart of Yamato

Reading Don SANDERSON's translation of KATŌ Shūichi's History of Japanese literature, I ran across this in volume two about the 18th-Century beef between MOTOORI Norinaga and UEDA Akinari:

On his portrait Norinaga wrote the following well-known poem:

If someone asks
What is the heart of Yamato:
Shining in the morning sun,
Blossom of the mountain cherry.
Akinari recognized that other countries had their own myths and he thought it impossible to transfer Japanese myths to them: 'Each one of the writings has a separate account of the creation of the universe for each country ... and even if one transfers them to other countries they would not be accepted, being self-regarding accounts.' This is all the more so when Japan, as seen on Dutch maps of the world, is no more than 'a small island, like a tiny leaf that has fallen onto a vast lake'. It would be difficult to persuade other countries that this was the country from which came the sun and moon, with whose light they were all blessed. Akinari notes in his Tandai shōshinroku that it was only 'old' takes that give the sun and moon human forms; in fact 'seen through the telescope they call a zongarasu the sun, which flames, and the moon, which boils, are nothing of the sort'. He dismisses Norinaga's theories as 'the talk of a sheltered rustic' and 'the cant of an indigent priest'. 'The "Japanese spirit" is something without meaning. In any country the "spirit" of that country is its stench.' He adds a verse:

Again all that mumbo-jumbo
About the heart of Yamato
And cherry-blossom.
Norinaga's verse was popular in the militarist Japan of the nineteen-thirties and forties and remains well-known today, while few people are familiar with Akinari's poem. [...]

I decided to look up the original of Akinari's commentary, and, courtesy of the Norinaga Kinenkan and the Kanazawa College of Art (who have both put bits of it online, with commentary) here it is:


Akinari seems particularly amused by the fact that Norinaga wrote the poem on a portrait of himself. He also misquotes the poem slightly as "If you ask the way of the heart of Yamato, it is the morning sun shining on the blossom of the mountain cherry" rather than "If someone asks what is the heart of Yamato, it is the blossom of the mountain cherry fragrant in the morning sun" (敷島のやまとごゝろを人とはゞ朝日にゝほふ山ざくら花), which is the version you usually hear. (Note that this error seems to have spread in part to Katō's own quotation of the poem as well, with the fragrance-free shining.)

TL;DR Here's Akinari's answer poem, with my own translation:

The heart of Yamato, blah, blah, all that crap, and again with the cherry blossoms.

Popularity factor: 13


I love that phrase なんのかのうろんな事 and am tempted to explore its rich expressive possibilities with a translation of my own. But alas, I am too busy scoring 43,000 English exams written by semi-literate 7th graders. No I am not kidding. This is a pitfall of being an unemployable linguistics geek, you are forced to take crappy temp jobs like this.

Leonardo Boiko:

> and the moon, which boils

wait, what.


Eh, I think the "boils" is just being over-literal with it. Unless those Kokugaku folk were really off-base on these sorts of things (which... could well be. Have you heard about the tengu and electricity?)

I mean, the Jin Shu is all "comets don't have light of their own, but transmit the light of the sun" (as well as "they sweep out the old dynasty and spread out the new," but you take what you can get).


Yeah, that "boiling" thing is puzzling. I can think of several ways it might have appeared in there: error in whatever Dutch text the info came from, error in the translation, bad memory or brusho on Akinari's part, or, as MMS suggests, it wasn't intended literally. Like, maybe all those craters reminded someone along the chain of knowledge of boiling water or something?

Charles: 43,000 is an incredible number. Are they all taking the same exam? (Is it a standardized test of some sort?)


Yeah, a standardized test. I can't say too much because it's under NDA and they search for web leaks, so I can't say anything that will identify it. I'm not sure how much of this I will personally do, probably 5 to 10%. Only two weeks left to go, yay!
But perhaps this work will propel me towards a linguistic recreation. I remember the first time I did this temp job. I was so horrified at what I read all day, that night I wrote an essay about Joyce for my blog.

BTW that Sun flames/Moon boils stood out to me too, but it seems to follow a familiar fire/water pattern. Alas I have no time to investigate. I have to get up at 5 AM just to get in an hour to read emails & do a tiny bit of web surfing before work.

Leonardo Boiko:

無名酒: A google search for “tengu electricity” drowns in too many pop culture references. Would you be so kind as to tell me more about tengu electrics?


I'm not completely sure electricity comes up in this book, but the author presented on a panel that included talk of the first floodlight in Ginza that I heard a few years back.


Mike I:

The flaming/boiling business is an image. Look at the sun through a telescope - it looks to be on fire. Look at the moon - it is like looking down at a pot of boiling water (craters looks like bubbles, as Matt seems to hint at). That's probably all there is to it.


Image or not, I think the main question is whether it's new with Akinari or an established trope. And maybe I'll even be able to answer that some day....


Although, fun fact, western optics like telescopes *are* supposed to have changed art at least (Timon Screech, The Lens in the Heart if I'm remembering it correctly). I certainly hope people didn't look much at the sun through telescopes, though; just staring at it with the naked eye is problem enough. (Eclipses tended to be viewed in reflection in water, again if I remember correctly.)

Mike I:

If anyone is interested, there is an English translation available from PMJS papers here:


You can view the entire PDF, dan 101 is on page 126 of that file.

Mike I:

PS. See especially note 5 for your "main question"

"For similar observations, see Jiden (Ibun, p. 261). Copperplate etchings of the
sun with its spots and the moon with its craters were printed in Tenkyū zenzu
(1796) by Shiba Kōkan, reflecting the growing interest in science. See French,
Shiba Kōkan, pp. 18, 137-8; Boxer, Jan Compagnie, pp. 56, 127; Introduction,
pp. 14-15."


Hey, thanks Mike, that's great. I'll have to link to PMJS from the front page sometime -- it's awesome that they're putting stuff like this online available to anyone instead of burying it in JSTOR.

Comment season is closed.