Resting their heads

Japanese vocabulary term for today: tako no makura, or "octopus' pillow."

Googling tells me that it is Clypeaster japonicus, a kind of sea urchin and a close relative of the sand dollar. More pictures. Introduction in Japanese. And another. Punny reference in the Marioverse.

I learnt of these charmingly-named creatures via Hitomi Hitsudai 人見必大's 1695 Honchō shokkan (本朝食鑑, literally "A mirror [held up] to the diet of this country"), which, with typical RoboCop-like humorlessness, notes "So called because octopodes are said to use it as a pillow when they sleep. This is probably a joke invented by some woman or child." He also gives another name for the beast: the mochi kai 餅貝, kai meaning "shell[fish]."


Sōseki on writing

Sōseki again, this time on writing. This translation is a bit rougher than Monday's, sorry. Also, the first paragraph is rather heavy going if you don't care about Japanese literary styles. From the second paragraph on is where it gets more general.

The question of which buntai [文体, literary style] is best for describing nature is one for which I have no answer. Genbun itchi [言文一致, unification of written and spoken style] is the most popular today, but a lot of work in this style would be perfectly fine gabun [雅文, traditional literary style] if you removed the casual sentence endings like de aru or no da. So while genbun itchi is no doubt useful, one couldn't really argue that it would be impossible to describe nature without it. On the other hand, the question of whether a formal Chinese-influenced style or a more colloquial style that allows writers to explore nuances is better is worth thinking about in terms of taste and detail and the like.

Although it does depend on one's understanding of taste and detail and so on, I have not yet seen writing which included detailed description but was also rich and suggestive in feeling. Writing which causes a given scene to appear before one's eyes by describing it in an orderly fashion from top to bottom probably does not exist. I do not believe it could exist. In my opinion, one need not describe nature — that is, narrate — in minute detail. Even if one were to do so, the results would not necessarily be of great value. For example, I could describe this six-tatami room in great detail — there is a desk, books, I am sitting here, my tobacco tray is there, the tobacco tray is placed like so, the brand of tobacco is such-and-such — but I fear that this would only make my writing more impenetrable to readers, and be of no value whatsoever. It is enough, I think, simply to present what is distinctive about the room. A dim lamp, a cluttered floor: it is enough if these appear vividly before the reader of the work.

The same is true of painting. In the West, there are many similar debates among painters, and while the work of Japanese artists like Toba Sōjō 鳥羽 僧正 contains not a jot of what one might call detail, we can nevertheless see a crow in a single dot, a sleeve in a single curved line. What is more, things seen in this way are highly agreeable to the eye. The same is true of writing. This, I believe, is why the work of Izumi Kyōka 泉 鏡花 leaves a deep impression on people. When the central aspect of a scene is rendered with skill in a single stroke of the brush, the result is highly agreeable, and appears vividly before one. The rain in early summer, a moonlit night: to show the most important part — or, rather, the core point — of the scene to readers in an agreeable way is, I feel, the test of a writer's skill.

To summarize, writing which seizes and presents only the core point in each phrase, such as Chinese writing and haiku, is in my opinion far more suggestive and richer in feeling than writing which simply narrates in detail and at great length. That is, it is impossible to describe nature in perfect detail, and even if it were possible the results would be unlikely to have great value. As proof of this, consider the fact that if one reads narrative writing closely and in detail, one occasionally runs across errors such as buildings that originally faced west later turning to face east instead. Errors like this occur even in works of some fame, and yet no-one raises this as a point of criticism, and indeed I have never heard of an attack on these grounds.

Whether describing nature or events, then, it is sufficient to present only enough of the core points to suggest the rest. Detail that renders a work dull is of no use at all.

Note that Sōseki has anticipated just about every mainstream review of Japanese literature (and cinema, and music, etc.) that would appear in translation in the West over the following century. Ink paintings! Haiku! Minimalist impressionism! It's all there.


Sōseki on history

Natsume Sōseki on history, from his review of James Murdoch's History of Japan.

[...] Born as I was at the same time as the revolution that was the Restoration, the history of the Meiji period is, to me, my own history too. And just as my own history has unfolded naturally and spontaneously without any great trials, I cannot but think of the history of the Meiji period as forty years that proceeded properly and logically to the present day. One may object on the grounds that the treatment I receive and the critical reception of my work is atypical in some ways, but I have not the slightest inclination to wonder at the route, cause, or changes, for better or worse, that led to my becoming the person I have. I was born like so, I grew up like so, I was influenced by social changes like so, I became this person like so: I am aware only of this, and since nothing about this awareness is surprising, there is nothing to rouse my curiosity, or, therefore, my academic interest.

I am constrained by the logical conclusion of these facts, and in the same way I feel that a sense of what you might call obviousness permeates the history of the Meiji period in which I live. The navy has progressed, the army has grown mighty, industry has developed, learning has flourished: of these things I am aware, but along with my acceptance of this comes the sense that this was how things are meant to be, and I have never once thought to wonder how or why this might be so. In the end, we all live within a sort of current, and while we may be aware of being swept along, our muscles and nervous systems and brains all feel that is natural and accept it as such, and so there is simply no part of us left to find it queer or unusual.

Think of an insect that hides under leaves turning green to defeat a bird's gaze. The insect itself does not care whether it turns green or red. It accepts unquestioningly that changing color in the way it does is what should happen. The change of color is mysterious not to the insect but rather to the entomologist that studies it. Mr Murdoch's attitude towards us, the Japanese, is the same sort of amazement as that felt by entomologist towards an insect that suddenly changes color. He wonders at a people that, before the Restoration, had not progressed culturally beyond the level of Europe in the fourteenth century, yet in just fifty years have developed to a level comparable with that of the twentieth-century West. He thrills to the fact that we Japanese who were helpless before Perry and his mere five ships now have a navy that enjoys the greatest success in naval warfare since Trafalgar.

It seems that Mr Murdoch began from this sense of amazement, proceeded to curiosity, settled next into academic interest, and finally arrived at the publication of this weighty work. This is why in all of Japanese history the points that stimulated his interest most were how the Japanese first made contact with the West, and how the effects of this contact worked during the period before the arrival of the black ships to bring about the dramatic changes that occurred afterwards. [...]

Some of his analyses would never occur to a Japanese person. The theory that Westerners are surprised by Japanese culture because they [...] believed that anything non-homologous with Christian culture was not a civilization is one such example. Everyone knows that Western civilization is tightly linked with Christianity, but the idea that nothing except Christian culture could be called a civilization would never occur to an ordinary Japanese person. But one cannot but acknowledge this fact upon seeing it presented by Mr Murdoch as the opinion of the average Westerner. In this sense, this work not only has extreme merit as an introduction of Japan to foreign countries, but is also offers a great many insights into how foreigners with an academic interest in Japan perceive us. [...]

History is not born until we turn to look back at the past. How sad that today we find ourselves swept from instant to instant, unable to stop even for a moment to glance back at and ponder the path we have taken to get to where we are. For the sake of the future, our past is trampled as though it never existed. Like rootless upstarts, we are pushed along, forward, ever forward. When two peoples of widely disparate wealth, intelligence, strength, and morality first find themselves nose to nose, the weaker one abandons their past quite rapidly, driven by the fear that, regardless of their past, if they do not rise to the level of their rival they may lose their present. [...]


How to sit

You think you know how to sit in a chair? You don't know how to sit in a chair. Your movements are sloppy and your posture is highly questionable. You are a poor sitter. But you can always improve yourself. Here are some instructions for sitting in a chair, from a 1931 "Textbook of girls' etiquette" (Joshi reihō kyōkasho, 女子禮法教科書) by Ogasawara Seimei (a mounted archery teacher!) and MURATA Shiga 村田志賀 (a teacher; possibly a.k.a. MURATA Shigako 村田志賀子, another library-catalogue entry for early-1930s etiquette textbooks). Assumption: You are approaching the chair from the right.

1. Stand to the right of the chair. No slouching.

2. Placing your hand on the back of the chair, take one step forward with your right leg. (Bonus lesson: The word for "chair back" is , 靠.)

3. Take one step diagonally forward with your left leg, placing it in front of the chair (where it will be once you are sitting).

4. Letting go of the chair back, bring your right leg forward so that you are standing up straight in front of the chair.

5. Placing both hands on your lap, sit down. Be sure to sit up straight.

To stand up, reverse the procedure. Hands must remain on your lap as you rise.

Do not at any time cut your hair into a bob, smoke a cigarette, or dance to corrupting Hawaiian musics.


The jueju conspiracy

Roland CHANCE, reportedly, has an interesting theory on the origin of the haiku: stolen from China! Incompetent rips-off of jueju (絶句) from the Tang and Song dynasties.

I am sure Jueju has higher artistic quality than Haiku. Though Haiku has fewer syllables than Jueju, it doesn't mean that Haiku is more concise than Jueju. If [Bashō's famous frog haiku] was translated literally into Chinese, only a line of Jueju, seven Chinese characters, would express that, "蛙跃古池击水声" (a frog makes a water sound when it plops in an old pond). On the other hand, I believe that Haiku developed from Jueju. We can see the shadows of ancient Chinese poems in some of Matsuo Basho's Haiku. Let's compare his Haiku about autumn with a poem from the Song Dynasty and a Qu (a Chinese poetic genre) of the Yuan Dynasty in the following:

A crow
has settled on bare branch--
autumn evening.

By Matsuo Basho
A Jueju (Song Dynasty):

A sailboat returns dimly from far away,
The fading sun is setting in the west bay.
How many jackdaws disperse about the sky?
Flying towards the shore on a tree to stay.

by Liu Zi
Translated by Shifang Zhang
And a Qu (Yuan Dynasty):

Tune: Sky-pure Sand

Dried vines, old trees, evening crows;
A small bridge, a flowing water, men's home;
An ancient road, west winds, a lean horse;
Sun slants west:
A heart-torn man at sky's end.

by Ma Zhiyuan
I wonder if it was coincidence that these three poems had the same artistic conception, or did Basho write this Haiku after studying these two Chinese poems' inspiration? According to the literal translations of the Haiku, I am sure that the artistic quality of Matsuo Basho's Haiku cannot compare with the two poems and neither can its free translation with creativity. His Haiku can't surpass the Jueju of Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Changling and Bai Juyi. Matsuo Basho's fame can't compare with any of them in the world. On the other hand, there are different tones in Jueju in specific order, antithesis and Chinese characters with ingenious and profound nature but there is none of these in Haiku. The Chinese translations from Haiku are better in poetic flavour and artistic quality than original Haiku because of the advantage of Chinese characters.

Editorializing aside, the underlying claim is not entirely crazy. Bashō was as familiar with the Chinese classics as the rest of the Edo literati, and references to those classics appear in his works all the time (if footnotes in modern editions are to be believed). Even that famous first line of Oku no hosomichi, "The sun and the moon are eternal voyagers; the years that come and go are travelers too" (Helen Craig McCullough) is a reference to a poem in the Guwen zhenbao 古文真寶, which was apparently compiled a century or two after the turn of the millennium and transmitted to Japan a few generations after that.

Here's the Japanese original of the line quoted above:


And here's the comment on this passage from Saryūan Riichi 蓑笠庵梨一's 1778 Oku no hosomichi sugagomo shō 奥細道菅菰抄, the earliest printed companion book to Bashō's work (though not the earliest companion work!)


In the second part of the Guwen zhenbao [fudge], in the poem "On feasting in a peach and plum garden on a spring night," the movements of heaven and earth and the path of the moon and the sun are likened to a voyage as follows: "So, like, heaven and earth are an inn where the myriad creatures lodge, light and shade [i.e. day and night] are eternal travelers."

And this is not an obscure poem, either; it's Lǐ Goddamned Bái. There is absolutely no way that Bashō thought he was pulling a fast one here. He was simply paying his respects to his artistic forefathers, in the way prescribed by the Japanese literary traditions of the time. (Apposite quotations from Chinese classics were to Edo writers as cryptic Steve Miller Band lyrics were to Golden Period Stephen King.) And, of course, the Chinese tradition itself relies heavily on quotation and allusion to earlier works.

So, where the above-linked analysis goes wrong is not the idea that haiku took imagery and even phrasing from Chinese poetry. There is no doubt in my mind that this happened (although I don't know about the specific examples provided; "birds come home to roost in the evening" is not what you would call a fresh or obscure idea). The error is, rather, the idea that this has anything to do with the artistic value of haiku. To say that haiku are inferior to jueju because they present less information explicitly, or because their internal structure is less intricate, is to miss the point of haiku entirely. (To say that haiku "developed from" jueju is also a stretch, unless you are using "developed from" in the very broad sense in which Howl "developed from" Dante's Inferno.)

That said, I am sympathetic to the barely-submerged subtext of the essay, which is "How come haiku are so famous but no-one cares about jueju?" But I fear that the answer is as he surmises: "Jueju can’t get a foothold in West because it has the same form as a quatrain. Haiku has come into the international poetic world because of its unique pattern."


The old woman who lived under a hill

Sorry again, people, this time work was literally breaking off my legs and feeding them to gorillas. Literally. I should be back on track for a Monday-Thursday posting schedule now, although it will be less convenient to walk to the bookshelf for reference material.

As I was saying, I have a lot of respect for the early 20th-century Mother Goose translations by KITAHARA Hakushū 北原白秋, but there are some cases where I feel he did not really grok the original. Consider the Old Woman who Lived Under a Hill. This is the two-line version I heard as a kid, and apparently the basis for Hakushū's translation:

There was an old woman lived under a hill
And if she's not gone, she lives there still.

What I liked about this one as a child was the meta aspect. It starts off like any other nursery rhyme, giving us a peculiar character as if to set the scene for an enumeration of their dietary or sumptuary quirks — but then shuts down immediately. The listener is caught off-balance; the other shoe has dropped much more quickly and unproblematically than expected. (Note, though, that the poem is not nonsense: on the contrary, it makes perfect sense. It's a whole 'nother genre of disingenuous poesy.)

Now take a look at how Hakushū handles this:


First, I interpret oka no fumoto as translatorial treachery, overcorrection: the woman does not live "at the foot of [that] hill", she lives under it. She is not some rustic everywoman: she is a fairy-figure, a suboronian. (And if this isn't what the original intended meaning was, that's what it should be now.)

The second problem is one of structure. Hakushū's version has too much of it. It's recast in proper four-line kishōtenketsu 起承転結 form, if you like: "Beginning, development, turn, conclusion." The actual information there is basically the same as the English, apart from the matter of relative hill placement, but the lines are too long: the whole thing becomes a balanced quartet.

Compare to the English, which is unusually short, cut off at one couplet where you would usually expect at least two. (Er, notwithstanding the versions of four lines and more that also exist.) It's a kiketsu structure, if you like, but Hakushū has failed to maintain it.