"Konkai" 吼噦 is an old jiuta 地唄* song that I first heard on an album by Yokoyama "November Steps" Katsuya 横山勝也. The album is Recital '81, a CD release of... a recital from 1981, and "Konkai" is performed as a duet with Sawai Tadao 沢井忠夫 on shamisen in an arrangement credited to Araki Kodō 荒木古童 II. (The original composition is generally credited to Kishino Jirosaburō 岸野次郎三郎, and the lyrics to Tamon Shōzaemon 多門庄左衛門 II.)

It turns out that "Konkai" is one of the oldest songs in the jiuta repertoire, dating to no earlier later than 1703. It's actually an example of shibai jiuta 芝居地唄, "theater jiuta", meaning that it originally accompanied singing, dancing, and miscellaneous revelry on-stage. This, Yokohama muses, might be why the song shifts gears so much (緩急が大変多い); the version on Recital '81 is certainly a rocking performance.

The lyrics are a bit obscure. Yamato Hōmei 山戸朋盟 notes that the absence of contemporary commentary makes it difficult to be sure, but it seems to be a fox story in the Kuzu no Ha tradition (a Shinoda-zuma mono 信太妻物), except with genders reversed:

A son asks a traveling priest to help his sick mother, only to discover that the priest is actually a fox. He chases the fox off, but the fox has fallen in love with his mother, and interpolates a popular song about it:

Over fields, over mountains, through the villages,
For whose sake did I come? — For yours.
When I came, for whose sake was it? For whose sake did I come? — For yours.

The fox-priest then progresses through "Baby I love you," "Credo in Amida Butsu," and finally "Welp, off to my lonely home I go" before the song ends inconclusively. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Incidentally, the kyōgen play of the same name has nothing at all to do with the jiuta. Also known as "Tsurigitsune" ("Fox-trapping"), it is about a fox who disguises himself as a fox-trapper's uncle, a priest, in an attempt to convince the trapper to renounce his fox-killing ways but, predictably, ends up trapped himself.

Let me note in closing that the second character in the title 吼噦 is quite obscure (Yahoo! won't even display it as text), and probably as a result this piece is also listed under spellings such as 吼かい, こんくわい (an archaic spelling, but we are talking about 18th-century music here) and even 狐会. Not convenient.

* I recently learned that the spelling 地唄 for jiuta is an Edo thing. On the original jiuta turf nearer to the capital, they prefer 地歌. Unfortunately for them, I am an Edo partisan, and anyway, we totally won. Ha ha! (Back)


The joy of death

Here's your cheery read for the day: Kashū: Shi no yorokobi 歌集死のよろこび ("The joy of death: Poems").

The author is Yokose Yau 横瀬夜雨. Or read it atmosphere-free, if you are impatient.

A formally restricted take on section two, "The name" (名):

I hid the name within for ten long years:
Aya, weaver Aya. Only to
Grant it to the firstborn of another

Though chosen as the granter of the name, I have
No wife of my own. Only my
Sorrow, and what pity I earn thereby.

A man of constant sorrow, with no wife,
Nothing under heaven. Only my
Dreams of children, never to be born

The name I thought to give my child. No better
Name in all Japan. Only
Now that name belongs to someone else.


A paleographic puzzle

Here is a detail from the title page of Futari komuso 二人こむそう ("Two komusō), dated to 1812, by Santō Kyōden 山東京伝 (writer) and Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 (illustrator).

So this is the title, 二人こむそう, with the "komusō" part arranged into the shape of an actual komusō, right? The only problem is, I can't quite work out how the arrangement works. The そ is pretty easy to see. Above it there's こ, in a variant form derived from 古 (or maybe it is 古, man'yōgana style — the distinction isn't really germane). But the む and the う elude me.


  1. The line with a twist on the right is a distended む (the modern kana). But in that case, what is the う? An ウ with the line at the top extending down through the crossbar, turned upside-down?
  2. The bottom left-hand corner is an ん, that is, the variant for む based on 无. But in that case, again, where is う?
  3. The right and bottom are all part of an upside-down mirror-image variant む based on 無. But the mirror-image thing makes this seem unlikely, and, once more, where is う?

Hope me, readers.


Ain't no party like a tongueless sparrow party

With the minimum of ado:

Found in The Tongue-Cut Sparrow (舌切雀), translated by David Thompson for Kobunsha's mid-Meiji "Japanese fairy tales" series. (More on these "crêpe-paper books".)



I've written before about how Miyagi Michio modernized koto instruction, but the shakuhachi is still generally taught the old-fashioned way. After a bare minimum of technique, usually crammed into artfully arranged children's songs and so on, you get thrown in the deep end with a famous, complicated concert piece. (In the mainstream, at least; if you're studying with a hardcore, honkyoku-only type teacher, you'll get a famous, complicated honkyoku instead.)

For many people "Kurokami" 黒髪 ("Black hair") is that first piece. There are three reasons for this: (1) it's not egregiously long, for a piece of traditional Japanese music (6-8 minutes, usually), (2) it moves at a moderate tempo, and (3) it's tradition. But "Kurokami" itself is actually quite mysterious.

For one thing, it can be found in two different traditions: nagauta 長唄 (Edo/kabuki-style) and jiuta 地唄 (Kansai-style). The current musicological consensus seems to be that the jiuta version, attributed to Koide Ichijūrō 湖出市十郎 and an unknown lyricist, came first. However, the earliest written record of the song is to the nagauta version, which was included in the 1784 play Ō-akinai hiru ga kojima 大商蛭小島 ("Ballin' on Hirugashima"). Thus, some sources credit playwright Sakurada Jisuke 桜田治助 and composer Kineya Sakichi 杵屋佐吉, even though they probably just incorporated an existing song into their play. Some sources just credit everyone.

In the play, "Kurokami" is sung by Tatsuhime 辰姫, daughter of Itō no Sukechika 伊藤祐親, after she gives up her love for Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 so that Hōjō Masako 北条政子 can have him. There are politics involved, but they aren't important to the words of the song, which are:

Kurokami no musuboretaru omoi o ba
tokete neta yo no makura koso
hitori neru yo wa ada-makura.
Sode wa kata shiku tsuma ja to iute,
guchi na onago no kokoro to shirade
shin to fuke yuku kane no koe.
Yuube no yume no kesa samete,
yukashi, natsukashi, yarusenaya.
Tsumoru to shirade, tsumoru shirayuki.

On this page you can find two rather different translations, one by Tsuge Gen'ichi and one uncredited (maybe Clive Dunkley). Note that the second one ignores the rather difficult tsuma ja to iute, which might either be a broken promise (Tsuge's preferred interpretation) or a jilted lover's bitter joke ("I tell my laid-out sleeve, you are my husband" ー doesn't help that tsuma could mean either "wife" or "husband" in this context), which Taguchi Hisayuki 田口尚幸 and Yamato Hōmei 山戸朋盟 (and I) prefer.

Note that the lyrics begin with kurokami, "black hair", and end with shirayuki, "white snow," an antonymic image. A woman's long, jet-black hair has evoked romantic entanglements for a long time in Japanese poetry (e.g. MYS#2610; in English). The process of that same hair turning white with age has been referred to metaphorically as settling frost or snow for just as long, so let's get that meaning out into the open too. But I don't think that is the only, or even the main intended meaning of the snow ending.

The lyrics begin in a deeply personal and sensual place. This place is low on detail but charged with emotion, like a dream — it may even be the dream referred to in a later line. Then the temple bell rings, returning the focus to this world. The muddied details vanish, leaving only the bare emotions. They are so bare, in fact, that the narrator is able to enumerate them, in a remarkable show of self-awareness. This awareness then turns to the outside world, which is now clothed in snow: vast, cool, and unsympathetic. This is the real world, the exact opposite of the claustrophobic, hot, and impassioned interior world where the song begins.

I try to avoid throwing every single work of art from Japan in the "Buddhism" basket, but I do believe it is relevant here. Someone entangled in regrets and fantasies is woken by the temple bell to reality again. Some interpretations go further even than this; in Nagauta Meikyoku Yōsetsu 長唄名曲要説, Asakawa Gyokuto 浅川玉兎 throws in with a theory that the lyrics were actually written by Ren'nyo, with "last night's dream" meant to symbolize simply "this life." I don't buy this, myself; the sensual-erotic beginning is too specific, and has too much in common with... every other song for voice and shamisen ever.

How black my hair! untangled thoughts let one
Grand night go by. These nights I am alone
And lonely. Spread one sleeve: "Now I am yours."
Another foolish girl. Beyond the doors

The bell tolls morning. I have dreamed in vain.
My solitude and misery remain.
How things pile up! How little did I know!
Outside the world is white with fallen snow.


On the railroad

Foreign songs with completely different Japanese lyrics are relatively common in Japan, especially when it comes to songs for kids. The Meiji composers and lyricists tasked with coming up with a localized singing curriculum often resorted to this tactic. This is why in Japan everyone knows "Auld lang syne" as "By firefly light" (a reference to these guys, as it happens).

"I've been working on the railroad" was also relyricized, although much later. According to Wikipedia, the first translation was made in 1955, by TSUGAWA Shuichi 津川主一. This one was relatively faithful to the original, and starts with the line Senro no shigoto wa itsu made mo (basically, "Working on the railroad, for [what seems like] forever"). But the version everyone knows was translated in 1962 for the TV program Minna no uta ("Songs for everyone") by the director of the program GOTŌDA Sumio 後藤田純生, with help from friends and other staff. It goes like this:

Senro wa tsuzuku yo, doko made mo
No o koe, yama koe, tani koete
Haruka na machi made, bokutachi no
Tanoshii tabi no yume tsunaideru...

The railroad goes on, ever on
Through fields, over mountains, through valleys
Reaching distant towns, our
Pleasant dream of travel...

John Henry must really be rolling in that sand right about now.


Teikin ōrai

Before Japan had Western-style "textbooks," it had ōraimono 往来物, compilations of letter-writing samples. Ōrai 往来 literally means "coming and going," here in the sense of correspondence back and forth between two parties — although eventually the meaning of ōrai was diluted to just "textbook". Here are a bunch of such books online.

From the 14th to the 19th century, the king of ōraimono was Teikin ōrai 庭訓往来. The title literally meant "Correspondence [samples] for education at home," but it was eventually used in temple schools (terakoya) as well. It contained 25 letters dated from the first month through the twelfth, artfully crafted to cover as much as possible of the topic and vocabulary pool from which your standard social letter might draw.

Of course, it wasn't the exact same book for all those centuries. As Katsumata Masano explains:

The "Teikin Orai" had made the following development. (1) At first it was a calligraphy text. (2) By writing phonetic symbols (kana) alongside Chinese characters to indicate the pronunciation, it was used as a reader. (3) By annotation its text was linked to other texts. It became a kind of commentary book. (4) The notes were illustrated. It became a book with a lot of illustrations.

Here is a good example of the final stage of Teikin ōrai development, from 1811. (This page layout, with the main text in large print in the middle and notes/pictures in the top and/or bottom margin, is still used in many scholarly editions of the classics, although of course none of the text is handwritten for calligraphy practice these days.)

I've transcribed the first page (after the introduction), and a bit of the second, below. Kanji are left as written, but kana have been punctuated and rearranged into reading order — note the kaeriten to the left of the relevant kanji. The English translation is mine, but I have elected to use surfer English to remind readers that upper-class medieval correspondence about courtly goings-on is not my strongest suit. Also, I was at the beach this morning.

日影頗本意背候畢 [...]

すこぶるほんいをそむきさふらいおはん [...]

Early spring is such a buzz and I totally sent good vibes your way, dude. Wealth, health, happiness, and all that good stuff. Anyway, you know that normally I would totally go and pay my respects to the court (朝拝, chōhai) on new year's day. This year, though everyone was so wrapped up in the day-of-the-rat games (子日遊, ne no hi no asobi) that I totally missed that wave. Man, I feel like a nightingale in the valley that forgot the flowers on the eaves, or a butterfly in the garden hot-dogging in the shade instead of the sunlight ー it's totally not the real me, dude. [...]

And two terms are glossed above:

朝拝 てうはい
Chōhai: Held by the Emperor in the hour of the dragon [about 8 a.m.] on the first day of the new year, in the Daigokuden
子日遊 ねのひのあそび
Ne no hi no asobi: On the first day of the rat in the new year, people go out into the fields and pick young pines


Intra microcosmi sui pomoeria felicissimo fruuntur pacis ac continentiae sudo

Today I learned that the word sakoku 鎖国, referring to Japan's (generally exaggerated) self-imposed isolation during the Edo period, was coined by a translator at the interface between Japan and the West at the time. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about the word right now:

The term Sakoku originates from the work Sakoku-ron (鎖国論) written by Shitsuki Tadao [志筑忠雄] in 1801. Shitsuki invented the word while translating the works of the 17th century Dutch traveller Engelbert Kaempfer concerning Japan. The term most commonly used contemporaneously to refer to the policy was kaikin (海禁, Sea restriction).

So, Shizuki (for that is the preferred pronunciation, it seems) coined the word for use in the title of his translation. The obvious question: What was the original title?

Well, originally it was in Kaempfer's Amoenitates Exoticae, fascile II, volume 14. You can find the Latin on that page, but I learned it from GONOJI Masahiro 五之治昌比呂's On the Latin Original and the Translations of Kämpfer's Sakoku-ron ラテン語で読むケンペル「鎖国論」: 『廻国奇観』所収論文とその翻訳について:

Regnum Japoniae optima ratione, ab egressu civium, & exterarum gentium ingressu & communione, clausum

Which is to say, I believe, "The Kingdom of Japan which is, with optimal rationality, to the egress of its citizens & the ingress of external peoples & [any] communion [of the above two parties] closed." But it seems unlikely that Shizuki was working from the Latin text, and indeed SUGIMOTO Tsutomu 杉本つとむ in his Gogen kai 語源海 claims that Shizuki was working from the Dutch translation by Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (which, incidentally, was added as an appendix to his History of Japan, like this English version, which was probably where Shizuki encountered it). The relevant part of the Dutch is:

... 't Ryk van Japan om het zelve geslooten te houden

I.e., "The Kingdom of Japan which keeps itself shut up," I think (with a little help from Sugimoto's Japanese rendition). Sugimoto also quotes a comment from Shizuki about his translation:


This work did not originally have the title Sakoku ron, nor was it divided into two volumes; I have provisionally effected these changes myself.

But! When the work was republished in 1850 by KUROSAWA Okinamaro 黒沢翁満, he renamed it Ijin kyōfu den 異人恐怖伝, which put hiply is "Fear of foreigners." MATSUDA Kiyoshi has a page at the bottom of which he kindly gathered some comments from Kurosawa on why he undertook this rebranding; I have amended them slightly based on examination of the edition of Ijin kyōfu den linked above (hit volume three to check my work):

今世西洋舶来の書とて人々争ひて持栄す、かの国風に魂を奪はるヽ書の類にはあらで、此書は蘭人ケンブルが口より、正しく我大日本の国風を天下に比類なく善き国風なりと讃称へ又御国人の強きことを是も天下に比類なしと怖れ称へたる書なり、外国人の眼よりもさばかりに見ゆる御国に生れて却て彼が虚飾の威に惑されて恐るヽは愚味に遺憾き限りならずや [...] 此書は [...] 長崎の訳語家志筑忠雄が翻訳したるなり、当時書中の意を採りて仮に鎖国論と題号せしは、全く忠雄がわざなるよし訳例にいへれば、作者の意にもあらざる故に今又更めて異人恐怖伝と号けつ

Books imported from the West are so prized today that people compete for the honor of possessing them, and so lose their souls (tamashii 魂) to the customs of those countries (kuniburi 国風). This book is not of that type, but rather, a work in which the Dutchman Kaempfer correctly praises the excellence of our great Japan's national customs and the strength of its people as unequalled under the heavens. When this is clear even to the eyes of a foreigner about the country in which one was born, is it not foolish regretful in the extreme to be led astray and cower before the empty displays of vanity of that foreigner's country instead? [...] The book [...] was translated by Nagasaki linguist Shizuki Tadao, who, based on the contents of the work, gave it the provisional title Sakoku ron. This was entirely his doing, and as a translation does not convey what the author meant. For this reason I have renamed it Ijin kyōfu den.

As you may have guessed, Kurosawa was a kokugaku scholar. Invoking the authority of an imported book to support an argument that ideas should not be imported at all is a bit ironic, but I guess it beat writing his own argument. (And, of course, everyone knows about Japan's centuries-old love/hate relationship with foreigner approval.)

Bonus link: 近世後期日本における志筑忠雄訳『鎖国論』の受容 Acceptance of "Sakoku-ron" translated by Shizuki Tadao in last part of early modern times Japan, by Ōshima Akihide 大島明秀.