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.

Popularity factor: 9


Don't fight it! There's always a Buddhist explanation for everything.

Leonardo Boiko:

In the min’yō groups here in Brazil (mostly elderly issei with the odd nissei and japanophile here and there) they barely teach you to make the damn thing produce a _sound_ (nevermind the different registers and breathing techniques etc.), then throw you right in the middle of group performance. You’re supposed to watch the other players, mimic their fingering and learn the songs by osmosis. I guess.


MMS, you of all people should know that sometimes the explanation is Confucian instead.

Leo: That's hardcore. But that's what makes min'yō great.

Sgt Tanuki:

Just to clarify, is that last translation yours? Brilliant. As you say, there's room to quibble with some of the interpretations, but it captures a music that the other two translations you linked to miss. Plus, it just takes balls to translate into English meter and rhyme. I salute that.


Yah, it's mine. Thanks! You know you've made it when a tanuki salutes your balls.

(I figured I may as well translate using a different form, rather than add yet another flawed line-by-line free-verse translation to the collection already linked.)


I'm not saying there's no Confucian explanation, nor that the Buddhist explanation's right. But there's <i>always</i> a Buddhist explanation.

Often heavily labored, mind....


You mean like how Pokemon is a metaphor for Amida's primal vow to save 'em all?



Leonardo Boiko:

Well here’s enlightened pikachu: http://www.nofna.com/main.php?A=999&M=1&image=1 .

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