A savage poem

Here's an interesting kyōka (狂歌) I found in a Nagata Seiji 永田生慈-edited facsimile of Hokusai's Tōto meisho ichiran 東都名所一覧 ("Catalog of famous sites in the eastern metropolis"). It's on the "Asukayama" page, and is credited to Ikokujin 夷国人 ("Barbarian, Outlander"):

Asukayama/ kawarage hodo ni/ sakazuki mo/ jōzu ni nagete/ watasu otemoto

This requires some unpacking. Kawarage is a reference to kawarake-nage 土器投げ, "stoneware-throwing". I quote the industrious Robin D. Gill's Cherry Blossom Epiphany:

The description of the saucer-throwing from Asuka (found at a website and in Ono Sawako's book) makes it seem like a precursor to the frisbee, i.e. pure fun, but all the other descriptions of the practice locate it at or near a mountain temple, which loaded them with supernatural signficance. Most commonly, they were thought to rid one of bad luck or help ward off disease and whatnot [...] Almost as commonly, it was explained that the more beautifully, or the longer they could be thrown the more successful one would be with whatever endeavor one made a wish about. At one temple, the same saucer that warded off bad luck brings good luck if it passes through a hoop dangled from a tree near the cliff.

Meanwhile, otemoto is most commonly encountered in modern Japan as a polite word for "chopsticks" (you might remember it from the last paper sleeve you withdrew a disposable pair from), but in this case it is clearly used in the sense of "(skillful) way of handling a sake cup (sakazuki)."

I am also taking an executive decision to interpret 上手に as jōzu ni ("skillfully") rather than uwate ni ("upstream, towards the capital" to name just one).

So this gives us:

Asukayama/ where stoneware flies/ and sake cups are tossed/ from hand to hand/ with equal artistry

Here's a senryū about kawarake:

Kawarake ga/ sorete sakura no/ hana ga chiru
The stoneware goes/ astray; the cherry/ blossoms fall

This is an excellent example of what senryū do better than kyōka. It's not especially witty, or refreshingly phrased, but it does paint an excellent word-picture: plate → astray → sakura → fall. You can almost hear the errant saucer hitting the branches. The original is also helped by the availability of the word chiru, which is as compact and fundamental as the English word "fall" but implies more vigor and wildness. (So why not use "scatter", you say? Because I had a perfect row of six iambs in sight and I couldn't bear to weaken the ending.)

Getting back to the author's pseudonym, "Ikokujin," this is probably a reference to the fact that kyōka themselves were also known as ebisu-uta 夷歌 ("barbarian poems"). As the History of Kyoka I linked at the top sez:

In the Kyoto-Osaka area where the tradition of a Waka was so well established, they could not think of a mockery of the Waka. The country bumpkins of Edo whose Waka was not well established or, better to say, who had a sense of inferiority due to lack of a traditional Waka and who, because of the inferiority complex or envy, keenly wanted to put the people of the Kyoto-Osaka area to shame abruptly hit on an idea of jeering at a Waka. [...] Composers of Edo Kyoka sometimes called their poem savage poem or savage verse. A poem in the Kyoto-Osaka area being a Waka, a poem of Wa country, a poem made in the eastern countryside far from the center of Japan and by a savage must be a savage poem.


Slow news week



"Because our nation uses Chinese characters for its nengō [era names], their pronunciation is not always clear, and there are times when even dedicated scholars cannot pronounce them correctly." With this grim précis does Yamada Yoshio 山田孝雄 open his Nengō yomikata kōshō kō 年號讀方考證稿 ("Draft of an investigation into the pronunciation of era names"), a painstaking nengō-by-nengō compilation of pronunciations recorded in historical documents of varying authenticity.

Nengō yomikata an elegant book from a more civilized age. Its very raison d'être is thrown into doubt by the internet: why hire people to amass information on index cards and compile these into reference works for painstaking page-by-page consultation when we can search for what we want and find about 2,000,000 results in 0.12 seconds? (Answer: Because Google doesn't index this sort of information very well yet, and probably never will, since (a) OCRing premodern Japanese handwriting is a bear, wrapped in a tiger, inside a gorilla, and (b) Google can just index books like this instead. Details, details.)

Plus, as Yamada also makes clear in his introduction, the whole exercise of gathering nengō pronunciations is more akin to fieldwork in the natural sciences than puzzle-solving. In the vast majority of cases where doubt exists, there is no single "correct" answer — just trends, tendencies, and historical observations, which are more interesting anyway. Even the scholars charged with thinking up new nengō would observe that "sometimes they get read with the Han pronunciations, and sometimes with the Wu pronunciations," as if it wain't no thang. (The example Yamada quotes was incidental to an argument over whether Tennin 天仁 was a good name for an era, since it was pronounced the same as Tennin 天人, in which Ōe no Masafusa 大江匡房 deemed the association unproblematic in any case because heaven implied longevity; "Even in the lower heavens (下天), a day and a night is fifty human years long." This is the "What's wrong with being sexy?" of nengō debate.)

Anyway, Yamada's sources include some contemporary folk writing in Roman characters, especially Kaempfer and Rodrigues — which is good! Unfortunately for Kaempfer, his work stands out as a sort of proto-Grauniad among the other sources.

The first Nengo was Fakutsij, and begun with the sixth year of the reign of this Emperor [Kōtoku], which was the year of Synmu 1310, of Christ 650.

That's an unusual way to spell Hakuchi 白雉, but Kaempfer was from lands Germanic, and the <f> matches what he would have actually heard, so, okay.

A few paragraphs later, though:

It was not without great trouble and difficultv this Emperor [Temmu] got himself possess'd of the Throne, which was disputed him by his younger Brother Oto Mo No Oosi, who resolv'd to maintain his claim to the crown by force of arms, and at the head of a numerous army. But this unhappy Pretender was entirely defeated in five month's time, when out of despair he ript open his own belly. His body was honourably interr'd in the Temple Okamotto, situate in the Province Jamatto, in the ninth month of his Brother's reign. In memory of this Victory Ten Mu instituted the Nengo Fakwo, which continued fourteen years, till the beginning of the third Nengo Siuwu.

"Fakwo" is presumably Hakuhō 白鳳. Hakuhō is what you call an itsunengō 逸年号. This means that while it's not an "official" nengō recognized by imperial histories, the documents that reference it do place it within that tradition. (I.e., it wasn't declared as a propaganda effort by anti-imperial rebels.)

But what about "Siuwu"? The next nengō is supposed to be Shuchō 朱鳥, which has a completely different second half. Yamada suggests in a note that Kaempfer's reading may come from misreading that 鳥 ("bird", Sino-Japanese pronunciation chō) as 烏 ("crow", Sino-Japanese pronunciation u). Makes sense. (Meanwhile, poor old Rodrigues has "Xiujacu" 朱雀 in this position.)

Kaempfer keeps digging:

Soon after his accession to the Throne he [Emperor Monmu] begun a new Nengo, call'd Gen, which continu'd four years, and was follow'd by the Nengos, Tenpo of three years, and Keewuun of four years, but little us'd.

Okay, time out. I allowed "Fakutsij." I showed tolerance and understanding for "Siuwu." But "Gen" is definitely not a nengō. Kaempfer has apparently gotten confused by the word gannen 元年, meaning "the first year under a new nengō", and written with the character 元 which is more commonly pronounced gen Beyond that, the nengō after Suchō is supposed to be Taihō, not Tenpo. /h/ vs /p/ is a non-issue (indeed, it's exactly the kind of expected variation Yamada's book aims to address), but tai vs ten is way off. Yamada thinks it might come from misreading 大 as 天. Sigh.

Kaempfer: the original Japan blogger.


Two popular songs from Ryōkan's notebooks

No longer by mere idleness from your true path be swayed/ Tend only to what matters: smoking, drink, and getting laid.
Birds live in the treetops, fish live in the streams/ Man lives in his feelings and vacations in his dreams

Special bonus 1: Tanka about ball-bouncing rhyme!

Ball-bouncing rhyme: One two three, four five six, seven eight nine, ten, ten, and start again

Special bonus 2: Bizarre correspondence!

ハイ今日は 雑炊の味噌一かさ下され度候。ハイサヤウナラ
Yes today I want a cup of zōsui miso please. Yes goodbye

"Songi 存疑," notes editor Tōgō Toyoharu 東郷豊治: "Doubts remain." Indeed.


The eternal Kyorei

Warning: Shakuhachi inside baseball ahead.

So one of the genres of music typically played on the shakuhachi is honkyoku 本曲: mostly solo pieces, usually without strong rhythm, handed down from komusō culture. Kyorei 虚鈴 ("Empty bell", etc.) is one of the "three classics," traditionally considered the oldest surviving honkyoku, and has been transmitted in many different versions.

Romei at shakuhachi blog Nichiyō komusō made an interesting post not long ago about three versions of Kyorei. His diagram shows a summary, in shakuhachi notation (black text = low register, red text = high register, blue text = low or high register), of the piece in three versions: Seien-ryū 西園流, Taizan-ha 對山派, and Jin Nyodō 神如道's version (i.e. the Fudaiji version).

Now, the Taizan-ha version of the piece is based on the Seien-ryū version, edited into its present shape by Taizan-ha founder Higuchi Taizan 樋口對山. This editing seems to consist mostly of adding repetitions (e.g. as in the first row) and moving the first few phrases to the high register. This is relatively uncommon in the honkyoku repertoire, in which pieces tend to start low, go high, and then come back down to low again. (The "mountain" structure.) So why did Taizan do that?

Romei argues that both the repetitions and the high-register start were a way of reinforcing the "Kyorei sound world," the chief characteristic of which is eternity. The repetitions undermine the passage of time, eroding what little motivic direction the Seien-ryū version originally had, and the "start high" approach is a way of implying that the song was already in progress when the player picked up the flute. What is played, and heard, is just the section of Kyorei that happens to be manifest in our world; and the ending, too, implies a continuation in another place.

I'm not in a position to judge the validity of this (I've never even spoken in person with a Taizan-ha player), but I enjoyed the argument.


Atlantis off Kyoto

Okay, enough dinosaurs. Back to earthquakes. This is a story from a book called Kojishin 古地震 ("Earthquakes of antiquity"), edited by Hagiwara Takahiro 萩原尊禮, which combines earth science and historiography to awesome effect.

So, in Taihō I (701 CE) there was an earthquake on the north coast of central Japan. This is uncontroversial. More controversial is the rumor that this earthquake sank an entire island, Atlantis-style. This is what the Tango fūdoki zanketsu 丹後風土記残欠 ("Remnants of the Tango fudoki"), the main source for this rumor, has to say about the matter (sample source for text, and Kojishin also quotes this part):


Ōshiama 凡海 in ancient times was 43 ri from Bandai Beach 万代浜 in Takuri 田造 [now within Maizuru, Kyoto] [...] 35 ri and 2 bu [...] a single large island surrounded by the ocean on all sides. The name "凡海" has been passed down from long ago. In ancient times, when Ōnamochi-no-Mikoto 大穴持命 and Sukunabiko-no-Mikoto 少彦名命 arrived here to rule the land, they gathered together all the small islands in the ocean [...] made them into one island. This is why it is called "凡海" [sort of "entire ocean"]. On the day of the Yin Earth Pig (己亥) [the 26th], in the third month of Taihō I, an earthquake began and did not stop for three days. This land was lost to the sea in one night [...] Finally all that was left above water were the two peaks of a tall mountain that had stood in the middle of the land and a rock on which stood a shrine. The peaks are now called "Tokoyo no shima" 常世島, or by the common people "Ojima" 男島 [also written 雄島, either way "Man island", known as Kanmurijima, today] and "Mejima" 女島 [also written 雌島]. There is a shrine on the islands, dedicated to Ame-no-Hoakari-no-Kami 天火明神 and Hikoro[?]-no-Megami 日子郎女神 [apparently identified with Hoyahime-no-Mikoto].

Terrifying stuff, but not true in the slightest. Yamamoto Takeo 山本武夫 (the individual author credited with this chapter in Kojishin) presents a range of historiographical evidence suggesting that the events described did not take place.

First, he notes that the Shoku Nihongi 続日本紀, completed in 797, doesn't mention anything of the sort in its entry on the earthquake:


Earthquake in Tamba Province, three days.

Brevity is a well-known feature of these chronicles, but you would think that "half of the province" sinks would be recorded if it had indeed happened.

He then turns his attention to the Tango fudoki zanketsu itself, arguing persuasively that it is at least in part an Edo-period forgery. One datum probably of interest to No-sword-reading types is the presence of the place name 田造, "Takuri," in the text quoted above. This corresponds to 田辺, "Tanabe," in (verified) older texts. How do we know? Because the earliest known instance of the 田造 spelling is a write-o introduced in the first printed edition of the Wamyō ruijushō 和名類聚抄, published in 1617. Ergo, it seems likely that the Tango fudoki zanketsu, or at least the part that uses 田造, was written in the 17th century by someone referring to a post-1617 edition of the Wamyō ruijushō.

Okay, so it looks like an Edo-period forgery. That doesn't mean that the information is wrong. Maybe the sunken island story slipped out of the Shoku Nihongi during the editorial process. Maybe the place-name issues ("Tango Province" wasn't an official province until 713 CE; there are places called 凡海 in the area that are part of the mainland) are also just garbled transmission. The key question to my mind is, did an island in fact sink into the sea?

The answer is, again, simple: it did not. People and paper lie, but broken earth abides, and the second half of the Kojishin chapter on the Taihō I earthquake relates an expedition to the area by a team of geologists (the authors, basically) to debunk the lost-island story.

First of all, the water surrounding the two islands that are alleged to be all that remains of a sunken super-island is 60-70 meters deep. This means that the super-island would need to have sunk 60 meters in a single night. This is simply not credible. Even a 10-meter shift as a result of an earthquake is a rare, dramatic event, and 20 meters is basically unheard of. Furthermore, the islands are at the mouth of a bay, and if the surrounding sea floor were 60 meters higher the result would not be an island but a peninsula.

Okay, so it didn't happen overnight. Maybe it took place over a longer period of time, with the earthquake still as the ultimate cause? Again, no. Erosion doesn't work fast enough to hollow out a sixty-meter deep seabed in the timespan required, even if given a slight head-start by an earthquake, and there's no sign of any rockslides or anything else that would change the shape of the seabed fast enough either.

Science always wins.