Nothing to write about today, so here are some videos about CYBERCRIME from Japan's national police agency. The first one (Mienai akui, 見えない悪意 "Malice unseen") stars a young(er) Yasuda Misako 安田美沙子 and has some truly terrifying atmosphere. I've never looked at a USB cable with such dread.


Blossoms fallen

Here's a haiku by Ueshima Onitsura 上島鬼貫 (1660-1738) that I enjoyed today:

Hana chitte/ mata shizuka nari/ Onjō-ji
Blossoms fallen/ still once more/ Onjō-ji

"Post-hanami" is a relatively neglected subject for serious poetry, and the recreation-via-ordering is masterful: the flowers fall, the scene clears, and a temple is revealed. (There's impermanence and then there's impermanence, you see.)



Yamada Yoshihiro 山田芳裕's Hyouge-mono is populated mostly by historical figures, but some are more historical than others. One of the oddest is a tea-hermit (as Lafcadio Hearn would have put it given the chance), who apparently really existed, named "Hechikan."

Information on Hechikan in English is scarce. There's this version of the well-known but probably apocryphal account of the time he punk'd Sen no Riykū (whose position was that he totally saw it coming). There's also a chapter about Hechikan in W. Puck Brecher's translation of Hōsa kyōshaden 蓬左狂者伝 ("Biographies of Nagoya Madmen"), which includes this proto-Catskills quasi-gag:

A friend once admonished him, saying: "You'll need someone to take care of you when you get old; why not take a wife?" He replied, "True. And that'd be fine if she helped me, but if she fell ill what a burden she would be." He was single throughout his life, and his words and deeds were always commendable. Regrettably, I have forgotten them so can't recount them here.

(Worst biographer ever.)

In Japanese, there's the Wikipedia page, which includes outrageous claims like "he invented setta." And there's more here, including lots of sweet, sweet quotations from old books. Here's one glossing his name:


The upshot is that Imaōji "Christian" Dōsan 今大路道三 suggested that Hechikan change the spelling of his name from 丿貫 to 丿桓, because 桓 is also pronounced /kan/ and its strokes can be rearranged into 日本一, "greatest in Japan." The 丿, on the other hand, is to be interpreted as half a 人 ("person"), so the new name in full would mean "Half a man, greatest in Japan," which I am totally stealing for my next guest verse. (Note, though, that the English pages linked above claim that 丿 conveys the meaning of "skewed [to the left]", while 丿 as a character doesn't have an intrinsic meaning at all as far as I can tell — it's self-referential, it means "the 丿 radical," as seen in 乃 and so on.)



The first paragraph of Kishi Fumikazu 岸文和's Edo no enkinhō: ukie no shikaku 江戸の遠近法—浮絵の視覚 ("Edo perspective: visions of uki-e"):

In the mid-Edo period, during the reign of the eight shogun Yoshimune, an unusual kind of ukiyo-e called uki-e 浮絵 became popular. What was unusual about them was that they were drawn using Western geometrical perspective, creating a sense of deep space that "appears to sink inwards towards the background" [むかふへくぼみて見ゆ] against which foreground figures seemed to float, which was quite astonishing to the average Edoite of the time. How astonishing? As astonishing as the news that a man had been killed by an elephant, apparently [...]

That's pretty astonishing! It turns out that what Kishi is referring to is a contemporary scandal sheet that had "Uki-e published" (浮絵出版行事) listed as a headline alongside "Man returned from desert island tells tale of eating bizarre bird" (無人島帰国者喰於異鳥物語之事) and, yes, "Elephant kills man" (象殺人事).

Interesting factoid: Kishi argues that the Western perspective techniques probably arrived via China, specifically Suzhou prints 蘇州版画 using the technique, rather than directly from the west.


Books as houses

The first book Motoori Norinaga 本居宣長 wrote about the Tale of Genji was Shibun yōryō 紫文要領 ("The Essence of the Genji"), in 1763. Here's one of Motoori's analogies from towards the end. The context is that he has just been urging the reader to tackle the Genji because it will help them understand the life of Heian nobility more deeply, and this in turn will aid in their appreciation of Japanese tanka poetry (stuck, after all, in the Heian mode) and therethrough mono no aware.

[...] [B]ecause national histories and the like are written on the model of continental writing, they do not reveal clearly the details of human emotion. [...] Consider the analogy of a house. Continental writings are like the public-facing genkan or shoin. They are designed and decorated to glitter and gleam, but they reveal little about the inner life of the house. Poetic monogatari are like a view through from the kitchen to the inner chambers. In the inner part of the house, there is a tendency to relax and be sloppy, but in this way the nature of the house is made clear. If you would know true human emotion in its full and natural state, nothing will serve you as well as poetic monogatari.

We all know better than to go to Motoori for an unbiased take on the value of non-Japanese literature, but his analysis here does match up neatly with the modern take on Genji as the "first psychological novel." One big flaw in Motoori's thinking, though, is that even if we grant that the Genji provides greater access to the inner life of its characters than other works of the time, that doesn't mean that the inner life of its characters is any less constructed than the outer lives of a Chinese war history. Motoori himself acknowledges that the reader of 1693, even the Japanese reader, needs to study Heian Japan to really understand why flowers and birds could drive a sensitive person to tears, but provides no evidence that this weepiness was a natural state rather than a carefully cultivated tendency: is it analogous to the human taste for mates with good bilateral symmetry, or the human taste for the fashions and body modifications they are raised to consider normal?


The autumn wind

Here's an example from the Kokin shū of the "tiresome poetry, lower than punnery" (しやれにもならぬつまらぬ歌) that Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規 famously waxed caustic about.

The poem in question is number 239, in the "Autumn" section, and is by (Fujiwara) Toshiyuki no Ason (藤原)敏行朝亜. What you need to know in advance is that Eupatorium fortunei is called fujibakama ("wisteria [→ purple] trousers") in Japanese.

Nanibito ka/ kite nugi kakeshi/ fujibakama/ kuru aki goto ni/ nobe o niowasu
What manner of man/ has removed and left here/ these purple-trousers?/ Every time the autumn comes/ their scent doth fill the fields

That's it. Toshiyuki no Ason noticed that the word fujibakama literally meant "purple trousers" and wrote a poem that says "hay guise i wonder whose trousers these were LOL." The fact that Heian noblefolks scented their clothes and so that final line isn't straight-up slapstick is important, but not redeeming. (I will quietly admit that I like the second line's angular, lively nature. But that's it.)

And of course there were replies, taking the conceit further, such as this one by Minamoto no Sanetomo 源実朝, who as third shogun of the Kamakura shogunate should have known better.

Fujibakama/ kite nugi kakeshi/ nushi ya tare/ toedo kotaezu/ nobe no akikaze
Who was it/ who removed and left/ their purple trousers here?/ I ask, but it does not reply:/ the autumn wind in the fields

Note also that Sanetomo was assassinated by his nephew Minamoto no Yoshinari 源善哉 a.k.a. Kugyō 公暁. I'm not saying that there's a direct connection. I'm just saying. And let's all be glad that sakura weren't named "pink-trousers" or something, because if that were the case the Japanese poetic tradition would look very different.


Ii munage

The Japanese educational system, and particularly the strait gate/narrow way that leadeth from high school to college, still demands of its victims a great deal of memorization. The educational theory here is that people whose heads are filled with specific facts of grave importance can go on to use these facts as a framework for integrating new information and developing a deeper understanding of the world. The reality, of course, is that you end up with a bunch of 18-year-olds cramming their minds full of nonsense mnemonics designed to last until the college exams are over.

The most widespread of these mnemonics are the goroawase for memorizing numbers, and the most widely beloved of those are the ones used in history class to remember important years. The canonical history goroawase is ii kuni tsukurō ["let's found a good country"], Kamakura bakufu: i-i-ku-ni = 1-1-9-2, i.e. 1192 CE, the year the Kamakura shogunate officially began with the shogunation of Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝. Ii kuni tsukurō is canonical for a few reasons: it's about an important event that students will read about multiple times; it's whimsical without being completely nonsensical or surreal; it's related to the event rather than just being a bunch of words that happen to add up to the right year.

You can find long lists quite pretty easily (in Japanese, natch); here are a few others I like.

  • Romio mo ikimasu, daiikkai kentōshi = "Romeo goes too: first mission to the Tang" (ro-mi-o = 630)
  • Nanto rippa na Heijō-kyō = "How marvelous is this Heijō-kyō!" (nan-to = 710)
  • Naku yo, uguisu, Heian-kyō = "The warbler cries: Heian-kyō" (na-ku-yo = 794) [This one has variants like Haku yo, uguisu ("The warbler vomits") for 894 when the missions to the Tang were stopped, etc.]
  • Ii munage, Taira no Kiyomori = "Great chest hair, Taira no Kiyomori 平清盛 [becomes Chancellor of the Realm] (i-i-mu-na = 1167)
  • Iroiro sankyū, Porutogaru = "Thanks for everything, Portugal" (for the closing of Japan's ports to Portuguese ships; i-ro-san-kyū = 1639)
  • Yakko-san mo bikkuri, Perii no kurofune = "Even the servants were shocked at Perry's black ships" (ya-go-san = 853; the initial "1" you just remember)


Waka-Dharani Theory

Interesting follow-up reading on the power of poetry: "Reading the Miraculous Powers of Japanese Poetry: Spells, Truth Acts, and a Medieval Buddhist Poetics of the Supernatural," [PDF] by R. Keller Kimbrough (lots more to read at the link, too).

Miraculous poems — specifically those reported to have been efficacious in moving demons and deities — can generally be divided into two categories: those that function spontaneously, independent of the poet's wishes, and those that are reported to have been crafted by the poet with an intent to produce a supernatural result. Of poems in the former category, most are represented as having been effective because of the emotional response that they inspire: a deity, inadvertently moved by the grief or longing of the poet, typically exercises its powers on the poet’s behalf. Poems in the latter category tend to employ a variety of approaches: while many appeal to sentiment, others are composed to flatter, threaten, blackmail, and possibly even confuse. [...]


Cause when I speak, they freak

Today, a tale from the book known as Kohon setsuwa shū 古本説話集, or "Old book of legends" — this being a provisional title assigned to the medieval work when the only known copy of it was discovered in 1943 without a cover or any useful identifying information. The tale is called "The woodcutter" and also appears in the Uji shūi monogatari 宇治拾遺物語 under the title "The woodcutter's song."

Once upon a time, a woodcutter had his axe (yoki) taken from him by a mountain ranger. But the woodcutter looked so helpless and miserable sitting there with his chin in his hands that the ranger said, "All right, say something clever and I'll give the axe back." So the woodcutter recited a poem:
  Even a bad one is better than none -- you need one to make the cut in this world,
  So now that my good one is taken away, I axe you, just what shall I do?

The ranger wanted to reply in verse, but all he could do was groan "Ooh, ooh!" So he gave the axe back, and the woodcutter was most delighted. And so we see that people must always be ready to recite a poem.

I like this story for a few reasons:

  1. The poem is great. There are two main puns going on: yoki "axe" vs yoki "good", and wari naki "senseless, hard-to-endure" vs wari naki "free of cuts" (e.g. like the trees the woodcutter can't cut without his axe). My rendering is groan-inducingly bad mainly as an excuse to use the "axe/ask" pun.
  2. The ranger is not simply lost for words. He actually moans "うゝ/\" ("uu, uu" or maybe a stutter: "u- u- u- u-"). This isn't a pun or anything, it just makes me laugh.
  3. The moral is not "don't be a jerk" or even "don't start beef if you can't finish it," but rather, "always be ready to freestyle eight bars."