The ruin and the wanderer

The introductions that poet Irako Seihaku 伊良子清白 wrote for the republication of his first book, Kujakubune 孔雀船 ("The Peacock-Boat") are really excellent examples of East Asian writerly humility. Here's the 1968 introduction from the first paperback edition:

They say that as akoya pearls age, they grow ever deeper in luster, ever more splendid in color. My words of poetry are crude, their rhythms unnatural; after ten years, their light had dimmed; after twenty years, their perfume had faded; today, their forms lie scattered and forgotten. It is said that Ueda Akinari threw his unwanted writings into a deep well and left without looking back, but I could not even manage this. Now I am two-and-sixty, an aged man; my hair is white and unkempt; my teeth are gone; I cannot see. Only my memories of youth bring me joy. Ah! these empty writings; is there anyone alive today who will favor them with a glance?

This actually represents a dialing-back from his original 1929 introduction:

In these ruins there are no more prayers or curses, no jubilation or resentment; in a world of extinction from which all atmosphere is lost, how could the grasses of life grow? If among the crumbling walls and broken foundations some discovery is made, such must be the creation of its discoverer, and not some regeneration from decay.


And just what were these worthless, abandoned wastelands of lyric? Here's a very quick translation of the first one, entitled "Hyōhaku" 漂白 ("Wandering"):

At reed-door blows the autumn wind;
How bleak the river inn.
The pitiable traveller
Looks up at evening sky
And softly starts to sing.

His long-departed mother's face,
A fair maid's once again,
Appears upon the moon;
His long-departed father's form,
Become a child's again,
Spreads 'cross the Milky Way

In glimpses through the willow-trees
The river, pale in the night,
And fields beyond, with rising smoke
The faint sound of a flute,
The traveller's breast does reach.

The valley-songs that ring from home
Are heard, cut short, and heard again
Their echoes from the sky combine
With groans from under earth
And blend in music deep

The mother of the traveller
Has lodged within him now
And to him in his youth, too, is
His father now descent.
And of the flute of hazy fields
One faint strain now remains

The traveller is singing still
Returning to his days of youth
Smiling, he is singing yet

Hmm. Even allowing for the fact that I've put in hardly any effort in creating a poetic voice for Seihaku in English (sorry, man), the imagery is not that amazing — or I guess not dense enough. I like the way that his parents, the river, the smoke are silent — purely visual — while the sounds that arrive from far away are conversely from sources that cannot be seen. This combines with the fact that we really have no hard info on what it's like where he is to create a sort of comfy dislocation which eventually circles back to suspend his singing voice in the nowhere too. But I think it could have been a little more concise.


Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?

Here's a calligram by Saitō Haruo 斎藤春夫, entitled "Draft for a missing persons newspaper notice":



of yesteryear

Please contact:



Japanese summer revolves around two beverages. One is beer (natch). The other is barley tea, or mugicha 麦茶. Summer is when barley is freshly harvested and at its tastiest, but still — why barley tea, and since when?

According to Japanese Wikipedia, something similar to barley tea has been drunk in Japan since Heian times, but the story gets interesting in the late Edo period, when the drink was known as mugiyu. (This literally means "barley + hot water" and is arguably more accurate since barley tea doesn't actually contain any, you know, tea.) Mugiyu was served in special establishments known as mugiyu mise (among other things, no doubt) and staffed by attractive young girls, maybe like this one. These houses of barleyed debauchery were open late into the summer night, and sometimes there was music and hostessing going on. The Fujiokaya Diary records official disapproval of the industry, partly for moral reasons and partly because they were a fire hazard.

(Aside: I don't think the "fire hazard" thing was the sort of bullshit pretext we would all assume it to be if The Man used it to close down a happening nightspot today. Edo was a city of densely built wood and paper; fire hazards were a very big deal.)

You can read a number of quotations about mugiyu girls (麦湯少女) in this blog post, including the interesting assertion from Kikuchi Kan that the mugiyu mise of the early Meiji period were the predecessor to Japanese cafe culture — in which, indeed, the scandal of unmarried women serving beverages would be repeated without shame or repentance.

So: when did sultry, voluptuous mugiyu become the cheerful and wholesome mugicha of today? Again returning to Wikipedia and its sources, this seems to have happened in the postwar period. Two key developments were required for this shift: widespread uptake of home refrigerator technology, allowing easy storage of cool beverages, and the invention of the mugicha "tea bag." I suppose the analogy to tea was easier to make when the actual plant matter involved was hidden inside an opaque bag, but I also suspect the name change was an attempt to class the stuff up a bit, break the association with shamisen-playing floozies and Edo street culture and create a new link to the respectable, healthful world of tea.

(It's probably worth noting that Wikipedia's main source for much of this seems to be Hitachiya Honpo, who in turn claim to have invented modern mugicha culture more or less single-handedly. I have no reason to doubt their claims but neither have I independently verified them.)


Yasegaman no setsu

Hey! Did you know that you can read M. William Steele's translation of Yasegaman no setsu 瘠我慢の説, Fukuzawa Yukichi's seminal tribute to not knowing when to quit, online? Well, you can!

Steele gives it the English title On Fighting to the Bitter End; another one I've seen is Spirit of Manly Defiance. Steele's is better, I think, and closer etymologically too: gaman 我慢 now means something like "perseverance, patience, self-control, ability to endure adverse circumstances," but originally it meant something more like "pride," while yase[ru] means to lose weight or (of soil) to become farmed-out and barren. So the compound taken as a fuzzy whole means to insist on persevering for prideful reasons despite lacking the resources to effectively do so: fighting to the bitter end.

On the other hand, the reason Fukuzawa recommends yasegaman is to preserve one's manliness, so "spirit of manly defiance" isn't that bad — it just doesn't have the gritty brutality of the original title.

Anyway, Fukuzawa's argument is that a man never surrenders, even if he knows he's beat. It is a general argument, but it is constructed specifically to criticize Katsu Kaishū 勝海舟 for peacefully surrendering Edo castle to Saigō Takamori 西郷隆盛 at the end of the Boshin War rather than forcing Saigō into a battle of attrition until the whole of eastern Japan was razed to the ground. To war-war, Fukuzawa argues, would have been better than the jaw-jawing that took place instead.

[...] I knew as well as Katsu that the weakened bakufu had no chance of victory. Nonetheless, I also knew that, in order to maintain Japan's martial spirit, the time was not right to make calculations over questions of victory or defeat. [...] Katsu [...] had already adopted a defeatist position, and without engaging the enemy gave orders for the ruling authority of the Tokugawa family to dissolve itself. He earnestly sued for peace, saying that people would be killed in military action, and property needlessly destroyed. While he sought to soften the loss of life and wealth, he cannot escape blame from harming Japan's warrior spirit of dogged endurance [yasegaman no shifū 瘠我慢の士風] so vital to the make-up of the country.

Loss of life and property are temporary misfortunes, but to maintain the fighting spirit is an eternal necessity.

There are two prongs to Fukuzawa's argument: (1) surrender is strategically wrong — and unjapanese — weakening the country and rendering it more vulnerable to potential aggressors in the future; and (2) surrender is morally wrong, in the same way that it would be wrong not to do everything you can to extend the lives of your dying parents even if the odds are a thousand to one against you succeeding. (Obviously, Fukuzawa is not a fan of euthanasia.)

Enomoto Takeaki 榎本武揚, on the other hand, earns praise for his role in founding the Republic of Ezo:

Many Tokugawa retainers and men from pro-bakufu groups in other domains joined his cause. Under his leadership, they followed his orders to advance or retreat. Whether during naval battles in the northern seas or at the siege of Hakodate, many of these men fought bravely to their death. Their story exemplifies the tradition of the Yamato spirit (Yamato damashii); it would seem that Katsu and Enomoto were not living in the same age.

Eventually, though, Enomoto made his peace with the new regime and even served in government, a turnaround of which Fukuzawa did not approve:

If the spirits of the dead exist in the world below, they must be crying out in great anger at this injustice.

Japan's Ben Franklin, everybody.


The City & The City

This post is about China Miéville's The City & The City, which I finally got around to reading. I'll try to keep it fairly spoiler-free, but I make no promises. (And I am going to discuss the central conceit, but then, it's pretty clear by fifty pages in or so.)

TC&TC (it seems point-missingly wrong to shorten it to The City) is a police-procedural pastiche that takes place across two cities somewhere on the fringe of Europe called Besźel and Ul Qoma. The hook is that Besźel and Ul Qoma are culturally and linguistically distinct but "grosstopologically" superimposed on the same place. They are not side-by-side, like Berlin; they are intermingled, right down to the level of individual buildings. The citizens of each learn from childhood to "unsee" the citizens and material culture of the other, so that when on a street "crosshatched" with alternating Besź and Ul Qoman buildings, they only see the buildings in "their" city. This system is enforced by an enigmatic and seemingly supernatural authority known as Breach, who deal with even minor transgressions of these rules so brutally and inevitably that any interaction with the other city is unthinkable — not even criminals dare mess with Breach.

(This setup is both disappointing and encouraging: disappointing because I was secretly hoping that Miéville had come up with a workable depiction of a city built on the plan of a Möbius strip or a blivet, but encouraging because at least the idea he had come up with was original.)

Miéville is careful to avoid simple allegory for any one real issue. Besźel and Ul Qoma are evocative of all artificial divisions: class structure, where the rich on their way to lunch studiously ignore the poor sweeping and slumped on the sidewalk; religious differences, where ostracism and sometimes violence define the limits of the acknowledgeable; even totalitarianism, where everyone agrees on pain of death to "unsee" the fact that their rulers ride in BMWs past breadlines that don't move all day.

So everyone is free to impose their own clé on TC&TC and for me of course that is language.

It's not all my fault. Miéville makes language an issue right from the start. The story begins in Besźel, where people are named things like Shukman, Lizbyet, Vilyem: part of the Indo-European tradition, but with exotic, unplacable Eastern European trimmings. As the story progresses, the narrator constantly digresses to remark on linguistic matters: a drug called feldexplained as a "trilingual pun: it's khat where it's grown, and the animal called 'cat' in English is feld in our own language"; an aside about "the public has a right to know" as an idea seeping into Besź journalism due to "British or North American owners," plus a note that "in Besź the word 'right' is polysemic enough to evade the peremptory meaning [they intend by it]"; a line of dialogue "It wasn't that hard, and at least it made it easier to gudcop," explained thus: "we had stolen gudcop and badcop from English, verbed them."

So, two things: (1) Besź is positioned relative to English, and (2) the narrator — "Tyador Borlú" of the Extreme Crime Squad — is specifically addressing someone who doesn't know Besź. Given the lack of a "papers-found-in-a-suitcase-in-Hungary" framing device, I think it's fair to go one step further and assume that Borlú is addressing us: English speakers, the Anglosphere.

Ul Qoma's proper nouns are similarly evocative, spelled with lots of Q's and liberal use of the article "Ul." This pseudo-Middle Eastern orthography exploits obvious existing east-meets-west traditions, although I would not be willing to bet that Miéville didn't end up with "Ul Qoma" by working backwards from the internet domain .uq as an homage to Uqbar. In any case, Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, feels more "distant" than Besź from the perspective of an English speaker, even though we are explicitly told that they "share a common ancestor." (Perhaps the proper nouns are a substrate.)

(Besź and Illitan are also written with different scripts, which to my mind echoes the distinction between "seeing" and "unseeing": a script you cannot read cannot be "seen" all the way through to its meaning; a script you can read cannot not be.)

Borlú speaks Illitan, but, significantly, he has to resort to English — and the cliched English of cop drama at that — to get his point across at times: "'Can you make a... I don't know it in Illitan. Put an APB on him,' I said in English, copying the films." ("Yeah, we call it 'send the halo,'" replies his Ul Qoman interlocutor.)

English, the language of neoliberalism and all that is antithetical to tiny, distinct cultures, is the reference point and the common ground for Besźel and Ul Qoma. English is explicitly identified as the vantage point from which the oddness of Besźel and Ul Qoma's situation can be acknowledged (for to speak of it in Besź or Illitan would be tantamount to admitting knowledge of things one should be unseeing, and therefore Breach). In fact, it's subtle, but a surprisingly large proportion of the novel's plot relies on English as a medium for development — without expats and executives and postgrads hacking callously through the semiotic tangle of Besź-Ul Qoma in search of the lost cities and fabulous riches they are said to conceal, not much of the story would be left.

So we have a story that is positioned relative to English, narrated in English, all about the effects of English. This feels like a metaphor for cultural hegemony of the sort that allows dissent only on its own terms, which makes the fact that the story doesn't end in dramatic revolution and "freedom" for Besźel and Ul Qoma a shocking anti-Hegelian twist concealed within apparent stasis.

The three writers most mentioned in reviews of TC&TC are Kafka, Orwell (specifically 1984, of course), and Borges. The comparison to Kafka feels unfruitful because there is no cruelty or inhumanity: the situation is absurd, but the rules are clear and it's quite possible to obey them and live a fruitful life. Even the outsiders thrown into Besźel and Ul Qoma treat the situation as a cultural quirk rather than a psychological torture, and no-one in or out of the cities seems any more alienated by their position than the rest of the modern world is by their own. The Orwell link is even more tenuous because instead of the proverbial boot stamping in a human face forever the two cities are simply regular cities with certain idiosyncratic (and, really, not especially oppressive in and of themselves) bylaws. Breach have absolute power but not totalitarian power: you can do whatever you want as long as you don't Breach, and it's made clear in the novel that while "thoughtcrime," temporarily imagining oneself in the other city while on a crosshatched street, does theoretically exist and would be prosecutable, Breach do not act on it.

Borges, though, I can see. The whole novel feels like an elaboration on a Borgesian idea, and while there is no air of Kafkan cruelty or Orwellian oppression, the novel is saturated with melancholy Borgesiana: libraries and alleyways and paradoxes and loopholes. On the other hand, while Miéville is an excellent writer and in particular very good at distinguishing the voices of his characters, The City & The City is ultimately a detective story, peeled layer by layer through hard work and elbow grease. This makes the story more vivid but also dilutes the sheer intellectual thrill of a Borgesian idea, and to be honest at times I found myself wishing Miéville had left some things a bit more oblique — left more for me to do with his idea.


98.9 per cent

From the promotional website for upcoming exhibition Kukai's World: The Arts of Esoteric Buddhism (空海と密教美術展):

See that call-out up in the top left? "98.9% National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties!" (国宝・重要文化財 98.9%).

Makes you wonder what the rest is. I was hoping for small print reading "1.1% pictures of Ānanda my ex drew on a napkin in 2003," but no such luck.


The birth of I

I found a great sentence in Mori Ōgai 森鴎外's Maihime 舞姫 ("Dancing girl")... great for nerdy exegesis, that is!

Privately, it seemed to me that my mother was trying to turn me into a walking dictionary while my employer was trying to turn me into a walking law library.

Maybe they aren't the best translations for 官長 (literally "director [of some governmental team]", but I don't know how the international Meiji bureaucracy was translating their titles at the time) and 法律 (literally just "law", but I think "law library" works better to keep the parallelism) — but the part that interests me is the kanji the narrator uses to refer to himself.

yo ("I/me") and 我 wa ga ("my", from wa "me" + ga possessive) are both archaic now, and I'm fairly certain they were archaic in a spoken context even when Ōgai was writing, but they are appropriate to his extremely classical written style. (He seems to use 余 and 我 more or less interchangeably — I don't see an obvious pattern, anyway.)

私, on the other hand, is the modern character used to write watashi or watakushi, "I/me". It is also the "I" in "I novel", and indeed Maihime is often cited as a sort of proto-"I novel" — a couple of decades too early to be an official part of the tradition, but certainly based on events in Ōgai's own life, with an ending of sufficient tragedy.

Of course, Ōgai is using 私 here with its original meaning of "secret" or "private," to indicate thoughts kept to oneself. But it's intriguing that this 私 graces the first stirring of rebellion and self-interest within the story's narrator — the birth of the modern "私", in other words. Thoughts kept to oneself as the beginnings of one's self.