Sue no chigiri

Sue no chigiri is an 18th-19th century piece of Japanese music, originally composed by Matsuura Kengyō for shamisen and voice (a jiuta piece) but later arranged by Yaezaki Kengyō for an ensemble that also included the koto. Tsuge Gen'ichi translates the title "Pledge of Eternal Fidelity"; Ingrid Seldin and Okamoto Koji prefer "Vow of Eternal Love" (an entirely different proposition, really). The title is from the last couple of lines:

... Yachiyo furu tomo/ kimi mashite/ kokoro no sue no/ chigiri tagau na
... though I may live a thousand years/ so long may you,/ my beloved,/ not break our vow of eternal love! (Seldin and Okamoto, in Burnett 1984: 46-47)
... [Please do not forget me,]/ Even though I live [...] for eight thousand years/ As your mistress./ Do not break our sincere pledge/ Of eternal fidelity. (Tsuge 1983: 95)

But how do we get "eternal" from sue? Well...

Etymologically, sue means "end" or "tip." It is the opposite of moto, "base." Song 97 in the Nihon shoki:

komoriku no/ patuse no kapa yu
nagarekuru/ take no/ i-kumidake yodake
moto pye woba/ koto ni tukuri
suwe pye woba/ puye ni tukuri... (OJ romaji from Frellesvig et al 2013)

Down the river/ of Hatsuse the hidden land/ Comes floating/ A bamboo, /Interlaced bamboo, young bamboo:/ From the trunk/ They fashion a cithern,/ From the tip/ They fashion a flute... (Cranston 1993: 108)

Incidentally, in Iwanami's old NKBT edition of the Nihon shoki kayō, editor Tsuchihashi Yutaka 土橋寛 takes great pains to demolish the notion that the ancient Japanese might have literally made their koto ("citherns") out of bamboo; the couplet, he says, is there for structural and rhythmic purposes, and one should not seek meaning in each and every word (Tsuchihashi 1957: 212).

Anyway, it also developed metaphorically: the end of a path, the end of a period of time, things to come, one's children... The Nihon Kokugo Daijiten has a citation from the Pillow Book chigiri that also includes sue:


When people, whether they be men or women or priests, have promised each other eternal friendship, it is rare for them to stay on good terms until the end. (Shōnagon 1971: 83)

(Where did he get "priests" from?)

Phrasing like sue made implies, to me at least, that sue can't in and of itself be eternity: it's a definite point, however far off. Even expressions like sue nagaku seem to imply a possibility of measurement that eternity does not.

The NKD also has citations for kokoro no sue, which it defines as "where the heart comes to rest; the future state of the heart" (心が移り行く先。将来の心の状態). So while "vow of eternal X" is fine as an idiomatic English translation, structurally sue no chigiri seems to mean something like "vow to end up doing X" — not a promise of passive faithfulness to last forever, but a vow to actively do something, and make sure it stays done, when the time is right — in the case of this poem, to rescue the narrator, implicitly some sort of courtesan, from her life of uncertainty and woe. For this reason, I think I prefer "Pledge of Eternal Fidelity" to "Vow of Eternal Love." The addressee here isn't just being asked to stay in love forever; he's being reminded that he gave his word to do something concrete, and that the narrator expects it to eventually get done.

Works cited

  • Cranston, Edwin A. A Waka Anthology: Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.
  • Frellesvig, Bjarke; Horn, Stephen Wright; Russell, Kerri L; and Sells, Peter. The Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese. 2013. <http://vsarpj.orinst.ox.ac.uk/corpus/>.
  • Shōnagon, Sei. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Ed. and Trans. Ivan Morris. London: Penguin, 1971.
  • Tsuchihashi, Yutaka 土橋寛 and Konishi Jin'ichi 小西甚一, eds. Kodai kayōshū 古代歌謡集. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten (Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei 3), 1957.
  • Tsuge, Gen'ichi. Anthology of sōkyoku and jiuta song texts. Tokyo: Academia Music, 1983.
  • Burnett, Henry. "Anthology of Jiuta Poetry." Hogaku 1(2) (1984): 28-54.


Wild things

So I guess everyone saw today's Google Doodle, celebrating the 85th anniversary of Maurice Sendak's birth. Good times. It reminded me of something I meant to blog about a while ago: the Japanese translation of Where the wild things are.

Wild thing is the key term, and the translation used is kaijū 怪獣, usually rendered "monster" (the characters individually mean something like "uncanny beast"). To be honest, I am not crazy about this as a translation. I'm not accusing the translator (the legendary Jingū Teruo 神宮輝夫) of dropping the ball, exactly — I certainly don't have an alternative proposal ready. But I feel like the word kaijū introduces a qualitative difference that wild thing doesn't. I don't have a statistical analysis to back this up, but I feel like it's pretty rare to use the word kaijū metaphorically at all. Wildness, on the other hand, is something we all have in equal or lesser measure, depending on the day. (And of course the wildness in this book is famously based on reality.)

Similarly, wild rumpus becomes kaijū odori, "monster dance." This just doesn't do it for me at all. The whole point of a rumpus, surely, is that it does not have the constraints of a dance. Come on.

Check out the final exchange between Max and his former subjects, just before he departs:

But the wild things cried, "Oh please don't go ― we'll eat you up ― we love you so!"
And Max said, "No!"
かいじゅうたちは ないた。「おねがい、いかないで。おれたちは たべちゃいたいほど おまえが すきなんだ。たべてやるからいかないで。」

「そんなの いやだ!」と、マックスは いった。


But the wild things cried, "Oh please don't go ― we love you so much we could just eat you up ― we'll eat you, so don't go!"
And Max said, "I don't like the sound of that!"

It's interesting that Jingū felt the need to make the link between love and eating clearer. I feel like the whole middle third of his version of the wild things' line could be dropped and the children of Japan would still get the idea. Max's response, too, is more like something a real child would say, completely different in tone from the simple, rhyming "No!" of the original.

(Note that none of this stopped Kaijūtachi no iru tokoro from becoming one of Japan's favorite children's books.)



Hey! I'm back. Sorry, I went to Las Vegas to attend a wedding.

So I was reading Ueda Akinari 上田秋成's Tandai shōshin roku 胆大小心緑 ("Record of a Fearless Fussbudget") when I came across this amusing passage:


I was going to translate it, but then I thought to myself: Self, remember the last time you mentioned this book on No-sword, and Mike I. pointed out that a full translation by William E. Clarke and Wendy E. Cobcroft was freely available at PMJS Papers? Why duplicate that effort?

So I went and found their translation, and here it is:

The badger is better at bewitching than the fox, and is not so showy about it all as the fox is. Badgers seem to run the show in Shikoku. In Kyūshū, the gawatarō predominates. In Kyoto and Osaka, trollops, teachers and tea masters rule the roost. Peace and quiet cannot be in this world.

Unfortunately, though, I think that this translation is wrong, and in a manner that ruins the punchline. My issue is with the word tsuku. Clarke and Cobcroft translate it variously as "run the show," "predominate," and "rule the roost," but in the context of spirit beings the more likely meaning is surely "possess."

The badger is better at bewitching than the fox, and is not so showy about it all as the fox is. I hear that in Shikoku there are cases of possession by badgers. In Kyūshū they have possession by gawatarō. In Kyoto and Osaka, it is trollops, teachers and tea masters who possess and torment the people. There is no peace to be had anywhere in this world.

Other comments:

  • gawatarō is, as C. and C. point out, another word for kappa. There's nothing in my edition (Iwanami Bunko, natch) to indicate that the first consonant is /g/ rather than /k/, but either are possible readings of the kanji.
  • I don't know if Ueda had a particular kind of "teacher" in mind or not. Thoughts?