Since the holidays are upon us, I thought a short, fun series was in order, so we’re doubling up on Japan for another month by looking over the bilingual Japanese-English edition of A Hundred Verses From Old Japan, translated by William N. Porter (the book is also known as 百人一首 or Hyakunin Isshu in Japanese). It also has romanji versions of the Japanese originals. The book can be purchased here:
The Hundred Poets, as they are known, are getting more popular lately because of the successful show, “Chihayafuru,”an anime about competitive karuta which features these poems on its playing card game pieces. Both season one and season two can be streamed for free here:
The original compilation of the hundred poems dates back to the 13th century and was put together by Sadaiye Fujiwara. The poems themselves go back as far as the 7th century. Poetry is a huge pastime in Japan, as in East Asia generally, so they are well-known even in the modern era. This time we will focus on the considerable number of torrid love poems included in the compilation. The poems are arranged in this book according to date roughly, but we will jump around. I will highlight four of the love poems as a sample.
Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate into another language because of all of the wordplay and rhyming, depending on the forms. I noticed that the 46th poem seemed particularly awkward in translation, a fact which is also mentioned in the book. I chose an alternate translation of the 46th poem, taking half of the translation I found on Lingwiki, which I will link below, and the half which is used in a title from episode 19 of “Chihayafuru 2.” Those alternatives seemed far less awkward and more accurate than what is in this edition or on the web elsewhere:
Like a mariner
Sailing over the Yura strait
With his rudder gone,
I do not know where this love will take me. (10th Century)
Obviously, I chose the final line of poem 46 as the title for this post.
Death had no terrors, life no joys,
Before I met with thee,
But now I fear, however long
My life may chance to be,
‘Twill be too short for me! (10th Century)
My constancy to her I love
I never will forsake;
As surely as the Palace Guards
Each night their watch –fire make
And guard it till daybreak. (10th Century)
Imperial Adviser Atsutada:
How desolate my former life,
Those dismal years, ere yet
I chanced to see thee face to face
‘Twere better to forget
Those days before we met. (10th Century)
The Hundred Poets book has short profiles about each poem’s author. Many of the poets were important authors in their own right, so for this series I will highlight one lesser-known poet, Semimaru, author of poem 10. This poet is the subject of a very good study, which can be found here:
According to The Legend of Semimaru: Blind Musician of Japan by Susan Matisoff, Semimaru’s legend has been around in Japan for 1,000 years. He was known as a lute (biwa) player, blind beggar, and former prince who lived in a straw hut in a mountain pass in Ausaka. He was the subject of many literary works over the centuries, and he was considered an ancestor and spiritual patron of various sorts of wandering performers.
The historical figure of this name lived in the early 10th century and was not of high social status since he had no surname. The characters for his name were 蝉丸 , which paired the meaning of “cicada” with “round spherical object.” “Cicada” was used for many musical instruments, and the second character particularly was used in male names or nicknames for the low-class or for animals (Matisoff, p.5).
His home of Ausaka was associated with the old age of Heian female poet Ono No Komachi as well as famous for musical performances; mountain passes were considered inherently sacred places. Music and dance in Japan’s early eras were the means for “summoning and communicating with the gods,” and included “ecstatic possession” and chanting divination (Matisoff, pp 13-15).
This study’s second chapter details the various types of bard-like traditions of itinerant lute players in Japanese history and traces the lute back to its Persian, Indian and Chinese origins, including the tradition of lute priests, or biwa hōshi. It also describes the various types of lutes that they used, the guild that controlled the performers through the centuries, and the deification of Semimaru.
Next time, this series will look at the nature poems of the Hundred Poets and literary connections to Semimaru.
Part one of a two part series.