Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
The first text I want to present here today consists of an extended passage from the Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters, compiled by order of the Japanese imperial court and completed in 712 A.D. (Donald L. Philippi, tr., University of Tokyo Press, 1968).
After the death of the emperor, the crown prince Ki-Nasi-no-Karu was to have assumed the sun-lineage; but before he ascended the throne, he seduced his younger sister Karu-no-Opo-Iratume, singing this song:
Making a mountain paddy,
Because the mountain is high,
An irrigation pipe is run
Underneath the ground, secretly –
My beloved, whom I have visited
With secret visits;
My spouse, for whom I have wept
With a secret weeping –
Tonight at last
I caress her body with ease.
This is Sirage-Uta [a song ending in a raised pitch; or possibly, a song in the style of the ancient kingdom of Silla, on the Korean peninsula].
Also he sang these songs:
The hail beats down
On the bamboo grass
Sounding tasi-dasi [i.e., “to the full”] –
After sleeping with her to the full,
Then, even if she leaves me . . .
[or, “Then, even if people try to separate us . . . ]
With each other as beloved,
If only we sleep together,
Then, even if we are separated
Like threshed reeds, let us be separated [or “disheveled”] –
If only we sleep together.
These are Pina-Buri no Age-Uta [songs in the rustic style with elevated pitch and/or sentiment].
For this reason the various officials as well as all the people in the kingdom turned against Prince Karu and adhered to [his brother] Anapo-no-Miko.
Prince Karu flees, taking refuge at the palace of an ally. But when Anapo-no-Miko arrives with his army, this supposed ally turns the fugitive over to them, accompanied by appropriate songs (uta). (Presumably acknowledging the semi-divine character of the future emperor, the Kojiki describes the nobleman “lifting up his arms and hitting his thighs . . . dancing and singing.”)
When he was captured, the crown prince sang this song:
Karu maiden –
Should I cry loudly,
People would know.
Like the pigeons
On Pasa Mountain,
I cry secretly.
Again he sang:
Come hither secretly,
Sleep here and then go your way,
O Karu maiden!
Prince Karu was exiled to the hot springs of Iyo. When about to go into exile he sang this song:
Birds are also messengers.
When you hear
The cry of the crane,
Ask my name of it.
These three songs are Amada-Buri [Field of Heaven songs].
“Sky-flying” is a conventional epithet for “Karu,” based on the homology with kari, wild geese.
The translator elsewhere notes that, in ancient Japanese religion, birds were credited with the power of revitalizing a person and/or in transporting the spirit. Also, Japanese believed until quite recently that a living person’s spirit could manifest itself in more than one location at the same time. Thus, I suppose, it wouldn’t have been necessary for the prince to have died in order for a crane to transport something of his name/spirit/essence back to the yearning princess. At any rate, the birds are more like avatars than passive messengers here.
Then he sang this song:
If the great lord
Is exiled to an island,
There are ships [or “burial caskets”]
By which I may return.
Leave my sitting-mat alone!
Although I speak
Of sitting-mats, I really mean:
Leave my wife alone!
This song is Pina-Buri no Kata-Orosi [song in a rustic style with a half-descending pitch].
This song has the force of a spell. Prince Karu is threatening to come back from beyond the grave, a threat that would have been taken very seriously. Philippi notes that “the sitting mats of travelers were carefully kept at home and preserved from pollution during their absence in order to ensure their safe return.”
So-Toposi-no-Miko [i.e., Princess Karu] presented a song; the song said:
Oh, do not go, lest you tread
On the oyster shells
On the beach of Apine
Of the summer grass –
Spend the night and return in the morning!
Philippi: “The place name Apine may also mean ‘sleep together.'”
Then later, overwhelmed by her feeling, she went after him. At the time she sang this song:
Since you have set out,
Many days have passed.
Like the yama-tadu [elderberry] tree,
I will go in search of you;
I can no longer wait.
Since the text itself interrupts the narrative to comment on poetics, perhaps it’s O.K. if I do the same? These – like the first song attributed to the Princess – are both borrowed wholesale from the oral tradition; the last exists in a slightly different version, with different attribution, in the Manyoshu. (Like many of these songs, it employs a device called a pillow-word: a conventional simile based on a homophonal relationship, i.e., a cross between a pun and a metaphor.)
When she caught up with him, he had been waiting and yearning for her, and he sang this song:
On Mount Patuse
Of the hidden country,
On the large ridges
Are erected banners,
On the small ridges
Are erected banners.
As upon a large ridge,
Do you rely upon our troth,
Ah, my beloved spouse.
Like a Tuki bow
Like an Adusa bow
Standing up –
Later, I shall hold you close,
Ah, my beloved spouse!
Philippi notes, “. . . Komoru, ‘to conceal oneself’ . . . might be interpreted here as ‘to hide within the tomb.’ Patuse is known as an ancient burial place. Banners were set up in religious ceremonies and funerals.”
Again he sang this song:
On the river of Patuse
Of the hidden country,
In the upper shallows
A sacred post was staked,
In the lower shallows
A true post was staked.
On the sacred post
Was hung a mirror,
On the true post
Was hung a jewel.
Who is to me as a mirror,
Who is to me as a jewel –
Only if I hear
That she is there,
Do I wish to go home,
Do I yearn for my country.
Thus singing, they committed suicide together.
These two songs are Yomi-Uta [“reading songs,” probably meaning they were chanted with little inflection].
The actions described in the first and second stanzas of this final song have strong theurgic connotations, perhaps evoking rites to cleanse oneself of the pollution of death. Prince Karu is singing a song of conjuration to his wife/sister/mirror, collapsing the present into the immediate future of their death, and the wild country around them into the other world’s back-of-beyond. (Philippi cites a Japanese scholar who “believes this [song] was originally a prayer for safety during a journey.”)
If I quote at such length, risking copyright infringement, it is only because I suspect that the Kojiki is not nearly as well known as it should be among fans of world literature. The translation available on the Internet, by Basil Hall Chamberlain, is painful to read, both for its stilted language and its lack of scholarship. Many of the songs are extremely difficult to translate, so Donald Philippi’s expertise is indispensible. (In addition to his translation of the Kojiki, I highly recommend Philippi’s This Wine of Peace, This Wine of Laughter: A Complete Anthology of Japan’s Earliest Songs [Mushinsha, 1968].)
As Philippi observes, the Prince and Princess Karu story provides “the earliest documentary evidence of the double suicides that so enlivened the stage during the Edo period” a thousand years later. “In fact, the theatre-conscious commentator Nakajima [Etsuji] even claims that this chapter reflects a rudimentary dramatic performance.” I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. In addition, their song exchange prefigures the widespread practice of frequent poem exchanges between friends and lovers that so shaped literary expression during the Heian Period.
The contrast with the Biblical story about the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13) is striking. Stylistically, they couldn’t be farther apart. In its psychological depth, the entire David cycle resembles a modern novel, while the Prince and Princess Karu story anticipates the poetic profundity of later monogatari. And despite similar openings, the two stories diverge quite widely. Amnon experiences revulsion the moment he has consummated his passion for his sister, and sends her rudely away. The real, enduring longing in that story is revealed at the very end of the chapter, after Amnon is murdered by his brother Absolom in retaliation: “So Absalom fled, and went to Geshur, and was there three years. And the soul of king David longed to go forth unto Absalom: for he was comforted concerning Amnon, seeing he was dead.”
For me, the story from the Kojiki perfectly encapsulates that special sense of longing for unattainable and/or transient beauty that permeates Japanese literature, from the elegies and laments of Kakinomoto no Hitomaru through the great Heian Period poets and novelists such as Ono no Komachi and Lady Murasaki, to the Heike Monogatari and even some of the works of famous monk-poets such as Saigyo, Basho and Ryokan, not to mention the dramas of Seami and Chickamatsu. Donald Keene, the most prolific English-language translator and critic of Japanese literature, put it this way:
Beyond the preference for simplicity and the natural qualities of things lies what is perhaps the most distinctively Japanese aesthetic ideal, perishability. The desire in the West has generally been to achieve artistic immortality, and this has led men to erect monuments in deathless marble. . . . The Japanese have built for impermanence, though paradoxically some of the oldest buildings in the world exist in Japan . . . . Whatever the subject matter of the old poems, the underlying meaning was often an expression of grief over the fragility of beauty and love. Yet the Japanese were keenly aware that without this mortality there could be no beauty.
(Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodansha, 1971)
Pathos, like other emotions, can best be gotten at through indirection: the blank spaces on the landscape painting no less than the words not uttered outright in a poem are essential to draw the viewer, listener or reader in. The animist mindset of Shinto helped focus poets’ attention on particularities, on the possibilities for sudden illumination inherent in a beautiful detail, long before the introduction of Zen Buddhism. Among the things to which autonomy and spiritual power were attributed, place names, personal names and all other poetic words occupied a prominent position. As the preface to the 9th-century anthology Kokinshu put it:
Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.
(Burton Watson, tr., in From the Country of Eight Islands, Doubleday, 1981)
Out of the countless expressions of this uniquely Japanese take on longing that I could cite from the modern era, let me round off this post with two poems by Takamura Kotaro. Takamura was a sculptor – the son of a carver of Buddhist images – and one of the first 20th-century poets to write successfully in the vernacular. Some of his most memorable poems are those he wrote for and about his common-law wife and fellow artist Chieko, chronicling their three-decade-long relationship from first meeting through her eventual, chronic insanity and death.
Both these poems are translated by Hiroaki Sato, from Chieko and Other Poems of Takamura Kotaro (University Press of Hawaii, 1980).
Chieko Playing With Flowers
Where there is no one on the sands of Kojukuri
Sitting on the sand Chieko plays alone.
Innumerable friends call to Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii –
Leaving tiny footprints in the sand,
plovers come near her.
Chieko who is always talking to herself
raises both hands to call them.
Chii, chii, chii –
Plovers beg for the shells in her hands.
Chieko scatters them here and there.
Rising up in a flock the plovers call Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii –
Leaving off entirely the task of being human,
now having passed into the natural world
Chieko seems just a speck.
Some two hundred yards off in the windbreak, in the evening sun
bathed in pine pollen I stand, forgetting time.
Chieko sees what one cannot see,
hears what one cannot hear.
Chieko goes where one cannot go,
does what one cannot do.
Chieko does not see the living me,
yearns for the me behind me.
Chieko has cast off the weight of suffering,
has strayed out to the endless, desolate zone of beauty.
I persistently hear her call to me, but
Chieko no longer has a ticket to the human world.
Just as I prepare to post, I hear the cries of wild geese overhead, invisible in the thick fog.