Thoughts on Japanese Literature


Since I was a child - even before the age of ten - I have felt a special affinity for Japanese literature. At first it was the haiku, the deceptively simple poem of three lines, arranged in a pattern of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables. Then the tanka, consisting of five lines, which started out like the haiku, before ending with two lines of 7 syllables each. I remember, especially, Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful renditions of the tanka into English, in his brilliant little volume, One Hundred Poems From The Japanese. Next, it was the Ise monogatari, or Tales of Ise, a tenth-century collection of poems, each one imbedded in a little story that explained the context in which it had arisen: the circumstances which had inspired its creation. There was also The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, the remarkable journal of a lady of the Tenth Century AD, and, of course, The Tale of Genji, the classic novel of life at the ancient Japanese court by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. (The Kokinshu, or Collection of Ancient and Modern Times, is another famous and worthwhile poetry collection from Japan’s distant past.)

Why this overwhelming attraction? If you ever read The Journey of Rainsnow, perhaps you will come to understand, at once, for the question might well be answered by the single word "nostalgia", or by the expression "deja vu."

But tonight, I will try to go beyond that level of understanding, to give just a brief hint of what it is that so fascinates me about this literature.

I think, first of all, it is a depth of soul, a profound sensitivity, a power of emotion, a burning intensity, which is hidden, subtle, discreet, not thrown in one’s face. In the same way that God does not just come down to us, riding in a chariot amidst trumpeting angels, proving his existence beyond the shadow of a doubt, but, instead, touches us with little signs, with the beauty of his flowers and stars, with the might of his wind and sea, with the gift of love or understanding which he brings to us, so the power of the Japanese heart chooses to reveal itself not by means of an undeniable miracle, but by means of a modest, yet secretly magnificent presence (the miracle wearing its disguise); a hint that is understood by the kindred soul, while it is passed by by the stranger. As Buson wrote in "Spring Scene":

On the temple bell

has settled, and is fast asleep,

a butterfly.

Or as Issa wrote of "The Great Buddha at Nara":

Out from the hollow

of Great Buddha’s nose -

comes a swallow.

(An Introduction to Haiku, Harold G. Henderson, p. 104, 147.) The power of life and the secret presence of the divine are everywhere, if one stops expecting to be hit over the head by them. Instead, it is our task to open the door to them, to become more sensitive, until suddenly, the invisible can be seen, the imperceptible touch can be felt with the power of a great blow. Issa showed this power of the unseen, once one enters into its world, in this poem about a great lord (daimyo):

A daimyo! - And who

makes him get off his horse?

Cherry blossoms do!

(Henderson, 135.)

It has been said of paranormal phenomena that the Universe gives just enough evidence of their existence to convince those who are capable of being convinced, while leaving the stalwart skeptics unmoved, glued fast to their world of the intellect. In the same way, much of the best of Japanese literature does not speak to those who are not already in tune with it. Take the classic poem by Basho:

An ancient pond.

The sound

Of a frog diving in.

"Nice poem. A frog making a splash when he lands in the water. So what?" To the person out of touch with this exquisite sensibility, this form or artistic understatement infused with deeper meanings, it seems like a rather pointless, insignificant poem. To the person who loves nature, however, it may bring a certain degree of emotion, perhaps a feeling of tenderness towards the frog. (Issa, another famous haiku poet, was a master of emotionally connecting man and animal, even building a kind of solidarity and love between men and insects.) But Basho’s poem goes far deeper than even this, relating to the profoundest truths of Zen Buddhism, linked to the mysteries of eternity and life. The ancient pond is like the timeless Universe, itself; while the sound of the frog entering the water, symbolizes the meeting and union of the ephemeral force of life with the never ending context of its living; the immersion of the individual soul into the mystery of the totality of the cosmos; the moment of awareness, fusion, coming back into "belonging", enlightenment. All of this expressed in 17 syllables (in the Japanese), and encoded in the sound of the splash, the very heart and purpose of living! (Zen and Japanese Culture, Daisetz T. Suzuki, p.227-229, 238-244; Henderson, 20-21.)

Poems like this, rather than coming all the way over to one, wait for one to find them, to meet them with one’s own heart and soul. By leaving a gap between the simple and the profound - a gap which one must cross with one’s own life and soul - they challenge one to reach the level of sensitivity needed to appreciate them. At their best, when the chemistry between reader and poet is right, they are like silent gestures, exchanged between old friends who know each other well, and can communicate without speaking a word. A single glance, a slight movement, an expression of the face, and the friend immediately knows what the other one is thinking, or wants. Or, to use another metaphor, you could compare the poet to the hand that strikes the keys of a piano. It is the instrumentation inside the piano - the hammers and the wire strings - that respond to produce the notes that emerge. And in this same way, the poet’s concept (driven by his own experience of beauty), unleashes the beauty, the latent understanding, which resides within the reader, to produce the deeply moving effect of the poem. The poet, of course, assumes a reader who has this inner instrumentation - assumes a "brotherhood of perception" with his reader - for without it, his words will trigger nothing, only fall away into the emptiness, be lost amidst strangers, like the waves of the sea are lost upon a man who lives miles inland.

In its most beautiful moment, reading this kind of poem is a way of returning to the essence and heights of human sensibility.

Besides offering this profound level of awareness, these incredible worlds revealed through hints, I have many times been smitten by the deeply moving sentimentality and romantic spirit exhibited by Japanese literature, especially impressive to me considering the other side of Japanese culture: the hardness of the samurai, prepared to die at a moment’s notice. In the ancient Japanese court, especially during the Heian Period (794 - 1185 AD), people would often go on special outings to view the moon, or the cherry blossoms in bloom, or even to see the snow, pure white, seeming to enchant the earth, to transform it into something new and utterly amazing. They would seek to fill themselves up with every form, every dimension of beauty they could find, until it seemed everything could touch them, move them, connect them to life’s core, to life’s intensity, to life’s meaning. And amidst such activities, and the joys of scandal and gossip, and the unavoidable tragedies, there was the endless longing and power of love, the heart of our lives on the earth, sometimes reached, sometimes not reached, sometimes reached and lost.

In The Tales of Ise, the spirit of this romantic world abounds and captivates. One forlorn woman wrote:

To love


Is more futile

Than to write

On a flowing stream.

And, of course, she was not the only one to have suffered in love. Witness this sad story, written by Lady Otomo no Sakanoe, from Rexroth’s collection:

You say, ‘I will come.’

And you do not come.

Now you say, ‘I will not come.’

So I shall expect you.

Have I learned to understand you?

But there is hope in love, too, even when its first promise seems betrayed. As The Tales of Ise reports, two people had separated "for no very good reason." The following poem helped to bring them back together:

Now that we two have met,

May our hearts be inseparable

As the waters of a stream -

Riven by islands,

But flowing reunited forever.

While the following poem and story, dealing with a man named Fujiwara Toshiyuki and the girl he was courting, seems to illustrate the very soul of love:

"Somewhat later, after Toshiyuki had succeeded in winning the girl, he sent her a letter: ‘I am much disturbed to see that it seems likely to rain. If I am lucky, it won’t.’" [He wanted to visit her.]

The poem the girl sent back to him was:

"I have been powerless to gauge

The measure of your love

But harder and harder

Falls the rain

That must reveal the truth."

The story concludes by saying: "Toshiyuki went rushing off to see her without even stopping to put on a raincoat or hat, and arrived soaking wet." (Tales of Ise, translated by Helen McCullough, p. 104, 87, 141-142.)

Of course, Lady Murasaki’s masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, is infused with the incredible sensibility of this time. It is a treasure that really should not be missed. (The classic translation into English is by Arthur Waley.)

Also magnificent, in its way, is the journal of her "rival" - at least a woman of whom Lady Murasaki was none too fond - Sei Shonagon, who was dogged by a reputation for being conceited, overly expressive of her emotions at the wrong times, perhaps somewhat unconventional, or only too desperate to stand out. Today, some of her comments strike one as cruel or arrogant, but in reality, she was merely representing the class bias of her times, in which "commoners" were routinely viewed in a condescending way by the culture-saturated elites. Like Aristotle and Freud, her work and vision was flawed by many of the assumptions of her age. And yet, that cannot obliterate the great tracts of tremendous sensitivity and insight which one encounters throughout her famous Pillow Book.

In my opinion, this is a great book for writers seeking to develop their talents, because it is a convincing demonstration of the importance of honesty in writing, which allows one to unlock the wealth of one’s soul simply by trusting in a piece of paper, and giving oneself to it; it is also a great tribute to the power of the observer, who is able to capture the life which others leave behind in moments that seem to have no significance, and to turn minute details into windows looking in upon truths and insights of great value. Throughout the journal, Sei Shonagon frequently inspired herself to write by setting up topics for herself, like "Tumultuous things", "Things that are unpleasant to hear", "Charming things", "Things that arouse fond memories of the past." These topics, or concepts, were a trigger for her imagination, a kind of quarry for her writing abilities; and they suggest a promising avenue for young writers to push themselves and develop, to expand their capacity to elicit and utilize the experiences of daily life, which makes all the difference between great and mediocre writing.

Among other points, Sei Shonagon wrote, for "Embarrassing things": "A man whom one loves gets drunk and keeps repeating himself." (I hope I have never caused anyone this embarrassment!)

On "Surprising and distressing things", she wrote: "A carriage overturns. One would have imagined that such a solid, bulky object would remain forever on its wheels. It all seems like a dream - astonishing and senseless."

Under "Things that cannot be compared", Sei Shonagon included: "When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person."

While for "Regrettable things", she said this: "Planning to go sightseeing or to visit a temple, some gentlemen and ladies… have set out together from the palace where they are in attendance. Though they have made no elaborate preparations, their sleeves hang out of the carriage in most attractive array, and altogether, they are a pleasant-looking company. They had expected to meet some people on their way - gentlemen on horseback or people in other carriages. Alas, no one comes along to admire them."

For "Awkward things", she came up with the following: "One has allowed oneself to speak badly about someone without really intending to do so; a young child who has overheard it all goes and repeats what one has said in front of the person in question." And: "One has gone to a house and asked to see someone; but the wrong person appears, thinking that it is he who is wanted; this is especially awkward if one has brought a present."

While for "Things that have lost their power", Sei Shonagon wrote: "A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebb-tide." And: "A woman who is angry with her husband about some trifling matter, leaves home and goes somewhere to hide. She is certain that he will rush about looking for her; but he does nothing of the kind and shows the most infuriating indifference. Since she cannot stay away forever, she swallows her pride and returns." Also included are, "The retreating figure of a sumo wrestler who has been defeated in a match"; and "A large tree has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air." (The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated by Ivan Morris, volume 1, p. 63, 102-104, 132-133.)

Outdated, perhaps, but a most interesting woman, and a useful inspiration for today’s developing writer!

Literature, of course, is a very personal affair, and for some modern Westerners, the sensibility of ancient Japan, and its written expressions of poetry and prose, may seem too alien, too distant to move the heart. But for those whose souls can find a way of relating to this vanished time and style, I insist that a great treasure awaits. A treasure of life, a treasure of love, a treasure of wisdom, the treasure of something that dies yet never dies, generously offering itself, beyond its own life, to new generations searching for what it found and can still help us to find.

With all my heart, I say, Thank you, Japan, for the beauty of your soul. Flawed, like every soul, but with a sensitivity and depth exceeded by none!


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