The Tale of the Heike

When I wrote the story of Gio last Sunday, I was quite surprised to find that I haven’t talked about “The Tale of the Heike” yet. Here’s to remedy that oversight!

Heike Monogatari

cover image of "The Tale of the Heike". The Heike Monogatari is an epic tale that essentially tells the story of the Japanese Genpei War. This war from 1180 – 1185 was a power struggle between the Heike/Taira clan and the Minamoto/Genji clan that had been going on for a while already.

At first, Taira-no-Kiyomori is one of the most powerful men in the country, even having married his daughter to the emperor. However, when he tries to put his grandson, 2-year old Antoku, on the throne, the rival Minamoto conspire with the deposed emperor to overthrow him. Both sides gain allies and prepare from war that starts with the Battle of Uji. From there, a series of battles between the two clans ensues in which the Minamoto eventually gain the upper hand and Emperor Antoku is killed. At the end of the war, the Taira clan is defeated and all but wiped out, while the victorious Minamoto establish the Kamakura shogunate.

The monumental Tale of the Heike is comprised of numerous stories and legends that were at first passed on orally by so-called biwa-hoshi bards. It was complete by 1330. A number of individual stories have been transformed to Noh plays that are still performed to this day, as well as movies, manga etc.

Personally, I found the first part that deals with Kiyomori and the scheming by and against him the most interesting. Once Kiyomori dies of old age and his son takes over, the war soon begins and the story turns to detailed accounts of who-killed-whom-and-how. This part I found a bit tedious because there were so many people involved that they were hard to keep track of, and most were killed on the very page they entered the scene anyway. Yet, having read the Heike Monogatari gave me an insight both into Japanese history and beloved heroes like the unbeatable Benkei and Yoshitsune, whose stories are an important part of Japanese culture.

If you’d like to try one of the famous Japanese books on war, you can get the Heike Monogatari on amazon.

The Tragic Loves of Gio-ji

While I was out and about in Saga for the Dainenbutsu Kyogen last weekend, I also veered a bit off the beaten tracks to a tiny temple called Gio-ji (emphasis on the o). Well, it’s not really a temple, more of an hermitage, with a single building. There is one Buddha statue in a room that is not bigger than most modern living rooms. In fact, the temple is mostly garden; huge maples and other trees in a bed of moss with the occasional lantern or memorial stone. Right now is not the best time to visit, as you can see below. The moss is at its prime during the rainy season and the temple shows off its beauty when the maples are blazing in autumn, of course (as in the last two photos).

Gio-ji was not alwasy that small though. Once it was part of a larger temple complex called Ojo-in which is said to have reached all the way up the mountain. This temple was allegedly founded in the late 12th/early 13th century by a disciple of Honen, he himself founder of Jodo-shu Buddhism. Be that as it may, this large temple fell into disrepair, and all that’s left today is the little hermitage and the moss garden.

However, Gio-ji is more than just a remnant of another temple, and it is more than just another pretty spot for moss and maples in the Arashiyama mountains. What makes Gio-ji famous is the story behind its name, the story of a woman. The following is a story as related in the Heike Monogatari:

Gio was one of the most beautiful women of the 12th century. She was a shirabyoshi, a dancer, and, as beautiful women often do, she had numerous admirers. One of them was Taira-no-Kiyomori, the military leader of Japan in the late Heian period. This powerful man took a liking to Gio and, as powerful men often do, wanted to have her all for himself.

Gio fought hard. She resisted with everything she had, brought up a younger sister and an ailing mother she had to take care of. But Kiyomori insisted, sent poems, beautiful robes, and other gifts. Eventually, Gio’s defenses broke down. Besides, what could go wrong as the mistress of the country’s de-facto leader? So, Kiyomori installed Gio in the palace. She had traded her freedom for the easy life plus all the attention a dancer could crave. But of course, it couldn’t last forever.

Gio’s luck ran out when that of another woman started: Kiyomori had cast his eye on a new, younger dancer called Hotoke. And the story repeated itself: Kiyomori courted Hotoke with all he had and eventually installed her in his palace. And Gio had to leave.

Stone lantern at Gio-ji temple surrounded by moss.

Even though Gio was only in her 20s at the time, she decided to become a nun. And it is said that she together with her sisiter and mother, took up residence in the little hermitage that today is Gio-ji. This is why you will find not only Buddha, but also statues of several nuns in the little room at Gio-ji. And among the temple’s graves are that of Gio and her family.

Is the story true? Probably. It is told to us in the Heike Monogatari, one of the epic tales of Japan, that dates back to at least 1330. We can expect that the story was embellished over time, of course; a Noh play, and many other retellings of the story did help with that. No wonder, it’s a timeless story that we have all heard one way or the other…

Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

I had a great day yesterday, spending some time in Arashiyama. It was not as busy as it used to be, no wonder, all the foreigners are yet to return… The reason I went yesterday were the performances of Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen at Seiryo-ji Temple. I wrote about them in detail before, but this time, probably thanks to COVID-19, somebody had recorded the plays and put them online. These are the two kyogen that were shown yesterday:

The first play was called Shaka Nyorai and it’s a funny or “soft” Yawarakamon play. The title refers to a Buddha statue that is set up in a temple by a priest. When a beautiful woman comes to worship, the statue turns his back. The priest and a samurai (or worker?) at the temple ask her to worship again so that the Buddha will turn his back and face the proper side once more. Instead, the Buddha lays his arm around the woman and leaves with her. The priest takes the Buddha’s place and the same thing happens with the woman’s beautiful daughter. Finally, the worker at the temple tries the same – will he succeed in finding a wife too?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTUjgGQpeLs

The second play was the famous Funa Benkei (Benkei on a Boat) and it’s a serious or “hard” Katamon with an origin in Noh, or rather, in the Heike Monogatari. The story tells how famous warrior Yoshitsune is urged by his friend Benkei to leave the city to save his life. He first takes leave of his lover, Shizuka Gozen before he reluctantly boards a boat together with Benkei. When they have sailed for a short while, the ghost of Taira no Tomomori appears and tries to kill Yoshitsune in revenge for his own death. The two fight but almost draw until Benkei recites prayers that send Tomomori back to the underworld.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iw-V_5zx5D0

All Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes that need no words, but it does help if you know the story. They are rather slow moving with stereotypical costumes and accessories and the players – all male – wear beautiful masks. In the background, music is played, a simple beat that speeds up at the most exciting parts like fight scenes. Enjoy! (I have no idea why the embed is not working, but the links should).

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman
Sayaka Murata

There is something odd about Keiko Furukura. She has few friends, no hobbies, doesn’t care about food and often takes things literally. Her family members have long given up on “making her normal” and mostly let her live her life. Keiko’s life is simple and centers on her part-time work in a Tokyo convience store. The daily routines ground her and she takes social cues like speech or dress from her coworkers.
Things change when Shiraha starts working at the store. In his mid-thirties, he only wants to find a wife but is continually disappointed. When he gets fired for stalking a customer, Keiko suggests a relationship of convenience. Shiraha is pleased at first, but then he forces her to choose between him and her work…

This novella (165 pages) showcases the fringes of society. Keiko seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, she is socially inept and we hardly hear about her life outside of work. However, she is content with her life as it is and her coworkers value her.
Shiraha on the other hand is a university dropout and incel who wants to get back at society by mooching off of it. I hated him with a passion (what woman wouldn’t) and felt sorry for Keiko who believed he would be her ticket to a normal, society-approved life.

Sayaka Murata, born in 1979, is a renowned Japanese writer. She started to write her first novel in elementary school, which prompted her mother to buy her a wordprocessor. By now, she has written 11 novels, already her first won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers. Subsequent books were nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize, which she won at her fourth nomination. Convenience Store Woman won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and was her first book to be translated into English. Throughout her writing carreer, she kept working part-time at a convenience store.

Delve into her world filled with interesting people and get Convenience Store Woman from amazon.

Six Four

Six Four
Hideo Yokoyama

For eight months, Mikami has been the head of the Press Office in the Police Headquarters of Prefecture D. He still struggles with his own desire to open up communication with the local press and his superior’s demands to keep things as they are. The matter escalates just when the Director General from Tokyo has scheduled a visit to the victims of an as-yet unsolved kidnapping that happened 14 years earlier. While Mikami tries to prepare for the visit, he discovers not only the true reason behind it, but also a serious cover-up related to the old crime. With Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs locked in a power struggle, Mikami finds himself alone between the lines. All things come to a head when another kidnapping happens that has eerie similarities to the unsolved one. Will Mikami be able to find out the truth?

This mystery gives insights into the daily workings of Japan’s police apparatus. Mikami does not solve any crimes, but his investigation into the commissioner’s visit and why everybody suddenly refuses to talk to him is among the most gripping stories I have ever read. Although they are not taking a front seat (because the Japanese audience would be well aware of them) the descriptions of the intricate hierarchies and stifling rules of the police are a reminder of a culture most foreigner will never understand or experience.

Hideo Yokoyama was born in 1957 in Tokyo. For 12 years he worked as an investigative reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture. His crime novels are meticulously researched; Six Four took him 10 years to write and caused a heart attack. This book – the most popular of the eight novels he wrote so far – was ranked Best Japanese mystery novel in 2013. He lives with his wife in Gunma Prefecture.

Try out this amazing thriller – it’s a long one, so be warned – and get it from amazon!

Botchan

Botchan
Soseki Natsume

Botchan is a young mathematics teacher, fresh out of college, and his first assignment takes him to a small school in the countryside. From the first day, he – the Tokyo metropolitan – looks down on everything in his new town, especially his country-bumpkin students. They, however, know how to pay him back in the same coin: by pulling all sorts of pranks in school and cheerfully commenting on his private life. Botchan does not fare much better with his colleagues, and the only one he feels somewhat closer to – Porcupine – is engaged in a silent but fierce battle with another teacher – Red Shirt.

Botchan soon sees himself trapped between the front lines of the battle, and while he begins to see Porcupine as a friend, an alliance with Red Shirt will have more long term benefits. At some point, Botchan will have to choose…

Botchan, sometimes translated as “Master Darling” has morality as its main theme, and is still widely read by pupils throughout Japan. It is a fun little book and the quarrels of the teacher’s room bridge cultures as well as time…

Soseki Natsume, pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke, was born in 1867 as the 6th child of a rather poor family. From the age of 15, he wanted to become an author, and because of his father’s disapproval, he entered university in 1884 where he studied architecture and English. He went to England in 1901 for two years, and did not like the experience. Upon return to Japan, he began publishing haiku and short stories. Today, he is one of the most famous writers of Japan. Botchan is based on his own experiences of teaching in a small school in Shikoku and considered one of the most important works of Japanese literature. Natsume died in 1916, only 49 years old, from a stomach ulcer.

If you’re not afraid to go back to your own years in school, try out this book from amazon.

Silence

Silence
Shusaku Endo

Father Sebastian Rodrigues is a Catholic priest whose dream it is to go to Japan as a missionary. When news reaches Portugal that his old teacher, Father Ferreira, has apostatized, he finally receives permission to go to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed and all foreign priests are persecuted.
When Rodrigues enters Japan in a little boat in the dead of the night, a hidden Christian community welcomes his arrival and hides him from the authorities. However, he is soon betrayed and imprisoned, where he awaits his trial at the hand of the lord Inoue. While in prison, Rodrigues reflects on his life and faith, and can finally meet with Ferreira, who has an unexpected confession.

I greatly enjoyed this gripping story, and from the very beginning, you want to know what will happen next. Endo tells of the persecution of Christianity in the early Edo Period in great detail, but always through the eyes of the outsider Rodrigues. Once captured, he questions his determination and even faith, and the “silence” of the title refers to that of God, who is unmoved by the sufferings of the Japanese Christians and Rodrigues’ prayers. A great history lesson in a great story of human (and divine?) failure. Highly recommended!

Shusaku Endo was born in 1923 in Tokyo, but his family moved to Machuria when he was three. Already in elementary school, he published a newspaper with friends. He returned to Japan with his mother after her divorce in 1933, and one year later, he was baptised at a Catholic Church. He began studying in 1943 and started publishing stories in literary journals throughout the war. Endo received the Akutagawa Prize for “White Men” in 1954 and the Tanizaki Prize in 1966 for “Silence” which was turned into a movie by Martin Scorsese. Most of Endo’s writings have a decidedly Christian, if not Catholic bent. He died in 1996 in Tokyo.

This historical novel may not be the best read for the Christmas season, but if you want to give it a try, it’s available from amazon.

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the Dunes
Kobo Abe

Niki Jumpei travels to a remote beach to catch sand beetles for his collection. On his search, he discovers a village with houses that are overcome by the sand, so much so, that some of them stand on the bottom of pits dug into the dunes. When he misses the last bus home, the village elders allow him to stay with a woman who lives in one of these sunken houses. The next morning however, Jumpei finds himself trapped down there. Forced to help the woman excavate the sand so as not to be buried by it, he must choose whether to fight against the inevitable or to give in to it – and to the woman.

This is probably the best known book by Kobo Abe and a personal favourite of mine to which I return ever so often. We follow Jumpei’s inner journey as he is trapped at the bottom of the pit, and the question “what would I do” is ever present. The ending of this novel is interesting, and depending on your own answer to the question above will either come as a shock or as a natural conclusion of Jumpei’s path.

Kobo Abe, born in Tokyo in 1924, was a Japanese writer, playwright, musician, photographer and inventor. Following his father’s footsteps, he studied medicine in Tokyo and graduated in 1948. In his last year in medical school, he started writing short stories, and already in 1951, he recceived the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Woman in the Dunes, published in 1961, earned him the Yomiuri Prize and international acclaim as was turned into a movie. Abe was famous for his surreal and modernist style. He died in 1993.

Somehow I feel that this kafkaesque novel is the perfect ending for 2020. If you want to give it a try, you can get it from amazon.

Kabuki Dancer

Kabuki Dancer
Sawako Ariyoshi

When Izumo no Okuni comes to Osaka with some fellow villagers, all she wants to do is dance. Her rustic folk dances and songs quickly gain her a loyal following among the common folk, and she even gets invited to perform for high ranking samurai and court nobles. Her husband Sankuro, ever so interested in fame and fortune, would like her to dance only for wealthy patrons, but Okuni opts to move to Kyoto instead. There, at the banks of the Kamo river near Shijo street, her distinct and innovative style draws large crowds of spectators and, in time, competitors who imitate her. However, Okuni remains ahead of them all, and despite numerous setbacks, she remains “Best in the World” and single-handedly invents what is known today as Kabuki.

This book blends what is surely known about Izumo no Okuni with old tales and legends. The result is a gripping life story of a woman who did not always get her way, but nevertheless insisted on leading her own life amidst the turbulent last years of the Japanese warring period and the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

I greatly enjoyed this book about Izumo no Okuni that follows her life from the age of 17 until her death at 37. While much of her personality depicted here must be considered fiction, it is hard to conceive how a less strong-willed person would have been able to create an art form that is still practised (and innovated) today, 400 years after her death. Fans of Kyoto will recognise some of the places mentioned in this book.

Sawako Ariyoshi, born 1931 in Wakayama, developed an interest in the theater already as a student and her own plays are widely performed in Japan. She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and became one of the country’s most famous female novelists who won the prestigious Akutagawa prize and a number of other Japanese literary awards. Her books deal with social issues like the depopulation of rural areas or the plight of the elderly that are as current now when they were written. She died in 1984.

If you’re ready for a fun historical novel that is set in Japan and does not feature any swordfighting – not real one, at least – get this book from amazon.

Kwaidan

Kwaidan: Studies and Stories of Strange Things
Lafcadio Hearn

This is a, if not the, classic collection of Japanese ghost stories. While there are many famous ghost stories related to classic Japanese literature, like the Tale of the Heike, the 17 stories contained here are old folk tales. For example, “The Story of Mimi-nashi-hoichi” tells of the dangerous experience of a blind musician who gives a concert on a graveyard. And “Yuki-onna” warns of the dangers of not keeping a woman’s secret.

Collected more than 100 years ago, these stories have lost none of their charm and have rightfully earned their place among the must read books for everyone interested in Japan and its culture.

Lafcadio Hearn was born 1850 in Greece and moved to the US when he was 19 to work as a journalist. In 1890, he was sent to Japan and was soon offered a teaching position. Hearn wrote a great number of articles with a focus on Japanese customs and folklore, even though he is mainly known for the collection of ghost stories above. He married into a Japanese family and took the name Koizumi Yakumo, under which he is famous in Japan. He never left the country again and died in Tokyo in 1904 from heart failure.

Japanese people tell each other ghost stories in summer to cool down. To be true to tradition, you should get the book one of these days, perhaps from amazon.