Genji Monogatari

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu

cover of "The Tale of Genji"He is the son of the emperor’s favourite concubine. As such, he is too far down in the line of succession to every ascend to the throne, so his father removes him completely by making him a commoner and bestowing the name “Genji” onto him. Genji is nevertheless raised in the palace and is almost unanimously loved at court. Growing up, he shows many talents in writing poetry, calligraphy, music, and in charming women of all ranks. His numerous conquests get him banned from court twice. Twice does he have to settle in a remote area, twice even there women fall for his charms, and twice is he reinstated at court after a while. Genji is a lovable character, and although a womanizer, he always takes care of his lovers in one way or the other, even after the end of their relationship. Only the lady Murasaki (meaning purple) can capture his affections throughout her life, and Genji is heartbroken at her death and dies soon afterwards.

Genji Monogatari can be called a biography of a Japanese courtier of the 10th century. Although fictional, it depicts court life in great detail: its intricate politeness (never use personal names), its unbelievable etiquette (unrelated men and women are always separated by screens), and its numerous festivals and ceremonies. The Tale of Genji is considered the earliest and finest example of Japanese literature.

The book was written by a lady-in-waiting of the Heian court in Kyoto. Not much is certain about her, not even her real name, so she is named after the main female character in the book, Murasaki Shikibu.

I found Genji Monogatari a worthwhile book, but rather difficult to read, it took me about three months. There is not much going on, it is a biography after all, but the immense number of characters, most of which are never referred to by name, but rather by their ever changing ranks at court, makes the story difficult to follow at times. I have read the unabridged translation by Royall Tyler from 2001 containing lots of footnotes that help understanding the implicit intricacies of the time, but sometimes you still have to remind yourself that the conversation recorded could not have taken place like this, but was conducted either in written letters or with servants as go-betweens.

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Poetry Game

Last Monday, suitable for the Culture Day, there was a traditional event that goes back about 1000 years, centred on one of Japan’s favourite pastimes taking place in Jonangu shrine which is equally old and lies in southern Kyoto. The event is called kyokusui-no-en and it is a kind of poetry game or competition involving multiple poets, a little stream, and enormous amounts of sake.

The idea is as follows: A number of poets sit on the banks of a little stream that flows through Jonangu shrine. They all have to compose a tanka – a poem of exactly 31 syllables – on a predefined topic, in a predefined amount of time. How long they have is determined by the stream and the sake: Little sake cups are released upstream and when they reach the last person, the poets must be finished, and then all the poems are read aloud.

I arrived at the shrine – after a trip of 90 minutes, and I hadn’t even left Kyoto just yet – about one hour before the event started. The shrine is very large and has two beautiful gardens with stones and trees and big koi ponds and streams in between. It seems that the cherry blossoms are famous there, but even now the gardens are a beautiful sight. When I arrived at the appropriate part of the garden, I was surprised to see that benches had been set up for the spectators, not just for the honorable paying guests, but for all of us. Never before did that happen, maybe the event was just the right size for this to be feasible.

Another nice surprise were five ladies giving a little koto concert before the main event started. Usually, the spectators are expected to wait in silence until the start of the main performance, but I think everybody was pleasantly surprised. The koto is a traditional Japanese instrument, but they played comparatively modern songs – they had a melody…

The main event – I’m still undecided whether to call it a ceremony, a game, a competition… – started at one o’clock with all the participants, all dressed beautifully in elaborate Heian-style costumes, entering the garden from the main shrine building: First a few attendants from the shrine, then traditional musicians and a dancer, then the seven poets who would take part in the game, and two children who carried long bamboo sticks and were charged with an important role during the game. I’ll get to that in a moment. Important ChildrenFirst, there was some traditional Heian-era court music, thankfully short, and a dancer gave a performance, with traditionally prescribed movements, all executed very precisely, and certainly with a lot of meaning behind each gesture, decipherable only for the initiated. Dance performance

Then, the seven poets were shown a scroll – I assume that the topic of the poem they had to compose was written on it – and then they took their places along the little stream. Reading the topic (?)

On each place there had been prepared a little cushion and a tiny table with writing utensils: ink, brush, and paper. When they were settled and ready to write, the first cup of sake was released upstream. Writing poetry

The cups were mounted on little duck-shaped boats and, as the stream was rather rapidly flowing, they picked up quite some speed. Probably because of that, there was not a single sake-duck released, but quite a number of them, although I could not count them from my vantage point. I did notice, however, that, although the stream was comparatively broad, that sometimes the little ducks would get stuck, and this is where the two children came in. With their long bamboo poles they were supposed to help the sake on its way, and they did so by wandering around the stream and the poets with earnest faces and a grave manner.

When the last sake duck had reached the last poet, all poems were collected. A group of five men dressed like priests would sit down on the platform where the dancer had given her performance before, and then would read each poem. First, the name of the writer was announced (and probably also the poetry school he came from, but I am guessing here) and then the poem was read once by one person, and then by all of them, both times in a kind of chant, as I have seen before at religious ceremonies. Obviously the topic had been somehow related to autumn, I could make out words like trees, colours, leaves, autumn, momiji…The reading of the poetryDuring the reading, more sake was sent down the stream, and this time I could see some of the poets drinking a cup or two. Howver, most of the sake was probably imbibed by the koi in the next pond… Anyway, after all the poems were read, the poets, dancers, and musicians left the garden. I thought there would be an announcement of a winner, a best poem nominated, but I was told that was not the purpose of the meeting. I know, however, that in the Genji Monogatari (*), where this game was already mentioned, there was always talk about people writing good and bad poems, so I think that in the olden days, there was probably lots of judgement going on… Heian court ladyAfter the poets had left, there was a purification ceremony at the same little stream. People were invited to buy a little piece of paper in the shape of a man or woman, handle it in a prescribed way and then release it into the stream, to the incantations of a priest. Again, the two children were there and gently used their bamboo sticks to guide the prayers and wishes on their way.

(*) The Genji Monogatari, the Tale of Genji, is one of the oldest Japanese novels, written in the 11th century by a lady in waiting on the Heian court. Apparently, the game had already taken place then in the same shrine as now.

Shipwrecks

Shipwrecks
Yoshimura Akira

cover of ShipwrecksFinally, Isaku is 10 and thus considered an adult. He is the oldest son of a poor family in a fishers village where everybody is poor. Income is generated by selling fish – or you sell yourself into servitude, as Isakus father and many other villagers have done. During winter, when the weather is too stormy for fishing, salt is produced over large fires on the beach. This is done chiefly at night, in the hope that an Ofune-sama will arrive, a ship stranded on the sharp rocks, a special gift from the gods to support the villagers. One night, an Ofune-sama does arrive, but instead of the expected rice, the ship only arries dead people, dressed in expensive red garments. Is this Ofune-sama a blessing like the others, or a curse after all?

We follow Isaku through several years, while he tells the story of the village, his poor family and relations. We hear of his pride when charged with maintaining the salt fires at night, his relief when finally learning the intricate ways of catching saury, his plans for marrying the young Tami, and his grief at the death of his baby sister. The most exciting event in his life is the arrival of the Ofune-sama, it brings changes beyond his wildest dreams.

Would the book only describe the struggle of the villagers, it were uninteresting, too often have we read about such things, we only need to turn on the TV for a modern take on the issue. But here, the Ofune-sama add another level, a level of deliberate deceit and cold hearted efficiency, which draws the villagers into a web of guilt they do not notice until the price they are forced to pay becomes too high.

Akira Yoshimura, born in 1927, was a Japanese author who wrote more than 20 novels, some of which won prestigious Japanese literature prizes over the years. As a weakly child, he could start university only when he was 23. He quickly bacame the head of the literary circle there, where he met the group of Yukio Mishima. He published his first novel in 1958, and his life achievements for Japanese literature were crowned with the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun in 2006, the year of his death.

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March Was Made of Yarn

March Was Made of Yarn
Various Authors

cover_marchyarnThis book is a collection of writings by various Japanese authors on the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe.

My personal favourite is “lulu” by Shinji Ishii: Lulu is a little dog that sneaked into one of the numerous shelters for orphaned children that were established after the quake. In the night, she sees mysterious, ghost-like women, who, coming down amidst a shining light from the ceiling, comfort the sleeping children. All of them, except five, who seem too wrapped up in darkness for the women to notice. So, Lulu decides to comfort these children on her own, in the only way she knows – the way of a dog…

Another story I enjoyed, although it is much darker, is “Grandma’s Bible” by Natsuki Ikezawa, where a man called Kimura tells his story to a rescue team: Though born in Matsubetsu, he lives in Tokyo, but has an offer to move to Arizona for business, which he is going to accept. Wishing to travel light, he packs his most valuable belongings into a trunk and sends it to his brother, still in Matsubetsu, for safekeeping. However, during the scheduled delivery, the tsunami comes and wipes out the little village, and Kimura now feels obliged to stay…

Note that not all of the stories talk about the tsunami or have a direct connection to it. The book is simply a collection of stories expressing the writer’s feelings at that time; in Japanese many things are left unspoken. A part of the proceeds will go towards disaster relief in Japan.

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Volcano

Volcano
Shusaku Endo

cover of VolcanoJinpei Suda has just retired as the director of the local meteorological institute. He is considered the expert on the Akadate volcano that lies just across the bay. For years the volcano has been inactive, and Suda has declared it extinct. But with the arrival of a new, eager young member in the institute who challenges his judgement, Suda becomes insecure and starts to climb the volcano again.

Father Sato is exhilarated. He finally received permission to build a new church on the foot of the Akadate. It will be larger and more beautiful than any of the churches in the vicinity. The land is bought and all but cleared and he impatiently awaits the start of the construction.

(Father) Durand, however, the former priest of the parish has his doubts. He has had them for a long time now, not just about god but about almost anything. Having turned a cynical, sick old man, he hopes that the Akadate will erupt to wash away the old and make place for the new.

An interesting but rather slow novel about people’s fears and hopes and about getting old and seeing the new replacing what you have built. The stories of the three main characters above are only loosely connected; they live more next to each other than with each other. I found Durand, the expelled priest the most interesting character. His cynical doubts and painful (self-) accusations make him the most memorable of the protagonists.

I think this book is fitting to the latest eruption of Sakurajima as mentioned in Monday’s post, as the story – with the volcano across the bay looming over the city – is quite clearly set there.

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Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect X
Keigo Higashino

cover image for "The Devotion of Suspect X"Ishigami lives next door of Yasuko, with whom he is secretly in love – not that she will ever find that out, of course. However, when Yasuko’s abusive ex-husband Togashi shows up at her apartment and in an unexpected outburst of violence is killed by her, Ishigami senses his chance and offers his help.

A body found at the old Edogawa river is quickly identified as Shinji Togashi. Naturally, his ex-wife is questioned, but her alibi is sound. Somehow, detective Kusanagi of Tokyo Police is not satisfied, however, and he turns – yet again – to his friend Prof. Yukawa for assistance.

In a strange coincidence, it turns out that Yukawa and Ishigami were classmates at University; the former a gifted experimental physicist, the latter a genius mathematician. Soon, solving the murder case changes into a battle of minds and wits, and there can only be one to answer the question: “Which is harder: devising an unsolvable problem, or solving that problem?”

This is perfect light reading for summer time. While Yasuko has commited murder, it was done in self defence, and one cannot help pitying her throughout, especially when Ishigami starts weaving his web. Ishigami, the shrewd teacher of mathematics, is in fact the main and most interesting character, who devises a cunning plan to help Yasuko and from then on pulls the strings from the back. I could not even guess at the solution of the mystery, and when it comes on the last few pages it arrives as a shocking surprise.

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