The Master-Singers of Japan, by Clara A. Walsh, , at sacred-texts.com
IN times when everything relating to the history and literature of Japan has become of such vivid interest to the people of this allied Island-Empire, these attempted renderings into English of well-known Japanese poems may prove acceptable, especially to those who may not have time or opportunity to study the works of great Oriental scholars. The dainty grace and beauty of the original poems, with their impressionist word-pictures, are unfortunately easily lost in the endeavour to "English" them. It is scarcely possible to convey the full meaning of the shorter poems to English readers, without elaboration of the original theme, when at once they cease to be "Japanesque"; just as the unerring instinct and delicate harmonies of Japanese bird and flower paintings would be ruined by over-elaboration
of details. Mr. Stewart-Dick has well said, "In art, the European requires that everything should be stated with the utmost fulness of a tedious realism, before he can grasp its meaning, but to the more cultured Japanese a mere hint or slight suggestion is sufficient." The majority of Japanese poems are little odes of five lines, of thirty-one syllables; some "Hokku" contain but seventeen. There are, of course, some of greater length, such as the "Naga Uta"—Long Lays of the Manyôshiu. Wherever possible I have tried to give as literal a rendering as I could, but here and there an additional line has seemed necessary in order to convey the meaning to readers unacquainted with the original. Most of the earlier poems in the book are taken from the Manyôshiu, or "myriad leaves collection," an anthology of verse (to quote Mr. Dickins) "wholly Japanese in diction and phrasing . . . and exhibiting almost the oldest, perhaps the truest, certainly the most pleasing portraiture extant of the Japanese world in its archaic age." The exact date of its compilation is matter of controversy, some writers contending that it was compiled by Yakamochi (who died A.D. 785); others claim that Mōroye (died 767) commenced the task, which was completed by Yakamochi. The dates of the Lays range from. about A.D. 347 to 759, a period of over four hundred years. Some of the Lays appear to be elaborations of
still earlier poems, found in the Kojiki, or Ancient Annals, A.D. 712, containing the mythology and primitive history of the nation. The following, from its pages, is said to be the oldest poem in Japanese language—the version is that of Mr. Dickins:
Lay attributed to the God of Eight Thousand Spears
Japanese poetry is wanting in narrative poems; even ballads are few and far between; political and (strange to say in so soldierly a race) war songs are mostly absent. Emotional poems and those dealing with the various aspects of nature form the majority, and except for the "Wasau" or Buddhist hymns, there are few of an exclusively religious character. The Nara period—eighth century—was the Golden Age of Japanese Poetry. Among the higher classes, the
art of verse-writing was universally cultivated. The poetry of the Nation was, however, almost exclusively written by, and for, the Court and officials; hence the subjects of many of the Lays, such as the journeyings of the Court to different capitals, elegies on the deaths of Royal Personages, love incidents of lords and ladies of the Court, the sending of officials to distant march-lands, etc.
Among the poets of this period stand conspicuous the "twin stars of Japanese poetry," Hitómaro and Akáhito, whose rival claims to supremacy are even yet undecided. There is a pretty story of the former told by Mr. Chamberlain of a warrior, Ayabe, who found a child of more than mortal beauty under a persimmon tree. Asked who he was, the child replied, "No father or mother have I, but the moon and winds obey me, and in poetry I find my joy." The boy was adopted, and became Kakinomoto (under the persimmon tree) no Asomi, Hitómaro, prince of Japanese poets. Scarcely less distinguished is Omi Okura, whose verses breathe a sturdy loyalty, perhaps tinged with the practical common sense of Confucianism, yet at the same time often echoing the higher sentiments of Buddhism. Then Yakamochi, compiler of the anthology of which his own charming and polished verse forms a most attractive part, and whose poetical correspondence with his friend Ikenushi gives us a
delightful glimpse into the life and literature of Court and official life in the eighth century. In the Fujiwara and Nara periods Confucianism and Buddhism became ruling influences in Japan, yet, with very few exceptions, there is little trace of the influence of either in the Manyôshiu. Not until much later do we find in the shorter poems or "Tanka" allusions to the impermanence of life, the vanity of egoistic desires, etc., as in the poems of Saigyō and Chōmei. The influence of Chinese learning, continuing up to the ninth century, temporarily checked the growth of native literature; but a revival took place in the reign. of Mikado Dayo, A.D. 905, when Kino Tsurayuki and other poets were instructed to collect the anthology known as Kokinshiu. This collection, however, contains but five Naga-Uta—long lays; and from henceforward until the present day the poetry of Japan has been chiefly confined to Tanka or thirty-one-syllable poems. This of necessity cramped within narrow limits the poetic expression of the race; within such boundaries there was no room for the outpourings of a Shakespeare or a Milton. Yet within those limits what perfect word-paintings, what dainty impressionist sketches, what little gems of perfect fancy lie enshrined! and these in spite of certain conventions of choice of subjects, and the introduction of word-plays and pivot-words—no doubt of Chinese origin—which to a western mind are
wearisome. I have already touched on the influences of Buddhism and Confucianism, but there is another pervading Japanese literature and poetry, far deeper and more permanent because indigenous to the race—the influence of "Yamato Damashü" (Soul of Japan): born in archaic days, it was fostered by the ancient beliefs of Shinto, gathering strength through the ages, till it found outward expression in "Bushido" (the Knightly Way). It breathes through the early Lays of the Manyôshiu, in whole-souled devotion to the Liege Lord, in passionate belief that Yamato is the land of the gods, chosen of the Sun Goddess—
[paragraph continues] Later in innumerable Tanka, painting with loving touches the beauty of the cherry blossom, emblem of the warrior, and all the lovely mountains "whereon the high gods dwelt" within the Mikado's realm. It survives triumphant, through the stifling conventionalism of Chinese influences, sings to us in the eighteenth century, in the words of Motoori, "Shikishima no, Yamato Gokoro wo!" and rings out victorious and eternal in the swan-song of Hirosé, before Port Arthur:
I would like to express my deep sense of the debt of gratitude I owe to Mr. D. T. Suzuki, the distinguished Buddhist scholar, who most kindly volunteered to transcribe many of the poems into the Romaji for me, and further helped me by invaluable criticism. I also owe much to kind help given me by Mr. S. Uchida, whose translation of "Bushidō" is included in this book, and to the kindness of Professor Kanazawa. For many of the poems from the Manyôshiu and Kokinshiu, and "The Bamboo Flute," I am indebted to the prose and literal translations in the Japanese texts of F. V. Dickins, C.B., and W. G. Aston's "Japanese Literature." Other books consulted were those of the late Lafcadio Hearn, "Altjapanische Winterlieder," "Gramatzky," and Professor Chamberlain's "Things Japanese." Lay 78, Manyôshiu, "On Tanabata Night," "Blossom-time" and "Dragon-fly" poems, are included by kind permission of the proprietors of "T. P.'s Weekly," in which they originally appeared.
Clara A. Walsh.