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    Posted by Sean at 08:16, March 30th, 2005

    The cherry blossoms have started to open in Atsushi’s city. They’re late again this year and are still closed in Tokyo, so the following is anticipatory:



    negawakuba/hana no moto nite/haru shinan/sono kisaragi no/mochidzuki no koro

    Saigyō Hōshi

    If I have my wish,
    I will die beneath the boughs
    laden with blossoms–
    Spring, the night of the full moon,
    second moon of the new year.

    The Priest Saigyo

    All right, I had to shove the “spring” after the caesura and pad the part before the caesura with “boughs” (in case you don’t know where the flowers on trees grow). And Saigyo doesn’t actually indicate that he’s talking about 夜桜 (yo-zakura: “night viewing of cherry blossoms”). Anyway, I think the point gets across. This is one of Saigyo’s most famous poems, and it has an uncharacteristic swooning tone (not that there’s anything wrong with swooning occasionally). It antedates the practice of appreciating the cherry blossoms by getting mortally tanked and singing karaoke, rather than dying, beneath them.

    Actually, I suppose they were getting tanked back then, too. I’m pretty sure they weren’t singing karaoke.

    Why I like old things*

    Posted by Sean at 05:58, March 27th, 2005

    It’s common for first-year students of classical Japanese to use the 方丈記 (Houjouki: “Written from a Modest Hut”) by 鴨長明 (Kamo no Chomei: lit., “duck” + “long” + “bright”) as a text. You memorize its first paragraph, which was frequently quoted after the Kobe earthquake:


    The flow of the running river is uninterrupted, and its waters are constantly changing. The froth that floats up in its pools now vanishes, now gathers into foam, but there is not a single instance of its enduring for long. So, too, are the men of this world and their dwellings.

    Like learning Latin through Caesar or Old English through The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, studying the language of the ancient Japanese is, in many ways, learning it through their suffering. Chomei’s famous introductory paragraph has a tone of philosophical ruefulness, but there are times when he uses very similar wording to achieve a much more piercing and personal effect:


    Existence in this world is wholly a hardship, with one’s body and one’s dwelling fleeting and not to be relied on, as this [my previous discussion of the great fire] indicates. Beyond that, depending on one’s environment and station in life, the things that immiserate the heart can hardly be exhaustively cited and enumerated.

    Chomei had status as a writer and poet in his lifetime, but there was plenty to immiserate his heart: he recounts Heian Period disasters from the aforementioned fire to a great earthquake to the ill-advised movement of the capital.


    Posted by Sean at 12:39, January 18th, 2005

    This post is addressing the several people who have asked me what they can do to learn Japanese, under the flattering assumption that I have useful information to give them. That I am addressing those people will not be very clear for the first few paragraphs, so I’m going to ask in advance for everyone to bear with me. Then, too, if you can’t bear with me for a few paragraphs before figuring out what the topic of the post you’re reading is…not to be rude, but…WTF are you doing coming back here?

    Anyway. Connie du Toit recently posted a half-mischievous-half-serious set of new categories for websites in this general -osphere that, she contends, aren’t blogs in the strictest sense. In it, she gives valentines to all her blog friends, and what’s touching about them is that she’s the sort of woman who doesn’t give praise she doesn’t mean. The section about me–no, I’m not going to quote it; linking it is quite sufficient as a gesture of fatuous self-regard–is something I’m very grateful for, but it’s a little frightening, too. I say that because she pretty much hits all my specific points of vanity; what she wrote is the way I’d describe myself if I had the cheek to believe it’s actually true. I mean, it was spooky.

    One thing she called me was an expert in the Japanese language. Now, I don’t think any linguist (or Japanese person) would agree. I mean, my Japanese is good. Considering that a lot of foreigners here are content to learn what they need to pick up guys (or girls, you know, if that’s their thing), it’s not really hard to distinguish yourself that way. And I’ve lived here for a quarter of my life by now.

    However, the real reason is that I had fantastic teachers all the way through. Because my parents were willing to take out parent loans instead of telling me I could jolly well work my way through college if I wanted to go, I was able to loll about for four years at Penn, with only a work-study job (10 hours a week) to distract me from studying. Yes, I amused myself thoroughly, too, but I had the time and reserves of mental and physical energy to study. Having grown up around people who worked themselves to the bone, physically, I found this a new environment; and I really liked most of my classes, so I did the work gladly. The Japanese program was wonderful, taught mostly by native Japanese speakers who developed their own companion materials to go with Eleanor Jorden’s books, which are classics in their way but are based on some implausible ideas about language acquisition. My mentor on the Japanese side of my comp. lit. degree was just fantastic as an advisor, reticent in that Japanophile way but also willing to express himself with clarity and point when necessary.

    Where I ran into problems was during junior year. It was the worst year of my life, and I probably should have taken a year off to get myself together and resigned myself to being graduated late. But my grants and loans had already come through, and I’d spent the first two years piling on the courses, so I was able to take most things pass-fail and muddle through without disgracing myself (in schoolwork terms) or falling behind. I took fall semester of senior year to study abroad in London–it’s becoming clear that I’m the most pampered son of a steelworker there ever was, huh? I wasn’t able to take Japanese there, so I got the packets from the professor back home, and I worked through them and was able to enter second semester.

    My assumption all along had been that I’d go to grad school. It wasn’t just like, I woke up the summer after junior year, realized I hadn’t learned anything marketable, and it was either a PhD program or law school. I was excited about becoming a professor. I loved Japanese literature; I read it for fun. Get paid to think and teach about it? Hell, yeah. I went to the place that gave me the most funding, a program that’s known for being really demanding.

    And WHAM! I hit a wall. See, for the last two years, I’d been getting by in my Japanese classes on my ability to memorize. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been trying, but I’d been distracted, so I’d focused my energies on getting through the next kanji quiz, the next sentence pattern test, the next translation assignment. I wasn’t lazy, and I deserved my A’s on the finals–I mean, I’d gotten most of the questions right. But the thing is, I was only really putting my heart into learning the hard stuff: the tricky two-part sentence structures, the gajillion-stroke kanji, the names of obscure little plants mentioned in poems. After the placement test and some trial and error, I was assigned to second-year Japanese.

    That’s second-year Japanese. As in, with the college sophomores. It is clear, is it not, that this site is generated by someone of no mean ego. Well, let me tell you, I was unutterably humiliated. Just ABJECT. This sort of thing DID NOT happen to me when it came to coursework. Now, everyone–the Japanese teacher, my mentor, the professors teaching my literature classes–fell all over himself to tell me that my talent as a critic wasn’t in question, it was just that my language had to come up. Yeah, whatever. Lots of people are talented; I ACHIEVE, dammit, was my attitude. This sucked.

    Now, luckily, in a perverse way, my junior year had been so extraordinarily bad that I had enough perspective to realize that this was not the end of the world. Being ashamed did not mean I was going to die, or anything. So I studied, and here, too, the university had its own first-rate materials and uncompromising instructors. Still, being in second-year Japanese was sub-par, and I didn’t pass my review. I did great in all my lit classes, though, so it was agreed that I’d be given the chance to reapply the next year, as a new applicant.

    There was nothing unfair about this; fully-funded spots in graduate programs are not the sort of thing a department can afford to waste on people who show early signs of not making it through. What they did–this is very Japanophile–was say that since I was already a student who belonged to the university, I’d be supported (not with my grad student funding, but by applying to the Japan Foundation and such) as one to do the next year at an affiliated language program here. In the interim, I could write what would be a master’s thesis. So that’s how I first came to Japan. I spent a year doing a program in scholarly Japanese here–classes about research and reading the newspaper and finally figuring out what the hell the newscasters were saying on NHK. Loved every minute of it, and made friends I still have today.

    In that year, it became increasingly obvious that my mentor and I weren’t right for each other. He’s got a stratospheric reputation–it was not his problem. I didn’t really fit the program, and, in his gentlemanly way, he kind of nudged me toward seeing that. At least, that’s the way I interpreted it; one doesn’t exactly talk openly about these things in Japanese departments.

    Now that this post is longer than Middlemarch, you may be wondering what exactly, um, the message is. Don’t bother studying Japanese, because you’ll end up being wrong for grad school? No, not that. The message is: study Japanese. It’s an adventure, and it’s bloody hard. Like all adventurous, hard things, it teaches you about yourself and gives you the valuable experience of meeting and mastering obstacles. You can bluff your way through a lot of humanities courses nowadays, but, honey, when you’re studying an Asian language, either you know it or you don’t.

    And yet….

    Japanese teachers know that they are teaching a subject that foreigners find it hugely difficult to learn. They do their best to be rigorous, but unless you’re the military, you can’t ask people to sit still for 20 hours of instruction for a single course. There’s no way to avoid cutting corners somewhere. That means that, of necessity, much of what they end up testing you on in the first several years comes down to short-term memorizing of lists. They can’t help it. There’s so much to learn that they can’t make even the “cumulative” tests really cumulative. So if you’re a quick study, it’s easy to learn this week’s lesson for Friday’s quiz, cherry pick the things you think are cool enough to retain, and then re-cram everything for the midterms and final. And you won’t even realize you’re doing it, because sometimes, just cramming enough for the final will feel like a medal-worthy feat.

    The Piper will show up to dun you eventually, though. You will be in your first class where you’re supposed to read all those boring sentence patterns strung into paragraphs, and those paragraphs strung into a few pages of argument. And you’ll realize you can’t do it. You know most of the kanji, you’ve seen most of the 文型, but it’s not clicking. The ideas aren’t cohering into a main point, even though you can point to just about anything on the page and remember what it means.

    Normally, I wouldn’t generalize from my own experience about other people’s weaknesses, but my friends who teach tell me that this is a very common problem among bright Westerners studying Japanese. Part of the thrill is that it’s hard, so you gravitate toward the hard stuff. The easy stuff, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll remember that. Or, well, you recognize it on sight, which seems good enough, until you try to understand a five-page article in which you have to back-translate every phrase in your head to get what it means.

    So here is what you must do: review, obviously, is the first thing. Don’t wait until the next time you’re threatened with a test to go back over p. 23, even though, it’s, like, some stupid thing about when to use はand が. Trust me, p. 23 will come back later to hurt you bad.

    But also remember that you can’t learn a language just through classes. Nowadays, with amazon.com, you can get Japanese paperbacks and DVD’s and audio CD’s. I don’t mean language lessons; I mean regular novels and television shows and movies and (heaven help us) J-pops albums. You won’t understand almost anything at first; what you have to do is let it bathe your brain. Get used to the speech cadences, the way things flow. Get used to the way certain verb endings seem to appear in sentences with certain modifying phrases. Don’t worry about learning the rules in the linguistic sense; that’s why you’re taking classes. Worry about getting an intuitive sense of what follows what. That’s the way you think in your native language; you’re constantly hearing traffic signals that give you a sense of what’s coming next without having to be conscious of it. In your first year or so, books are a lost cause, to be blunt. It might be worthwhile to try reading a translation of a novel in English and then seeing whether you can run your eye over the original and get any glimmers of where you are in the plot. You won’t, most of the time. On the other hand, kanji and kana jumbled together will become familiar to your eye, and you’ll be able to practice reading the kana and recognizing kanji radicals, at least. You’ll be moving closer to the day when your eye falls on a page of Japanese and reacts with, “Oh, words,” instead of, “Huh? What are those squiggles?”

    By this point, I’m sure I’ve lost just about everyone. Lately, most of my long posts have been due to my switched-off editing function, but this one is different. English will always be my favorite language. It’s my native tongue, in which the founding principles of our country were first articulated, with its blend of modesty and plainspokenness. I consider it an immense gift, which I did nothing to earn, to have been born into a country in which my brain was reared to work in English, not just because of its market value, but because of the thoughts it plants in your head. But Japanese has had thousands of years of relative seclusion to develop into a language of formidable intricacy, subtlety, and power. It’s beautiful, sometimes in that lovely way the world goes ga-ga over, but sometimes with a pleasing roughness that’s not so famous. Japanese is worth learning, and it’s worth learning right, which I’m grateful to have had a second chance to do. You won’t need a second chance if you channel your energies properly the first time.

    Okay, a small reward for those who’ve read this far: one of the most touching demonstrations of the way Japanese can use restraint and austerity to tap into large reservoirs of feeling is the best-known haiku by Kobayashi Issa, who lived, as it happens, through the time of the American Revolution. Unlike a lot of the haiku that Westerners take a shine to, this one has nothing quaint about it:


    tsuyu no yo ha/tsuyu no yo nagara/sarinagara
    Kobayashi Issa

    This world of dew
    is a world of dew
    and yet– and yet–

    Kobayashi Issa

    That’s not my translation; I don’t know whose it is, but it’s the one you normally see, and for good reason. It doesn’t fit the syllable count, but it conveys the economy with which Issa conveys himself in the original.

    The poem was written a month after the early death of his daughter. Buddhism, especially the Japanese strain, encourages an acceptance of the impermanence of life. Well, more like “requires.” Dew is as ubiquitous in classical Japanese as the moon or cherry blossoms; it symbolizes, for obvious reasons, evanescence. Using essentially three concepts (dew, the world, and two related particles that mean something like “while”), he shows how he has not yet resigned himself to his daughter’s death. (There’s also, to me, something of a suggestion of the verb 去る [saru: “to pass”] in the use of the particle さりながら, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it identified as a pivot word, so that interpretation probably isn’t an accepted one.) The different viewpoints and time frames come through, even though the poem could be said not even to be a complete utterance.

    From those of us whose hangovers are already gone…

    Posted by Sean at 14:01, December 31st, 2004


    Which is to say, “Happy New Year! I ask your continued favor.” Okay, that’s one of those clunky-literal translations I generally try to avoid–but, see, the thing is, the Japanese have a different expression for “Happy New Year” now that it is the new year. I mean, the one above is the different expression from the anticipatory one you use in December. That’s 良いお年をお迎え下さい (clunky-literal translation: “May you greet a good new year”). In the sentence at the top of this post, the 明けまして part is the verb meaning “has dawned” or “[morning] has broken.” It’s the same kanji as is used to mean “bright,” though, so the New Year greeting has always had a sweet hint of “Good morning, sunshine!” to me.

    And, in Tokyo, at least, the clouds have lifted, yesterday’s snow/sleet/slush/yuck routine is over (for now), and it’s gorgeous out. Perfect weather for the traditional New Year’s cleaning–which explains why I decided to park myself in front of the computer and check the news and my messages and have now ended up composing a blog post. But never you fear. On this day of new beginnings, surfaces will be washed with hot bleach-water, items will be returned to their rightful drawers, electrical cords and lightbulbs will be checked, and bedding will be sun-fluffed. You know, starting in just a minute or so.

    I was looking for a season-appropriate poem to post, but for a dilettante like me, there are problems. The new year according to which the poems of the classical canon were written is in February, so those that are actually appropriate to this point in time have a wistful, year-end feel. Those poems with the sense of a fresh start in the new year are full of references to the beginning of spring, which for obvious reasons feels a bit off.

    However, since the Japanese spring in the Heian Period began before the vernal equinox, anyway, I’m going to take the liberty of repairing yet again to the Shinkokin-shu and enlisting the aid of the Princess Shokushi. Actually, I wish all dilemmas in life could be solved by enlisting the aid of the Princess Shokushi–it would make for a much more aesthetically pleasing existence–but we must content ourselves with capitalizing on such opportunities as present themselves. Anyway:



    yamabukami / haru tomo shiranu / matsu no to ni / tae-dae kakaru / yuki no tamamizu

    Deep in the mountains
    My cabin door of pine planks
    knows nothing of spring
    But melting snow now and then
    slides down with a gem-like flash
    –The Princess Shokushi

    Okay, fine, so there’s actually more cold weather to come in 2005–I told you the poem didn’t fit the solar year. What strikes me as apposite about it (it’s the first of many for the Princess Shokushi in the Shinkokin-shu) is the sense that new beginnings don’t always announce themselves explosively. They creep up on you, the way the year begins with an arc in the sweep of the second hand, just like any other top of the hour.

    Once again, Happy New Year to everyone. Special thanks and good wishes to our troops and to the Japanese SDF for working to keep us safe and help others achieve what we have, and to their families for enduring chaotic lives to help them do it.


    Posted by Sean at 13:15, May 22nd, 2004

    Everyone seems to be bitching about the return of the cicadas this year; of course, in Japan, the cicada is a major topic of summer-themed traditional poetry, mostly using its voice to evoke solitude or its short life to evoke the 無常 (evanescence, contingency) of This World. Basho Matsuo, the greatest of the haiku poets, wrote several such verses, and one frequently sees them in translation. One of my favorites, though, is this affecting, if less-profound, example, which doesn’t seem to make it into translation often:


    Ide ya / Ware yoki nuno kitari / Semi koromo

    Behold me! I wear
    the finest garments–the robe
    of the cicada

    A sucky translation, but hey, it’s the spur of the moment. I’m as drawn to the serious insights of traditional poetry as anyone, but I like the way the great writers such as Basho and Saigyo were able to find something enlightening about a relaxed, playful moment, too. The summer lightness of his simple, rough clothing makes Basho feel like a cicada with translucent wings. An image to savor now. Soon, most of Japan will be like the inside of a dumpling steamer; not even with the aid of air conditioning will the finest linen and cotton feel like anything but a soaked dishrag.

    Added at some ungodly hour Monday morning: It occurs to me that, since two people who might be reading this are into sewing, the poem above might have more impact if I make it clear that I think the main way Basho is drawing an analogy between his clothing and the wings/shell of the cicada is through their common texture. The summer robe of a priest would have been made of unfaced, loosely-woven raw cotton or silk. The uneven slubs would have created a texture very much like the veined wings of the cicada, and the folds created by the way it draped might have suggested folded wings, too.


    Posted by Sean at 11:05, April 27th, 2004

    So I chose saigyo, the name of the priest who wrote the poem I used in my domain name, as the login for something or other at some point in configuring my site preferences (or preferring my site configurations, or whatever tech people call it). Now it’s my default e-mail user ID, which is not what I had in mind, but until I can figure out how to fix it, that’s the address I have here (most of you who might see this know me through e-mail at my Hotmail address, anyway, which of course can still be used freely).

    As long as I’m misappropriating a major name in Japanese literature as my username, why not spread the pretentiousness around? Another of my favorite poets is Akiko Yosano, who wrote a century ago. At her best, she’s so sexy you can’t stand it:



    yawa hada no / atsuki chishio ni / fure mo mide / sabishikarazu ya / michi wo toku kimi
    Yosano Akiko

    Having never felt
    the hot tide of blood that throbs
    beneath this soft skin
    even you who seek the Way
    must know what you are missing
    –Akiko Yosano

    I can’t seem to get my English to surge and sweep forward between caesuras the way her Japanese does–Japanese poems have a reputation for stillness and contemplation, but Akiko is often all sensual force coming at you. The fact that tanka are usually printed in one vertical line down the page accentuates the effect. She also married another of the brashly innovative poets of her age. His talent dried up early, so she spent the rest of her life bearing about a hundred of his children and making money to move them around the world to try to get his muse talking to him again. A fascinating woman.

    Thank you

    Posted by Sean at 16:39, April 18th, 2004

    (Darn. I keep forgetting that I haven’t published this.)

    Thanks to Dean Esmay for setting this up for me.
    I have a feeling that I’m going in and doing shoemaker-type coding by hand when I could be using a template somewhere for a lot of things, but that’s my problem. At first, I was thinking that I’d just leave it plain and unfussy. But in the course of navigating templates, I started to think, I want a gimmicky title! and smirky in-joke link categories! and open comments! and way too many colors from the hexadecimal HTML wheel sprinkled all over the place, too!

    There, I’ve said it.

    The name, for anyone who wonders, is of course adapted from the phrase “yellow peril,” which is what a dear Japanese friend of mine was going to name his bar when it was about to open a few years ago. Apparently, one reason he chose another name was that he and I became buddies in the interim and he didn’t want to offend me. But I would have thought it was hilarious, so I’m expropriating it.

    The domain name is the first line of what may be my very favorite Japanese poem:



    Iwama todjishi / koori mo kesa ha / tokesomete / Koke no shita mizu / michi motomuramu


    Even the ice that shackles the rocks has begun to melt this morning–the water under the moss will be seeking a pathway.

    the Priest Saigyo

    It’s the seventh waka in the “Spring” section of one of the court anthologies. April is a bit late in the year for it to be strictly appropriate to the season. But I’ve always, since we were first assigned it in graduate school, loved its economical way of combining ice, moss, and nurturing water–new beginnings that are so fresh they’re not quite ready to occur.