Saturday, August 4, 2012

The cherry blossom front.

I've been thinking about the first tanka we wrote in 習字. It seems to refer to a very specific moment in a cherry tree's life cycle, and I've never quite understood it:
The part that always really confused me was "sakamutosunari"—must have something to do with blooming, but what? 先生 explained, but I'm slow and still don't get it.

Today I happened upon "-mutosu"—a verb ending that means to be trying to do something, or to be just about to do something. With the usual なり ending (である?), that makes sense! 咲か-むとす・なり.
usubeni ni

ha ha ichi hayaku moeidete
leaves sprouting quickly (early, too soon?)

they're just about to blossom—

(flowers of the) mountain cherry trees
I don't know much about plants, so I still don't quite understand how the leaves are blooming pinkly (rather than greenly), or whether the leaves are just coming out or are out too soon. Maybe em dashes will help:
pinkly—the leaves having sprouted too soon—
they're about to bloom, the mountain cherry trees 
いち早く also is confusing me—is it that they'll bud soon, or that they've budded too soon? If leaves precede blossoms, whence the pink? Clearly, in the future I'll have to pay more attention to the sakura in Fairmount Park, and not just on Sakura Sunday.

I love that the media in Japan track the "cherry blossom front" (桜前線), the blooming point of sakura up and down the country. It's a really fun idea, and here in the US we have nothing like that.

Kanji tattoo?

I often see people with kanji tattoos, so I like to surreptitiously try to read them. (練習のためですね。 笑) Sometimes the kanji is missing strokes or even reversed, or there's a string of kanji written in different styles—楷書、行書、etc. Since my phone (携帯様) is always with me, when I don't know the kanji I can look them up. So last night at the store I saw a guy with a giant kanji tattoo on his calf—鮨 (sushi). I can understand having a tattoo of something very meaningful, but sushi?! Can one be so fond of sushi as to have its name tattooed on one's calf? Maybe. Or maybe he's a chef at Morimoto. Or something. 人生って、不思議なものですね。

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bored courtiers make cameos in Genji, Kokinshuu, Roueishuu, Man'youshuu.

Fun kana reading practice from 習字 lesson, a 1300-year-old poem seemingly making fun of frivolous Nara-period courtiers:
momoshiki no oomiyahito (oomiyabito) ha itoma are
yasakura kazashite kefu mo kurashitsu
the courtiers from the great palace 
have too much time on their hands 
wasting time waving cherry branches around, 
this evening, 
Maybe. Or maybe I'm making it too snarky:
the court is at at leisure again today—
waving cherry branches in the evening 

It's by YAMABE no Akahito (700–736), one of the 36 "poetry immortals". This version is from Shin Kokin Wakashuu (新古今和歌集、New Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry), which was compiled for the court in the 13th century, for the 300th anniversary of the first Kokin Wakashuu. The poem also appears in the Wakan Roueishuu (和漢朗詠集, Japanese and Chinese Poems for Recitation), compiled a century later, in about 1013.

Some of the imagery seems to have been picked up in Genji, also early 11th c.:
itsu to naku oomiyahito no koishiki ni
sakura kazashishi kyou mo kinikeri
 I miss them always, 
The people of the great palace
  So dear to me—
Ah, but see the day has come
We wore cherry on our brows!
(trans. Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology—not sure how the tenses work here)
Cranston explains this scene as from a cherry blossom party (hanami?) given by the Minister of the Right and suggests that it recalls Yamabe's poem from the Roueishuu. Interesting that he takes 翳す kazasu, which I think currently means holding something up over one's head and/or waving it, or shading one's eyes, etc., as actually wearing the cherry blossoms on their head, as garlands or crowns. He also groups や with the preceding thought (itoma are) rather than the next thought (sakura), which shifts it from a substantive (evening cherry blossoms) to a kireji ("cutting" particle) for the preceding line. This や seems to always be written with kana in these poems, so it's hard to tell; by strict meter, it seems not to fit into either phrase. And he approaches the poem as a question: "Are they so leisured?" (Emphasis added.)

Genji's author, the tentatively identified "Lady Murasaki", was the daughter of a poet and scholar in Chinese and was educated in the Chinese classics, so she probably would have been exposed to the Roueishuu, which was completed just as she was finishing Genji. She seems to have known the poet and critic FUJIWARA no Kintou, who compiled the Rueishuu; at any rate they probably would have run in the same circles at court. They may have discussed Kintou's choices, and she may even have seen drafts. (Lady Murasaki and her father also were Fujiwara, though there may have been no particular connection.)

Like Genji, Yamabe traveled with courtiers, the court of Emperor Shoumu, during the twelve years before Yamabe's death in 736—so he'd probably be very familiar with lounging courtiers. Of course, one could argue that to compose a poem about lounging courtiers is even more precious than the courtiers' lounging. ("Was he so leisured? Writing a poem about lounging courtiers, today, again....")

Interestingly, an older version in the Man'youshuu, also attributed to Yamabe (and collected in the late 8th c., much closer to his lifetime), is slightly different:
oomiyahito ha itoma are
yaume o kazashite koko ni tsudoheru
the courtiers are at leisure
they meet up here, waving plum branches (in the evening)
The excellent Japanese Text Initiative also gives the Chinese original of the poem, per the Man'youshuu: 百礒城之大宮人者暇有也梅乎挿頭而此間集有. I can't begin to read the Chinese, but the kanji align (by meaning or sound) with the plum/meeting version in the Man'youshuu. I wonder why the change to sakura from ume. Was this a later revision by the poet? Or did Kintou, who was the biggest of all cheeses in poetics at the time, decide he liked it better that way? If so, what other works might he have altered while "collecting" them?

Funny coincidence: as I was writing this I was surfing around, looking at palaces and temples from the Nara and Heian periods, and I ended up at an online museum, looking at a manuscript of the Roueishuu that I'd found through a listing of national treasures of Japan. (There's a whole category just for documents.) The manuscript is zoomable, so I thought I'd try to read some of it; I focused on the first thing I could kinda read, in a kana section.... sakura kazashite....something something, kurashitsu.... Wait a minute! So I read the line to the right, and, sure enough, it was "momoshiki no oomiyahito ha itoma are". The rest of the lefthand line was the rest of the poem, plus "Akahito". Nice to run into the poem so randomly.