Tuesday, April 30, 2013

New summer poem: Mizuho in ruins.

The winds of change have been blowing at gale force, so I haven't been able to attend Tea class or my Japanese lessons, or even Sho lessons, for quite a while. But we did get to go to see 習字の先生 the other day, and I got to choose a new poem for summer! (Technically, by the old calendar, summer starts next week, but I'm sure I'll be working on this one for quite a while.) It's by 太田水穂 OOTA Mizuho (1876–1955).

Mizuho-san's biography seems not overwhelmingly remarkable for a poet—he studied the classics on his own, became a schoolteacher, and established a literary salon and a journal—but the temple where he's buried is fascinating: 松岡山東慶寺 Shoukozan Toukei-ji, informally known as 縁切り寺 Enkiridera or 駆け込み寺 Kakekomidera, the "divorce temple". It's a 13th-century Zen Buddhist site in Kamakura that for about 600 years was a refuge for women mistreated by their husband. Apparently, the rule was that if you stayed there for three years you could divorce your husband—and thousands of women did so. Men weren't even allowed in before administrative changes in 1902.

What really strikes me about this temple is the character 尼. The temple used to be a part of a five-temple complex called (very literally) 尼五山 Ama-go-zan, "the five mountains of nuns", "ama" being a nun. I know almost no Japanese slang, but apparently 尼 has many of the same derogatory meanings as "bitch" and similar words in English. Are the meanings connected—does the pejorative sense of an improperly behaving woman derive from the idea of nuns as women fleeing abusive husbands? Or maybe from sexual abstinence? Or something else?

My Random House dictionary lists only "nun"—not very helpful. (In any language, words for larger, or culturally specific, concepts almost never translate directly.) Maybe an etymological dictionary would shed more light. Henshall says it originally meant a person too badly injured to walk and may have evolved phonetically or through a sense of dedication. (I suppose it's possible that at one time there was a sense of women who cared for wounded soldiers; at least here in the West, nuns and nursing often go together.)

Anyway, I haven't been able to find Mizuho-san's poem online anywhere, in English or Japanese, so here it is:

horobiyuku mono no sugata ka—natsu no hi no hikari ni arete ooki shiroato
castle falling into ruin in the summer light—a sign of coming decline?
Not a very elegant translation on my part, but I think (mainly per 先生's explanation) that's the general sense.

Some interesting things in that poem:

  • "yuku" vs "iku". I've always wondered about this. Everywhere I turn, people say they're interchangeable, but "iku" seems to be used as a suffix in modern grammar (meaning a situation that is progressing from now, as opposed to "kuru") and 先生 says "yuku" is more appropriate here. Just for fun, I proposed "horobikuru", which I guess would mean something like "having decayed up to this point", but no dice!
  • "horobiku". There are (at least) two kanji for this that have the same sound and meaning: 亡ぶ, 滅ぶ. Both are jouyou, so it's not that one is antiquated; someone thought they both deserved to be taught in school. Per Jisho.org, 亡 is taught in sixth grade and 滅 in junior high. How do they differ? Must check Goo.
  • "ato". 跡, 址, 痕, and 迹 all are share the kun'yomi reading of "ato", and all mean something that's left behind—ruins, traces, even a scar. All except 址 (which is no longer in use) are taught in junior high. They seem to be linked by sound to 後, which has senses of "behind" and "after"—後々 atoato, the distant future; 跡形 / 後方 atogata atokata / atogata, traces/evidence; "atotori" and various versions of "atotsugi" for heirs and successors. 後釜 "atogama", a second (succeeding) wife (using the same character for "kama" in chanoyu, a kettle, to mean the wife—!). Strangely enough, the "ato" used in the poem is none of these; it's close to 址 (hand + stopping) but has a foot (足 ashi) rather than a hand. (跡 has ashi-hen, too, but with 亦 "again" instead of 止 "stop"). Feet going, feet stopping, and somehow it means ruins. Maybe something people stopped building; maybe something you trip on. More likely, neither.
Mizuho-san was from Nagano but later lived in Kamakura. I wonder whether he was referring to a specific castle and, if so, to which one.