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An recent article from the Economist briefly discusses challenges faced by the Japanese organized crime syndicate — yakuza. The economic downturn has left few unscathed, it seems. Add police pressure. Sprinkle in a dose of degenerating thieves’ honor. Mix, and you get nostalgia.

Link here:

Moving right along the elegies for Emperor Tenji in the Manyoshu (MYS). We looked at #147 and #148 in previous posts. Today, #149 and #150. Continue reading for the full translation and analysis.

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Asahi shinbun ran an alarming article. According to UNESCO no less than 8 languages in Japan face extinction.

Read all about it here:

Newsprint is a wind-up away from kicking the bucket. Maybe so. But not in Japan, really. Ironically, papers–yes the hard-copy kind–still enjoy a robust readership in the land of the rising sun due to its large aging population. Combined life expectancy in Japan in 83 years, so the dailies are not looking off the precipice just yet, but its only a matter of time. The kids in Japan are cell phone crazy, and the papers are picking up on this. The trifecta of Nikkei, Asahi, and Yomiuri, have jointly put out an iPhone/iPod touch app that lets one browse news headlines. Will this get the kids hooked on news? Maybe. Funny thing is, the iPhone has failed to impress most Japanese thus far. Their cell phones just do things ours don’t, even the ones with lower-case letters attached. Isn’t this kind of like a promo on VHS in this day and age?

Read the full story here:

Continuing with Manyoshu banka. In the last post we looked at poem #147, and now on to #148. There’s some controversy about this poem, specifically about the headnote. It seems that it doesn’t quite fit with the poem.

The headnote reads:


According to one source, poem composed by the Empress after the Omi Emperor’s (Emp. Tenchi/Tenji) affliction turned critical.

The poem:

青旗(あおはた)の 木幡(こはた)の上を 通(かよ)ふとは  目には見れども 直(ただ)に逢(あ)はぬかも

My eyes watch you come and go above green-bannered Kohata

Yet we will not meet face to face!

The controversy stems from the observation that if the Empress can see Emp. Tenji’s spirit hovering above Kohata, then to call his situation ‘critical’ is a bit of an understatement. The man is dead. However, in his study of Japanese ritual poetry, Gary Ebersole (history professor at UMKC) suggests that it might well belong here. This is  because in ancient Japan death was not considered to be instant, but a rather drawn out affair, complete only when the spirit cannot be ‘coaxed’ back into the body.

Who knows. At any rate, here’s the breakdown:

青旗(あおはた) is a makura-kotoba for 木幡(こはた), in modern day Yamashina-ku in Kyoto, where Emp. Tenji is entombed. Literally, it means green-or blue-banner. I picture it referring to treetops on a mountain.

見れども is izenkei of みる + ども, which is a concessive, meaning “although.”

逢(あ)はぬかも mizenkei of あふ + rentaikei of negative ず + かも, which is a Nara-period exclamation particle.

There is a kind of reoccurring image of deceased spirits hovering above the ground. So it would seem that Emp. Tenji’s spirit was on his way out.

Stay tuned for #149!

If a quick aside to literary theory may be indulged, I’d like to throw out a few ideas about Shklovsky’s Formalism, and thoughts on its use in literary studies.

Russian Formalism evolved from two academic circles; the Moscow Linguistic Circle and the St. Petersburg OPOYAZ (Общество изучения Поэтического Языка) group. Victor Shklovsky (Виктор Борисович Шкловский) was a member of the latter, and his “Art as Technique” (“Искусство как прием” – if you’d prefer to read it in Russian) essay is considered to be a seminal work for Russian Formalism.

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A brief, but needed, respite from poetry of the ancient Japanese variety. Ladies and gentlemen, Howard Nemerov‘s  “A Full Professor,” plenty to think about and look forward to:

Surely there was, at first, some love of letters
To get him started on the routine climb
That brought him to this eminence in time?
But now he has become one of his betters.

He has survived, and even fattened on,
The dissertation and the discipline.
The eyes are spectacled, the hair is thin,
He is a dangerous committeeman.

An organism highly specialized,
He diets on, for daily bill of fare,
The blood of Keats, the mind of poor John Clare;
Within his range, he cannot be surprised.

Publish or perish! What a frightful chance!
It troubled him through all his early days.
But now he has the system beat both ways;
He publishes and perishes at once.

Manyoshu (万葉集) is the earliest extant Japanese poetry collection, dating to the 8th century, although the poems themselves vary chronologically from the 4th to the 7th centuries. It is divided into 20 books, but I will be focusing on a collection of banka (挽歌), or elegies, from Book 2. Poems 147- 155 are believed to have been composed during the period of Emperor Tenji’s (r. 662-671) illness and death by women who were intimate with him.

Read the rest of the post for analysis.

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I stumbled across this video interview Kurt Andersen of Studio 360 conducted with Pico Iyer, who is always dubbed a “travel writer.” Now, Mr. Iyer is a highly educated man, and has lived in Japan for 20 years according to the interview, thus imbuing him with a distinct air of authority. All this makes it particularly shocking to hear Mr. Iyer’s musings on discovering Buddhism on the Japanese street, namely–to use his example–in McDonald’s. Now this sounds promising. I will not do it justice, but let the video speak for itself. What is particularly disturbing is that the mouth of a man of Mr. Iyer’s obvious erudition would let slip such platitudinous, pop analysis.

Are we really supposed to believe that a mother teaching her child in a quiet voice to put down a french fry is somehow informed by Buddhism because it stresses social harmony is some way? Needless to say, social harmony is–if any one thing–a rather Confucian concept to begin with, but leaving that aside, this kind of stereotype reinforcement endorsed by a supposed authority is sadly just the kind of nonsense that has dominated most popular discourse about Japan. Bring on the Brooks Brothers samurai…

But I’m ruining it. See it and judge for yourselves.

If you’ve been following this, we’ve got two of Yamato-takeru’s songs under our belts: song 23 and song 25. We’ve come this far, so let’s keep barreling along.

What follows is perhaps my favorite exchange in all of Japanese literature. But before we get to that, let’s walk a mile in Yamato-takeru’s shoes. Picture this: you are Yamato-takeru, a strong and brave warrior (pretend) who finds a fetching “bride,” lets call her Princess Miyazu. But before you manage to “marry” her, you have to go off and pacify some unruly deities and barbarians. So off you go, but promise to return and tie the nuptial knot, so to speak. You’re away for a long time, but finally make your triumphant homecoming. You hurry off to keep your promise to the nubile lady who waited for you all this time. She brings you wine, things are looking good. But there’s one problem. There’s something on her dress…

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