Today’s 日本語

Person in monkey costume hanging from tree

猿も木から落ちる (さる も き から おちる)

You can have done something a thousand times. Easily mastering it with your eyes closed, hands behind back, spinning plates.

Go to impress someone with it and mess it up so royally you have to move town, change your name, burn your finger prints off with battery acid.

Don’t Worry, as the old saying goes “even monkeys fall from trees”

The Lady Murasaki and the First Modern Novel

“Pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, scornful” and the mother of the modern novel.

Lady Murasaki, was a courtier at the Heian court at the end of the first millennium. She wrote the massively influential The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogartari); a novel that is still considered one of the most important pieces of Japanese literature. The novel is a staple of the Japanese curriculum.

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The Heian period (794-1185) was the most glorious period in Japanese history. Moving from Nagaokakyo to Heian-Kyo (present day Kyoto) to counter balance the overly-powerful Buddhists in Nara. The period is defined as one of decadence and refinement.

Through careful manipulation and marriages the Fujiwara clan dominated Heian politics. Lady Murasaki was born c.973 to the northern branch of the Fujiwara’s. Although her great grandfather had been the first regent of the period, by the time of Murasaki’s birth her family had fallen from grace; despite their status her family had a literary reputation with many of her ancestors being famous poets.

Although in Heian society husbands and wives kept separate households with children raised by their mothers; Murasaki lived in her father’s house along with a number of siblings (it is most likely that their house was on Teramachi Street in Kyoto). From a young age she showed talent in her writing and classical Chinese (a subject usually taught to boys only) Her father often said;

“Just my luck, what a pity she wasn’t born a man”

After a short marriage to a much older second cousin and the death of her brothers, Murasaki was brought to court by the mighty Michinaga. Michinaga’s time as regent marked the peak of Fujiwara power. He married of (pimped out) four daughters to four emperors.

Murasaki was brought to attend the court of MIchinagas 12 year-old daughter Soshi who he had named Empress (even though the current Empress was still alive). The relationship between Murasaki and Michinaga was most definitely one with benefits. In her diary she documents having to fight off many advances from Michinaga. In the translation of her diary it describes the way she would bore him with the minutiae of her life at court, his daughters comings and goings and even the birth of his grandson in ‘elaborate’ detail.

Of course the sausage-fest that is Japanese history, the names of women are not officially documented. Women were known by nicknames. Murasaki had two nicknames; one being ‘Our Lady of the Chronicles’ which she most likely earned by teaching Soshi Chinese. The nickname Murasaki came from a character in the Tales of Genji. The only hint of what Murasaki’s real name could have been comes from Michinaga writing down some of his favorite ladies-in-waiting. In a 1007 diary entry Fujiwara Takako is mentioned.

The Heian court was immensely fashionable. Courtiers were increasingly isolated with very little to do art, writing and sex was all they had. Women wore floor length hair, white faces and blackened their teeth. Their clothes were cumbersome and multilayered. The well known Hinamatsuri dolls are an example of what was fashionable at the time. Women held salons, vying for status and respect. The company was carefully selected, the original Empress Teishi had had Sei Shonagon, celebrated author of The Pillow Book. Soshi was surrounded by talented female authors such as Izumi Shikibu and Akazome Emon. Murasaki showed her exactly how she viewed her rivals, writing of Izumi in her diary as;

“…not very satisfactory. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate.”

It is not known when or where Murasaki started the Tale of Genji. It is possible she wrote the first chapters for a private benefactor. At 445px-Lady_Murasaki_writingthe time paper, ink and calligraphers were expensive; it is almost a certainty that Michinaga provided Murasaki with the tools to complete the manuscript. The Tale of Genji is a novel in three parts. It spans over a thousand pages and is thought to have taken over a decade to complete. It tells the story of the gorgeous ‘shining prince’ Genji, continuing after his death.

She redefined the genre of the monogatari, avoiding the tradition of fantasy and fairy tale clichés. Murasaki’s contrast of formal Chinese style and mundane topics give the work a satirical voice. The themes found in the book are common for the period. By far Murasaki’s favourite phrase is ‘物の哀れ (mono no aware) – the sorrow of human existance’ she uses it over a thousand times. Genji is comely, refined, gifted yet sympathetic and human. Historians have deduced that in the book Murasaki found an escape from her boring life at court. Helen McCullough atributes the universal appeal of The Tale of Genji to its ability to;

“transcend both its genre and age. Its basic subject matter and setting—love at the Heian court—are those of the romance, and its cultural assumptions are those of the mid-Heian period, but Murasaki Shikibu’s unique genius has made the work for many a powerful statement of human relationships, the impossibility of permanent happiness in love … and the vital importance, in a world of sorrows, of sensitivity to the feelings of others.”

There is a running theme throughout  that Prince Genji is able to recognize the inner beauty and fragility of his many lovers.

The Tale of Genji was enormously popular. It is generally thought that it was finished by 1008, but before that Murasaki notes in her diary that Michinaga regularly came to steal chapters. Despite it being written in Japanese the Emperor had it read to him. The book was scarce in the provinces but copies were highly sought after. By as little as 100-years later it was seen as a classic. Poets in the medieval ages used it for references of classical diction. The language used in The Genji Monogatari was seen as pure Japanese, a Japanese that needed preserving.

The fact that the novel was written in Japanese helped its popularity. At the time of its writing Japan was beginning to become increasingly insular. The Tang Dynasty (Japan’s touchstone to Chinese culture) was losing its grip. By the end of the Heian period Japan had ceased diplomatic visits that wouldn’t recommence for almost 500 years.

The Tale of Genji has had a huge cultural impact on Japan. Murasaki’s written work (along with other Heian poets) forged the Japanese language and its mix of kanji and hiragana.

A sample of writing showing the mix of Japanese kana and Chinese Kanji
A sample of The Genji Monogatari.

Its legacy has been used by many different groups from far-right nationalist claiming it as the finest piece of literature (ever, of all time) to the Japanese treasury that put a scene from the novel on the 2000 yen note.

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The date of Murasaki’s death is not clear, some have her dying in 1014 others have her living to 1025. At the time of her death she would have been around forty to fifty. She is buried in a small garden in the city of Kyoto. In the year 2008 Kyoto held a year of celebrations to commemorate one thousand years of The Tale of Genji.

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In the town of Uji, where the final chapters of the tale take place there is a statue of Murasaki.

A Small Step In The Right Direction

The LGBT community lives in a bizarre hinterland in Japan. The public face of the community being its outspoken, popular ‘new-half’ presenters such as  Haruna Ai and Matsuko Deluxe and the private side of mass denial and FINGERS IN EARS LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!

Matsuko Deluxe
Matsuko Deluxe

There is a general consensus that although homosexuality is legal, lets not talk about such things around the dinner table please Taro!  Gay couples regularly face discrimination when trying to rent apartments or getting visitation if the other is in hospital.

This week the Shibuya district in Tokyo announced it will start to issue certificates that recognize such relationships as “equivalent to marriage.” Although the certificates are not yet legally binding they will hopefully put pressure on businesses, landlords and hospitals into providing the same level of service as heterosexual couples.

Same-sex marriage is currently not legal in Japan. Marriage is defined legally as “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.” Compared with the west there is very little activism happening to fight that.  The certificates will be open to any resident of Shibuya Ku over the age of 20. It will give the couple next of kin privileges and they will be able to become each others guardian. It will be annulled if the couple breaks up.

Openly gay politician Taiga Ishikawa praised Shibuya and said that ;

“Cases overseas suggest that local municipalities’move to grant same-sex couples more legitimate status sometimes affects national policies. So I’m very happy about it,”

Famous LGBT activist Koyuki Higashi has said she is “over the moon” and plans to get a certificate as soon as they become available.  Higashi and her partner held the first same-sex marriage at Tokyo Disney Land in 2013. Although the marriage has no legal basis.

Higashi has said;

“We’re virtually married. But without legal backup, it’s still very difficult to live in this society. Prejudice remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society. But I hope this move will become the first step to turn Japan into a society more accepting of the idea of diversity.”

Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Matsuhara's 2013 Disney wedding
Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Matsuhara’s 2013 Disney wedding

Takarazuka Revue – The Female Kabuki

When one thinks of Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki instantly spring to mind. The long drawn-out process of a Noh dance characterised by their static masks reminiscent of a Greek tragedy and the music like speech of Kubuki with its stylised makeup and garish costumes.

Kabuki is still a cultural sausage fest, no women allowed and Noh only (begrudgingly) allowed female performers in after most of their houses were wiped out after the war.

But, female theatrics fear not! there is hope, a beacon of glamour. you too can smell the grease paint, lights on your face, bask in the applause.

Of course there is a catch. A; you have to be cherry picked for the special training school as  teenager and B; you must be able to live to a militaristic set of guidelines (this is of course Japan darling).

The Takarazuka Revue was founded by industrialist (and right winger hush hush)  Ichizo Kobayashi , designed to boost ticket sales for the Hankyu railways, the terminus of which was in the town of (you guessed it) Takarazuka, Hyogo prefecture. The train line being owned by (two for two!) Kobayashi himself. It was created as a side show to the already popular hot springs in the area. Kobayashi found the world of Kabuki elitist and old world. He was dazzled by western musicals and thought an all-female troupe would be a big hit. Female performers in the early 20th century were (besides folk singers) mainly geisha. In some circles geisha were not given the respect and deference they are today. Kobayashi wanted a respectable way for women to perform.

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1914, Donburako Takarazuka Revue’s first performance.

Ten years later and The Takarazuka Revue had its own theatre ‘ The Dai Gekijo’. Today it also performs at the Tokyo Theatre in Ginza and has an audience of around 2.5 million a year. The Takarazuka Music School accepts 40 students a year. This year they must have been born between April 2, 1996 to April 1, 2000 But basically it is for girls who have graduated from junior high school, or who have graduated from, or are currently in high school, as of the screening day.

For the first year the girls are trained together. The first year students ‘yoka’ are required to clean the school each morning. after the first year (based on…..leanings? preference?) the girls are split into otokoyaku (男役 male roles) and musumeyaku (娘役 daughter roles). Otokoyaku cut their hair short and adopt masculine traits and speech patterns. The school is heavily focused on dance such as ballet and modern, The girls only have a few lessons a week of regular school subjects. After graduation they are offered seven year contracts.

Turandot 1934
Turandot 1934

Takarazuka Revue performs shows from traditional Japanese stories such as The Tale of Genji to reinterpretations of western films like Bonnie and Clyde.  The Takarazuka format  has a number of set themes. For one the music is all performed by a live orchestra. The stage has a ‘ginkyou’ or silver bridge that curves out into the audience “catching a glance or a wink from the stars as they dance here is a great appeal to fans” according to the websites five theatre secrets. The performance usually ends on a staircase with the cast all out on stage. The use of a mirror ball is also central to “giving life to the fantastic world on stage”

'The Rose of Versailles: Oscar and Andre' (2013) | ©TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY
‘The Rose of Versailles: Oscar and Andre’ (2013) | ©TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY

Lorie Brau (Takarazuka expert) in her article ‘The Womens Theatre of Takarazuka’ states that although the idea of an all-female troupe would be a feminist utopia, the actual reality is the patricahal structure and rigid control the theatre places its performers under is far from empowering. Kobayashi is know to have wanted his actors to of on to become ‘good wives and mothers’ and staff have said the principle of the school is to create ‘wholesome women’. One of the main reasons girls are picked at a high school age (other than their malleability and innocence) is that after their seven year contract is complete they will be at a perfect age for marriage.

There is, of course, a sexual undercurrent (where isn’t there?!). From its creation the audience was mainly women.  In the 1920’s the love letters received by the otokoyaku from their female fans were published. It caused such a scandal that the producers enforced strict living arrangements and forbid the actresses from having physical contact with their fans. This idea is still in effect with groups like AKB48 and the boy bands of Johnny’s productions.

The American anthropologist Jennifer Roberts wrote in Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan that the very act of having women playing men meant that there is lesbian themes in every takarazuka performance and that this is intrinsically understood by its audience. conversely other writers have said that the popularity of Takarazuka is Japanese women enjoying the fluidity of gender in an otherwise strictly gendered society. In Japan there is a phenomenon know as Class S, the idea of a woman, affected by watching Takarazuka goes back to her life and forms crushes on her female colleagues and classmates.

Yuki Amami as Rhett Butler Gone With The Wind - 1994
Yuki Amami as Rhett Butler Gone With The Wind – 1994

Gender roles and lesbianism aside, today Takarazuka is as popular as ever. Actors go on to have careers in show business beyond the stage starring in films and appearing on TV. Alumni have huge fan clubs and they are doted on well into retirement.  Fan clubs so devotion to their favourite performers by wearing special coloured scarves or with embroidered jackets. After performances, fan wait quietly outside the stage door, as the actors emerge they move to their designated group. Rather than requesting autographs fans give cards to their idol who efficiently gathers them, says a few words and leaves.

Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi (c 825-900) was a famous and prolific waka poet. She is placed within the Thirty Six Poetry Immortals.

Komachi was renowned for her beauty and charm. As a poet, she specialized in erotic love themes, mostly about  anxiety, solitude and  passionate love. 

Komachi’s birthplace is unknown but, according to one tradition, she was born in what is now Akita Prefecture (northern Japan),  Her social status is also uncertain but she is believed to have been the daughter of a low ranking lord and subsequently become an emperor’s lady-in-waiting , possibly Emperor Ninmyō (r. 833-850).

Legends abound of Komachi in love. The most well known is a story about her relationship with a high-ranking courtier. Komachi promised that if he visited her every night for a hundred nights, then she would become his lover. He obliged but failed once towards the end. Despairing, he fell ill and subsequently died. When Komachi learned of his death she was overcome with grief.

Komachi’s old age when she had lost her beauty, been abandoned by her former lovers, and now regrets her life, wandering around as a lonely beggar woman is also frequently portrayed in later-period literature including many noh plays. What is fiction and what is fact is the subject of debate.

Today the name Komachi still evokes the image of classical feminine  beauty  and is a popular girls name to this day

Though I go to you
ceaselessly along dream paths,
the sum of those trysts
is less than a single glimpse
granted in the waking world.

Yōkai; Rokurokubi

轆轤首 – Rokurokubi (potter wheel neck)

Rokurokubi are normal women by day, but at night they gain the ability to stretch their necks to ridiculous proportions.

It is said that rokurokubi live undetected during daylight and may even take mortal husbands trying to keep their demonic forms secret. They are tricksters by nature, however, and their compulsion to frighten and spy on human beings is hard to resist. Some rokurokubi thus resort to revealing themselves only to drunks, the sleeping, or the blind in order to satisfy these urges.

Other stories say that the rokurokubis were humans who had broken Buddhist law. They feast on the blood, favoring that of those who had also broken religious doctrine.

Yōkai; The Shirime

尻目 – Shirime (bum eye)

In the run up to halloween, I want to introduce you to the strange and wonderful world of the yōkai.

The story of the Shirime starts with a lone samurai walking to Kyoto. On hearing someone calling to him he turns to find a naked man, ass up. From where the man’s poop chute should be a HUGE GLITTERING EYE opens.

The famous haiku poet and artist Yosa Buson liked the story so much he included the Shirime in many of his yōkai pictures, like the one above.

Keeping Up With The Isonos

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Meet the Isono family.

The stars of the longest-running animated and non-soap opera scripted TV series in history, Sazae-san.

The comic strip was started in 1946 by manga artist Machiko Hasegawa. It appeared in her local newspaper and in 1949 when the national Asahi Shinbun asked her to draw for them, she moved herself, as with the setting for the cartoon, from Kyushu to Tokyo.

The story follow the family dynamics and daily lives of the Isono family and the eldest daughter Sazae.

At the time of its release Sazae was a role model for the modern woman, more interested in being herself than dressing up in kimono and makeup to attract her future husband. Hasegawa wanted the Isonos to embody the image of the modern Japanese family after World War II.

In 1969 Fuji television commissioned the animated series. It has run every Sunday at six thirty since then creating over six thousand three hundred episodes. Although the comic strips were forward thinking the animated series are renowned for their representation of a traditional Japanese family, The shows never feature video games, cell phones or the things that spring to mind when thinking of Tokyo.  The family always has dinner together and all major festivals are shown.

The names of the main characters were all inspired by a trip made by Hasegawa to the sea.

Isono 磯野  The family name,  iso means rocky shore

Namihei 波平 The father – 54, nami meaning wave

Fune  船 The mother – 50. Her name means ship

Sazae サザエ The eldest daughter and shows namesake – 24. Sazae is a shellfish that is a great delicacy in Japan.

Katsuo カツオ Sazae’s younger brother – 11, Katsuo means bonito fish or skipjack tuna.

Wakame  ワカメ The youngest daugther – 9, wakame is seaweed found in soups and salads.

Masuo Fugata マスオ フグ田  Sazae’s husband – 28, Masu meaning trout and Fugu meaning blowfish

Tara  タラ Masuo and Sazae’s son – 3, Tara means cod.

Hasegawa lived and worked in Sakura-Shinmachi a suburban neighborhood in Setagaya-Ku Tokyo.  There is a museum dedicated to her life and work. In 2012 the town unveiled bronze statues to try to increase tourism to the area. The father’s trademark strand of hair has been stolen twice.

Sazae-san airs at 18:30 every Sunday on Fuji Television.

生首掛け軸

Namakubikakejiku, An Edo jidai portrait of an executed criminal (possibly a samurai). These pictures were posted as a warning. The red was painted in the executed’s blood.

When this picture was shown on TV, it was noticed that the eyes seemed to be opening and moving during the segment.