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Intro-6 A trad-strewn TANKA

■Introduction of real TANKA(短歌):PART-VI■★A trad-strewn TANKA

(AUDIO/VISUAL TUTORIAL)★A trad-strewn TANKA… an example of Japanese TANKA(短歌) fantastically enhanced by traditional implications, whose English translation requiring wordy explanation will naturally go beyond the 5-7-5-7-7 word limitations


■Introduction of real TANKA(短歌) : Part VI■

★A trad-strewn TANKA… an example of Japanese TANKA(短歌) fantastically enhanced by traditional implications, whose English translation requiring wordy explanation will naturally go beyond the 5-7-5-7-7 word limitations

(in 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables)

《Katasode no nagame ni akuru ariake ni yume no kayoiji hiraku tachibana》




かたそで【片袖】〔名〕<NOUN:a single sleeve of my own, used as a handkerchief wet with tears and a solitary pillow without a lover beside me>


…I sleep on my solitary sleeve without my lover lying beside me


(A)ながめ【長雨】〔名〕<NOUN:a long gloomy streak of rain>

…Rain keeps falling down for more than I can stand

(B)ながめ【眺め】〔名〕<NOUN:wistful thought without any fixed focus, especially about love that’s somewhat gone awry>

…I sink deep in thought wondering where my loveless life will go



あく【明く】〔自カ下二〕(あくる=連体形)<VERB:dawn, get bright out of the darkness of night>

ありあけ【有明】〔名〕<NOUN:a moon in the morn that still remains in the sky as though grumbling ‘So soon?’>


…As I keep wondering, I’m surprised to find that it’s already dawn, the morning moon in the sky looks just as surprised and unsatisfied as myself

ゆめ【夢】〔名〕<NOUN:a dream, fantasy>

の【の】〔格助〕<POSTPOSITIONAL PARTICLE(POSSESSIVE):’s, of, belonging to>

かよひぢ【通ひ路】〔名〕<NOUN:the beaten path to somebody, especially leading to a sweetheart’s dwelling>

ひらく【開く】〔他カ四〕<VERB:open up>

たちばな【橘】〔名〕<NOUN:a mandarin orange, whose scent invites one back to memories of good old days, especially those of one’s old sweetheart who used to wear the same type of perfume>

…Suddenly, scent of mandarin orange floats in on the morning air… the same old smell of my past lover’s perfume on her sleeves… I feel nostalgic and dreamy… as I fall into a belated sleep, a pathway to my past lover’s room opens up and invites me in to her affectionate embrace, although that amorous path has long been closed in reality… tonight, or this morning, I’ll sleep side by side with my dream lover, away from this solitary reality

(in 6-7-8-9-8, not 5-7-5-7-7 English words)

Mateless night on a solitary bed

Pensively passed with unsatisfied Moon in companion.

There floats in fragrance of a mandarin orange

I used to smell on my past lover’s sleeves,

Opening up a gate into old days’ dreams.

●A 31-word dwarf on the shoulders of 300-year tradition soaring as a fanciful giant… a poetic dream, or a pedantic nightmare?

 This example poem of mine is the WORST possible imagery of a tradition-dependent imitation without any creative contribution of its own; a shamefully shallow sham, whose shitty profusion in the later years of HEIANESE Japan heralded in the practical extinction of the once glorious TANKA(短歌) poetry in this country.

 This type of poetry (or rather, a shamelessly blatant imitative pedantry) was the main target of the no-quarter criticism from that realism-evangelist poet MASAOKA SHIKI(正岡子規) in the MEIJI era; and he was quite right in attacking such shitty borrowers from great ancestors’ tradition (‘貫之・定家の糟粕をしゃぶる:TSURAYUKI, TEIKA no soukou wo shaburu = [those who] keep sucking the sludge left by KI-NO-TSURAYUKI or FUJIWARA-NO-TEIKA’ as he says), although he simply went too far in his overall denial of fictionally dramatic poems and totally biased acclaim to straightforward TANKA(短歌) in the NARA era in preference to nobly sophisticated HEIANESE poems.






 Most Japanese, who didn’t even read let alone write poems at all, simply believed what MASAOKA SHIKI(正岡子規) said and discredited all that he denied… a loathsome by-product of the absolutely totalitarian MEIJI-era Japan in its desperate attempt at Westernized reformation in utter denial of anything old and uniquely Japanese. The Japanese, ever since then, turned their back on their worthy tradition of dramatically beautiful poetry incredibly compacted in the 31-word world of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, and contented themselves with less-than-worthy&wordy 5-7-5 snapshots of ordinary life with occasional accompaniment of petty personal feelings. MASAOKA SHIKI(正岡子規) was anything but a TANKA(短歌) poet; he was not even a first-grade HAI-JIN(俳人=HAIKU poet); he was just a bold HAIKU-reformer… not quite in a better way, though ― he simply did popularize(&vulgarize) HAIKU(俳句) so much that even elementary school kids today will be required to write down their fanciful 5-7-5 as their initial attempt at Japanese literature in a fashion.

 With the appearance of MASAOKA SHIKI(正岡子規), the dramatically elegant taste of HEIANESE TANKA died; with the reformation by SHIKI, the stoically reflexive soul of SHOU-FU HAIKU(蕉風俳句… HAIKU after the fashion of its originator MATSUO BASHOU:松尾芭蕉) died… in their place thrived the easy 31-word snapshots of ordinary events and feelings ― one of the few means of self-expression for rarely assertive Japanese folks on the street ― not unlike the endless echoes of KARAOKE-singing laymen or ceaselessly propagating self-portraits on Twitter timelines.






 Well, let’s forget about MASAOKA SHIKI(正岡子規) and let us turn back the clock of literary chronograph… back to the end of the HEIAN era Japan c.1200, 3 centuries after the literary BIG BANG ignited by the first Imperial all-Japanese poetic anthology “KOKIN-WAKA-SHU(古今和歌集)”. For Japanese TANKA(短歌), 300 years of accumulated works was a treasury of traditional implications on one hand, and sludge and a grudge on the other. How rich is the traditionally implied imagination, you may see from the explanations I offered for the poem above… shall we re-examine?

TRAD-IMAGE 1) kata-sode(片袖)… implies a sad and lonely night spent without a sweetheart

TRAD-IMAGE 2) nagame(眺め)… implies a long aimless thought about uncertain future of oneself, especially in the middle of a love going wrong

TRAD-IMAGE 3) ariake(有明)… implies two kinds of dawn: a)after a night of making love with a sweetheart that ended all too abruptly before getting 100% satisfaction; b)after staying awake all night all alone waiting for someone to come or wondering where I (or, we) should go

TRAD-IMAGE 4) yume no kayoiji(夢の通ひ路)… implies a lonely person’s dream which is the only means of meeting someone whom that person is dying to meet in reality in vain

TRAD-IMAGE 5) tachibana(橘)… implies the scent of an old sweetheart’s perfume

 See how much is said in so few words: traditionally implied imagery is a great expander of the physical limitations of no more than 31 words… not unlike the good old “EMM386.exe” that benignly enabled Windows users to go beyond the walls of 640KB memory limitations of MS-DOS! (… forget it if I’m losing you). Trad imagery is a world within world, a window to another dimension, and a cue for readers to conjure up famous episodes out of their own literary memories to help build up the poem much higher than its literal size. By resorting to these traditionally fostered associations, Japanese TANKA(短歌) can dream a multi-layered dream, and the 31-word dwarf can grow out of its physical limitation by the reader’s imagination into something much more fascinatingly substantial ― substantial because tradition says so much, fascinating because your own imaginative association says so.

 But traditional imagery is a double-edged sword: it cuts out the limitations of a 31-word boundary of TANKA(短歌) into another dimension, but it also cuts down and hurts the pride of those who can’t make heads or tails out of it… those who couldn’t would hold a grudge against it and would dismiss such traditional imagery as “a 300-year sludge!” just like MASAOKA SHIKI(正岡子規) did… thus has been dismissed the age-old tradition of Japanese TANKA(短歌)’s magically evoked imagination up until today.

●Western civilization has no kick against traditionally fostered side-stories

 This type of traditional association can be more abundantly found in the world of English than in Japanese. Let’s see if you can see what I’m saying in the following example:

★A counterpart example of English TANKA (5-7-5-7-7 WORDS) requiring lots of cultural background knowledge that can only be translated into Japanese TANKA(短歌) in its simplest essence without regard to respective implications of the original verse

(in 5-7-5-7-7 English words)

What a Brave New World!

…cf:(1)”Brave New World” (by Aldous Huxley:1932); (2)”Tempest” (act 5 scene 1: “Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!” by William Shakespeare:c.1612)

With some Big Brother always watching you,

…cf:”Nineteen Eighty-Four” (by George Orwell:1948)

Who could be a Superman

…cf:”Superman” (by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster:in “DC Comics”, first in “ACTION Comics” since June 1938)

With so little privacy in public telephone-booth?

…cf:Clark Kent usually transforms himself into Superman behind something to hide in, traditionally public telephone-booths

Wayne’ll remain Bruce, ain’t play no Batman!

…cf:”Batman” (by Bob Kane, Bill Finger:in “DC Comics” since May 1939)… Batman’s true identity is a playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne

 Did you see all the message? An average American wouldn’t have missed Superman- and Batman-related imagery. “Big Brother is watching you!” is also likely to have rung a bell, for it’s actually on the way to becoming a dire reality in today’s world where street surveillance cameras and cell-phone cameras of practically every citizen are always watching you. But what about “a Brave New World”?… a world infested with test-tube born citizens is far enough from today’s reality and as far from ordinary people’s literary repertoire, I’d guess.

 Anyway, such association-rich sentences, whether in verse or prose, are nothing extraordinary in the Western civilization, where the traditional imagery fostered around Greek mythology, the Bible, literary works, pop-song lyrics, catchy lines from films or TVs are at once colorful accessories to add to prosaic contents and also cultural litmus paper to prove that the reader/hearer has something culturally in common with the author. Cultural identity is something to be thus tested and cultivated in the Western civilization, which is essentially heterogeneous.

 The uniquely homogenous people of Japan, on the other hand, traditionally hated (yes, I say HATED!) this type of cultural identity test, for it seems to be asserting yourself something different from the rest, when they take it as a self-evident fact that all Japanese are equal and no different from each other! The rich poetic association fostered in the circle of HEIANESE TANKA(短歌) over 3 centuries of literary accumulation was a rare exception to this rule… but the Japanese HATE exceptions. The fact that HEIANESE TANKA(短歌) was the exclusive product of the noble men and women in and around Japanese Imperial court added to the HATRED of such traditionally accumulated imagery among ordinary Japanese.

 And it must also be pointed out that the court ladies and gentlemen in the later years of the HEIAN era resorted too heavily to such traditional imagery just to show off how elegantly literate and nobly distinguished they were. In consequence, even today, the Japanese positively HATE cultural sophistication as individual accomplishment, even though they aggressively seek to make themselves look sophisticated by dressing themselves up with fashionable clothes or up-to-date gadgets.

 And so it is that the association-rich English poem above would be impossible to translate into Japanese in its cultural entirely, only to end up in a matter-of-fact explanation devoid of any reference to Bruce Wayne, Batman, Superman or Big Brother… see what a Brief New World of 31-word Japanese interpretation it will dwindle into:

(in 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables)

《Nantaru yo shuujin kanshi hiirou mo henshin dekiru monokage mo nashi》



『何という世の中だ、みんなにジロジロ見られてたんじゃ、ヒーローも変身できるわけがない』・・・英詩原文に忠実に訳したなら:『今の世の中の変貌ぶりときたら、とてもついて行けないや。いつでもどこでも誰かしらの監視の目が始終付きまとってる。そんなにじろじろ見られてたんじゃ、クラーク・ケントもスーパーマンに変身できっこない。公衆電話のボックスだってめっきり減って、街中でのプライバシーなんてほとんどないんだから。ブルース・ウェインだってずっとブルースのまま、バットマンごっこなんて演じられやしない』(in 357 magnum (oops!), 3-5-7 minimum English)

(What a world! There’s people watching ye everywhere. There’s no hiding for superheroes to transform.)

 These example poems of mine should have shown you some reasons why the Japanese positively HATE rich literary tradition and fight shy of the potentially profound (and so, HATEFUL!) 31-word world of TANKA(短歌) only to favor the relatively implication-free world of 17-word HAIKU(俳句). Japan is a strange country indeed: so tradition-rich and so culturally-poor. Oh, wonder! How many great creations have there been here! But how shallow the current Japanese are! O grave Oriental island, which has such people in it! Should you want to meet the Brave Old World of authentic TANKA(短歌), never look around the 21st century Japan but go back in time to the poetry’s happy days in the 10th to 13th centuries… with special care against trad-strewn wrapping around empty wording, though.