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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

The sketchy nature of Japanese poetry

Momiji-ha wo Kaze ni makasete Miru yori mo Hakanaki mono wa Inochi nari keri

This may be translated:

More fleeting than the glint of withered leaf wind-blown, the thing called life."*

*See Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, article "Japan."

The sketchy nature of Japanese poetry, especially in this five-line stanza, may be illustrated further by two poems quoted by Prof. B. H. Chamberlain in his "Things Japanese" (pp. 375-376),

The first:

Hototogisu Nakitsuru kata wo Nagamureba-- Tada ari-ake no Tsuki zo nokoreru

is literally translated by Professor Chamberlain as follows:

"When I gaze towards the place where the cuckoo has been singing, nought remains but the moon in the early dawn."

And the conventional and pictorial character of the literary form is illustrated again in the lines:

Shira-kumo ni Hane uchi-kawashi Tobu kari no Kazu sae miyuru Aki no yo no tsuki!

which the same eminent scholar translates: "The moon on an autumn night making visible the very number of the wild-geese that fly past with wings intercrossed in the white clouds." It is to be

noted that this last is, to Occidental notions, a mere poetic phrase and not a unit.

Of course, the very exigencies of the case make the three-line stanza (or hokku), containing only 17 syllables, even more sketchy--hardly more indeed than a tour de force composed of a limited number of brush strokes! The Western critic, with his totally different literary conventions, has difficulty in bringing himself to regard Japanese verse as a literary form or in thinking of it otherwise than as an exercise in ingenuity, an Oriental puzzle; and this notion is heightened by the prevalence of the couplet-composing contests, which did much to heighten the artificiality of the genre.


There was probably no more shocking sexual vice or irregularity in the Nara epoch than there had been before nor than there was afterwards. The only evidence adduced to prove that there was anything of the sort is the fact that laws were promulgated looking to the restraint of illicit intercourse. These laws seem to have accomplished little or nothing and the existence of the laws argues rather a growing sense of the seriousness of the evil than any sudden increase in the prevalence of the evil itself. There can be no question, however, of the wide diffusion of concubinage in this period. Not morals nor repute nor public opinion, but the wealth and wishes of each man limited him in his amours of this sort. The essential of a virtuous woman was that she be faithful to her husband or lover; no such faithfulness was expected of him. And neither in the case of man nor woman did the conventions of the period depend at all on the nature of the relationship between the two. Wives no longer lived in their fathers' homes after marriage, but the newly-wedded husband built new rooms for his wife's especial use, so that, by a fiction such as the Oriental delights in and Occidental law is not entirely ignorant of, her home was still not his. Before betrothal, girls were not allowed to call themselves by a family name. At the betrothal her affianced first bound up in a fillet the hair that she had formerly worn loose around her face. Even more symbolical was the custom upon lovers' parting of tying to the woman's undergarment a string from the man's; this knot was to be unloosed only when they met again.

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