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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

Sharing the vogue of the biwa bozu



The Muromachi epoch contributed to aristocratic pastimes the growth of another amusement known as ko-awase, "comparing of incense," a contest which tested both the player's ability to recognize from their odour different varieties of incense and his knowledge of ancient literature. As early as the seventh century the use of incense had attained a wide vogue in Japan. But it was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that Shino Soshin converted the pastime into something like a philosophy. From his days no less than sixty-six distinct kinds of incense were recognized and distinguished by names derived from literary allusions. This pastime is not so elaborate as the cha-no-yu, nor does it furnish, like the latter, a series of criteria of art-objects. But it shows abundant evidence of the elaborate care bestowed upon it by generation after generation of Japanese dilettanti.


The English language furnishes no accurate equivalent for what the Japanese call ike-bana. The literal meaning of the term is "living flower," and this name well explains the fundamental principle of the art, namely, the arrangement of flowers so as to suggest natural life. In fact, the blossoms must look as though they were actually growing and not as though they were cut from the stems. It is here that the fundamental difference between the Occidental and the Japanese method of

flower arrangement becomes apparent; the former appeals solely to the sense of colour, whereas the latter holds that the beauty of a plant is not derived from the colour of its blossoms more than from the manner of their growth. In fact, harmony of colour rather than symmetry of outline was the thing desired in a Japanese floral composition. It might be said that Western art, in general, and more particularly the decorative art of India, Persia and Greece--the last coming to Japan through India and with certain Hindu modifications--all aim at symmetry of poise; but that Japanese floral arrangement and decorative art in general have for their fundamental aim a symmetry by suggestion,--a balance, but a balance of inequalities. The ike-bana as conceived and practised in Japan is a science to which ladies, and gentlemen also, devote absorbing attention.


It will be understood that to the pastimes mentioned above as originating in military times must be added others bequeathed from previous eras. Principal among these was "flower viewing" at all seasons; couplet composing; chess; draughts; football; mushroom picking, and maple-gathering parties, as well as other minor pursuits. Gambling, also, prevailed widely during the Muromachi epoch and was carried sometimes to great excesses, so that samurai actually staked their arms and armour on a cast of the dice. It is said that this vice had the effect of encouraging robbery, for a gambler staked things not in his possession, pledging himself to steal the articles if the dice went against him.


One of the chief contributions of the military era to the art of singing was a musical recitative performed by blind men using the four-stringed Chinese lute, the libretto being based on some episode of military history. The performers were known as biwa-bozu, the name "bozu" (Buddhist priest) being derived from the fact that they shaved their heads after the manner of bonzes. These musicians developed remarkable skill of elocution, and simulated passion so that in succeeding ages they never lost their popularity. Sharing the vogue of the biwa-bozu, but differing from it in the nature of the story recited as well as in that of the instrument employed, was the joruri, which derived its name from the fact that it was originally founded on the tragedy of Yoshitsune's favourite mistress, Joruri. In this the performer was generally a woman, and the instrument on which she accompanied herself was the samisen. These two dances may be called pre-eminently the martial music of Japan, both by reason of the subject and the nature of the musical movement.

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