Love VI: 6

Left (Win).

sode no ue ni
naruru mo hito no
katami ka wa
ware to yadoseru
aki no yo no tsuki
Resting atop my sleeves
Of my love so fond
Are these keepsakes?
Remaining with me, alone
Is the moon this autumn night…

A Servant Girl.


hitori sumu
yado no keshiki to
aware to ya
ukimi to tomo ni
ariake no tsuki
Living alone,
Is the sight of my home
So pitiful?
Alike are we in desolation,
O, dawntime moon!

Lord Tsune’ie.

The Right state: the Left’s poem has no faults. The Left state: the Right’s poem lacks a clear conception of love.

In judgement: the Left’s poem, indeed, has no faults. It should win.

Love VI: 5

Left (Tie).

yasurai ni
idenishi mama no
tsuki no kage
wa ga namida nomi
sode ni matedomo
Emerged and left
That moonlight shape;
Though my tears, alone,
Upon my sleeves do wait…

Lord Sada’ie.


oroka ni mo
omoiyaru kana
kimi mo moshi
hitori ya koyoi
tsuki o miruran
Do I wonder
Whether maybe she, too,
Is alone this night
And gazing at the moon…


The Right state: we cannot grasp the sense of the Left’s poem. The Left state: we are unable to understand the reason for the Right’s use of ‘heedlessly’ (oroka ni mo).

In judgement: while both poems do appear to have some conception, the Gentlemen of both Left and Right appear to have stated that they are unable to grasp it. Far be it from me to provide an interpretation in the light of this, so I shall follow the Gentlemen’s remarks and make this round a tie.

An old and deeply flattering fox

I’ve been reading recently about Imperial Princess Senshi (Nobuko) (964-1035), who was the tenth daughter of Emperor Murakami (926-967; r. 946-967), and his empress Fujiwara no Anshi (Yasuko) (927-964).

Senshi had a tragic start in life in that her mother died giving birth to her, with Eiga monogatari mentioning that as a result ‘the Emperor wept aloud with a frightening lack of restraint, and the Crown Prince grieved in a manner so pathetic that all who saw him were moved to tears’ (McCullough and McCullough, 1980, 86). The death of her father a few years later placed the young princess in a precarious position, too – lacking strong backing from anyone, it was not entirely clear what was supposed to become of her, and so perhaps she may have felt a sense of relief when in 975 the omens indicated that she should be appointed Kamo Virgin, and serve as the emperor’s intermediary at the Kamo Shrine complex in the north of the capital.

The position was a good one for an extraneous imperial princess, as it kept her out of consideration for marriage to a prince or emperor, and there was thus no danger that she might produce a son to challenge the grip on the throne by the offspring of Fujiwara daughters. Senshi seems to have also found it to her liking – so much so that she remained as Kamo Virgin for an unprecedented fifty-seven years, throughout the reigns of five consecutive emperors.

As she grew older, she also developed a reputation for personal sensitivity and cultivation of the literary arts: Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon, the two great chroniclers of life at court in the period, both speak of her respectfully, with Murasaki saying Senshi’s court was ‘a place famous for beautiful moonlit nights, marvellous dawn skies, cherries, and the song of the wood thrush, the High Priestess has always seem most sensitive’, although she describes one of Senshi’s ladies, Chūjō, as ‘odious’ and asks why ‘is it they produce so few poems of any merit?’ (Bowring, 1982, 123). Senshi seems to have taken pains to remain on good terms with members of the leading Fujiwara family, and they, in turn, seem to have warmed to her. Sei Shōnagon describes how she even went so far as to wake her empress, Teishi, up early in the morning so she could have a gift from Senshi as soon as possible, and that when replying, ‘in all her letters and replies to the High Priestess, you could see just how much trouble she took from the number of problems she had with her writing’ (Sei Shōnagon, 2006, 81). Similarly, Ōkagami recounts an occasion when, because Senshi had neglected to bring a gift for a particular young noble, she ‘summoned him before her and having made him stand face to face in front of her, granted him the very overgarment with short sleeves that she was wearing’, something which made Fujiwara no Michinaga remark ‘How very elegant and thoughtful!…Anyone lacking in a sense of elegance would not have been able to think of such a thing!’ (Yamagiwa, 1967, 101). Other nobles, however, were somewhat more cynical, with Fujiwara no Taka’ie saying she was ‘an old and deeply flattering fox! Oh, what cunning!’ (Yamagiwa, 1967, 102). On the other hand, given her potentially precarious social position, perhaps there was nothing wrong with a solitary princess flattering the powerful…


Bowring, Richard (1982), Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McCullough, William H. and McCullough, Helen Craig (1980), A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sei Shōnagon (2006), The Pillow Book, London: Penguin Books.

Yamagiwa, Joseph K. (ed.) (1967), The Ōkagami: A Japanese Historical Tale, London: George, Allen and Unwin.

Seminar: Issues in the Translation of Japanese Poetry

This week, I was invited to contribute to the School of Languages and Cultures Applied Languages Seminar series, which I did with a short talk entitled ‘Issues in the Translation of Japanese poetry’ (you can find a PDF of my PowerPoint here, if you’re interested). It was one of two papers dealing with constraints on translation, but from very different angles – the other looked at constraints on representing repetition in film dialogue in subtitles.

It’s always difficult to know what to say when you have limited time to talk about something complex, to an audience which won’t necessarily know the background, which was why I started by trying to get people to think about what made a good poem in English, and then pointing out how most of the things they came up with were either irrelevant, or actual faults in the type of poetry I was talking about. That allowed a bit of discussion of how to approach the translation of works which are constrained by linguistic, cultural and literary codes for an audience which lacks awareness of any of them.

To make the point accessible, I drew upon my knowledge as a lifelong Star Trek fan to mention the Star Trek The Next Generation episode ‘Darmok‘, where the Enterprise crew encounter a race of people whose language is entirely based on cultural references, making communication – even with the Universal Translator – all but impossible. It’s a similar situation to the frequent use of intertextual references in many premodern Japanese poems: you might understand the words on the surface, but not know why they are being used, or they could be completely opaque – if the poem is referring to a place you know nothing about for instance.

I didn’t come up with any brilliant solutions to the issues, of course, but I hope I gave my audience pause-for-thought. In the Q&A afterwards, I did get asked, ‘Was there any point to them writing these poems, other than to be beautiful?’, though, so at least one person admired the quality!

Love VI: 4


mono’omou to
tsuki yue narade
tsuki o mite
ikuyo kumoranu
sora mo kumorinu
My gloomy thoughts
Are not for the moon;
The moon I saw
For many nights, unclouded,
The skies, now clouded.

Lord Ari’ie.

Right (Win).

ika ni shite
nokoru kokoro no
hito o uramite
tsuki o miruran
What is it that
In my heart remains
Hating her
I gaze upon the moon?


The Right state: we find no faults to mention in the Left’s poem. The Left state: the Right’s poem is outstandingly good.

In judgement: it has been stated that the Left’s poem lacks faults, but having ‘Are not for the moon; the moon I saw’ (tsuki yue narade tsuki o mite), ‘unclouded’ (kumoranu) and then ‘clouded’ (kumorinu) is a superfluity of similar vocabulary, which is most disquieting. I wonder, too, the basis on which the Right’s poem can be judged outstandingly good? ‘In my heart remains that’ (nokoru kokoro no arikereba) sounds like a most unacceptable configuration, and overall, I am unable to grasp its meaning. Thus, I will judge according to the Gentlemen of the Left’s remarks, and make the Right the winner.

Love VI: 3

Left (Tie).

tsure mo naki
hito o mo sasoe
yowa no tsuki
kage bakari dani
yoso ni miru ya to
That heartless
Man, will you invite
O midnight Moon!
Even just an image
In the distance would I wish to see…

Lord Suetsune.


aki no tsuki
imo ga omokage
wa ga kokoro ni mo
yadosu narikeri
The autumn moon
My darling’s face
Does bring to me, and
Within my heart
Has it found a place to stay.

The Provisional Master of the Empress’ Household Office.

The Right state: if one is inviting someone to come and visit, then there is no reason to mention ‘just an image’ (kage bakari). We wonder whether the invitation is addressed to the sky? The Left state: the Right’s poem is pedestrian.

In judgement: both Left and Right have the same conception of an invitation addressed to the moon. The Round can only be a tie.