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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!

Kindle books published!

They’ve been a long time in the making, but I now have three books of translated poems available on Amazon Kindle for people who prefer to read their poems offline!

There’s a one thousand poem anthology covering the period from the Man’yōshū in the eighth century to Shinkokinshū at the beginning of the the thirteenth; Fujiwara no Sanekata’s personal collection of three hundred and forty eight poems, and two hyakushu – Hundred Poem Sequences – one by Emperor Gotoba, and one by the monk Keiun.

Check out the details of the books here!

Skylarks, Frogs and River-drenched Robes

I’ll be giving a seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on 22 February 2017. For full details, see below:

Skylarks, Frogs and River-drenched Robes: Reality, Formality and Poetic License in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds

The ‘Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’ (Roppyakuban uta’awase) (1193-94) is the largest extant Japanese poetry competition judged by a single judge, Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204). Shunzei has been described as the greatest premodern critic of poetry, and  taken together his judgements  in Roppyakuban uta’awase form one of the largest and most detailed statements of critical appreciation of poetry of the time. The value of the competition is increased, however, by the existence of an extensive Chinjō (‘Appeal’) written by one of the participants, Kenshō (?1130-?1209), in which he provides detailed rebuttals of Shunzei’s negative judgements of many of his poems.

Shunzei’s judgements, and Kenshō’s appeals, are based upon differing assessments of the key criteria for uta’awase poetry: adherence to the essential meaning of the set topic, including use of appropriate diction; appropriate formality; and ease of aural apprehension. Consideration these debates, therefore, has much to tell us about the formation of formation of critical opinion, the weight given to different types of evidence, and how aesthetic value was assigned to individual poems.

This paper will consider a number contentious rounds in the competition: Spring II: 18 on Skylarks, Spring III: 22 on Frogs and Love IX: 19 on Love and Clothing. Shunzei, and the opposing team,  are highly critical of Kenshō’s poems in these rounds on the grounds of his understanding of diction, grasp of the topic and resulting lack of formality. Kenshō responds with detailed poetic and real-world evidence to negate these criticisms. Through the interplay between these opposing views we can see the assertion of differing visions of poetic value and quality – visions which would become increasingly entrenched as poetic opinion became increasingly polarised in the thirteenth century.

Date: 22 February 2017

Time: 5:05 PM – 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings
Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

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Contact Tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4893