japanese literature: 3 posts

The World in a Haiku

Silent the old town
the scent of flowers
floating
And evening bell
-Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), translated by Jane Reichhold

Haiku condenses. Haiku magnifies. If haiku speaks of a flower, it doesn’t compare the poet to a flower or the world to a flower. It says, the world is a flower. The world is in the flower petal. The details are refined by the poet’s imagination, who pours the whole experience into seventeen syllables. Haiku is the essence.

Discontented
Violets have dyed
The hills also
-Shiba Sonome (17th century), translated by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri.

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Japanese Ghost Stories : 5 Books

Frightening oneself with ghost stories or haunted houses is a summer activity in Japan for the chilling frisson it’s believed to provide. Yet the Japanese literary tradition filled with spirits, ghouls, specters and other supernatural phenomena is so rich that a full year wouldn’t be enough to even scrape the surface. Since dark fall evenings are a good time to delve into it, I decided to share five of my favorite Japanese books over whose pages hover ghosts.

The Japanese concept of a ghost, yūrei, is quite complex, but in its essence, it’s a soul of someone who died in a violent manner and may not have had proper funeral rites. The soul then returns to the living world to seek vengeance and to torment those who were responsible for the crime. The purpose of Japanese ghost stories, however, is not only to paint the frightful deeds of the unpacified souls, but also to examine the complexity of love, betrayal, loyalty, faith, and other human emotions and dilemmas.

Japanese Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyoka, translated by Charles Shiro Inouye

“She seemed too delicate for someone living in the mountains. Even in the capital you don’t see many women as beautiful. As she rubbed my back. I could hear her trying to stifle the sounds of her breathing. I knew I should ask her to stop, but I became lost in the bliss of the moment. Was it the spirit of the deep mountains that made me allow her to continue? Or was it her fragrance? I smelled something wonderful. Perhaps it was the woman’s breath coming from behind me.”

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Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow : Love and Essence

When I sat down to write about Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, I struggled to find the best way to describe it. A love story seemed too banal. An exploration of the fathers and sons dilemma too simple. An answer came to me as I was reading another book, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Spring Snow is an attempt to recapture a memory, a moment long gone, set into the frame of a tragic love story. And just as in Proust’s masterpiece, fragrance is a leitmotif for Mishima’s story.

Kiyoaki is the son of a nouveau riche family who has been raised in the aristocratic Ayakura household. His father, Marquise Matsugae, conscious of their provincial origins, desired for Kiyoaki to imbibe the manners and elegance of the nobility. But by the time Kiyoaki turns eighteen, he feels confused and torn between the two worlds, the old and the new. He has all of the hallmarks of an aristocrat with his refined aesthetic sensibilities and sophisticated manners, but he feels no respect for the emperor or the tradition. He is floating, unable to understand others and unable to make himself understood.

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