Go-Shirakawa. This public domain picture from the Museum of the Imperial Collections (三の丸尚蔵館)
Here’s this month’s poetry column from our friend Keiji Minato…
Ryojin-hisho (『梁塵秘抄』), compiled by Goshirakawa-Joko (後白河上皇; the ex-emperor Goshirakawa）in the late 12th century, is an anthology of popular songs called “Imayo Kayo” (今様歌謡; directly translated it means “contemporary-style popular songs”) at that time. They were mainly performed by itinerant female dancers and singers. The ex-emperor was so much into the type of song that he trained himself as a disciple of famous singers, who were regarded very low in the social hierarchy, or rather totally outside of it, and spared no efforts to sing them in genuine styles and record lyrics. As many critics argue, his enthusiasm probably resulted from the change of the power structure in the political system, in which the royal family and old aristocrats were being replaced as the dominant force by the military caste: the old power holder psychologically needed to recapture cultural power from the bottom of the society. Such historical consideration is quite interesting, but here let’s look at the lyrics themselves from the anthology.
The songs take up a wide variety of topics, and their styles also widely vary from comic to philosophical. One of the important themes is religion:
[ Hotoke wa tsune ni imase domo / Utsutsu naranu zo aware naru / Hito no oto senu akatsuki ni / honoka ni yume ni mie tamau ]
Buddha is always around, but we sadly cannot see him in reality. Only at the dawn with no human sound, he faintly shows himself in our dream.
In the process of Buddhism getting into Japan a lot of waka (5-7-5-5-5 sound unit poems) and songs like the above were composed so that people got used to the Buddhist ideas and worldview. Of course, it is impossible to expound deep philosophy in such short forms. As the poem above, most of them are aesthetic expressions so as to strike the emotional chords of even those who cannot understand highbrow concepts.
Other songs take up more down-to-earth human feelings. The most famous one from Ryojin-hisho is the following:
[ Asobi o sentoya umare ken / Tawabure sen toya mumare ken / Asobu kodomo no koe kikeba / wagami sae koso yurugarure ]
We are all born to play, born to have sport. Listening to the voice of children who play, even my body will shake itself.
Although most readers agree that its speaker is a yujo (遊女; a performer-cum-prostitute), they are divided into two camps regarding its emotional content. Many read the yujo’s regret for her life, especially in the last part “揺るがるれ.” This reading has a strong appeal even to the modern reader, and is probably why the song is so popular. On the other hand, some think it as an expression of a more natural, spontaneous reaction, and argue that the first camp wrongly reads modern moralistic feelings into the song. In my opinion, you do not have to choose one over the other. I am sure this great poem shows different sides of life according to what frame of mind you have when you read it.
Small creatures often appear in the Ryojin-hisho songs and play important roles:
[ Mae mae katatsuburi / Mawanu mono naraba / muma no ko ya Ushi no ko ni kuesase ten / humiwarase ten / makoto ni utsukushiku mou taraba / hana no sono made asoba sen]
Dance, dance, Snail. If you do not dance we’ll make a young horse or cow kick you, stamp and crush you. If you dance so beautifully, we’ll let you go free to a flower garden.
The poem shows the same type of childish brutality as in Mother Goose songs, which is saved by the beauty of the last part and gives us strong catharsis. Such a technique is often used in Imayo-kayo probably because they are originally for performance, sung with a dance (What a pity that the music and dance parts were lost in history!). Common techniques in Ryojin-hisho also include exaggeration and enumeration as in the following song:
Man who gave me hope but does not come, you become a demon with three horns shunned by people. Become a bird in a rice paddy with frost, snow, hail falling and stand on cold feet. Become floating weed and wander around endlessly rocked.
A Japanese demon (鬼; oni) usually has two horns. Rice paddies, which have water in summer, usually do not have cold water in it. Clearly, these expressions playfully exaggerate the speaker’s feelings toward the man. Such witty words are much better to bring him back than just nagging at him. The same kind of playfulness sometimes appears even in songs about religion:
[ Kumano e mairan to omoe domo / Toho yori maireba michi toshi / Sugurete yama kewashi / Uma nite maireba kugyo narazu / Sora yori mairamu / Hane tabe Nyakuoji ]
I am thinking of going to Kumano, but it is too far on foot, with such steep mountains. Going on a horse, however, isn’t an act of merit. I will go flying. Give me wings, God of Nyakuoji.
The Ryojin-hisho. Click to buy on amazon.co.jp
In Kumano there are important shrines (Kumano Hongu Taisha; 熊野本宮大社, Kumano Hayatama Taisha; 熊野速玉大社, Kumano Natchi Taisha; 熊野那智大社), and emperors and ex-emperors often went there from Kyoto over steep mountains. Goshirakawa-Joko, the compiler of Ryojin-hisho, was also a devout worshiper and visited Kumano 34 times in his lifetime. In the song above, the speaker turns down the idea of going on a horse as too easy and not giving a merit, but right after that he/she asks a god for wings to fly! It might not sound serious, but I think it somehow successfully expresses his/her real longing for Kumano.
Ryojin-hisho was once thought to be lost not long after its compilation. It was dramatically rediscovered in the late 19th century, and surprised and greatly moved poets in the modern era. The variety of form and content testifies to the fact that there used to be a wider range of poetic expressions than public forms of poetry like waka, renga, and Chinese types of poetry in Medieval Japan. Its return in a new age does not seem just a coincidence, does it?
* Sasaki Nobutsuna, ed. Ryojin-hisho. Iwanami-bunko (22-1). Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1933.
This text and translations by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find former articles by Keiji Minato here.
Of Related Interest:
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Introducing Keiji Minato
Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno
Japan International Poetry Society