Guest Post by Alexis Bonari: Japanese Poetry

Japanese Poetry as Translated by Hiroaki Sato

I should have been born fascinated with my heritage. Not everyone can say they’re descended from a line of powerful samurai, or that their resilient family survived the world’s first militarily employed atomic weapon.
Still, my country’s history—much less its literature—didn’t interest me until I left it and the Pacific Ocean behind to attend college in the United States. And that’s where I met Hiroaki Sato.

I call him Sato-san, as is respectful in our culture. I knew nothing of him when we first met except that he worked in New York as a purported giant in the field of Japanese literature and translation, which at the time meant little to me anyhow.

I found upon our meeting that despite his fame, Sato-san was humble and more eager to learn about my interest (or lack thereof) in our mother country than he was to talk about his published works.

I, on the other hand, find the latter much more fascinating.
From the Country of Eight Islands

One can hardly consider Japanese history without considering its poetry. “Poetry was a part of daily life, a means of expression for anyone who felt the need to manifest emotion through ordered language,” writes Thomas Rimer in the introduction to From the Country of Eight Islands.

Any sometime reader or die-hard enthusiast in Far East Asian literature must have a copy of From the Country of Eight Islands on the shelf (or better yet, in one’s hands). Sato-san and Burton Watson, another giant in the genre, have translated countless poems across the ages—from the pages of Kojiki, or Record of Ancient Matters, to present day—and ranks—“from emperors and priests to anonymous soldiers and peasants.” The following are some of my favorites:

From Princess Tajima, who died in 708, thinking of Prince Hozumi while at Prince Takechi’s palace:
As in the autumn paddies rice stalks lean only one way, so would I lean to you, though the rumor pains me

From Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694:
Plum blossoms at their best—if only the wind blew empty-handed!

From Masaoka Shiki, 1867-1902:

A stray cat
shits in my
winter garden


Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology

Sato-san pays tribute to the sex often overlooked in literature in his more recent publication, Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology. In fact, a quick glance through my 300-level English Literature textbook takes note of only one woman writer prior to Chaucer—Marie de France, Lanval, of Anglo-Norman literature—while Kojiki alone contains the works of 58 female poets, about 30% of its contributors at the time of its publication in 712 CE.

In the anthology, Sato-san enlightens unacquainted readers with the particular role women played in what is often and rightfully regarded as a patriarchal nation’s literature, inseparable from its history. The translator’s presence is practically nonexistent, and voices rise from the poetry like ghosts.

From Empress Yamato (7th Century), when Emperor [Tenchi] passed away:

Others, yes, may stop longing,
but his vine-crowned visage in my mind
I can never forget.

From Ito Masajo (Born 1882):
Cupid often runs out of arrows and is lost

From Ishigaki Rin (Born 1920):

Miniature Clams
At midnight I woke up.
The miniature clams I’d brought in the evening
were alive in a corner of the kitchen
their mouths open.
“In the morning
I’ll eat you,
every last one of you.”
I laughed
a witch’s laugh.
After that
I could only sleep through the night,
my mouth open slightly.

Bio: Alexis Bonari is currently a resident blogger at College Scholarships, where recently she’s been researching education administration scholarships as well as scholarships for blind students. Whenever this WAHM gets some free time she enjoys doing yoga, cooking with the freshest organic in-season fare, and practicing the art of coupon clipping.

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