Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

On the Japanese Symbolism of Fireflies and on Telling People what They Mean


Kishibashi has a new album out called Lighght. I’ve been listening to the music over and over, because there’s a lot going on in the music that unfolds with repeated listening. NPR producers like Kishibashi, too, perhaps because their critics rightfully praise the experimental combination of classical training and pop music. But in a recent NPR interview, Steve Inskeep and producer named Lindsey tried to read too much into a lyric. Steve Inskeep insists on delving into unpacking the meaning of one word in the song “Q&A,” namely hotaru (firefly). Lindsey comes into the studio and says that he “was doing some reading” and his “research told” him that in Japan there are “poems going as far back as the 9th century AD that use fireflies as a symbol of love.”

First, what’s with this intellectual posturing to make up for a lack of knowledge? Just because Japan is so far away and so exotic, doesn’t mean people may speculate based on what little information they can get their hands on. But even if you don’t know any more about Japanese poetry, you can still tell this is still a farfetched connection. Just because a word meant something in 9th century poetry doesn’t mean it means the same thing in pop music today even if that pop music is really intelligently created.

But what does Lindsey mean when he says fireflies are a symbol of love in classical Japanese poetry? Classical Japanese poetry is all about love. Aristocrats used poetry to communicate things that were otherwise difficult to say, and most poems were precisely about love and all its challenges.

Perhaps the most prominent example of fireflies in Japanese poetry and literature is the firefly scene in the Firefly Chapter of The Tale of Genji – which all Japanese people read in high school of course. The Tale of Genji doesn’t go quite all the way back to the 9th century, because it was finished around 1000 AD and describes aristocrats in the Japanese capital (now Kyoto) in the Heian period, but it is a major literary work that influenced a lot of later poetry and literature.

You can read Seidensticker’s translation of the Firefly chapter of The Tale of Genji here.

There are a lot of characters involved in the Tale, since monogamy was not very important for Japanese aristocratic romantic relationships in the Heian period and everyone was related to each other one way or another. The two most important characters in the firefly scene are the young woman Tamakazura and the imperial Prince Hotaru. (He’s named Prince Firefly after the scene.) Prince Hotaru is Tamakazura’s caretaker’s brother. This caretaker is Genji, the main character of the whole novel, and being the main character and suitably preoccupied with his own interests, he stages a meeting between Tamakazura and his brother in early summer despite Tamakazura’s deep-seated disinterest in all men, including the handsome Genji.

Prince Firefly comes as invited to woo Tamakazura one summer evening. Tamakazura tries to avoid him, but Genji makes her go talk to him. Since aristocratic women used curtain partitions and go-between messengers to maintain their privacy when talking with strangers, Prince Firefly can’t really tell where she is sitting or if she’s really nearby or not. After Genji convinces Tamakazura to go talk to the prince, there’s a sudden flash of light that casts the shadow of her beautiful profile on the curtain. The light is produced by a large group of fireflies that Genji suddenly releases from a bag near Tamakazura. Prince Firefly sees her for a moment before the fireflies fly off and the light fades. He realizes she is more beautiful than he had thought and writes her a poem:

You put out this silent fire to no avail.
Can you extinguish the fire in the human heart?

Prince Firefly is clearly infatuated, but Tamakazura’s reply makes clear his love is unrequited:

The firefly but burns and makes no comment.
Silence sometimes tells of deeper thoughts.

Tamakazura does not want to talk to the prince and clearly feels uncomfortable in his presence. Prince Firefly leaves broken hearted in the middle of the night.

So yes, the firefly is a symbol of love, but it’s more complicated than that. In The Tale of Genji, there are two perspectives: For the prince, it’s more a fleeting, unrequited love, and for the lady it’s not love, but a aversion, shame, and pain, painful perhaps because she has had a bad experience with another man that is insinuated at the beginning of the chapter. Of course, this is just one interpretation of one instance of the the firefly being used as a poetic symbol.

But Kishibashi certainly wasn’t thinking about the subtle poetic allusions the word hotaru evokes in Classical Japanese poetry when he wrote “Q&A.” Kishibashi responds to Lindsey’s comment by saying that he doesn’t think most Japanese people know the poetic meaning of the word. Indeed, how many Japanese have read or still remember The Tale of Genji from high school classes? How much did you remember from The Great Gatsby before the recent movie? The Great Gatsby is 900 years younger and more readable than The Tale of Genji!

Why did the producer need to come into the interview to instruct Kishibashi on Japanese culture? I find Kishibashi’s own answer when asked about how he creates lyrics interesting enough. He says, “the words just form as an instrument. . . and then I connect the story.” About the Japanese lyrics to “Q&A” he says how he lets language “create an image” in his head “of a hot summer afternoon.” I think people today can identify with that image and can run with that far more easily than digging around in Japanese poetic traditions that are almost 1,000 years old for some hidden, exotic significance.

As a student of pre-modern Japanese culture I hope, of course, that this incident might make people curious about classical Japanese literature even if it doesn’t have anything to do with Kishibashi’s song. Perhaps we might get other pop music some day that draws on material from The Tale of Genji? Love, intrigue, and disappointment are certainly still important in pop today. The whole Seidensticker translation of The Tale is available for free from The University of Adelaide, and I used his translations of the poems above. The most recent English translation is by Royall Tyler.

The West’s Confucian Confusion: How More Confucianism Might Have Saved the Sewol

Traditional cultural values – those aspects that Europeans and North Americans often see as most foreign – inform Asian countries’ social contracts even today. When problems arise, it is these differences that are so often blamed by media. Bosmosis makes a good point that foreign cultures should be evaluated on their own terms. His post points out that it was not blind obedience that brought about the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16th, but the responsibility of authority figures, another integral part of Confucianism, that was lacking.

However, my concern is that problems are always pinned on those aspects of a culture that are most foreign to the observer. The idea that “I don’t understand the problem, so those things that I don’t understand about the situation must be the source of the problem,” does not seem logical to me. Is it really Confucianism that caused this accident? I hardly think so. Can’t we talk about negligence, which is all over the Japanese news here in Tokyo, and draw lessons from that very familiar cause of problems?


W henever a tragedy strikes Korea, many Western observers can’t resist the urge to attribute it to Korean culture. This tendency owes much to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which Gladwell attempted to pin a fatal 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam on Korea’s Confucian-inspired practice of showing deference to one’s guam1 seniors. Since Outliers , Confucianism is the prime suspect in just about every Korean disaster short of an earthquake, so when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off Jindo on April 16 th , taking with it over 300 young Korean souls, I braced for the wave of western cultural critique.

I wasn’t disappointed. Writing for the South China Morning Post, Andrew Salmon wondered whether the accident was made worse by Confucianism. Salmon noted that in the initial minutes of the accident, the captain ordered passengers to stay where they were, and most of them obeyed “even as the…

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Wednesday Poem – Rilke

(For Leonie Zacharias)

By Rainer Maria Rilke

O sage, Dichter, was du tust?

— Ich rühme.

Aber das Tödliche und Ungetüme,
wie hältst du’s aus, wie nimmst du’s hin?

— Ich rühme.

Aber das Namenlose, Anonyme,
wie rufst du’s, Dichter, dennoch an?

— Ich rühme.

Woher dein Recht, in jeglichem Kostüme,
in jeder Maske wahr zu sein?

— Ich rühme.

Und daß das Stille und das Ungestüme
wie Stern und Sturm dich kennen?

: — weil ich rühme.

(For Leonie Zacharias)

O say, poet, what you do?

— I  praise.

But the deadly and monstrous,
how do you endure it, how do you accept it?

— I praise.

But the nameless, anonymous,
how do you, poet, invoke it nonetheless?

— I praise.

Whence your right in any costume,
in all masks to be true?

— I praise.

And that the still and the aggressive
like star and storm know you?

: — because I praise.

(My translation)

Wednesday Poem – Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)

By Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

(via The Poetry Foundation)

Commentary: “Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Teacher” New York Times

Joshu Sasaki

Joshu Sasaki in New Mexico in 2007. (via the New York Times)

On Monday, the New York Times reported on sexual misconduct by Joshu Sasaki, the now 105 year-old Rinzai Zen master born in Japan who has been teaching in California since 1962. The accusations include that he has “groped and sexually harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty to a famously charismatic roshi, or master,” that he has invited female students to “sexually coercive” meetings and had affairs with students. Apparently, these activities have happened since at least the 1970s, but were not openly addressed by the community. In fact, these activities were condoned by other members of the community, and allegations by female members were condemned by some male colleagues, because they sullied the master’s reputation.

For some, it might be easy to lump this sort of activity with the sexual misconduct of Catholic priests. For others, the fact that the Zen master targeted grown women and not underaged children makes all the difference. And particularly those who are familiar with Buddhist practice or Buddhist thought will claim there is no comparison, because the Buddhist teaching has no such preoccupation with sex as is found in Christian doctrine. Celibacy is not necessarily required of Buddhist monks and nuns. However, even the lay precepts do not sanction sexual misconduct.

Nevertheless, this Zen master has engaged in inappropriate behavior for at least 40 years in the US. Why is the media interested now and not earlier? The New York Times article includes the argument that

“Because of their long history with Zen practice, people in Japan have some skepticism about priests,” Ms. Schireson said. But in the United States many proponents have a “devotion to the guru or the teacher in a way that could repress our common sense and emotional intelligence.”

Certainly, many if not most Zen priests in Japan are not celibate, but generally have families, which might make them seem more engaged with everyday society. In contrast, it seems like non-Japanese students in general seek a way to be released from the trials of everyday life and readily believe in the Zen masters who promise to help them in that pursuit.

The method a Zen master offers, though, is a similar method to that of any Japanese practice. Practice, known as shugyō in Japanese, is a process of practical training that is based on a direct engagement with the world. In Zen practice, zazen, or sitting meditation, is a fundamental element of this practical training. Thus, Zen is not a means of escaping the world, but a method of engaging with the world.

My experience with Japanese practice comes from five years of  lessons and four years of tea ceremony lessons—and hardly from the few times I engaged in sitting meditation. But the practical nature of training in the Japanese arts has similarities with Zen training.

Masters teach by example and through repetition instead of with explanations. A student is expected to learn by doing and by following the master’s example. The master will chose the lessons or situations a student must engage in, be the lesson a kōan to be contemplated in meditation, a nō dance, or a particular form of the tea ceremony. Each is its own form of challenge, which when overcome can lead to its own form of insight.

Furthermore, I have always been a student and never a master nor anything but a green beginner, and as such, it is clear to me that I will never change the centuries old institutions that have preserved these traditions and that support the masters who guide these practices. What I am contemplating here is thus not how the institutions must change, but what a student gains by taking responsibility for her actions and taking control of a situation she perceives as negative.

In a lesson, when training does not progress as the master expects, verbal and even physical intervention is common. For example, in nō, a teacher will correct a student’s posture by moving the student’s foot at the correct tempo, or in tea ceremony, a teacher will correct a student’s placement of an object by physically moving the arm into the right place. In Zen meditation, students may be hit with a stick called a keisaku to improve their concentration. (From my single experience of such a strike, because I was hit quite hard, I would say it is not painful when done correctly.) The physicality of the relationship between master and student may provide more opportunities for sexual misconduct, but it is not an inevitable outcome of such physicality.

It seems to me that the problem with sexual misconduct or harassment in Japanese practice is that practitioners might lump it together in their understanding of all negative experiences. Any experience—and particularly an experience that is initially considered uncomfortable or negative—is seen as a moment where learning may occur. Certainly, facing our fears and the boundaries of our comfort zones is the best way to overcome them. Also, the greatest creativity and the greatest insight come out of the greatest conflict. In practice, the masters who lead students’ training have the power of controlling the artificial creation of such experiences.

However, if a student believes that only her master can guide her to insight or enlightenment, not only does she make herself subservient—and therefore vulnerable to sexual harassment or other abuse—but she will never find the insight she seeks. A master can never achieve enlightenment for a student. In fact, oftentimes the teacher has no understanding what a student has learned or what she wishes to achieve in her life. A student must always remain aware of these things herself even as she turns to her master for guidance.

If a master should misuse that power as guide, the student always has the freedom to leave. In discussing the New York Time’s article, a friend of mine asked the question, what about those who don’t find the strength to leave? That, I agree, is the greatest problem. But some students decide to tolerate uncomfortable situations, because they expect to achieve something greater by enduring them. As one woman in Joshu Sasaki’s community told the New York Times,

“Outside the sexual things that happened,” the woman now in San Francisco said, “my relationship with him was one of the most important I have had with anyone.”

The article ends with a quote from a monk in the same community elaborating on that tension:

“What’s important and is overlooked is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity and happiness in their own lives. It seems to be the kind of thing that, you get the person as a whole, good and bad, just like you marry somebody and you get their strengths and wonderful qualities as well as their weaknesses.”

But if a student decides to leave that inspiring person, if she decides she does not need to subjugate herself to further abuse, she takes mastership over herself. Of course, the trauma—the memory of past abuse—does not go away when she leaves, but by leaving, she takes back her own responsibility for herself, body and soul. In the act of leaving, she learns that she can create her own life, which is perhaps the greatest insight.

A few questions remain in the end: How long does it take to learn to rely on one’s own power? And should students in such master-student relationships be reminded of their freedom to leave, whether or not misconduct occurs? How much would such a reminder change a situation if a student thinks she may learn something by staying and tolerating abuse?


Oppenheimer, Mark and Ian Lovett. “Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Techer” New York Times 11 February 2013. (link)


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