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

by Hanna


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.