Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Category: Literature

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.

Knowing or not knowing. . .

(Section 99 of The Tales of Ise, curtesy of the Kyoto University Library)

I find the handwriting in old Japanese manuscripts fascinating. When I took lessons in brush calligraphy, I could not get the balance of the kanji right, much less progress to the even more difficult kana letters that constitute this text. Perhaps if I had had a few more years’ patience, I might have some day been able to approximate this style.

Now, my challenge studying noh at the university is to simply read the script. This may be simpler than writing it myself, but I still struggle with the task. I can hardly believe I picked out the beginning characters of the poem I was looking for in an online document that was 211 pages long.

The reason for this search was an intriguing poem, the first line of which I stumbled upon while reading Nijo Yoshimoto’s text on renga (linked verse) today. The whole poem by an unidentified woman in The Tales of Ise fascinates me even more.


Shiru shiranu nani ka ayanaku wakite ihamu omohi no mi koso shirube narikere

Nothing to indicate you know or don’t know, but a sudden flame exciting your thoughts will show you the way

Read the rest of this entry »


(Homage to Wilson A. Bentley #4. 2005 – 2006.)

I recently stumbled across this snow photography by Yuji Ogawa, and by the next day had this image installed as my current desktop. Ogawa developed a technique to photograph snow crystals as they fall from the sky. I find it hard to imagine how small these flakes must be, and yet they have so much fine structure.

To go with it, a fitting waka that I first learned as a part of the kuse dance for the noh play Yuki. I quote it here in the original from the “Ukifune” chapter of The Tale of Genji.


Mine no yuki migiwa no kōri fumiwakete kimi ni zo madō michi ni madowazu

Snow on the peaks, breaking the ice along the shore with each footstep, you confound me, but the road does not

Read the rest of this entry »

The Lonely Season

Bashoan at Konpukuji

(Bashoan, Basho hut, at Konpuku Temple in Kyoto. Basho was a poet who lived more than four hundred years after Saigyo, but he considered Saigyo his greatest influence.)

Moro tomo ni kage wo naraburu hito mo areya tsuki no morikuru sasa no io ni

For a friend, if only there were someone who would line up their shadow next to mine in this grass hut that the moon has filled with light.

(My translation)

Read the rest of this entry »

Irises are now out of season, but. . .

(The irises at Heian Shrine a few years ago.)

My undergraduate advisor Tom Rohlich was so nice in pointing out that Ogata Korin’s Irises were inspired by a poem by Ariwara no Narihira, which appears in the Tales of Ise, that I simply had to post it.


Karakoromo kitsutsu narenishi tsuma shi areba harubaru kinuru tabi wo shi zo omou

Having come so far on this trip, I yearn for my wife, who is as familiar and intimate to me as my worn clothing.

Despite the melancholy atmosphere of the poem, something that is untranslatable about it is that it puns on the Japanese word for irises, kakitsubata.  Like the anagrammatic poems I remember writing in elementary school, in which each line began with the next letter of a word, Ariwara no Narihira’s poem begins each line with a syllable of kakitsubata (the fourth syllable of kakitsubata, “ba,” becomes the unvoiced variant of the same phonetic character, “ha,” in the poem).

In this way, he also refers to the location he has traveled to, Yatsuhashi, now in Aichi Prefecture near Nagoya, an area famous for its irises.  Therefore, although the poem doesn’t mention irises directly per se, the irises embody Ariwara no Narihira’s desire to see his wife.

As this poem inspired Ogata Korin’s iris screens, the irises, which take up the whole screen, may be said to be more than a representation of the natural world.  Rather, it embodies or represents human emotions. Read the rest of this entry »


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