Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Category: Music

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.

Nationality: from Takamine to Tahrir

(“Baby Insadon” by Takamine Tadasu from ZAIM.)

Is a person’s identity tied to their nationality? Is language and culture divided along national borders? Does someone with two nationalities have two identities or none? What nationality is someone without the citizenship of the country they have lived in their whole lives? In a non-agricultural community, what does it mean to identify with the land? Why do immigrants have to run bureaucratic gauntlets? Or, to summarize, what is a nation?

These are questions that have plagued me off and on my whole life. Of course, my case is a privileged one, being born in Germany with German and US citizenship before moving to the States for most of my education and finally ending up as a resident of Japan. There are far more expats, immigrants, and people with ambiguous citizenship in this world, who struggle more with their national identity and with government bureaucracies so that they might live fulfilling lives where they find themselves.

In early January, I finished translating the exhibition catalogue for the Takamine Tadasu Exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art. On January 21, I was invited to attend the exhibition opening, and although the event was nothing like the fashionable party I had imagined it would be, I was impressed by the exhibition itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Watching Noh

(Kanze Tetsunojo’s noh stage, across the street from Cartier, Prada, and D&G in Omotesando.)

Yesterday, I attended the first day of a workshop with Kanze Tetsunojo, a noh performer and the head of a very influential family of noh actors within the Kanze school.  One very simple question of his provoked a fascinating series of thoughts.  That question was,

Is noh chant hard to understand?

Read the rest of this entry »

Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri


Shrine priestesses dance kagura to open the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri dance performances.  The kagura piece pictured above is entitled Sensai or One Thousand Years.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in December, I took the trains to Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 and a center of Japanese religion ever since.

I had set my mind on seeing the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri since I had first read the 1349 records of the shrine festival.  That year, a shrine priestess named Otozuru Gozen performed Okina, which in the contemporary repetoir of Noh is performed exclusively by men (see my previous entry about Okina here). In 1349, Okina was the first dance of the day’s performances.  Okina’s position at the beginning of the program shows the religious weight of the piece.  Even 650 years later, contemporary performances of Okina are always at the beginning of a program, and it is said that a god decends and inhabits the dancer during his performance.  Now Okina is not performed at the Onmatsuri, but priestesses dance kagura to open the day’s performances (see picture above). Kagura are shrine dances, and the titles of the four dances performed all indicate the celebratory nature of kagura. Read the rest of this entry »

Rilke, Japanese electronica, and me

I met Rurihiko Hara in an undergraduate class I audited at Tokyo University last spring on Noh theater.  He came up to me after class, because he’d heard that I’d taken Noh lessons in Kyoto.  He had done the same under a different Noh master.

Last summer, after I’d returned to Kyoto to work for a few months, Rurihiko introduced me to his brother’s electronica band, Rimacona.  I heard Rimacona live and really enjoyed their music.  It’s sometimes jazzy, sometimes folksy sounding, dreamy electronica that incorporates piano riffs and female vocals with some almost natural-sounding noise.  Here is a link to Rimacona’s MySpace site:

In early October, Rurihiko, was back in Kyoto for a while and asked me if he could record me reading a German text.  This we did in the garden of a subtemple at Daitokuji on a sunny afternoon.  The text is Rilke’s Das Märchen von den ungehorsamen Händen Gottes.  This he mixed into his own electronica and performed at a live concert on my birthday, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend.  He’s done me the great favor of uploading it to his own MySpace site.  So here is his MySpace page:

Scroll down in the playlist and click on i_sink to play it.  I hope you like it.


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