School of Tanka
One of the reasons tanka has survived is that the form has been so useful in so many ways. As we saw in the Kojiki, and the Nihon Shoki songs in the tanka form were added to the stories and legends of the history of Japan. First with these myths and then with the stories imagined and real – from the beginning the tanka form was combined with prose.
However, this simple gathering developed into a formal state occasion in which the people reported on the state of nation to their gods. This custom continues to this day. Now, in addition to the poems of the Imperial Family, a contest is conducted that invites waka from all the Japanese on a chosen topic. From this outpouring ten poems are chosen and their authors are invited to the Utakai Hijime at the palace. Professional men are hired to read the poems in a sing-song chant reminiscent of Gregorian chants of the Catholic Church. The highpoint is when the poem of the Empress is chanted two times and the Emperor’s poem is chanted three times. The solemnity of the event gives one the impression that the old gods are present and listening.
With the arrival of plays in the 16th century, tanka was used in addition to the dialogue to indicate prayers or supplications or messages to the gods.
Weeks later Prince Naruhito's engagement to the now Princess Masako was officially announced but palace-watchers already knew from his tanka the prince was in love and that the lady had said yes.
From tanka's long history the most famous use of the poetry form was as secret messages between lovers.
One can understand the development of a poetry form used to implore the favor of gods to the pleas of a lover. The reason for the need for an exchange of written messages between persons getting to know one another can be further explained by the very first uta/waka/tanka as in the sidebar of Lesson One.
In addition to the study of the poetics of this poem, one can see how important it was for a man to enclose a woman,! Enough to break out into poem writing!
8 - 1
8 - 2
fukaki yo no
deep in the night
Oborage = a misty moon + vague or not clear.
8 - 3
uki mi yo ni
useless worldly self
8 - 4
izure zo to
I wish to know
The implication of 'harsh winds' is that gossip or rumors about their affair would at once inform him of the woman's identity and probably then, cause the relationship to wither away.
8 - 5
yo ni shira nu
At times, it feels as if the stories were invented as excuses to show the exchanges of tanka between the talented cast of characters. However, it would be wrong to think of tanka only in this (perhaps more exciting) aspect.
People also turned to writing tanka when they were deeply touched by other emotions. This gamut of feelings could extend from seeing the leaves turn colors in autumn to the deep grief from the tragic loss of a loved one.
I almost forgot to tell you about the card game Hyakunin Isshu. One hundred of the best tanka in 1235 were picked by Sadaiye Fujiwara. These were made into a card game that is traditionally played on New Year's Day. One half of each tanka is printed on a card. On the second card is the lower half of the tanka and the poet's name. These cards are spread out and people compete to see who can recognize and find the secong half of the poem. The game can be played alone or with one other person or even two teams. As you can see, there is an illustration of the poet, so one can match the cards as in old maid, but this is much more instructive because the better one knows these 100 poems the better the chance of getting the proper match.
Utakai Hijime –
Wednesday January 14, 1998
We went over these once more. Then we got into the big, black car (with the name "Royal Saloon") and were soon at the street that went along the moat around the Palace. When we went through the first checkpoint, the driver had Shukuya-san's poster card taped in the window, but the guard looked inside and saw that there were two more of us. We had to get out our big cards for the car and stick them to the window also. We drove across the plaza to the next check point where a tab was torn off our tickets. After a short drive among small pine trees, the car smoothly slid up under a portico before the broad entrance steps. As we went in the door we passed through rows of uniformed guards. Again one of our tickets was taken. We were directed to a table where my coat and Werner's hat was given up. We were so early we got the tags #8 and #9. Then we were led up more wide stairs. At the top we were directed by a row of men to enter the waiting room and to take a seat.
The room was about 50 feet wide and 100 feet long. The last 30 feet were curtained off with Chinese-styled screens. Behind them one could see tables covered with white cloths. In the waiting area were chairs in the French court style with golden brocade upholstery set all along the walls. Every ten - fifteen feet was a small table covered with a turquoise silk cloth on which stood a silver ashtray, a silver chest of Imperial cigarettes and silver lighter. Because none of us smoked, Shukuya-san encouraged us to take cigarettes as souvenirs. At first I was too shy to do so, because there were only about 10 of us in this one corner of the room. But as the other people arrived and I saw how the natives scarfed up the cigarettes, I got the courage to take a couple for us.
Many of the women wore kimono, tabi and geta (white socks like mittens split between the first and second toes and thongs on wooden platforms) with their hair styled in unfamiliar old patterns. The other women wore full-length dresses in pastel colors tailored like suits. The only really fancy long ball gown dress was worn by the author from Korea, but it looked to be a native, traditional garment. There was a famous Buddhist nun dressed in a beautiful orange brocade jacket and a famous priest in his best regalia. All the other men wore tuxedos and looked very distinguished. I was the only woman in black and in velvet. And the only one with a peacock fan...
We were introduced to several persons who spoke English, so the waiting time went very fast. Soon, a microphone was set up across the room and a man spoke some words and many people began to walk toward him. Shukuya-san translated, "Anyone who wanted to use the toilet could now go."My case was not urgent but I was eager to get up to walk around a bit, so I followed everyone through the sliding door on the opposite side of the room from where we had entered. This led to a glassed in corridor that ran the perimeter of the inner courtyard. Here there was unmarked deep snow. In one corner, on a small hill, was a plum tree, already in bloom. I walked very slowly down the hallway so I could just enjoy the plum tree and the serenity of the courtyard. I was one of the last women down the stairs and suddenly was unsure which door to use and where I should be going. Farther down the hallway were two small signs. One with a black top hat on it and farther down, one with a pink bow.
As I walked into the marble-covered stall, I couldn't believe what I was seeing as toilet. For the first time since being in Cyprus was I confronted with one of these porcelain troughs flat in the floor over which one is expected to stand and squat. Maybe in a kimono wearing no underwear one could manage, but not in a long straight skirt, pantyhose and heels. I gave up on the idea of relief and washed my hands and dabbed cool water on my forehead. At each of the mirrors was a silver hand mirror, silver brush and comb, tissues in a gold ruffled box and atomizers of perfume. It looked as if the Empress herself was expected here. All of the other ladies hurried out so quickly I did not let myself linger to enjoy the sights any longer. But in the hallway, I did slow down for the plum tree again.
Back in the waiting room, the intensity had increased along with the second-hand smoke. I was thankful to have and be able to use my fan. Soon another man came to the microphone and spoke for some minutes. Shukuya-san said he was giving the instructions which he had translated and printed out for us. Everyone was perched on the edges of their chairs glancing at watches.At precisely 10:10 another man came to the microphone and began to read off names. The persons were summoned according to their ages. Werner was #36, I was #71 and Shukuya-san was #82 - one of the last and youngest of the guests. We had to rise, bow to the rest of the guests and then walk across the room and out the sliding door that opened on the corridor around the courtyard.
The hallway was alive with footmen and palace watchers. In one group I recognized Mr. Nakajima, and his sweet smile gave me courage to stand up straighter and take smaller steps. The lines of men directed me to a door and there someone who knew my number (how I do not know) lead me in to my chair. It was like a wedding. Some guests were seated on one side, the others separated to the other side. I was in the last row on the right-hand side next to a Japanese woman I had met in the waiting room.
Here we spoke not a word but just sat perfectly still. I wondered where Werner was sitting and could not recognize any of the black suited backs before me. People filled up the row beside me. Several of the women held closed up fans in their gloved hands and wore small hats with veils that matched their dresses. I wondered how they knew to dress so properly.Across the way, to my left, the winners of the contest were led in a row with the oldest person first and the youngest, a girl dressed in her school uniform with white knee-socks and pigtails.
Then came the male chanters to their seats and beside them - the judges. They all sat down together.Suddenly there was an unknown whirring noise like a miracle taking place. Looking to my left I saw that a man had slid shut one of the 30 foot high paper doors. Then the other one was pulled shut. In the wall I was facing I could see banks of bright lights shining in my eyes. Below them was a glassed-in room where one could barely make out the lights on TV cameras and movements of photographers.
A man walked to a door just 10 feet to my right and knocked twice. And he walked away. Seconds later we could hear a similar clear tapping on the other side of the door. Everyone rose as the door swung open wide and the Emperor entered, followed by the Empress, then the Crown Prince and the rest of the Imperial Family. The last man and last woman to enter were carrying long narrow boxes covered with purple cloths held at the level of their foreheads.When everyone was in place the Emperor sat down, the rest of us followed his example, except for these two persons. They made a wide circle around behind the chairs to go back behind the huge embroidered purple screen which shielded the Emperor and Empress from the wall. Here I could see the lady remove the purple cloth from her box. She again raised it to the level of her forehead and in slow ceremonial steps, matching those of the man, they proceeded to march before the brocade-draped tables in front of the Emperor and Empress.After bowing they set the identical wooden boxes on the tables each next to a large tray. They bowed again and The Majesties nodded solemnly to them as they backed away, bowing again before they took their seats.
I was delighted that I had been given a seat that gave me such a clear view of the Emperor and Empress. The Emperor had a small smile on his face as if he was rather enjoying himself. The Empress was wearing a beautiful willow green brocade dress with a fitted top and straight skirt, except at the waist in the back it flowed out into a small train. I was touched that she let her hair be gray and dark without trying to dye it. Her face looked soft and gentle but with a touch of sadness that made one want to be very gentle with her.
All of the Princesses and Ladies-in-Waiting wore little hats matching the pastel colors of their slim, full-length dresses. In their white-gloved hands were folded fans which they held exactly alike -- the right hand on top and the left hand cupped underneath. Once they sat down, with every spine straight and six inches from the back of the chair, small smiles on each face, and they stayed that way without moving for the next hour and ten minutes.
Then the chanters rose from their seats, bowed to The Majesties and took their places at a table in the exact center of the room. A name was called out, a man stood. The reciter took a paper from a tray, laid it down and read the poem. One could tell the end of each 'line' because, not only was the syllable count correct, but he held the last vowel for as long as he physically could.
When he had recited the complete poem, the chanters then sang it together very much in the style of a Gregorian chant or the chanting of sutras. I got the feeling that the poem was read in one style for the humans gathered here and then chanted for the gods.
feeling the poetry
Slowly but surely the people of Japan are being included. At first, only members of the court were allowed to submit poems, but now any Japanese may enter. In 1936 the Poetry Party was broadcast on radio and since 1967 it has been televised.The youngest winner this year, the school girl was so charming as she stood there listening to her poem being read. She was so proud, so strong and sure in herself. Her face glistened with joy.
the purity of snow
At the doorway I again saw Mr. Nakajima and his relaxed smile was as broad as my most thankful one to him for all his help in making it possible for me to attend this ceremony.In the hallway I could see the blooming plum tree was directly in front of me. With a rush I realized that from now on, the plum tree for me would personify all the holy feelings I had experienced in this ceremony.As I turned the corner, I wondered where I ever got the courage to compose a tanka in English. It surely must be akin to writing 'Hail Mary' limericks. I had just experienced the highest purpose of poetry, probably the reason for the beginning of all poetry.
Again, I vowed to use my own small skills at poetry to express the best and most noble ideas of which I was worthy. If I ever could.The woman who had sat next to me, now began to talk to me in English about her trips to America. The Korean poet accidentally dropped her scarf right in our path and we stopped while footmen picked it up and draped it back around her shoulders. We proceeded slowly down the stairs and along the hallway, coming to a bare tree in the other corner, surely a cherry tree saving itself for another occasion.
I was again among the last to re-enter the waiting room at the curtained off end where the tables were. Now they were bright with place-settings in the Royal Orange-red lacquer. A cup held warm sake. Never had I been so glad for a sip of a warm comforting drink. On the small saucer where several dried fish, complete and minnow-sized. Seven dark ripe-olive looking fruits turned out to be sweet beans. Two slices of what looked to be turnips were actually pressed fish cakes. Folded into a sheet of white paper was a small plastic bag in which we were instructed to place the rest of the food on our dish to take home to our families. As I laboriously picked up each item with the chopsticks, the man at my side simply picked up his dish and dumped the goodies into the sack.
Also, on the table was a gift-tied box containing pancake-wrapped bean cakes impressed with the royal crest of the sixteen-sided chrysanthemum; also meant to be taken home. Along side of that was the printed program tied in purple with the poems which had been read in Japanese.
There was a rush of people getting their coats as names were called out to announce the arrival of the various limousines. Too soon Shukuya-san's name was repeated and we hastened to get into the car.
After passing through the last gate, the driver stopped the car and I saw that the other cars ahead of us, too, were stopped. It was traditional that people attending the party stop here by the moat wall to have their official photos taken.
As we followed the caravan of black cars through the park, I noticed the workers who had been trimming the small Japanese pines were having their lunch. Only then did I notice how individual each tree was even though they were all the same species. They were all pine trees of the same age but each one had its very own space and way of expressing its pine tree-ness. I felt I wanted to capture each one in a photograph, but the car was speeding so quickly out of the Palace Grounds.
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