Pillow Talk

The word “pillow” (枕 or ‘makura’) seems to have been a popular metaphor in Japan. We have the concept of a pillow book, a ‘public journal’ prose form conceptually similar to a modern blog, the most famous of which is The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. There’s also various pillow-related imagery in Japanese poetry, for example the idea of a ‘grass pillow’ as a temporary bed while traveling. Finally, there’s the pillow word (枕詞 or ‘makura-kotoba’), the topic of tonight’s discussion.

Pillow words are conceptually similar to the epithets used in classical Greek and Roman epic poetry. They were descriptors with a fixed form frequently applied to certain words. In a Roman poems, you wouldn’t just talk about the dawn; you’d often say something like “rosy-fingered dawn”. Similarly, in Japanese poetry, you might talk about the “red-shining sun” (あかねさす日/akanesasu hi).(CJAG:364)

These descriptors share some of the same purposes as classical epithets. Epithets were chosen to fit into the strict meters of epic poetry; similarly, pillow words are generally 5 syllables, to fit easily into Japanese forms, almost always made up of 5- and 7-syllable lines. In addition, they let you show off your familiarity with poetic traditions, remind your audience of the associations of a place1, and simplify the poetic process by providing solid ready-made material. Unlike classical epithets, pillow words are rarely applied to people or gods; they more frequently are used with elements of nature, places, or other poetic imagery.Movie Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

Pillow words first show up in the Man’yōshū, the oldest extant collection of Japanese poetry, dating to the Nara period. Most makura-kotoba that show up in later poetry are taken from Man’yōshū poems, since the set forms and strong tradition behind these descriptors was their main purpose. In fact, because these phrases are so old and were held constant as the language evolved, the exact intended meanings of many are unclear. This and the fact that their primary purpose was not a denotative meaning can present challenges when translating poems with makura-kotoba.(en.wp:Makurakotoba)

To close, here is an example from Hundred Poets, Hundred Poems. Read the rest of this entry »

Pivot Points

Japanese poetry traditionally putting strict limits on the number of syllables used, various figures of speech were employed to stretch those syllables as far as possible. One of my favorite is the kakekotoba, or “pivot word”.1 It’s a kind of pun based on using a single word twice for two different meanings. The way to think about it is this: come up with a sentence where a word would be followed immediately by a homophone. One of the two words can actually be longer, as long as the part that’s adjacent to the other word sounds the same. Then, when writing the sentence, only write the shared sounds once. Instead of a sentence having multiple possible interpretations, a word has multiple interpretations within a single sentence.(CJAG:366)

This doesn’t work all that well in English, but let’s give it a try anyways. Let’s say I’m writing a tanka about vampires. I might want to say “The kindred dread dawn’s swift coming.” Making ‘dread’ a kakekotoba, I can just say “The kindread dawn’s swift coming.”, saving one crucial syllable, and more importantly impressing my peers with my poetic cleverness. A slightly better example is “The sisters pine incense fills the air.”2

Kakekotoba work better in Japanese than in English for several reasons. Firstly, Japanese has a lot of homophones. Having a more limited set of syllables to build words from increases your chance of collision a lot; part of the reason the Japanese writing system is so complicated is to tell homophones apart. Secondly, phonetic spelling: if two words sound the same, they’re (most of the time) written the same way in hiragana,3 so you don’t have spelling conflicts like I did with ‘kindread’. Finally, Japanese grammar rules are a little more flexible about word placement, so it’s easier to get the proper juxtaposition.

Here’s a Japanese example from the Kokinwakashū (dating to 914, in the Heian Period). It uses one of the classic examples: the word “matsu” can either be the verb “to wait” or a pine tree. Here, the tree interpretation is actually the first part of the name for a specific kind of insect.

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I’ve been a bit busy with mysterious activities this weekend, so I thought I’d give you a quick glimpse of a new project I’ve been working on: Paralyze. It presents the translation of a text alongside the original and shows you how they relate by letting you mouse over a bit of text and highlighting the corresponding part of the other versions. For an example, here’s a translation of the Hideyoshi waka this blog is named after:

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Why Fireflies Sing

Fireflies Sing is intended for my ramblings on my research into various aspects of pre-Edo Japanese culture, poetry, language, and art. It is my hope that this will help others in the Society for Creative Anachronism who hail from these parts and also inform and entertain others with relevant interests or curiosity.

You may wonder why this blog is called Fireflies Sing. The name comes from a story told about Hosokawa Yūsai, a buke (samurai-class) poet recognized as an authority on waka (Japanese poems) during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568–1603).(WAC:119) At one point, he was participating in a renga session hosted by Jōha, called the last master of renga. (Renga is a linked verse form in which poets take turns composing stanzas.) One of the participants, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ended a stanza describing an autumn mountain scene with “naku hotaru”, which translates to “fireflies sing”. Another participant objected that fireflies make no noise, and Jōha immediately agreed. Yūsai, however, quoted from an ancient poem: “hotaru yori hoka naku mushi wa nashi” (“there are no insects singing other than fireflies”). Presented with such evidence from such a figure, Jōha had no choice but to concede the point, and the renga session continued smoothly. Yūsai later told Jōha privately that he had made up the “ancient poem”, but that keeping the gathering in a poetic mindset was more appropriate than putting truth above all else.

While I’m not going to fabricate sources to appease critics here, I do tend towards an imaginative mindset when doing research. Plus, it’s a fun story.


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