The Tale of Hoichi the Earless

October 24, 2008

Yesterday, I had to act as an usher for a school performance by a visiting artist sponsored by the academic department I work for. Lest you think I’m complaining, I assure you I’m not; what this meant was that I stood in the cold for maybe as many as 10 minutes instructing middle schoolers on where to sit once they got into the auditorium, and then I got to enjoy a free performance for the next two hours. I suspect I enjoyed it a great deal more than the 7th graders.

The performance was given by a Japanese biwa player, telling a legend about The Tale of the Heike. For the middle school students, she chose the story of Hoichi the Earless, which is, appropriately for October, a ghost story. Since the actual singing/story telling is in Japanese, she gave the students a background explanation and an unsung version of the story in English. So here’s a ghost story for you all. (Note that I am retelling it from my memory of how the artist recited it, and am not looking up the official version, despite the lure of the internet.)

Background: Many years ago, in the days of the samurai warrior in Japan, there was a war between two clans, the Heike and the Genji. A decisive sea battle came at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, as the Genji fleet defeated the Heike. To protect the infant Heike emperor from the shame of defeat, his (grand?)mother took him in her arms and jumped over the side of the ship, drowning them both. Many other Heike warriors also jumped into the sea, and many more died in the battle. The beach forever after was haunted by their spirits (which are said to have taken physical form in the Heike crab, whose shell resembles a samurai’s face.)

The story:

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Secular Memorialization

April 15, 2008

My last post on the Yasukuni documentary got me looking around for other stuff on the politics of war memorials in general. While I have mostly found so far that I will need to go to the library and check out actual books, I did come across an interesting article on Sino-Japanese relations in a 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, which contained the following intriguing paragraph with a suggestion on how to handle the Yasukuni issue:

[C]onferences … involving academics from neutral countries such as Canada as well as Asian specialists from within the region, could improve relations by fostering less-politicized discussions of the war. Germany and Poland, as well as Japan and South Korea, already have joint textbook commissions that could serve as models for China and Japan. An initiative such as this could be particularly effective at de-escalating tensions in the wake of progress in the strategic dialogues outlined above. To help those dialogues along, moreover, U.S. officials should refrain from making casual pronouncements on the delicate matter of wartime commemoration in Japan. As Koizumi has noted, many personal issues are involved in such events. The Japanese people themselves, however, deserve the broadest possible range of options about how to remember the war. For several years, there has been spirited discussion about building a national secular war memorial to supplement Yasukuni, and this deserves serious consideration. Such a model has worked well in both Hiroshima and Okinawa. Apart from providing a way to commemorate the sacrifice of civilians and other heroes of past conflicts not enshrined at Yasukuni, a secular memorial would clearly help improve Japan’s relations with other countries in the region and provide foreign leaders with a way to gracefully honor the past sacrifices of the Japanese people.

-Calder, Kent E., “China and Japan’s Simmering Rivalry,” Foreign Affairs, 85(2)

(emphasis mine)

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Yasukuni Documentary

April 15, 2008

I’ve written about the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan before, and all the controversy it causes, especially every year when the prime minister decides to go or not to go to pay respects. I was therefore very interested to read this article on the BBC yesterday all about a documentary that has been made about the shrine, simply called “Yasukuni,” by a Chinese director. It sounds fascinating to me, especially its attempts to understand what the shrine represents to differing groups:

In all, Li Ying has spent 10 years, on and off, making the film.

During visits to Yasukuni he says he was at times threatened, abused, and on occasion had his equipment confiscated. Newspapers here have reported that he has received death threats.

He says he set out to try to understand better what the shrine means to Japanese people.


To many it is one of the most sacred places in Japan. To others it is a place they feel glorifies war.

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Tea Ceremony Books

April 2, 2008

Okay, I admit, I’m cheating a bit, because I’m cross-posting these book reviews from my personal blog. I thought they might have wider appeal, because I certainly enjoyed them. In any case, the topic of Japanese tea ceremony came up quite concretely this past weekend, when I had to act as the commentator for a demonstration. You can read about that experience and see some pictures in my original post. Strangely, I had actually recently read two books on tea ceremony, one non-fiction and one historical fiction.

The Book of TeaThe first one was given to me by a teacher I worked with in Japan, but I didn’t pick it up again and read it all the way through until this January. The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura, was originally written in 1906. Interestingly, it was originally written in English while Okakura was living in Boston, specifically as an effort to help Westerners understand Japanese culture. This remains an interesting perspective for such a book today, but it was pretty much unheard of in that time. Okakura’s writing is excellent and clear, and while he doesn’t delve too incredibly deeply into the history and philosophy of tea, nor really describe all the aspects of the tea ceremony itself, he does provide an overview to whet the appetite. Instead, he spends most of his time trying to give his unfamiliar readers the beginnings of an understanding of the cultural aspects of tea ceremony, including the architecture of the tea house and the particular style of ikebana flower arranging used to decorate the tokonoma.

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Shakuhachi: Fighting Flute, Meditation Tool, Musical Instrument

October 30, 2007

Last week, I went to a lunch talk in a series running at the university where I work on the subject of “Globalization and the Artist.” This particular talk was by James Schlefer, one of the few non-Japanese people to be recognized as a Grand Master player of the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute. He played two pieces and talked about the history of the instrument and how it has changed over time. (The title of his talk, after all, was “The Evolving Shakuhachi.”)

Like many cultural items in Japan, the shakuhachi originally came from China, in the form of the xiao. The xiao, though, traditionally has six finger holes, whereas the shakuhachi has only five. When asked when and why the sixth hole disappeared, Schlefer said that there is about one hundred years (or more, I forget) of lost history between the arrival of the flute and its first real appearance in Japanese writings.

The shakuhachi was originally predominantly used in Japan as a Buddhist meditation tool. Schlefer described the practice as one that encourages the player to concentrate on breathing, individual notes, and the silence between the notes and phrases. The Buddhist monks who used the shakuhachi the most were also itinerant monks, and many of them were ronin, or samurai who had lost their masters, but were still required to keep up their status as members of the samurai class. Becoming a monk was allowed, but they might still need to defend themselves, and for this, the shakuhachi was handy. The end of the flute is the root end of the piece of bamboo the flute is made from. Musically speaking, this is because the hollow inside the flute needs to taper toward the end, which bamboo naturally does at the root. But practically speaking, the type of bamboo used to make the flute is quite thick, and if you leave the root end unshaved, you can get a nice club. A manly flute, it was.

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