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Friday, June 6, 2008


しょぎょう むじょう
shogyou mujyou

Oh MAN, do I have a long and intense post for you. And I just wanted to write about fireflies...

See, firefly season is just wrapping up in Saga, and there are some really nice places to go and watch them: long winding walks along the river in Ogi, or Tafusegawa in Saga City. I went last year and I loved it. This year, however, I've been busy, the weather's been bad, and I didn't have the time to make it out there, which makes me feel the poignancy of today's yoji all the more intensely.

Last year, when we were watching the fireflies, I heard about today's

BONUS WORD: 物の哀れ (mono no aware)

for the first time. 物の哀れ is famous for being the aesthetic heart of the Japanese literary classic The Tale of Genji*. Nirav, who was kind enough to educate me, since I've never formally studied Japanese literature, said that it was like the beauty of a sunset that reminds you that another day is ending, or the beauty of the fireflies who will light up the night for a few brief weeks and then pass away into the Grave of the Fireflies. Rikai-chan, who is smarter than me, translates 物の哀れ as an "appreciation of the fleeting nature of beauty," but I like to think of it as a little bit deeper than that. I define it as having to do with the existential sadness of being, with kind of a melancholy appreciation of the value of life due to an understanding of its transitory nature. Can you see how this concept might be deeply, deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche even to this day? No? Click here, and then read on to see why we're talking about this in relation to today's yoji: 諸行無常

1. The impermanence of worldly things
2. The transitory nature of life

Much as the concept of 物の哀れ was given a voice in The Tale of Genji, 諸行無常 has it's place in the opening lines of the Tale of the Heike, which tells the story of the Genpei war.

The Genpei war was fought at the end of the 12th century, between the Taira and Minamoto clans, which are also referred to as the Heike and Genji clans, respectively. Does this sound familiar to any one yet? The Original Tale of the Heike, collected in the late 1300s, has been retold and re-imagined many times, providing inspiration for manga, woodblock art, and most recently, the Miike Takashi film, Sukiyaki Western Django, which I watched last week. It features an all Japanese cast who recite their lines in English, to a very interesting effect, and it transports the feud between the clans to a place claims to be Nevada, but is clearly not. In it, Quentin Tarantino actually recites, in a bizarre narrative voice, the first lines of the book, which go something like this:


The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.
-trans. Helen Craig McCullough

Those lines alone are enough to make me want to read the whole thing. There's another yoji buried in there, for those of you who noticed, but I'll leave it alone today because this post is dense enough.

For those of you who made it this far, know that any of this knowledge and vocab will earn you MAJOR えらい points, but if that's not enough of a reward for putting up with my ramblings, I'll also give you this small piece of advice.:

This is 紅音ほたる. She's an actress of sorts. She's also the reason that you don't EVER, EVER want to do an unfiltered Google Image search for ほたる (firefly) from your computer at work, unless you want to be reminded of the transitory and impermanent nature of having a job as a school teacher, and the fleeting beauty of receiving a paycheck. Yikes.

  • Articles on the Genpei war, the Taira and Minamoto Clans (and alternate readings of their names) all come from Wikipedia, where you too can read about them.
  • Sukiyaki Western Django hasn't yet been released in the US yet, but you can probably find a DVD rip from the Japanese copy, as it's already out here. It's filmed in English, but when we watched it, we had to rely on the Japanese subtitles to understand what they were saying sometimes, so try to get those too.
  • If you're going to immediately search for that girl in Google images, as I assume all of our male readers will, search in hiragana. Both ホタル and 蛍 searches will get you... pictures of fireflies.
例文: Fireflyの短い寿命は諸行無常を感じさせる。Joss Whedonはまだ生きていてよかった。
The short lifespan of Firefly really makes you reflect on the impermanence of things. I'm just glad that Joss Whedon is still alive.

*Though The Tale of Genji was written in the Heian Period, the idea of 物の哀れ didn't find itself popularized until Motoori Norinaga articulated it in his definitive criticism of Genji during the Edo period.


Anonymous said...

My favourite 四字熟語 and my favourite quote from classical Japanese literature all in one post! Nice!

Btw once I've been told that 諸行無常 and もののあわれ do not express the same concept although I was not able to understand what exactly the difference would be. My only guess is that 諸行無常 is a specialist Buddhist term and もののあわれ applies in a wider context... but who knows..

Anonymous said...

You might already know about this but there is a great yoji flash game on this site:

It's quite difficult since you have to know lots of yojis to be able to play but there is also a link to slightly easier 三字熟語 game.

Anonymous said...

*Though The Tale of Genji was written in the Heian Period, the idea of 物の哀れ didn't find itself popularized until Motoori Norinaga articulated it in his definitive criticism of Genji during the Edo period.

While the term may or may not date from the Edo period, mono no aware was the main theme in almost all premodern poetry and prose since the Heian period - not just in the Tale of Genji.

AzzidisRidden said...

Thanks for the great posts and comments. Can't wait to try out the yoji game!

I think that although 物の哀れ and 諸行無常 express related concepts there is a distinction between them.

諸行無常 does come from Buddhism, and is meant to convey the idea that all things fade, that nothing is permanent, and that life is a transitory experience. My Japanese isn't good enough to try to read any Japanese Buddhist texts, but from what I know of Buddhism, this is probably tied to the idea of relinquishing attachment, understanding and accepting the fleeting nature of life, and realizing the futility of clinging to things worldly...

物の哀れ is an aesthetic that's rooted in that idea, but it focuses on the appreciation of the beauty of these fleeting things. Maybe the difference is that 物の哀れ moves you, while 諸行無常 removes you.

Also, thanks for correcting my footnote. I guess what I should have said was "It was popularized as a term in literary criticism" and yeah, that term has been used by critics ever since to DEFINE the aesthetic of practically all Heian period lit, of which Genji is a predominant work.

I hope you guys stick around for other posts, and didn't just stop by on a random Genji, Sukiyaki Western, or Hotaru Google binge!

Claytonian said...

Convoluted example below? Yes.


The problem with this concept of the inevitable breaking down of all things is that, in my humble opinion, it turns into it's own antithesis (it becomes false by breaking down according to it's own dictates, right?). But... on the other hand, if it breaks down, it proves itself true so...no, wait... my head hurts.

BTW, one of the more intriguing concepts of Buddhism to me is that it's practitioners should accept that Buddhism too will one day go away and be replaced with other philosophies.

AzzidisRidden said...

I think a Buddhist might reply that Buddhism is not a philosophy per se, and doesn't negate or exclude any other philosophies.

One of my all time favorite quotes from The Gautama Buddha is: "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him."

It seems to me that Buddhism, at least in its Zen manifestations, is not so much about adhering to any specific strict practice as it is about trying to find your own way to the four noble truths... And a way of escaping our deeply ingrained ways of thinking, rationalizing, philosophizing, that prevent us from seeing things as they really are... or aren't.

But Buddhism confuses me intensely.

Claytonian said...

yeah, it's always tricky knowing what to call Buddhism. I did that last part in Japanese at lang-8 and put (宗教) as a Soseki-esque implied reading.

BTW speaking of the flies, the two Cs are probably coming down to watch them in Tara tonight, if you wanna bring the gf or the hairy gf with ya, feel free).

lisze said...

I'm probably completely off-base with this, but I figured I'd try regardless.


Although I know that life is transitory, I still think death is scary.

Nirav said...

Considering the amount of traffic that this entry has gotten, perhaps we should put pictures of Japanese pr0n stars on all of our posts.

I'm obviously not a completely reliable source on this, but I pretty much agree with Jeff's distinction between もののあわれ and 諸行無常.

The archaic かな spelling of あわれ is あはれ; I remember reading somewhere (a google search reinforced this) that you can think of that あはれ as ああ、はれ! or an exclamation of the feeling that you get when viewing something transient (a sunset, sakura, etc) - ああ being a sigh and はれ being an expression of appreciation. I wonder if the word あっぱれ has a similar provenance (google again to the rescue: http://gogen-allguide.com/a/appare.html ; that page also has an interesting discussion of the 当て字 for あっぱれ which is pertinent to もののあわれ as well).

Claytonian said...

So we met my little old lady friend at the firefly place and guess what: There are two types of fireflies: Genji and Heike!

Also, you probably know this, but the title image for my blog is statues of the leaders of these two clans fighting; miminashi wassisname is buried near where I took it.