On Degrees of Ignorance in East-West AestheticsSymposium Report

Mark Byron


On 17 September 2018 Andrew Houwen and Mark Byron convened a one-day symposium on the topic ‘On Degrees of Ignorance in East-West Aesthetics’ at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. The aim of the symposium was to consider a range of modern writers and film-makers dealing with aesthetic matters spanning Japan and the Anglophone West, and specifically to explore whether notions of ignorance and misunderstanding could be seen as opportunities for creative impetus. Although the event was not billed as an Ezra Pound symposium per se, his work arose in several of the papers and in discussion. The speakers included Ryoichi Imai, a graduate student from the University of Tokyo, Penny Barraclough and Ryan Johnson, both PhD students at the University of Sydney, Liz Shek-Noble from the NYU School of Professional Studies in Tokyo, Mark Azzopardi from Temple University’s Japan Campus in Tokyo, as well as Andrew (TWCU) and Mark (University of Sydney). The papers were followed by a roundtable featuring Ryoichi Imai, Liz Shek-Noble, David Ewick (TWCU), and Mark Byron, with Andy Houwen presiding.

            The day was marked by outstanding contributions by the attendant graduate students, Ryoichi, Penny and Ryan, each of whom gave thoughtful and provocative papers. The high standards of the papers – Liz Shek-Noble on Kenzaburō Ōe and Mark Azzopardi on Kōbō Abe also deserve special mention – were given a very generous reception by an expert audience. Profound thanks go to Akitoshi Nagahata and Miho Takahashi, who travelled from Nagoya and Osaka respectively in order to attend the event, as well as to Eric Selland, an outstanding poet and translator, resident in Tokyo, for their investment in the event and their extremely helpful contributions to discussion. The day concluded with a memorable meal at the Italian restaurant La Befana in Kichijoji. The flyer and full schedule of the symposium follow below.

            I would like to thank Andrew Houwen for convening such a wonderful event, and to David Ewick for his generous contributions straight from the airport! A major outcome of the symposium was the realization that there remains important work to be done regarding Pound’s relation with Japan, its history, literature and film, and his Japanese reception.


(L to R) Mark Azzopardi, Liz Shek-Noble, Ryoichi Imai, Akitoshi Nagahata, Eric Selland, Penny Barraclough, Mark Byron, David Ewick, Andrew Houwen, Ryan Johnson


(L to R) Mark Azzopardi, Liz Shek-Noble, Ryoichi Imai, Akitoshi Nagahata, Eric Selland, Penny Barraclough, Miho Takahashi, David Ewick, Andrew Houwen, Ryan Johnson


La Befana, Kichijoji, 17 September 2018

On Degrees of Ignorance in East-West Aesthetics

Ezra Pound, Sinéad Morrissey, Kōbō Abe, Yukio Mishima, Kenji Nakagami, and Kenzaburō Ōe

A One-Day Symposium

Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, Room 24201, Monday 17 September 2018, 1 – 6:30pm



Literary and aesthetic interactions between ‘East’ and ‘West’ have often depended upon various kinds of partial understanding, error, and even misunderstanding. This symposium aims to highlight and open up for discussion the ways in which such kinds of practises have been deployed, across a variety of media, and whether they can be viewed positively as forms of ‘creative misunderstanding’.

It will feature as speakers or panellists Mark Byron (University of Sydney), Penny Barraclough (University of Sydney), Ryoichi Imai (University of Tokyo), Liz Shek-Noble (NYU School of Professional Studies Tokyo), Andrew Houwen (Tokyo Woman’s Christian University), Ryan Johnson (University of Sydney), Mark Azzopardi (Temple University, Japan Campus), and David Ewick (Tokyo Woman’s Christian University).


Symposium Programme

1:00pm – 1:15pm

Introductory Remarks

Mark Byron (University of Sydney) and Andrew Houwen (Tokyo Woman’s Christian University)

1:15pm – 1:45pm

'The Grit of East-West Aesthetics,' Mark Byron (University of Sydney)

The long history of East-West aesthetics has consistently rested upon various kinds of partial understanding and false assumptions, occasioning at different turns both affirmative and inhibitive effects on cultural exchange. As this discourse moved into its modern – and eventually modernist – phase in the West, the kinds of error at play became the focus of more sustained scholarly critique: Ernest Fenollosa’s view of Chinese writing in The Chinese Written Character; Ezra Pound’s translation choices in Cathay; and the Menglong shiren or Misty Poets’ partial comprehension of Transatlantic modernism as a poetics of liberation in their post-Mao cultural moment, to take just three prominent examples. The role of China and Japan, traditional and modern, in the modernist project has also shifted through various phases in scholarship, from orientalism to critique, to newer models that foreground the reciprocal flow of cultural influence, accommodating temporal disparities without reducing them to a poetics of belatedness. This talk will examine some of this history of error as a way to better understand how more recent phases of ‘creative misunderstanding’ have provided effective means to further certain aesthetic ends, and to glimpse at a history of East-West aesthetics as a peculiar kind of continuity, whereby error, rather than something to be avoided in all its forms, is the potentially productive grit by which pearls of cross-cultural recognition may come into being.

1:45pm – 2:15pm

'Influences of Japan on Contemporary Female Irish Poetry,' Penny Barraclough (University of Sydney)

The late nineteenth/early twentieth century saw the beginnings of a creative dialogue between Ireland and Japan: W.B. Yeats was one of the forerunners of Irish writers to draw inspiration from Japanese culture with his series of plays based on the Noh tradition of theatre. Since Yeats’ lifetime, a growing number of Irish poets have similarly been inspired by their own responses to the culture and aesthetic of Japan, whether by its visual arts, literature and poetic forms, or experiences gained whilst spending time in the country itself.

The Japanese Effect in Contemporary Irish Poetry (2012) by Irene De Angelis examines the work of a selection of contemporary Irish poets who have drawn on their own engagement with Japan. The analysis includes an exploration into the sources of the individual poems and reveals recurrent themes, such as the appeal of the short poem or haiku, the “clean line”, the feeling of “otherness”, ritualism, the power of the cityscape. 

My aim is to continue the journey started by De Angelis by examining the work of a few contemporary female Irish poets, including Sinéad Morrissey, Ruth Carr and Moyra Donaldson. However, I would like to take a different path than that taken by De Angelis (who has already covered some aspects of Morrissey’s work in her book) and am currently in the process of considering various areas of possible focus. My paper will therefore be a presentation of my current findings, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the same with the expert members of the symposium. 

2:15pm – 2:30pm


2:30pm – 3:00pm

'Kenji Nakagami’s Adaptations of Faulkner and Nevsky,'  Ryoichi Imai (University of Tokyo)

In my presentation, I will analyze Kenji Nakagami’s works from the view point of comparative literature, focusing on his first novel Withered Tree Straits (『枯木灘』) and the short story “The Moon and Immortality” (「月と不死」) in Tales of Kumano (『熊野集』). Nakagami (1946-92) and Haruki Murakami (1949-) are often thought of as the two major post-1960s Japanese writers, and are also seen in clear contrast. (For example, Murakami’s works depict contemporary city life, while Nakagami mainly wrote about rural life; many readers feel that Murakami’s prose is easy to read but Nakagami’s is difficult and highly complex, etc.)

            In 1968, Nakagami met Kojin Karatani (1941-), a hugely influential Japanese philosopher and literary critic. When Karatani heard the author’s life story, he recommended Nakagami to read William Faulkner’s works and the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s books. Nakagami did read them, and was influenced by both of them, but while he publicly declared that he would become the “Japanese Faulkner” and adapted Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! for Withered Tree Straits, Nakagami wrote almost nothing about Malinowski except a brief essay entitled “The Matrilineal Society” (「母系社会」) as if repressing the anthropologist’s influence. After publishing Withered Tree Straits, however, he became interested in popular legends of his hometown, based on which the locale of the novel had been created, starting fieldwork as if he were an anthropologist, and began to self-criticize his former works by using the term “matrilineal society” as a key word. Tales of Kumano is one of the best results of these attempts, and the title “The Moon and Immortality” is borrowed from the linguist and folklorist Nikolai Nevsky’s essay with the same title. Through analyzing this phase in Nakagami’s career, I will consider how East and West merge in his works.

3:00pm – 3:30pm

'A (Not So) Personal Matter: Disability Ethics and Aesthetics in Kenzaburō Ōe’s Novels,' Liz Shek-Noble (NYU School of Professional Studies Tokyo)

Research on representations of disability in Kenzaburō Ōe’s novels has focused almost exclusively on the author’s relationship with his disabled son, Hikari. Taking their cue from Ōe, critics of A Personal MatterTeach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and The Pinch Runner Memorandum have accepted the central problematic of these novels as (semi-) autobiographical; like Ōe, characters including ‘Bird’ and ‘the fat man’ become a father to a son with severe physical and intellectual disabilities, and each grapple with the ethical dilemma of using medical treatment to save a life typically regarded as ‘not worth living’. Yet such analyses overlook the connections between personal and public accounts of disability, a connection Ōe readily acknowledged in his collection of essays, A Healing Family: A Candid Account of Life with a Handicapped Son. According to Ōe, in writing about Hikari’s disabilities he was constructing a model not ‘confined to the handicapped person alone, but something that encompasses the world around him, and by extension, the world we live in.’ 

In this presentation, I broaden the analysis of Ōe’s novels by politicising their discussions of euthanasia, family stigma, and the ‘monstrous’ aesthetics of the disabled body in the context of the disability rights movement in Japan during the 20th century. I do so in order to reframe Ōe’s novels through two lenses of disability interpretation broadly categorised as ‘East’ and ‘West’ in nature. I argue that we should read aesthetic revulsion towards the disabled body in Ōe’s novels alongside the historical perception of disability in Japan as both an individual and social malady. However, I claim Ōe’s novels also lend themselves to analysis using concepts from the social model of disability; charting the evolution of nondisabled and disabled characters in Ōe’s novels against the backdrop of disability legislation and activism in Japan demonstrates a ‘western’ approach to the analysis of literary disability. Ultimately, my presentation about Ōe’s novels operates at the nexus of ‘East’ and ‘West’ in its analysis of disability ethics and aesthetics, in order to show that such categories work best in productive tension and not isolation.

3:30pm – 3:45pm


3:45pm – 4:15pm

'French Poetry, Translations of ‘Haikai’/’Hokku’, and English Vers Libre, 1908-1913,' Andrew Houwen (Tokyo Woman’s Christian University)

Pound’s famous ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is often cited as a milestone in the development of Anglophone vers libre as well as the influence of the Japanese poetic form he always called ‘hokku’, despite the formal strictness of that form in its Japanese context until then. 

This paper does not seek to repeat the familiar chronology that runs from F. S. Flint’s 1908 article, with its free-verse translations of ‘haikai’, to Pound’s ‘hokku-like sentence’ published in April 1913. Instead, it explores how first Flint and then Pound interpreted this form through the lens of the latest developments in French poetry. In his advocacy of ‘individual rhythm’ rather than the ‘iambic barrel-organ’, Flint cites Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 essay ‘Crise de vers’: ‘In truth there is no prose’ but rather ‘verses more or less compact [...] Each time there is effort after style there is versification’. Paul-Louis Couchoud’s vers libre translations of ‘haïkaï’ in 1906 offered Flint an important model for a Mallarméan poetry of ‘individual rhythm’, which Flint developed in his own free-verse ‘haikai’ renderings of Buson and Moritake. This paper examines the relevance of Mallarmé’s poetics for Flint’s ‘haikai’ translations.

            Flint’s August 1912 essay, ‘Contemporary French Poetry’, introduced Pound to vers libre, particularly through the example of Ernest Florian-Parmentier’s ‘Impulsionnisme’, but also to Robert de Souza’s emphasis on accentual verse and assonant rhyme. This paper argues that ‘In a Station of the Metro’ only gradually moved towards vers libre through its multiple published versions: the first of these provides evidence of Pound’s interest in de Souza’s poetics as expressed in Flint’s essay. It also proposes that Pound fused these influences not only with Flint’s ‘haikai’ translations, but also with Basil Hall Chamberlain’s and F. V. Dickins’s two-line ‘hokku’ versions. Chamberlain’s, the source for most of Couchoud’s translations, are unrhymed, while Dickins’s, which Pound is known to have read, adapt some of Chamberlain’s versions by employing assonant rhyme, as ‘In a Station of the Metro’ does. Flint and Pound’s ignorance of the Japanese form’s rigidity thus enabled them to develop an English-language vers libre via translations of ‘haikai’/‘hokku’.

4:15pm – 4:45pm

'How Seriously Do We Need to Take Degrees?' Ryan Johnson (University of Sydney)

Most people working in comparative literature would probably concede that the languages, literatures, and nations we study are ill-defined and lack crisp boundaries. We often speak of degrees: degrees of identity, degrees of understanding. Invoking degrees can help us to explain difference in models that appear to require sameness, to soften forceful statements, or to suggest that the very material we study is indeterminate. Usually, what exactly these degrees are remains undefined. Yet in the past twenty years much work has been done in the burgeoning field of the philosophy of vagueness that provides a framework for studying terms that have no clear-cut application, and that uses probabilistic logic to speak intelligibly of degrees of identity and understanding. Taking as test cases two adaptations of the Noh Kantan, Yukio Mishima’s shinsaku nō Kantan and Journée III, Scene VIII of Paul Claudel’s Le Soulier de satin, I consider whether a more formal application of degrees inspired by work in the philosophy of vagueness could be beneficial to East-West comparison. 

4:45pm – 5:00pm


5:00pm – 5:30pm

'Between Photography and Literature: Franz Kafka and Kōbō Abe,' Mark Azzopardi (Temple University, Japan Campus)

This paper considers literature’s relations with photography using the work of Franz Kafka and Kōbō Abe. Abe's affinities with Kafka by now require no special demonstration, yet a somewhat different impression of both writers emerges by looking carefully at their respective engagement with the medium of photography. Reading Kafka's 1912-1917 letters to Felice Bauer alongside Abe’s 1973 novel The Box Man enhances our understanding of sight, the senses, language, and anonymity in both writers, and offers a suggestive model of relation between photography and literature.

5:30pm – 6:30pm

Roundtable Discussion: ‘On Degrees of Ignorance in East-West Aesthetics,’ Chair: Andrew Houwen (Tokyo Woman’s Christian University)

David Ewick (Tokyo Woman’s Christian University), Mark Byron (University of Sydney), Ryoichi Imai (Tokyo University), Liz Shek-Noble (NYU School of Professional Studies Tokyo)

Ernest Fenollosa’s Grave and the Historical Sites of Otsu

Ryan Johnson

Up the foot of the mountains of Otsu overlooking Lake Biwa, a stone path overgrown with grass winds between an archery range and an apartment block. At the foot of the path stands a worn sign, 法明フェノロサの墓. There is no translation indicating that a few minutes beyond lies Hōmyōin and Ernest Fenollosa’s grave. 


Sign for Hōmyōin and Fenollosa’s grave


The Nature and History Walk Plaque

Even in Otsu few residents seem to pay much attention to the site.[1] Yet on the other side of the signpost is a plaque, again untranslated, indicating that Hōmyōin and Fenollosa’s grave are part of the “Nature Walk and History Walk” (自然の道・歴史の道) of the city. Other historical sites include the memorial site of Emperor Kōbun (弘文天皇陵), Enman-ji (円満寺) and Onjyō-ji (園城寺, more widely known as Mii-dera 三井寺), Minamoto no Yoshimitsu’s shrine (新羅明神, the Shiragi myōjin),[2] and, occupying pride of place on the plaque, Yoshimitsu’s grave (新羅明の墓). Among these sites Mii-dera[3] is the most famous and the most oriented towards non-Japanese visitors. But the more insular, almost forgotten atmosphere of the other sites lends them a unique charm.

Fenollosa stayed at Hōmyōin during both of his sojourns in Japan. He had, of course, long been interested in Buddhism, the orientation of which he found more intriguing than that of Christianity. Whereas in Christianity, he thought, there is a clear division between the saved and the damned, in Buddhism all souls are capable of salvation.[4] In 1885, with his friend the American doctor and art collector William Sturgis Bigelow, Fenollosa converted to Tendai Buddhism at Hōmyōin. At that time, Sakurai Keitoku was in charge of Hōmyōin. Sakurai continued to instruct Fenollosa whenever the American stayed at Hōmyōin until Fenollosa’s final departure from Japan in 1900. After his sudden death in England in 1908, Fenollosa was buried in London. He had, however, previously declared his desire to be interred at Hōmyōin, and the following year his relatives and former students had his remains moved to Otsu.[5]


  Stairs leading to Hōmyōin


Entrance to Hōmyōin

Seeing what attracted Fenollosa to the spot is not difficult. Even now, with an apartment block next door and a power plant half a kilometer away, Hōmyōin exudes tranquility. The gate is unattended. Only an easy-to-miss signboard requests a fifty-yen donation. The garden is chisenkaiyūshiki (池泉回遊式), a style built around a pond. The pond itself with a view over Lake Biwa awaits on the other side of the gate. A stone staircase overgrown with grass and strewn with leaves and branches leads up to the graveyard.


The chisenkaiyūshiki


Stairs with Fenollosa’s grave on the far side

Fenollosa is not the only one buried here, but his marker is the grandest. The city of Otsu has placed a wooden placard outlining his history in Japan and the reasons for which he was buried at Hōmyōin. To the right is a stone marker in English, one of only two non-Japanese markers on site. The other belongs to Bigelow, who rests next to Fenollosa. Otsu has given placard to Bigelow as well. Perhaps due to recent typhoon damage, his is broken and sodden, propped up against his English epitaph. The epitaph itself is worn, its letters growing illegible in places. Fenollosa’s grave might have been forgotten by many, but considering the effort that has gone into maintaining and advertising his site in Japanese relative to Bigelow’s, he has fared well in the century since his burial.


Fenollosa’s grave


Bigelow’s grave

Walking back towards Otsu Station, we came across another Japanese sign indicating Emperor Kōbun’s memorial site and the shrine of Minamoto no Yoshimitsu. Kōbun’s misasagi is caught between the city hall and the power plant. It is well preserved and well guarded. Visitors can come up to a long short wall prohibiting access to another taller wall beyond. On the other side of that is the misasagi. A great mass of tall trees obscures vision of that which is contained therein.

Yoshimitsu’s shrine is more intriguing. A colorless torī towers at the entrance, in so far as, without a gate or attendant, there is one. Recent typhoon damage has left its imprint here as well. Tree limbs from the small to the massive lay confusedly across the paths on the other side of the torī. A tangle of signs indicates the shrine to the right. The shrine looks to have been abandoned temporarily. The perimeter gate is locked and broken in places. Around the shrine itself the grass has shot up over a meter high. As we stood before trying to get a glimpse inside, another sightseer, a Japanese man on a motor bike, rode up and joined the investigation. None of us resolved the mystery of the abandoned shrine.


Kōbun’s misasagi


Entrance to Yoshimitsu’s Shrine 


Returning to the tangle of signs, we noticed one indicating Yoshimitsu’s burial mound pointing strangely to the west. Nothing looked to be in this direction save the power plant and a jumble of fallen branches over a barely perceptible trail extending up the forested mountainside. Hopping over a toppled tree, we began uncertainly to move westward. No one joined us this time. The trail kept splitting off without a sign to guide us. After a few false turns, we hit on what promised to be the right path. As we advanced deeper into the forest, a stray turtle far from any water welcomed us as our sole companion. A couple more signposts promised the grave further still, but the entire area felt frozen in time, forgotten by the modern city less than a kilometer away.


Yoshimitsu’s Shrine (新羅明神)


Turtle on the path to Yoshimitsu’s grave


Eventually we came upon the burial mound. Another colorless torī smaller than its fellow at the entrance at the entrance to Yoshimitsu’s shrine, greeted us. And just there rose Yoshimitsu’s mound. Some offerings were visible around the mound’s gate. Time was draining their color as well. The mound itself was gated, but the gate was unlocked. Should we have been so minded, we could easily have walked inside and taken as close an inspection as we liked. We left the gate shut, however, paid our final respects, and walked back down the mountain path. Our turtle had disappeared. The man on the motorcycle started his engine and sped off. With our departure Yoshimitsu was left once again at complete peace.


Torī to Yoshimitsu’s grave


Yoshimitsu’s grave

Fenollosa had made it his business to translate Japanese art into universal appreciation and to make the Japanese government appreciate the many treasures history had left as its testament to the Meiji era. Fenollosa’s name in katakana marks him as a foreigner at odds with the kanji and hiragana that otherwise take up space on the mass of signs gesturing towards the many historical sites of Otsu. Nonetheless, it is a Japanese and not a Western writing system that marks the way to his final resting place. All around sites important to the history of Japan sit in states of various upkeep, some threatening, at least in the typhoon-stricken time in which we visited them, to be forgotten by the modern Japanese city in which they are found. It is only fitting that Fenollosa himself was translated into Japan. It is only fitting that Fenollosa himself seems to have been translated into Japanese, and today rests in a landscape recalling the work that he had done over a century earlier.

[1] https://www.shigabunka.net/archives/145

[2] Yoshimitsu had his coming-of-age ceremony at this shrine, though I doubt this is the original. For this reason he came to be know as Shiragi Saburō 新羅三郎. 

[3] Certainly, Hōmyōin is part of Mii-dera, but Mii-dera is colloquially linked with Onjyou-ji, as our visited showed. 

[4] https://www.shigabunka.net/archives/145 (キリスト教には最後の審判があり、そこで少数の天国へいくものと大勢の地獄へ落ちるものとがはっきりとわかれてしまう。仏教はそれを選ばず、誰もが等しく慈悲に包まれて仏になることができる。)

[5] Ito, Yutaka. “Words quite Fail”: The Life and Thought of Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2002. 283.

The ‘Inexhaustible Words’ of the ‘Pine Needles’:

A Review of the Performance of the Nō Play Takasago at the Konparu Succession Ceremony, Tokyo, 4 May 2018

Andrew Houwen

In a letter written in early 1917, Pound wrote to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, that the ‘theme’ for The Cantos ‘is roughly the theme of [the nō play] “Takasago,” which story I hope to incorporate more explicitly in a later part of the poem’.[1] Hugh Kenner claimed in The Pound Era that, although the explicit reference to the nō play Takasago appeared in Canto IV, Pound ‘never got round to the Takasago’.[2] Following an anonymous donation to Princeton University Library in 1991 of six previously unpublished drafts of nō synopses and translations by Fenollosa and Pound (AtakaEboshioriHajitomiMorihisaTakasago, and Yuya), it turns out that Pound did get round to translating Takasago.[3] Ira B. Nadel’s 1993 edition of Ezra Pound’s Letters to Alice Corbin Henderson included Pound’s letter to Henderson, Monroe’s assistant editor at Poetry, of 7 July 1915, which included his Takasago translation.[4] My 2014 article on ‘Ezra Pound’s Early Cantos and His Translation of Takasago’ explored the importance of the play as a key structuring device not just for Canto IV but elsewhere in the early cantos, such as Canto XXI, into the 1920s; it also discussed how the foregrounding of imperial rule in Pound’s translation of it anticipates his turn towards totalitarianism, an aspect of the play examined in brilliant detail in Christopher Bush’s 2016 article, ‘“I am all for the triangle”: The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Pound’s Japan’.[5] Pound described Takasago as being ‘at the very core of the “Noh”’ and as possessing a ‘flawless structure’; Kenner’s suggestion that the play’s ‘hymn to vegetal powers became the whole of Rock-Drill’ remains as yet unexamined.[6]

            Takasago is a shūgen (‘congratulatory’) nō composed by Zeami in 1423 that celebrates the prosperity of vegetal, literary, and imperial regeneration. It opens with the waki (secondary actor), a priest named Tomonari, travelling to the capital and stopping at Takasago, where he encounters an old man and woman carrying a rake and a broom to sweep up the pine needles falling from the ‘Takasago pine’ under which they are standing.[7] They explain to the priest that the pines of Takasago and Sumiyoshi are called ‘Ai-oi’: in Pound’s translation, ‘the two places’ of Takasago, in Harima Province, and Sumiyoshi, in Settsu Province, some eighty kilometres apart, ‘are very distant, and the word means “growing together”’.[8] The old couple then introduce the multiple significances of ‘Ai-oi’. First, it is the affection between a married couple: the old woman tells Tomonari, ‘Though the mountain and river lie between us we are near in the ways of love’.[9] The second is the literary past and present: the old man adds that the Takasago pine stands for ‘the old age’ of the eighth-century ‘Manyoshu’ anthology and the ‘Sumiyoshi’ pine ‘our own time of Engi’, that of the tenth-century Kokinshū anthology.[10] The ‘pine-needles’ are thus the ‘inexhaustible words’ of literary tradition.[11] Finally, this prosperity is attributed to benevolent imperial rule: the chorus sing the shikai nami (‘the four seas’ waves’) passage, which opens: ‘The waves of the whole sea are quiet, / The whole country well governed’.[12] In the second half of the play, the priest crosses the sea to Sumiyoshi, where the Sumiyoshi deity performs a celebratory dance of youthful vigour to conclude the play. The close relationship Takasago presents between a fertile literary tradition and the peaceful stability of imperial rule would prove highly influential for Pound.

            When first writing my article on Pound’s translation of Takasago and its importance for his early cantos as a master’s thesis at the University of Oxford in 2011, however, I had only encountered Takasago as a literary text, as Pound had, though Fenollosa had seen a performance of it on 8 June 1901 at the residence of the Kanze school nō actor Umewaka Minoru.[13] I later purchased a DVD of a Takasago performance, but it was not until last March that I was first able to see a live performance of Takasago, at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo; on 4 May, I was able to see another performance of it at the Hōshō Theatre, Tokyo, as part of a special programme of nō commemorating the succession of Konparu Norikazu as the head of the Konparu school, one of the oldest of the five nō schools. The current head, Konparu Norikazu, is eighty-first in the line of succession. The origin of this line is traditionally ascribed to the legendary sixth-century figure Hata no Kawakatsu, who is supposed to have introduced Shintō kagura (‘god-music’). In the fourteenth century, they appeared as the Emai troupe, one of four attached to the Kasuga Shrine in Yamato Province, the first four of the five present-day nō schools. One member of the Emai troupe, Konparu Ujinobu (1405-71), later known as Zenchiku, was taught by Zeami, who also became his father-in-law, and composed several plays, including Kakitsubata, although Fenollosa, following Ōwada Takeki’s Yōkyoku tsūkai (‘Nō with Commentary’) of 1896, attributes it to Zeami while mistakenly attributing Aoi no ue to ‘Ujinobu’.[14] The current Konparu school is descended from the Emai troupe and Zenchiku.

            Following the patronage of the Ashikaga shōguns in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, nō was adopted with renewed enthusiasm by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the first shōgun of the Tokugawa shōgunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Beginning with the Ashikaga shōguns and continuing throughout the Tokugawa shōgunate, the utaizome (‘First Nō’) was performed each new year in front of the shōgun at his Edo castle. The heads of the Kanze and Konparu schools were the only ones permitted to attend every year. After the head of the Kanze school sang the shikai nami passage from Takasago, three plays, including Takasago, were performed, as Pound explains in ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment.[15] From Hideyoshi’s reign onwards, nō actors were provided with generous subsidies that were fixed throughout the Tokugawa shōgunate; they thus lived in what Furukawa Hisashi describes as ‘extreme luxury’.[16] The Konparu School owned a residence in Nara at that time of a thousand tsubo (around 3300 m²).[17] As the now retired head of the Konparu school, Konparu Yasuaki, told me in an interview at his home, Hideyoshi had granted the Konparu school three villages in the Nara area.[18] With the war between the anti-shōgun armies in the 1860s, however, the Konparu estate chained up its gates and the actors fled to the nearby Nenbutsu Temple with their most treasured possessions. After the fall of the shōgunate, all subsidies to nō actors suddenly stopped. The estate was destroyed, and the materials they had salvaged had to be sold due to the Konparu school’s heavy debts.[19] According to Konparu Yasuaki, the Nara Konparu treasures have not yet been recovered.[20]

            Today, however, the Konparu school, and nō more generally, are prosperous once again, not only due to government funding, but also to its popularity. The March performance of Takasago I watched at the National Noh Theatre, with its digital screens on the backs of the seats giving Japanese and English subtitles as the play progressed, was sold out as usual, as was the Konparu succession performance on 4 May. Watching Takasago performed live offers a multitude of significant details unavailable in the play’s libretto. What most clearly stands out is the contrast in speed and energy between the first and second halves of the play, which accords with the well-known structural principle of jo-ha-kyū (‘introduction, development, conclusion’) to which Zeami refers in his discussion of nō composition.[21] In the introductory part of Takasago, the movement is gentle and refined, in keeping with the age of the old couple and the emphasis on the peaceful stability of imperial rule. Kyū, however, more literally means ‘fast’. Zeami explains that the kyū usually involves the dance of the shite (the main performer).[22] In the first half, the shite is the old man; in the second, it is the Sumiyoshi deity, the spirit of the old man and the Sumiyoshi pine. Whereas the old man’s movements are slow and stately in the first half, the Sumiyoshi deity’s dance and the speed and power of the taiko drum brought out for the second half are highly vigorous and energetic. In this way, the manner of the shite’s performance in the second half embodies the vitality of literal, vegetal and imperial regeneration at the heart of Takasago. The slow calm of the first half emphasises, through contrast, the youthful energy of the second.

            This slow calm is particularly expressed in the shikai nami, in which the chorus sings, ‘The wind does not even rustle through the branches, / It is surely a happy reign’.[23] It is in the movements and positions of the actors on the stage during the chanting of the shikai nami that a further telling detail not observable in the libretto appears. Earlier, in the Konparu performance, it is the old woman who enters the stage first along the hashigakari (‘bridge’), followed by the old man, and it is she who explains the first meaning of aioi as a loving couple being ‘near in the ways of love’, ‘Though the mountain and river lie between us’. In alternating lines, they sing the second meaning of aioi together, that of the fertile literary tradition scattering like the pine-needles down the ages, with the old woman towards the front of the stage and the old man standing behind her to the audience’s right. It is she who explains how ‘the pine-needles’ are ‘inexhaustible words’. As the chorus begins chanting the shikai nami in praise of imperial rule, however, the old woman moves behind the old man and sits in the back corner to the audience’s right, never to speak again on her own in the play, while the old man moves forward to centre stage and dances to the chorus’s chant. After the chant concludes, she stands up and follows the old man along the hashigakari off the stage. This positioning is telling: whereas the play’s first interpretation of aioi suggests an equal and reciprocal love, the final reading of the term indicates the Confucian male-centred hierarchy that underpins the apparent ‘calm’ of imperial rule. 

            Indeed, the power relationship between men and women remains a contentious issue in nō. The first play performed at the Konparu succession performance was Okina (‘The Old Man’), a Shintō ritual play said to be the oldest nō in the canon and is of mysterious origin. Like Takasago, it celebrates the longevity of literary tradition and imperial rule. The ‘old man’ of the play’s title prays for ‘peace and calm for all the land under heaven’, while Chitose (‘Thousand Years’) prays for the emperor and the feather-robe dance of the heavenly maidens – which provides the theme of the nō play Hagoromo and is said to have been taught by the heavenly maidens to the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong – to last for ‘a thousand years’.[24] Not only are women not allowed to perform in Okina; all actors performing in it must avoid contact with women for a fixed period – for the Konparu succession performance, seven days, according to Konparu Yasuaki.[25] When taking public transport, they cannot even receive tickets from female staff, having to get others to buy and keep their tickets for them instead.[26] Nevertheless, women’s participation in nō has been steadily increasing in recent decades.[27] Unlike kabuki, the five nō schools are allowed to admit female members, and many nō programmes, such as the National Noh Theatre’s March performance of Takasago, featured chants, dances, and plays performed by all-women casts alongside men’s performances. As the representation of women changes in nō, aspects of the tradition may change accordingly, as they always have done over the centuries. What is sure to remain and prosper, however, is the tradition of nō itself, the ‘pine-needles’ of its ‘inexhaustible words’ forever scattering down the ages. I therefore offer my warmest congratulations to Konparu Norikazu on becoming the eighty-first head of the Konparu school.

[1] Roxana Preda and Andrew Taylor, ‘Calendar of Composition’, in The Cantos Project (2015), <http://thecantosproject.ed.ac.uk/index.php/overview/calendar-of-composition?showall=1>, accessed 9 February 2019. 

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971), p. 283.

[3] None of these is included in Akiko Miyake, Sanehide Kodama and Nicholas Teele (eds), A Guide to Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (Orono, MN: The National Poetry Foundation, 1994).

[4] Ira B. Nadel (ed.), Ezra Pound’s Letters to Alice Corbin Henderson (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993), pp. 109-17.

[5] Andrew Houwen, ‘Ezra Pound’s Early Cantos and His Translation of Takasago’, Review of English Studies, vol. 65, no. 269 (April 2014), pp. 321-41; Christopher Bush, ‘“I am all for the triangle”: The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Pound’s Japan’, in Paul Stasi and Josephine Park (eds), Ezra Pound in the Present: Essays on Pound’s Contemporaneity (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 75-106.

[6] Kenner, The Pound Era, p. 283.

[7] Nadel (ed.), Ezra Pound’s Letters to Alice Corbin Henderson, p. 112.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 113.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Umewaka Minoru, Nikki (‘Diaries’), ed. Umewaka Rokurō et al., 9 vols, vol. 6 (Tokyo: Yagi shoten, 2003), p. 236.

[14] Umewaka Takeshi and Kanze Kiyokazu (eds), Nō wo yomu (‘Reading Nō’), 4 vols, vol. 3 (Tokyo: Kadokawa, 2013), pp. 73. Zenchiku’s authorship of Kakitsubata is not certain but is currently considered as highly likely. Aoi no ue’s author remains unknown, but its composition dates to before 1413.

[15] Fenollosa and Pound, ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment (London: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 10-11; Ōwada Takeki, Utai to nō (Tokyo: Hakubunkan, 1900), p. 13.

[16] Furukawa Hisashi, Meiji nōgakushi jōsetsu (‘An Introduction to the Meiji History of Nō’) (Tokyo: Wanya shoten, 1969), p. 16.

[17] Ōkura Hanjirō, ‘Konparu ryū no kokiroku’ (‘Ancient Records of the Konparu School’), Nōgaku, vol. 9, no. 12 (December 1911), pp. 46-48, p. 46.

[18] Personal interview with Konparu Yasuaki, 6 December 2018. I am grateful to Tanaka Yōsuke and his wife, Fumiko, as well as Konparu Yasuaki’s daughter, Makiko, for kindly arranging this interview.

[19] Furukawa, Meiji nōgakushi jōsetsu, p. 14; personal interview with Konparu Yasuaki, 6 December 2018.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Zeami, Sandō (‘The Three Ways’), in Omote Akira and Katō Shūichi (eds), Zeami, Zenchiku (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1974), p. 135.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Nadel (ed.), The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, p. 113. 

[24] Anon., Okina, in Umehara and Kanze (eds), Nō wo yomu, vol. 1, pp. 21-28, pp. 24-25.

[25] Personal interview with Konparu Yasuaki, 6 December 2018.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.