Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Japan From Prehistory to Modern Times - by John Whitney Hall (1968)

Three kinds of histories get published, don't they ? Histories to entertain the general reader -- histories to be used as textbooks -- and histories for other historians --- and I think this one was intended to be an introductory textbook -- touching on ideas that are current in the discipline, and acceptable within secondary school systems.

One doesn't get the feeling that a great mind has brought it's wide learning and unique focus to bear on the subject -- instead I see a lecturer filling the time with acceptable platitudes -- with one eye on the clock.

How is Japanese feudalism different from European ? How did owner-tenant relationships change over the course of 15 centuries ? The key words used in a discussion of this topic are introduced (and will be on the test !) --- but the differences are hardly explained.

And the great periods of change (the end of the Heian era (beginning of shogunate and samurai)-- the end of the Tokugawa era (end of the Shogunate, beginning of a modern, industrial state) -- and the American occupation (beginning of elected government)seem to be barely understood. The author repeats at least three times that the American occupation and political engineering was "amenable" to the Japanese people -- but what does this mean ? Sid they vote for it -- or did they just accept it --the way a prisoner walks quietly to the scaffold ?

Regional autonomy seems to be a critical issue in these periods of change -- especially in the end of the Shoganate where the armies of two provinces are sufficient to defeat the forces of the central government.

Relevant to the Mishima novels I read earlier -- martial/nationlist idealism (and the politics of assasination) seemed to have been crucial to the sad story of Showa politics that directly led to so much grief in Chinese and southeast Asian history of the 20th Century. Did any of Mishima's characters (or the author himself) ever express one hint of remorse for this disaster ?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Heike Monogatari

I guess this 13th C. epic is sort of an Illiad of Japanese literature -- as an endless source of subsequent retellings in theatre and fiction -- echoing right down to the present -- even Mishima's last book "Decay of the angel", as the title borrows an idea that Heike Monogatari uses several times to reference the loss of glory that is so much more poignant than glory itself.

This is a story that loves the taste of defeat ! And almost everyone gets to enjoy it -- as today's victor becomes tomorrow's loser -- and ultimately gets the opportunity to write a brief poem about their setting sun.

Just as with the poetry in "Dream of Red Chamber" -- all this poetry is lost on those of us who rely on translations -- but still I enjoy them -- like this one -- that the cloistered emperor wrote when visiting the remote hermitage of his aunt -- a daughter of the supreme Heike minister who had seen her clan -- including her imperial son -- driven from the capital and eventually annihilated at a climatic sea battle:

The Cherry Blossoms
have blown from the trees
that stand on the bank.
They are once again blooming
upon the ripples of the pond.

What's a "cloistered emperor" you might ask ? It's one of those bizarre arrangements that had to be made to accomodate the sacred-political theory that there can only be one imperial family --- with the reality that political power is developed within competing clans of ministers acting as regents -- so usually as soon an emperor becomes old enough to figure out what's happening, he is removed from public life to become a monk -- and one of his infant nephews/siblings is made emperor.

The machinations of power -- and even the great, decisive battles, are given short shrift in this style of story telling -- what's important are scenes of great sorrow -- or great bravery (but even then, it's the bravery of the loser's last stand -- not the winner's triumph) -- and what the hero was wearing to his last battle seems just as important as how he fought it.

Even the outcome of the last great power struggle of the epic ---- between Yoshitune -- the successfull general who completed the destruction of the Heike -- and his brother Yorimoto -- who doesn't seem to do anything other than gather power -- is left unreselved by the narrative (footnotes tell us that Yoshitune eventually killed himself)

What's important here is suffering -- and there's nothing better than when it's the long, drawn out, hopeless kind --- like a captive endlessly waiting for his execution. (note: lots of people are executed -- but unlike some of the gruesome scenes in China's "Three Kingdoms", nobody is tortured to death. A simple beheading suffices -- even for Shigehara, the Heike general held resposible for the worst atrocity of the era: the burning of the temples at Nara. It was suggested that he deserved all "Three thousand and five varieties of punishment" proscribed by Chinese law -- but in the end, he was only beheaded -- after plenty of time for sorrowfulful despartures from his wife, retainers, and son. Here are the final poems between him and his wife:


Crying ceaselessly,
You have made these robes for me
to be worn but once
In memory of your tears
I shall never take them off

His wife:

How foolish of me
to make these new robes for you
in expectation
this change of robes means nothing
It is but our last farewell.

And it may be significant that the apparent leading villans of the piece are both essentially politicans -- not generals -- and they never taste defeat. Kiyomori, the Priest-Premier, whose arrogant behavior summoned the divine retribution that annihilated his family, died of natural causes -- or -- maybe you'd call them super-natural causes since his body got so hot, it burned those who touched him. (I guess Hell just couldn't wait ) -- and Yorimoto who was still alive, and in control, at the end of the story.

Something else to note is that history is sometimes inconvenient for epic -- the most glaring example being the flock of geese that frightened/stampeded the huge Heike army at Fuji river.

Well - clearly I'm a fan of this kind of story telling any way -- if I want to read history, I'll read history books -- but if I want to savor the poignance of defeat and loss (and what Sports fan doesn't ?) this is a treasure trove