Wednesday, March 30, 2011
I have done a lot of train and bus travel in Japan. From the age of ten, I had to shepherd my even younger siblings on and off crowded trains on Friday afternoons to get to the far northern town in which our parents lived, and then back again on Sunday nights to the city where we went to boarding school. I would hold their hands tightly so as not to lose them in the crowd, and anxiously seek an empty seat-- or even an arm rest-- so that at least the youngest wouldn't have to stand for hours.
Later, as a teenager attending high school in Tokyo, I traveled even further and for longer periods of time, often for days and through the night. I dozed sitting up-- or if I was lucky, sprawled out-- on the hard benches of the slow train to Hokkaido, traveling leisurely through all those beautiful prefectures of northeastern Japan that were recently devastated by the quake and tsunami. Or sometimes I traveled in the other direction. Southwest to Kyushu, for example, to take a job I'd been offered for spring break. Or still other directions, and for other reasons.
In those days, travelers often shared whatever food they had brought along. Mikans (mandarin oranges) featured prominently in this ritual. Many is the time that the warm generosity of "aunties" and "uncles" saved me (and my siblings) from hunger and self-pity. Which is all background to explain why I lost my heart to a certain poem titled Mikan. It's about Lynda Shoup's experience of traveling in Niigata prefecture. You can link to it here on the Purple Glasses Club. I asked permission to quote it on my etegami.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Dorei (clay bells) have a long tradition in Japanese folk art. One usually sees them in the shapes of the animals in the oriental zodiac, though they are made in other shapes as well. The zodiac dorei are often sold at temples and shrines as good luck charms, especially during the New Year season. Inside the hollow animal shape is a round ball of clay that makes a sort of clanking sound when the bell is shaken.
The etegami posted here is a sample of a rabbit dorei made in Tochigi prefecture. Tochigi is home to the famous Nikkō National Park, which was registered as the 10th UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
The writing that accompanies the image translates roughly to: The hill where I once chased rabbits. It is the first line of a song called Furusato (home land), which most Japanese people know by heart. It expresses a deep fondness for, and longing to return to, the place where one has grown up. It is often sung at graduation ceremonies, was featured at the closing ceremony of the Nagano Olympics in 1998, and has actually been suggested as an alternative national anthem.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
The den-den daiko is a small Japanese rattle drum used for distracting and entertaining babies and young children. It works for me, too. : )
The accompanying words quote the third section of the most well-known lullaby in Japan-- a song called the Edo Lullaby, from which, it is said, all other Japanese lullabies originate. A rough English translation (which loses all the sweet rhythm of the original), borrowed from Wikipedia, goes like this:
Hushabye, Hushabye! My good Baby, Sleep!
Where did my boy's baby-sitter go? Beyond that mountain, back to her home.
As a souvenir from her home, what did you get? A toy drum and a sho flute.
I drew the outline and the words with a ruined bamboo quill pen (that is now nothing more than a stick with a dull point) dipped in sumi ink.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Southeast of Tokyo is Chiba prefecture, which takes up the whole of the Boso Peninsula. It is known for having fine weather year-round, and this is one reason why bamboo grows well there, and in so many varieties. Bamboo has many practical and ornamental uses, one of which is as the framework of uchiwa (round, flat, hand-held fans).
Some of the best uchiwa in Japan are said to be made in the Tateyama region, near the southernmost tip of the peninsula. They are made by cutting bamboo tubes into narrow splinters which are then splayed out in the radial shape of a fan. Washi paper is pasted over both sides of this bamboo frame.
I prefer uchiwa to the sensu (folding fan) that Western tourists often purchase as souvenirs of their Japan travels. I find that the flat fan produces a heftier breeze than the folding fan, while causing less of a strain on the wrist. Their usefulness extends throughout the year, regardless of season. We flap them over hot sushi rice to bring out the gleam of the individual grains. We use them to help get wood fires burning and charcoals glowing. I even have some small blank ones to use for painting on, etegami-style, and sending through the mail as greeting cards.
They can be used for cheering at sports and music events, as trays for serving dainty confections to go with tea, or as mats on which to place an arrangement of flowers. These days, cheap plastic-framed uchiwa, printed with corporate advertising, promotion of a cause, or announcement of a public event, are passed out at busy pedestrian crossings with the sure knowledge that few will refuse them, because everyone knows how handy uchiwa are.
(This is where I deleted a paragraph about how if the people of Japan ever needed to exercise this quality of versatility, it is now. I hoped you would make the connection on your own.)
The attached image was painted across two washi postcards. The poem quoted on the etegami is from the Kokin Wakashu, a Heian era anthology of waka poetry (905 AD). I believe the poem refers to the birth of the poet's child, and is written in tenderness and hope, rather than in despair.
It has a weighted base so that it rights itself no matter how often it is tipped over. The Japanese saying nanakorobi-yaoki (fall seven times and rise again eight times) is often illustrated with this type of daruma doll, and stands for the spirit of "try, try and try again."
But that's not why I picked the daruma for this post. It so happens that I recently came across the following passage in the book Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose:
Although the men lived in constant danger-- a direct hit from the railway gun would destroy whole buildings-- they were in a sense spectators of war. Glenn Gray (author of The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle ) writes that the "secret attractions of war" are "the delight in destruction." He continues, "War as a spectacle, as something to see, ought never to be underestimated." Gray reminds us that the human eye is lustful; it craves the novel, the unusual, the spectacular.
When I read this, something clicked. I thought of how I had been glued to the TV news after the initial quake and tsunami, watching the dramatic, tragic, video footage they were broadcasting over and over and over again. I knew that other people all over the world were doing the same. It made me wonder what this revealed about us. Did it reveal a common bond of horrified sympathy and desperate, but helpless, desire to save the victims? Or a common sense of relief that we were watching the disaster from a distance? Probably both. I also know, that being so close to these events, I was looking for information to apply to my own safety. And... maybe some other things too. Like a craving for "the novel, the unusual, the spectacular." It is well expressed as the "lust of the eyes." (cf. 1 John 2:16)
It was the eye connection that brought the daruma to mind. Gunma darumas are sold with blank eyes. The buyer is supposed to fill in one eye at the time he makes a particular request of the gods. When the wish is granted, he fills in the other eye. Politicians running for office often turn this into a media event.
The Japanese words on today's etegami are from a song that is sung to accompany a child's game where one tries to stare down an opponent. Daruma, daruma, let's play the staring game! The first one to look away, or to burst out laughing, loses.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Wind bells are enjoyed all over Japan, but these simple, hand-blown, hand-painted, spherical glass wind bells have been a Tokyo specialty for hundreds of years. This YouTube video shows how they are made (Japanese).
After the Great Osaka-Kobe Earthquake of '95, many of the relocated elderly survivors simply lost their will to live. It had been snuffed out in part by loss of community ties and that which was familiar. The will to live is a mysterious thing. Sometimes fragile. Sometimes tenacious. Frequently tested. Always precious. Surviving the disaster itself is only the beginning.
The words that accompany the image in this etegami are a translation of a haiku by the poet Santoka (1882-1940).
Friday, March 18, 2011
Some time in the past week, they started calling the earthquake The East Japan Earthquake. This makes mighty good sense, because the disaster area extends across so much more than the six prefectures of the Tohoku area.
Ibaraki prefecture is in the northeast part of the Kanto region, bumping up against the southernmost end of the Tohoku region. I can't recall that I've ever visited it, except in passing, but I have fond associations with it-- they once had the funniest TV commercial for Ibaraki brand rice. But on a day-to-day basis, my affection for Ibaraki has to do with a different product for which they are well known: natto, a fermented soybean product that the Japanese often have for breakfast with rice.
Natto is sometimes called an "acquired taste," but in my household it is definitely comfort food. Natto has a distinctive smell (like pungent cheese, some say), and as you stir it, it produces lots and lots of sticky, gossamer threads, These sticky threads make it awkward to eat sometimes, but they are an essential factor in the incredibly high nutritional value of this product.
This particular kind of stickiness is called nebari (noun form) or nebaru (verb form) in Japanese, and can be used to describe the quality of "sticktoitivenes," or ability to persist, persevere, and hang on in adverse circumstances.
Today's etegami shows natto beans wrapped in straw, a traditional form of natto packaging. I tried to depict the sticky threads. The accompanying words roughly translate to "Hang in there, Japan!" using the word nebare (imperative form of nebaru). Watch as the people of Ibaraki exhibit this quality in the coming days. You'll see.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
What fascinates me more than their appearance, their powers, or theories of their origin, is their role in punishing arrogance and vanity. While they appear in folklore as the instruments to scare the self-conceit out of human beings, tengu themselves have evolved into a symbol of arrogance. The people of Japan are warned from childhood not to "become a tengu." This warning is often accompanied by a sweeping of curled fingers away from the center of the face-- a reference to the tengu's long nose.
Tengu masks are crafted in several prefectures, but those of Fukushima are especially prized.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The Iwate-born writer Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) is the author of some of the most beloved children's stories and free-verse poetry of Japan. One of my favorites is the poem known as Ame ni mo makezu (literally: "undefeated by the rain"). I tried to express some of the poem's sentiments in this etegami of a broken umbrella.
I trust that the survivors of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, as inheritors of Miyazawa's legacy, will be drawing deeply from the well of human character described in this poem, as they rebuild their lives in the aftermath of disaster.
Be Not Defeated by the Rain
Written by Kenji Miyazawa and Translated by David Sulz
Be not defeated by the rain, Nor let the wind prove your better. Succumb not to the snows of winter. Nor be bested by the heat of summer.
Be strong in body. Unfettered by desire. Not enticed to anger. Cultivate a quiet joy. Count yourself last in everything. Put others before you. Watch well and listen closely. Hold the learned lessons dear.
A thatch-roof house, in a meadow, nestled in a pine grove's shade. A handful of rice, some miso, and a few vegetables to suffice for the day.
If, to the East, a child lies sick: Go forth and nurse him to health.
If, to the West, an old lady stands exhausted: Go forth, and relieve her of burden.
If, to the South, a man lies dying: Go forth with words of courage to dispel his fear.
If, to the North, an argument or fight ensues:
Go forth and beg them stop such a waste of effort and of spirit.
In times of drought, shed tears of sympathy. In summers cold, walk in concern and empathy.
Stand aloof of the unknowing masses: Better dismissed as useless than flattered as a "Great Man".
This is my goal, the person I strive to become.
(here is an alternate translation)
I decided to start with Kokeshi dolls, a well-known folk craft of Japan. The two etegami posted here show versions traditionally made in Miyagi prefecture (of which Sendai city is the capital).
The Kokeshi is a limbless wooden doll with a cylindrical body and a round pivoting head. It usually represents female figures, with a round smooth head on which is painted eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth and hair. The head is then attached to the cylindrical body decorated with simple but bright designs. It is either produced from one piece of wood or with the separate head and body joined together. (quoted from A Cultural Dictionary of Japan. Momoo Yamaguchi, ed.)
Saturday, March 12, 2011
By this time you all know about the mega-quake that has devastated Japan. Many of you have asked after my safety. Thank you. I am safe. Heartsick, but safe. The disaster is far from over, and I don't really feel like writing about it. However, I was able to refer to the event in a series of Etegami collages. It even fits this week's IF theme.
In Japanese mythology, a giant namazu (catfish) causes earthquakes when he stirs in the mud beneath the earth. The more violently he thrashes, the more violent the earthquake.
Monday, March 7, 2011
This is a second etegami I did for Illustration Friday on the theme of "warning." The accompanying words are a haiku by the wandering poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). The English version I used for this piece is Robert Haas's translation. Don't imitate me. It's as boring as two halves of a melon.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Friday, March 4, 2011
(a poem by Jenny Joseph, 1932~)
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
(I don't know why-- but I just fell in love with this poem the first time I laid eyes on it. Maybe I'm just the right age to be thinking about these things. And the words drew pictures in my mind. D.D.)