Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lady Isabella Bird translates a Japanese children's poem

Colour and perfume vanish away.
What can be lasting in this world?
To-day disappears in the abyss of nothingness;
It is but the passing image of a dream, and causes only a slight trouble.

from Lady Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), Letter 10.

Bird notes that this poem, memorized by all of the Japanese schoolchildren, has some resemblance to Ecclesiastes, and "is a dismal ditty for young children to learn."

The curious thing is that the poem is actually mnemonic device. It contains all 50 or so Japanese syllables. Ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, and so on. That's why all the children know it, like the ABC song.

The wiki for the hiragana alphabet has the Japanese version (three quarters down). Each syllable is used only once, so it's a real trick poem. Wiki claims that the poem dates back to the 10th century, which is either preposterous or amazing. Citation, please.


  1. It's true. Every Japanese history text I have ever read dates the Iroha-Uta to the Heian period (late AD 700s -- 780-ish IIRC -- to about 1185). This makes some sense -- this would be approximately contemporaneous with the shift away from Chinese characters and towards kana. There was a not-coincidental uptick in the Japanese literacy rate, so it makes sense that the equivalent of an "ABC song" would take hold around then. Though I must say it's completely awesome, especially compared to the ABC song I know for my own mother tongue. Hee. Anyway, this is contemporaneous with the florescence of Japanese literature...the Tale of Genji, the Pillow Book, and the overall cultural blossoming (pun intended, thanks) that was coincident with the moving of the capital to Kyoto and the advent of the cloistered emperors.

    I. Am. A. Complete. Dork. I knew taking all those courses in Asian history and linguistic history would come in handy someday.

  2. That was a lot better than a citation, thanks. I'm edging towards the idea that reading "The Tale of Genji", et al, is more necessary than optional.

  3. Yeah, the Tale of Genji is essential. No way around it. You'll love it, though. It's pretty amazing. Maybe I'll re-read it this winter. Right now I'm slogging through Amatus's account of the history of Lombardy and the idea of Japanese prose sounds really, really good. Not that Amatus isn't great, I'm just stuck with this weird Middle-French/kind of oddly Italian version (because apparently the Latin version got lost, somehow) and it's making my head hurt. Mostly because my Italian is dismal and I'm constantly flipping through this horrible lexicon from about 1913 and trying to pick up the rest from context. It's exactly this sort of thing that made me give up Mandarin.

  4. p.s. -- do yourself a favor and read the Royall Tyler translation -- it will infuriate you on many levels but I think it is better than the Seidensticker (whom I love otherwise -- his translations of the Yasunari Kawabata stuff are amazing, especially "The Master of Go" -- I am not trying to bash Seidensticker). ES decided to cut through the whole "court-etiquette dictates that we do not use names but honorifics" folderol and just calls the characters by name (which is a trick, since the characters, um, don't exactly have names), which really messes with the scansion and overall feeling of it. But what the hey, you might love it -- I just prefer the Tyler.

  5. Intercontinental telepathy - you answered the question I was just about to ask.

  6. This poem is certainly far beyond "ABCDEF", etc. It's a real poem, be interesting to know if time is spent with younger students talking about meaning, etc.
    Speaking of that on TV last evening the story was about the terrible economy and how it's disrupting families. The "expert" said children should be included in family discussions about financial problems or they'd suffer from anxiety. Then they cut to a lady talking to a two year old as a demonstration of how children would be better off mentally and emotionally if they understood economic cycles, etc. Good luck!!! dad

  7. A survey of five adult products of the Japanese educational system produced the following results:

    4 of 5 had once memorized this poem, or a modernized equivalent.

    3 of 5 could remember recite part of it.

    0 of 5 could remember past the middle.