A History of Japanese Literature/Book 5/Chapter 3

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The manufacture of Tanka at the court of the Mikado proceeded, as usual, during these periods of Japanese history. They were duly collected into anthologies from time to time; but as they present no features specially worthy of notice, and as they are admittedly much inferior in merit to the verse of earlier times, it is needless to dwell upon them here. A far greater interest belongs to a new development of the poetic art which now demands our attention, namely, the Nō or lyrical drama.

Like the ancient Greek tragedies and the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the drama in Japan was in its beginnings closely associated with religion. Its immediate parent was the Kagura, a pantomimic dance, which is performed at this day to the sound of fife and drum at Shinto festivals, on a platform provided for the purpose. The antiquity of the Kagura may be inferred from the fact that when the Kojiki(A.D. 712) and the Nihongi (A.D. 720) were written, there was already a myth current which was intended as an explanation of its origin. The Sun Goddess, it is related, disgusted at the unseemly pranks of her brother Susa-no-wo, shut herself up in the rock-cave of heaven and left the world to darkness. Upon this the gods assembled in their myriads in the dry bed of the River of Heaven (the Milky Way), and among other expedients which they devised for luring her out of her retirement they caused Ame-no-Uzume (the Terrible Female of heaven) to array herself in a fantastical manner, and standing on an inverted tub, which gave out a hollow sound when she stamped on it, to perform a mimic dance which had the desired effect.

The same works give elsewhere a story which was meant to supply an explanation of another pantomime which was performed in the Mikado's palace by the Hayato or guards.

It runs as follows:—There were two brother deities, the elder of whom, Ho-no-Susori, was a hunter, and the younger, Hiko Hohodemi, a fisherman. The two brothers having quarrelled, the younger used against his brother a talisman given him by his father-in-law, the God of the Sea, by virtue of which the tide rose and submerged Ho-no-Susori. The latter then begged for pardon, and promised to be his brother's bondsman and mime to all generations; whereupon, by the power of another talisman, the tide retired and his life was spared. The younger brother was the ancestor of the Mikados, and the elder of the Hayato, who in memory of this were accustomed to perform a dance, in which the drowning struggles of Ho-no-Susori were imitated. The actors were naked to the waist-cloth, and smeared their hands and faces with red earth; reminding us of the wine-lees of Thespis and his crew.

There is frequent mention in subsequent Japanese history of pantomime performances, some of which were secular, and others of a more or less sacred character.

When the dance and music of the Kagura were supplemented by a spoken dialogue, the Nō were the result. The addition of words is said to have been suggested by the chanted recitations of the Heike Monogatari by itinerant bonzes, and there is much in the language of the Nō to countenance this supposition. It is certain that the authors were well acquainted with it, and also with the Gempei Seisuiki and the Taiheiki.

The beginnings of the Nō date from the fourteenth century. They were at first purely religious performances, intended to propitiate the chief deities of the Shinto religion, and were acted exclusively in connection with their shrines. At Ise, the principal seat of the worship of the Sun Goddess, there were three Nō theatres, in Ōmi three, in Tamba three, and at Nara four, all devoted to the service of the respective Shinto gods worshipped in these places.

In the early part of the Muromachi period a manager of one of the Nō theatres at Nara, named Kwan-ami Kiyotsugu, attracted the notice of the ruling Shōgun, who, for the sake of his art, took him into his immediate service. It is a noteworthy circumstance, as indicating the social position of the Nō performers, that this Kwan-ami was a small daimio, holding a fief in the province of Yamato. He died in 1406. From this time forward the Nō were under the special patronage of the Shōguns, just as the Tanka found favour and official protection at the court of the Mikado. Kiyotsugu was succeeded by his eldest son Motokiyo, who died in 1455, in his eighty-first year. Their descendants enjoyed the favour of the Shōguns for a long period. Hideyoshi, who was Shōgun in all but name, was very fond of the Nō, and is said to have taken part in them as an actor. Several of the more recent date from his time. In the Yedo period the Shoguns gave great attention to Nō performances. They were made a ceremony of state, and were acted by young gentlemen of the military class educated specially for this profession. Even at the present day there are some remains of their former popularity with the Samurai. Representations are still given in Tokio, Kiōto, and other places, by the descendants or successors of the old managers who founded the art five hundred years ago, and are attended by small but select audiences composed almost entirely of ex-Daimios or military nobles and their ex-retainers. To the vulgar the Nō are completely unintelligible.

Of the two hundred and thirty-five Nō contained in the latest and most complete collection (the Yō-kyoku Tsūge), no fewer than ninety-three are assigned to Se-ami Motokiyo, the second of the line of official managers; his father, Kwan-ami Kiyotsugu, being credited with fifteen. Motokiyo's son-in-law and successor has twenty-two assigned to him, those of the remainder which are not anonymous being distributed among a dozen or so of the subsequent holders of the office. The great majority belong to the fifteenth century.

The Yō-kyoku Tsūge editor suggests, with great probability, that although the names of Kiyotsugu, Motokiyo, and their successors are given as authors of the Nō, they were in reality only responsible for the music, the pantomimic dance (the "business," as we might say), and the general management. He surmises that the libretto was the work of Buddhist monks, to which class almost all the literary men of this period belonged. The question of authorship is, however, of minor importance, as the characteristics of the Nō are rather those of a school of writers than of individuals.

Whoever their authors may have been, their primary object was the promotion of piety. In some cases a patriotic or martial enthusiasm is the inspiring motive, and a love of nature is discernible in almost all, but the staple material is the mass of legends associated with the Buddhist and Shinto religions. A monk or guardian of a Shinto shrine is most frequently the chief personage of the play, and the virtue of hospitality to the priestly order, the sin of taking away life, the praise of particular deities, the uncertainty of life, and the transitoriness of human things are favourite themes with them.

In the Nō, next after religion comes poetry. Not that they are exactly poems. Purely lyrical passages are not wanting, but much, both from the point of view of metre and of diction, is undeniable prose. Not a little is in an intermediate style, in which the seven and five syllable phrases succeed one another with great irregularity, and the language is alloyed with a less poetic element. The admission of Chinese words, although in moderation, also tends to lower the poetic level. It will be remembered that these are rigorously excluded from the older classical poetry.

A very striking feature of the Nō is the lavish use which they make of the poetic devices mentioned in a previous chapter.[1] Pillow-words are freely introduced, and parallelism is a common ornament. But the greatest favourite of all is the "pivot-word," which is employed in the Nō to an extent and in a manner previously unknown to Japanese literature. This must be my excuse for dwelling on it at somewhat greater length here. "The Pivot" (I quote from Mr. Chamberlain's Classical Poetry of the Japanese) "is a word of two significations, which serves as a species of hinge on which two doors turn, so that while the first part of the poetical phrase has no logical end, the latter part has no logical beginning. They run into each other, and the sentence could not possibly be construed." Mr. Chamberlain adds that "to the English reader such a punning invention will doubtless seem the height of misapplied ingenuity. But, as a matter of fact, the impression produced by these linked verses is delightful in the extreme, passing as they do before the reader like a series of dissolving views, vague, graceful, and suggestive. This ornament especially characterises the old poetic dramas, and renders them a peculiarly arduous study to such as do not thoroughly appreciate its nature."

Native critics would no doubt endorse Mr. ChamberIain's favourable opinion of the pivot-word, and it is undeniable that the Japanese, who are an eminently nimble-witted race, delight in these acrobatic feats of language. But the English student will ask whether it is worth while to sacrifice sense and syntax for the sake of such inane, if sometimes pretty, antics. I venture to think that the "pivot" is a mistake in serious composition, and that the partiality for such a frivolous ornament of style manifested not only by the writers of Nō, but by the dramatists and novelists of the Yedo period, is a characteristic sign of an age of literary decadence and bad taste. Such writers as Hakuseki, Kiusō, and Motoöri disdain it utterly.

The authors of the Nō do not pique themselves on originality. They are in the habit of conveying to their own pages in the most liberal manner snatches of Tanka, texts of Buddhist scripture, or striking phrases supplied by their memory from older writers, stringing them together, however, in a way which does much credit to their ingenuity. Plagiarism, it may be remarked, is hardly recognised as an offence by the Japanese.

The Nō are not classical poems. They are too deficient in lucidity, method, coherence, and good taste to deserve this description. Still they are not without charm. Jeux-de-mots are not everything in them, and the reader who has the patience to unravel their intricacies of language will not go altogether unrewarded. If their vein of poetic ore is less pure than that of the Manōoshiu and Kokinshiu, it is also richer. They embrace within their scope a world of legendary lore, of quaint fancies, and of religious sentiment, to which the classical poetry of Japan is a stranger. And if we miss the perfection of form which characterises the dainty little Tanka, we have instead a luxuriance and variety which go some way to indemnify us for its absence. It is to be regretted that so promising a literary departure should have proved ultimately abortive. After the sixteenth century the Nō ceased to be written. The current of the higher Japanese thought had by this time turned away from Buddhism and everything that belongs to it, and was setting strongly towards Chinese philosophy. Though the Nō were still performed, the impulse to write new ones was apparently no longer felt.

As dramas the Nō have little value. There is no action to speak of, and dramatic propriety and effect are hardly thought of. The plot is frequently something of the following description:—

A priest appears on the scene. He announces his name, and informs the audience that he is setting out on his travels. Presently he arrives at a temple, a battlefield, or other celebrated spot, when a ghost or deity appears, who relates to him the local legend. An exchange of edifying sentiments follows, and the supernatural personage finally reveals his identity.

The whole piece rarely occupies more than six or seven pages of print, and it usually takes less than an hour to perform. Within this narrow compass it might be expected that the unities of time, place, and action would have been observed. This is far from being the case. The action, in so far as there is any, is generally more or less coherent, but the other unities are wholly disregarded. In the Takasago, for example, the scene changes from Kiushiu to Harima, and again from Harima to Sumiyoshi, within seven pages, while weeks must be allowed for the journeys of the chief personage between these places.

The number of the dramatis personæ varies from two or three (the latter being very frequent) up to five or six. To these must be added a few musicians and the chorus. The chorus of the Nō has various functions. The chief office is to chant a narrative which serves to supplement and explain the action of the piece, as in some of Shakespeare's older plays, or to recite poetical descriptions which supply the place of the absent scenery. The chorus also indulges from time to time in sententious or sympathetic observations, or even enters into conversation with the personages on the stage.

The following description of the Nō theatre will help us to realise their character more fully. It is taken from Mr. Chamberlain's Classical Poetry of the Japanese:—

"The stage, which has remained unaltered in every respect since the beginning of the fifteenth century, is a square wooden room open on all sides but one, and supported on pillars, the side of the square being about eighteen English feet. It is surmounted by a quaint roof somewhat resembling those to be seen on Buddhist temples, and is connected with the green-room by a gallery some nine feet wide. Upon this gallery part of the action occasionally takes place. Added on to the back of the square stage is a narrow space where sits the orchestra, consisting of one flute-player, two performers on instruments, which, in the absence of a more fitting name, may perhaps be called tambourines, and one beater of the drum, while the chorus, whose number is not fixed, squat on the ground to the right of the spectator. The back of the stage, the only side not open to the air, is painted with a pine-tree, in accordance with ancient usage, while, equally in conformity with established rules, three small pine-trees are planted in the court which divides the gallery from the space occupied by the less distinguished portion of the audience. The covered place for the audience runs round three sides of the stage.[2] Masks are worn by such of the actors as take the parts of females or of supernatural beings, and the dresses are gorgeous in the extreme. Scenery, however, is allowed no place on the lyric stage."

It will readily be understood that the difficulty of arriving at the meaning of such compositions as the Nō is very considerable. Mr. Mitford, no mean scholar, in his Tales of Old Japan pronounces them "wholly unintelligible"; though this statement must be taken with some qualification, as he gives in the same work a lucid account of the plot of several of them. But even when he has mastered their sense, the translator's difficulties are only beginning. I know of nothing in literature for which it is more impossible to give an adequate English equivalent than the intricate network of word-plays, quotations, and historical, literary, and scriptural allusions of which they consist. Mr. Chamberlain, who has done some of them into English verse, confesses that his rendering is only a paraphrase. Prose or a rough and ready blank verse has been preferred for the partial translation of the Takasago, which is given below. But even when freed from the temptation to introduce extraneous matter which is hardly separable from a poetical version, it is not possible to render the original as faithfully as might be desired. I have tried, however, while omitting a certain untranslatable element, at any rate to bring in nothing of my own.


This is one of the pieces attributed to Motokiyo, who died in 1455, but, as already suggested, he was probably only the director or manager of the theatre where it was produced. It is the best known, and is considered the finest of all the Nō. Its popularity was testified to no longer ago than last year (1897) by the launching, from the yard of Messrs. Armstrong & Co. at Newcastle, of a cruiser for the Japanese navy bearing the name of Takasago.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Guardian of the Shinto shrine of Aso, in Kiushiu.
An Old Man
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Really the spirit of the Sumiyoshi fir-tree.
An Old Woman
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Really the spirit of the Takasago fir-tree.

The God of Sumiyoshi.


Chorus (?)[3] (chants in nearly regular metre).

Now for the first time he ties the lace of his travelling garb:
His goal is distant many a long day's journey.

Tomonari (speaks in prose). Now, this is I, Tomonari, guardian of the shrine of Aso, in the province of Higo, in Kiushiu. Never having seen the capital, I have now made up my mind, and am going up to the capital. Moreover, I wish to take this opportunity of viewing the bay of Takasago, in Harima.

Chorus (?) (chants in regular metre). To-day he has made up his mind, and has donned his travelling raiment for a journey to a distant goal—the capital. With waves that rise along the shore, and a genial wind of spring upon the ship-path, how many days pass without a trace of him we know not, until at length he has reached the longed-for bay of Takasago, on the coast of Harima.

Old Man and Old Woman (chant). The wind of spring that blows through the fir-tree of Takasago has gone down with the sun; the vesper bell is heard from the Temple of Onoye.

Old Woman. The waves are hidden from us by the mist-enshrouded rocks.

Both. There is naught but the sound to mark the rise and fall of the tide.

Old Man. Whom can I take to be my friend? Except the fir-tree of Takasago, my ancient comrade, there is none to converse with me of the bygone days on which are ever gathering white snows [of forgetfulness]. I grow older and older, accustomed to hear nothing but the wind in the fir-tree either when I rise or go to sleep in my nest of an aged crane, where the night-long moon sheds its rays, and the spring sends down its hoar-frosts. So I make my own heart my companion, and thus give utterance to my thoughts.

Both. Let us sweep away the fir-needles that lie beneath the tree, sleeve touching sleeve of our garments, whereon rest fallen leaves shaken down by the shore-wind asking their news of the firs.


Tomonari (spoken). While waiting for some of the villagers to appear, an old man and an old woman have come hither. I pray you, old people, permit me to ask you a question.

Old Man. It is I whom you address? What is it you desire to know?

Tomonari. Which is the tree that is called the fir-tree of Takasago?

Old Man. This very tree whose shade we are cleansing is the fir-tree of Takasago.

Tomonari. The phrase "growing old together" is used of the Takasago and Suminoye fir-trees. But this place and Sumiyoshi [the same as Suminoye] are in provinces distant from one another. How then can they be called the fir-trees which "grow old together"?

Old Man. As you have deigned to observe, it is stated in the preface to the Kokinshiu[4] that the fir-trees of Takasago and Suminoye make us feel as if they were growing old together. However that may be, here am I, an old man, who belong to Sumiyoshi, in the province of Settsu, while the old woman here is of this place. Be pleased to tell me, if you can, how that may be.

Tomonari (in verse). Strange! I see you old couple here together. What mean you then by saying that you dwell apart, one in distant Suminoye, the other in Takasago, divided from one another by seashore, hill, and province?

Old Woman (in verse). What an odd speech! Though many a mile of mountain and river separate them, the way of a husband and wife whose hearts respond to one another with mutual care, is not far apart.


Old Woman. There is Suminoye.

Old Man. And here is Takasago.

Tomonari. The fir-trees blend their hues.

Old Man. And the spring air——

Tomonari. Is genial, while——

(Here the chorus strikes in with a canticle which is chanted as the indispensable accompaniment of every regular Japanese wedding, and is one of the best known passages in Japanese literature. Figures representing the two old folks under the fir-tree with brooms in their hands are, on such occasions, set out on a sort of tray. This is a favourite subject of the Japanese artist.)


On the four seas
Still are the waves;
The world is at peace:
Soft blow the time-winds,[5]
Rustling not the branches.
In such an age
Blest are the very firs,
In that they meet
To grow old together.
Vain indeed
Are reverent upward looks;
Vain even are words to tell
Our thanks that we were born
In such an age,
Rich with the bounty
Of our sovereign lord.


Old Man. I hear the sound of the bell of Onoye, in Takasago.


The dawn is near,
And the hoar-frost falls
On the fir-tree twigs;
But its leaves' dark green
Suffer no change.
Morning and evening
Beneath its shade

Tomonari. And ye who have made known the bygone story of these ancient firs whose branches have indeed earned fame—tell me, I pray you, by what names are ye called.

Old Man and Old Woman. Why conceal it longer? We are the spirits of the fir-trees of Takasago and Suminoye that have grown old together, manifested under the form of a married pair.

Chorus. Wonderful! A miracle wrought by the fir-trees of this famous place!

Old Man and Old Woman. Plants and trees are without souls——

Chorus. Yet in this august reign——

Old Man and Old Woman. Even for plants and trees——


Good is it to live
For ever and ever
In this land
Of our great sovereign,
Under his rule.
To Sumiyoshi,[6] therefore,
He would now take his way
And there wait upon [the god].
He embarks in a fisher's boat
That lies by the beach,


From Takasago I set sail
In this skiff that lies by the shore,
And put forth with the tide
That goes out with the moon.
I pass under the lee
Of Awaji's shore,
I leave far behind me Naruwo,
And now I have arrived
At Suminoye.

(The god of Sumiyoshi[7] appears, and enters into a poetical dialogue with the chorus.)


We give thanks for this manifestation;
Ever anew we will worship
Thy spirit with sacred dance
By Sumiyoshi's pure moonlight.


And now, world without end,
The extended arms of the dancing maidens
In sacerdotal robes
Will expel noxious influences;
Their hands folded to rest in their bosoms
Will embrace all good fortune;
The hymn of a thousand autumns
Will draw down blessings on the people,
And the song of ten thousand years[8]
Prolong our sovereign's life.
And all the while,

Some of the Nō have more of dramatic action than the Takasago. Nakamitsu, a piece translated by Mr. Chamberlain, is one of these. Another example is the Tōsen, of which the following is a résumé:—

An inhabitant of Hakosaki, in Kiushiu, informs the audience that under an embargo placed by the Japanese Government on Chinese ships thirteen years before, he had detained a vessel from that country, and made the owner his cow-herd.

The Chinaman's two sons come to ransom their father. His master gives him leave to go, but just when they are about to sail, two sons born to him in Japan appear and propose to accompany him. Their request is refused by the master, and the father, distracted between his wish to return home with his Chinese family, and his reluctance to leave his Japanese children behind, tries to drown himself. Much appropriate sentiment ensues, which touches the heart of the master, so that he allows all five to depart together.

In Dōjōji a priest appears, and informs the audience that he is about to consecrate a new bell for his temple, the former one having been long ago removed. He then directs his acolyte to make the necessary preparations, enjoining on him specially to take care that no woman shall be present at the ceremony.

A dancing-girl approaches, and proposes to dance in honour of the occasion. The acolyte forgets his instructions, and allows her to do so. She takes the opportunity of seizing the bell by the suspending ring, and bringing it down over her, greatly to the consternation of the priest. He calls together his fellows and relates a legend which explains why women were not allowed to be present:—

"A man had an only daughter, who formed a union with a Yamabushi [a sort of lay-priest]. When pressed to marry her, he ran away and hid in the bell of the temple. She pursued him, and came to a river which she could not cross. But the fire of her passion was so intense that it changed her into a serpent, in which form she found no difficulty in swimming over. Coming to the temple, the serpent coiled itself round the bell, which was melted by the heat of her passion, the false lover perishing at the same time."

The priest, having told this legend, joins with his colleagues in reciting with might and main all kinds of Buddhist prayers and invocations, by which the bell is raised to its former position, and the dancing-girl forced to reveal herself in her serpent shape. Involved in flames, she plunges into the adjoining river and disappears. Exeunt omnes.

The Kiōgen (mad-words) are to the Nō what farce is to the regular drama. They are performed on the same stage in the intervals between the more serious pieces.

They differ from the Nō in having no chorus, and in being composed in the pure colloquial dialect of the time. They are even shorter, and of the slightest construction. The following is an example:—

"A Daimio sends his servant to the city to buy a talisman which will work miracles. The servant meets with a swindler, who sells him an object which he calls the Mallet of Daikoku (every blow of which is supposed to produce a piece of gold), telling him a charm by repeating which, as he holds the mallet, he can have anything he pleases. The servant returns with his prize. The Daimio asks him to produce a horse. The servant repeats his charm, and declares that the horse is ready saddled and bridled. The Daimio pretends to think his servant the horse, jumps on his back, and rides him about the stage in spite of his protestations."

Fifty of the Kiōgen have been published under the title Kiōgen Ki, and there is before me a manuscript collection which contains one hundred and fifty of these pieces.

  1. See above, p. 32.
  2. From which it is separated by a space corresponding to our pit, only open to the air.—W. G. A.
  3. The distribution of the speeches is sometimes doubtful. I have made one or two changes.
  4. See above, p. 66.
  5. The land and sea breezes, which blow regularly only in fine weather.
  6. Sumiyoshi means "dwell-good."
  7. There are in reality three gods. Doubtless only one appears on the stage.
  8. Equivalent to our "God save the Queen."