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Prose in the Tenth Century

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It was in the early part of the tenth century that Japanese poets became more involved with writing prose. Ki no Tsurayuki, was the first in the field. Although few details are known about him, we do that that he was a court noble in direct line of descent from one of the Mikados. His famous preface that he wrote for the Kokinshiu was written about 922 A.D. To this day the reputation of style in this piece is upheld in Japan for its elegance. To give you an idea of the beauty of his prose a passage from his preface is here inscribed:--

 

"Listening to the nightingale singing among the flowers

or to the cry of the frog which dwells in the water,

we recognise the truth that of all living things

there is not one which does not utter song. 

It is poetry by which, without an effort,

heaven and earth are moved,

and gods and demons

invisible to our eyes

are touched with sympathy.

By poetry the converse of lovers is made gentler,

and the hearts of fierce warriors soothed."

 

Tosa Nikki or Tosa Diary is another work of Tsurayuki. Within the pages of his journal was an expressive style. There were no exciting adventures. Instead the author used playful humor, elegant language and descriptive prose to allow the reader to journey with him in his travels. He was on a journey to Kyoto. It was written in early 935 A.D. At that time, men's diaries were typically written in Chinese. Women wrote in the Japanese language and written character. In the beginning of his diary, Tsurayuki explains that this is his attempt to write in the style of a woman. Here is a passage from the diary to demonstrate the prose of this famous author:--

 

"There was in one place

a sort of pond

where water had collected in a hollow

by the side of which grew a fir-tree.

It had lost half its branches,

and looked as if a thousand years had passed during the five or six years of my absence.

Younger trees had grown up round it,

and the whole place was in a most neglected condition,

so that every one said that it was pitiful to see."

 

Taketori Monogatari and Ise Monogatari are two other books discussed in this section of Prose in the Tenth Century. Monogatari means narrative. Usually it is applied to fiction, but some true stories also are applied to this style. These books are unknown for their date or authorship, but the style is that used around 901-922 A.D. The authors would have been well-versed in Kyoto court life.

 

Taketori Monogatari is a fairy-tale. The story takes place in Kyoto and all the characters are Japanese. Foreign influence is apparent and the fairy-lore of China is apparent. The story follows an old man who made his living by making and selling bamboo-ware (Tatketori means bamboo-gatherer). While in the woods one day he saw a particular bamboo with a shining stem. When he split it open, he discovered within a beautiful and tiny maiden - only 3 inches tall. He took her to his home and cared for her as his own daughter. He named her Kaguyahime (shining damsel). In a short time she grew to be a woman and her beauty was renowned, attracting many admirers. To each of the admirers she assigned a specific task with the promise that if they completed the task she would marry that person. They all failed. Ultimately she was taken up to heaven to live with her true family.

 

The Ise Monogatoari is one of the most admired of the older Japanese literature. It is even more elegant than Taketori Monogatari. The content of the Ise is a number of short chapters that relate the court life of a young nobleman named Narihira of Kyoto. Each chapter begins with "Mukashi" which translated means "A long time ago". Many of the chapters relate to the love escapades of Narihira. His love affairs were discouraging and finally he could no longer bear to live in Kyoto and set out on an expedition to the east of Japan.

 

Here is one passage:--

 

"O thou bird of Miyako!
If such be thy name,
Come! this question I would ask thee--
Is she whom I love
Still alive, or is she no more?"

 

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