Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Precocious Pupils of Snakeshore: Song Karuta and the One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets

Over the course of the last few months I have become increasingly aware of the significant differences in character represented by each of the three elementary schools in Kazamaura. While I do not wish to disparage the other two schools, I would nevertheless have to express my greatest admiration for the organization and drive demonstrated by Hebiura Elementary School. The name Hebiura (蛇浦) is made up of the kanji character for “snake” and the character for “creek, inlet, coastal beach, bay, gulf shoreline, etc.” so I have taken the liberty of translating it as “Snakeshore.” Snakeshore Elementary is the smallest of the three schools and is housed in the oldest of the village’s school buildings. It is dominated by the joint grade three-four class which, with sixteen students, is the largest and which completely overshadows the grade five-six class. They make up the core of the student body government and are by far the brightest in academics. The school wide Song Karuta (歌カルタ—uta karuta) Tournament I witnessed the other day was a good illustration of what I have come to see in Snakeshore.

Every event—literally, every event—at Snakeshore begins with a formal parade under the command of two fourth graders. The student body president (a fourth grade girl) opens with a speech, followed by oral statements of intent delivered by a representative from each of the grades. Usually these statements are along the lines of “so and so out did me in this event last year, so this year I really want to beat them.” Teachers are occasionally called upon to explain the finer points in the order of events, but generally they remain on the sidelines as coaches.

I was invited to join a group of second graders in the competition but was soundly defeated. The Uta Karuta Tournament has been going on at Snakeshore for years now, and every year the entire school practices for weeks, even to the point of playing the Karuta songs over the PA system during cleaning time. These songs are known as the 百人一首 (hyakunin isshu—one hundred people, one verse each) and were compiled by Teika Fujiwara in 1235. Each poem consists of five lines, and in Uta Karuta the poems are read from one set of cards by a facilitator while the players must vie to be the first to locate the corresponding cards laid out on the floor. The cards on the floor only have the last two lines so in order to be competitive one must immediately know what the fourth line of a poem is upon hearing the first line. A novice like me has no chance even against second graders—provided the second graders know the poems. And these ones do! The “One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets” are considered by many to be the nucleus of Japanese literature and so being well versed in them is often reckoned to be a sign of being cultured. Imagine, if you will, first and second graders in North America kneeling before Shakespeare’s 150 Sonnets, hearing the words “Like as the waves make towards . . .” and immediately slamming their hands down on a plain, black and white card with the words:
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

Such is Snakeshore Elementary School.

The championship round consisted of five fourth graders and a third grader—much to the chagrin of the teachers who were openly embarrassed on behalf of the fifth and sixth graders. I have decided to master these poems in time for next year’s tournament and have ordered my own set of Uta Karuta (with a CD) to that end. Watch out, grade two!

I have chosen poem #48 for presentation below, not because it is of superior quality but because it might readily be compared to a Tennyson poem of a similar strain.

The colour picture, title translation, contemporary Japanese wording, and the original Japanese wording have all been taken from Shuseki’s Hyakunin Isshu page while the black and white print, the English translation, and the romaji reading of the Japanese original were taken from the University of Virginia’s Ogura Hyakunin Isshu page.

It’s interesting to note that many centuries later Alfred Lord Tennyson used considerably more words to say much the same thing in English.

Or so it would appear to be at first glance; but wait! The common Japanese interpretation of poem #48 is that although the waves have no chance of causing the rock to crumble they continue to beat against the crags, and though the author breaks himself upon his beloved she is as cold to him as the rocky crags. So although in outward form it seems to say the same thing as Tennyson's poem, it is at the same time saying something much, much more of a completely different nature.