Haiku in “The Makioka Sisters”

When I was writing about renga the other day, I said something about poetry writing having been a basic communication tool for the Japanese (at least the upper classes) back in the old days.

At the time, I was thinking “old days” = hundreds of years ago. But later, I remembered a scene from my favorite Japanese novel, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, which is set in the 1930s. This wonderful scene describes a family — three adults and a ten-year-old girl — writing poetry together as an evening activity the way an American family might play a board game.

Background: The book describes the lives of an upper-middle-class family consisting of four sisters, two married and two not. (Much of the drama of the story lies in the family’s efforts to get the two single sisters married off, and protect their reputations in the meantime. The book reads amazingly like a nineteenth-century English or French or Russian novel.)

At the beginning of the story, one married sister is living in Tokyo with her family; the other three are living in Osaka in the household of the other married sister. Then, due to complicated circumstances, one of the single sisters goes to live in Tokyo too. Everyone misses her. So — apparently more or less as a matter of course — they decide one night to write her some poetry:

“Suppose we each write something,” said Teinosuke [the married sister’s husband]. It was some twenty days later, on the night of the autumn full moon. Everyone thought this an excellent idea, and after dinner Teinosuke, Sachiko, Taeko, and Etsuko gathered near the veranda of a Japanese-style room downstairs. The traditional moon-viewing flowers and fruit had been set out. When O-haru had ground the ink, Teinosuke, Sachiko, and Etsuko each composed a poem. Taeko, who was not good at poetry, did a quick ink wash of the moon coming through pine branches.

The clouds are passing.

The pines reach out for the moon.

Teinosuke

The night of the full moon.

Here, one shadow is missing.

— Sachiko

The moon tonight–

Yukiko sees it in Tokyo.

— Etsuko

— Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters, trans. Edward Seidensticker

(The final poem, by the way, is by the ten-year-old.)

I don’t know whether these poems are meant to be haiku in the original Japanese. They are certainly haiku-like, though. And it’s interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to be any discussion among the family about what kind of poetry to write, yet everyone produces the same kind, as if everyone just knows that this is the kind of poetry you write on an occasion like this. Clearly poetry-writing has been a standard part of their upbringing and education. (I also think it’s touching and funny that there’s one sister who considers herself, or is considered, “not good at poetry,” and who instead specializes in a different sort of traditional Japanese art.)

Tanizaki wrote this book during and after World War II partly out of nostalgia for what he saw as the lost culture of prewar Japan — there is a lot of information about the family engaging in traditional Japanese music, dance, theater, and crafts as well. So maybe he was simply more inclined to portray characters as cultured and artistic, and this is not a realistic representation of what a typical Japanese family of their class and time would have done. But the scene seems so quiet and matter-of-fact that it’s hard to believe it was a complete fantasy on his part.



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