Silence and the Swamp

This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.

(N.B. This article discusses the novel “Silence” rather than the 2016 film, which I have not seen yet. According to what I have read about the film, there are some differences between the two. In addition, this article contains extensive plot spoilers.)

I approached Endō Shūsaku’s 沈黙 (chinmoku, Silence, 1966) in a rather unusual way, in that I had read a great deal about the book, including “spoilers”, before reading the book itself. The plot should, in any case, be no secret, since it is based closely on historical events. It has rather a simple structure: two priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, having heard that their esteemed mentor Ferreira has apostatised under torture in Japan, resolve to enter the country in secret and in contravention of the shogunal prohibition, in order to find out whether the accounts that they had heard were true, as well as to minister to the Christians there. On arrival, they find a Christian community but remain in hiding, as it becomes clear that their presence will put the villagers in danger. Some of the Christian villagers are arrested and put to death after they refuse to give up their faith. The priests separate and Rodrigues is betrayed to the authorities by Kichijiro, a fisherman who has apostatised as a result of the persecutions but cannot seem to abandon Christianity entirely, sometimes acting against the priests for his own ends – he betrays Rodrigues for a symbolism-laden 300 pieces of silver – and sometimes asking for forgiveness. After witnessing the death of Garrpe, Rodrigues is brought to Ferreira, who has indeed apostatised and been given a Japanese name and family (both formerly belonging to an executed criminal). Ferreira encourages Rodrigues to apostatise; Rodrigues is resolute in refusing but in the pivotal scene, he realises the suffering to which the villagers, whom he was supposed to serve, are subjected for his sake. He resolves to apostatise and an afterword relates events from his subsequent life in conditions similar to those of Ferreira.

The character of Ferreira is based on the real Jesuit missionary priest Cristóvão Ferreira, who renounced Christianity under torture and adopted the name Sawano Chūan, as in Silence. He is reported to have recanted his apostasy and died under torture, although there is some uncertainty as to whether these reports are true. (This article in Monumenta Nipponica discusses his case.) The magistrate Inoue, portrayed as a master of psychological manipulation in Silence, is based on the real Inoue Masashige who was active in attempting to eradicate Christianity. (He was also, reportedly, the lover of the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, but this does not play any role in the novel.)  An detailed, scholarly account of Inoue’s life can be found here. Rodrigues is based on the Sicilian missionary Giuseppe Chiara. It appears that relatively little is known about Chiara other than that he entered Japan, was subsequently arrested, and then lived in Japan for almost 40 years before dying in Edo.


Knowing the bare bones of the story, we can concentrate on how it is told. In one of the reviews of Silence that I read in preparation for writing this, there was a comment along the lines of “there are no funny bits”. Having read extensively about Silence before reading the text itself, humour was the last thing I was expecting to encounter. There are so topics so unremittingly grim that the idea of even associating them with humour seems obscene, and stories of persecution surely fall into this category. There is laughter at one point, but it is the humourless laughter of the soon-to-be-unhinged, and for those who already know how the story unfolds, it is accompanied by dramatic irony: the sound that Rodrigues believes to be the snoring of a guard is, in fact, the agonised moaning of villagers being hung upside-down over a pit of filth for the sole purpose of bringing Rodrigues to the point of renouncing his faith. Not only does the narrative, understandably, lack any light-hearted moments, but it is also, at least in the English translation of William Johnston, devoid of any literary flourishes, poetical descriptions of nature or anything that would distract attention from the tale as it proceeds to its grim conclusion. Even the descriptions of torture and execution are somewhat muted, and the readers spared full horrific details. The main focus of the book is clearly the evolution of Rodrigues’ faith and mindset and, as with many of Endō Shūsaku’s works, the issue of why Christianity has not been widely adopted in Japan. In the same way that the characters Hasekura and Velasco in The Samurai appear to represent Japanese and European cultural traits, Rodrigues, Inoue and Ferreira may be meant as archetypes of European Christianity, Japan and a “Japanised” Christianity that has changed so much from its original form so as not to be recognisable as Christianity at all. This seems to be the message that Ferreira is trying to convey in his “swamp” speech: the missionaries, prepared for martyrdom, planted the “sapling” of Christianity in Japan, but failed to notice that its roots were decaying in the swamp. By calling Japan a swamp, Ferreira does not refer to deliberate persecution, but to his assertion that what the Japanese converts have believe is not Christianity but something else entirely, a version of Christianity that they have twisted to fit to concepts with which they are familiar. He cites the example that the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, when he had first arrived in Japan and was attempting to convey the Christian message through an interpreter, used the name Dainichi (the name of a Buddha who is particularly revered in Shingon Buddhism) to refer the Christian God, leading his audience to assume that he was preaching a new kind of Buddhism. When the missionaries realised their mistake, they introduced the name Deusu (from the Latin Deus) instead, but Ferreira claims that for the Japanese believers, Dainichi and Deusu were interchangeable and essentially represented “a beautiful, exalted man” because they “have never had the concept of God; and never will”

In this “swamp” dialogue, Rodrigues and Ferreira could also be representing two different views of history and culture. Rodrigues argues that it is specific events and people that have brought about the situation in which the two men find themselves: “It’s not that [our religion] does not take root… It’s that the roots are torn up.”; “If Xavier had had a good interpreter such a strange and trifling error would never have arisen.” while Ferreira argues that it is because “the Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human”. Is Ferreira trying to excuse his failure by attributing it to impersonal forces of culture, or is he simply summarising what he has learnt over his years in Japan? If a less driven, more live-and-live man, or a man with less of a keen insight into human psychology, had been in the place of Inoue, then the persecutions may have become a formality (as indeed they did become, once the priests had been toppled from their positions of authority). However, Ferreira seems to suggest that nonetheless, the people’s beliefs would mutate from orthodox Christianity to something more compatible with their existing belief frameworks. Did this indeed happen? Yes and no. After the last priests were expelled or executed, the converts who remained Christian despite the persecutions went into hiding. Without priests, they were left with only the sacrament of baptism and the Latin prayers and rituals they had been taught. Some families passed down these traditions, which became mixed with syncretic elements, for several decades. Whether the tendency towards sycretism has anything to do with uniquely Japanese belief systems, or whether it is a natural result of the lack of input from the orthodox form of the religion, is unclear. (I am not aware of any equivalent situation in another culture.) When Japan re-opened itself to the outside world in the Meiji era, a Catholic church was built for the new French community in Nagasaki. The parish priest was astonished when a number of farmers presented themselves to him, saying that they believed as he did. Some of the hidden Christians rejoined the Catholic Church, while others continued with their traditions, believing that theirs was the true religion. (This story is told in In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, by John Dougill, Tuttle, 2012 which I will discuss in more detail in a later blog post.)


Monument to persecuted Christians at Unzen, near Nagasaki

侍 (The Samurai) – Part 1

Endō Shūsaku (遠藤周作, 1923-1996) is not a household name in English-speaking countries, but may be about to become one, as the film adaptation of his novel Silence is released on 1st January 2017. (I haven’t yet seen it so this doesn’t constitute an endorsement. However, I can only say that if it isn’t harrowing, then it isn’t true to the novel.)

The recurring theme of Endō’s work is Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, in Japan. Endō was born in 1923 in Tokyo but spent his early life in Manchuria, returning to Japan with his mother in 1933 to live with an aunt in Kobe after his parents divorced. Endō’s mother converted to Catholicism and Endō himself was baptised into the Catholic Church in 1934. Many of his writings take the theme of the conflicts he perceived between the Christian faith and Japanese culture. Among these works are two historical novels, 沈黙 (Silence, 1966) and 侍 (The Samurai, 1980), both of which are set in the seventeenth century.

Christian missions to Japan in the sixteenth century had resulted in large numbers of converts, including some feudal lords. However, the shogunate came to distrust the ‘new’ religion; anti-Christian edicts began to be issued and outbreaks of persecution to take place. The severity of anti-Christian feeling varied from time to time and place to place, and one of the more tolerant parts of Japan was the Sendai domain under the rule of Date Masamune (伊達 政宗, 1567–1636) who, at least initially, allowed Christians to practise and propagate their faith in his domain, even when this was forbidden in Edo.


Snow was falling.
Twilight. The sky, from which weak sunlight had trickled through a cleft in the clouds onto the pebble-strewn riverbed, became dark. Suddenly it was quiet. Two, three snowflakes came fluttering down.
(own translation)

The beginning of The Samurai paints a picture of a bleak, meagre existence. The eponymous samurai and his servants are cutting trees for winter firewood. This is not a man who lives in a castle or one of the understatedly elegant samurai residences (武家屋敷, buke-yashiki) that can still be visited in certain parts of Japan, for example in Kakunodate. Instead, this samurai is superior in little more than name and heritage to the peasants with whom he seeks to eke a living out of his desolate marshlands. Better times lay in the past; his father was dispossessed of more productive lands – the lands at Kurokawa, which play an important role in the story – ostensibly to develop the marshland region, but, the family suspect, more probably as a punishment for the involvement of certain family members in sheltering rebels. The samurai lives with his wife Riku, two sons and an uncle who constantly reminisces and longs for the better days in the past. The samurai himself is stoical, dutiful and silent, accepting the fate he has been given and expressing no longings for anything different.

We are then introduced to a very different character – Velasco, a Franciscan priest in prison in Edo. The Jesuits, who were the first Christian religious order to evangelise Japan, have been taking a more cautious approach and refusing to send new missionaries since persecution of Christians has increased. The courageous, but driven and ambitious Velasco finds this approach entirely too timid and wishes to intensify missionary efforts, welcoming the idea of becoming a martyr for the faith. To this end he wishes to have himself appointed Bishop of Japan. At this point in the novel, Velasco, who is portrayed in the first person, exhibits very little self-awareness.

The link between the two characters is then revealed: it has been decided that an embassy will be sent from the domain of the samurai’s lord to Nueva España (today’s Mexico). Velasco will take part as a translator, while the samurai is to be one of the four representatives of the domain.  Velasco, of course, has his own plans for how he will use the trip to fulfil his ambitions, while the samurai is somewhat bemused to be chosen, but obedient.

Endō’s novel is based on historical events. Although he is rarely called by name in the narrative, “the samurai” is 支倉常長 Hasekura Tsunenaga. It appears that relatively little is known about Hasekura’s early life. Indeed, the journey made by Hasekura and his companions was forgotten for many years after Japan closed itself off against contact with the outer world. The Velasco character is based on a priest named Luis Sotelo. A note in the English translation of The Samurai by Van C. Gessel (New Directions) discusses how close the novel corresponds to known historical fact.


Why is the principal Japanese character in the novel referred to as “the samurai” rather than “Hasekura” or a pseudonym as in the case of Sotelo/Velasco? The word 侍 “samurai”, although it evokes ideas of swordsmanship, bravery, ornate armour and weaponry, nobility and the like in a Western readership, has for its root a word believed to mean “to wait/attend upon”. A more usual Japanese word for what non-Japanese readers would think of as a “samurai” is 武士 (bushi, meaning “military warrior”). The samurai of the novel is, however, called 侍 (samurai), emphasising the serving aspect of the role. (Van C. Gessel retains this naming convention throughout the English translation, and explains the reason for it in terms of this serving role in the Translator’s Note.) In addition, the use of “the samurai” rather than a name reinforces the sense that this samurai sees himself primarily in terms of his duty to his family and lord rather than as an individual; this is certainly not someone aiming to impose himself upon the world or “find himself”. Interestingly, the samurai’s servant, Yozō, is referred to by name. The use of “the samurai” also points out the contrast with the ambitious Velasco, who does indeed aim to impose himself upon the world, albeit while seeing himself as a servant of Christ and the church. Whether Endō wished to make these two characters symbolic of what he saw as typical Japanese and European ways of being is less clear.

Looking for the Lost

This second full-length travel book from Alan Booth was published after the author’s death in 1993. Unlike The Roads to Sata, which is the account of a single, very long journey, Looking for the Lost consists of three self-contained sections: Tsugaru. which traces the journey of the novelist Dazai Osamu around his home region in Aomori Prefecture, Saigo’s Last March, following the route that Saigō Takamori took through Kyushu to escape goverment troops during his ill-fated rebellion, and Looking for the Lost, a walk northwards from Nagoya to one of the many places to which members of the defeated Heike clan are purported to have retreated after their defeat at the battle of Dannoura.

The premise of this book is less constraining than that of The Roads to Sata, in which Booth undertook to walk the length of Japan; this necessarily entailed walking through some parts that were less interesting and appealing than others. In Looking for the Lost, Booth concentrates less on the process of walking the routes and expands more on cultural and historical themes, making for a more interesting and entertaining book in my opinion, and letting more of the author’s personality shine through. In addition, despite the melancholy title and Booth’s mention, on the penultimate page, of the cancer that would later kill him, the overall mood of Looking for the Lost seemed to be a good deal more cheerful than that of The Roads to Sata. Several years had passed since the previous journey, and the attitude of many owners of ryokans and minshukus to foreigners seemed to have become more welcoming in the intervening period; there is only one incident that I can recall in the later book in which an inn owner is clearly reluctant to allow Booth to stay because of his foreignness.


Whether by deliberate design or by chance, the three sections are organised in a sequence reaching back in time. Dazai’s journey, retraced in the first section, took place in 1944, Saigō’s in 1877 and the Heike’s, if it took place at all, in 1185. The first section, Tsugaru, is based on Dazai’s Return to Tsugaru (subtitled Travels of a Purple Tramp in reference to Dazai’s idiosyncratic style of travelling clothes). Booth mentions that he “did not much care for Dazai, as a man or as a writer” and comments disapprovingly more than once about Dazai’s tendency to spend hours on end getting drunk on other people’s wartime supplies of sake. For Booth, Dazai’s journey provides the structure for an exploration of a region of northern Japan that he finds interesting for other reasons unrelated to Dazai. One of the most interesting sections is on folk music. It was clear from The Roads to Sata that Booth loved singing and took a great interest in Japanese folk-songs, and he expands on this in Looking for the Lost with a discussion of the Tsugaru shamisen which, like many things in Japan, was the subject of a brief ‘boom’. The Tsugaru shamisen is a stringed instrument. I was not familiar with it at all but have found some videos on YouTube where you can see how it is played and listen to the sound.

Video 1

Video 2

The following video is an extract from an anime featuring a shamisen player:

Video 3

In “Saigo’s Last March” Booth followed the route taken by Saigō Takamori and his rebels from Enodake, in today’s Oita Prefecture, to his home in Kagoshima. Saigō had been one of the main players in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in which the shogun was deposed and the emperor ‘restored’ to power (having been little more than a figurehead during the centuries of dominance by the Tokugawa and earlier shoguns). With other samurai from the Satsuma and Chōshū domains (modern-day Kagoshima and Yamaguchi Prefectures), he took a post in the new Meiji government. However, he later became disenchanted with government and returned to Satsuma and founded military schools for boys from the samurai class. After some years, the government became increasingly suspicious of the militarisation in Satsuma, beginning with espionage and later sending a warship to Kagoshima, eventually provoking the uprising known as the Satsuma Rebellion. During the last stages of this rebellion, the all-but-defeated rebels were surrounded on Enodake. Many of the rebels were killed or committed seppuku, but Saigō and a small band of 500 men managed to slip away under cover of darkness and make their way to Kagoshima, where they would later take their last stand.

Parts of the route taken by Saigō and his men have since become overgrown and difficult or impossible to follow; anyone who has been to Kyushu will know that much of the central, mountainous region looks like a thick jungle and that plants grow fast and vigorously in the warm and humid climate. During the journey, Booth meditates on the nature of heroism in Japanese and Western culture. While a hero in Western culture is held out as someone to emulate, he says, in Japan a hero is far removed from the everyday that he cannot be emulated, simply admired. The portrayal of Saigō, even before his death, as having undergone some kind of apotheosis that enabled him to look down upon the world from the planet Mars, is cited as evidence for this concept of heroism.

The final section of the book, Looking for the Lost, follows a route that may have been taken by defeated Heike warriors, starting from Nagoya and ending in a village named Taira (平), the alternative name for the Heike (平家) clan (Heike = house of Taira). Although the name of the village may appear to be clear evidence of a connection, Taira simply means ‘flat’ or ‘plain’ so it could have been a place-name derived from a geographical feature. The first chapter of this section features an exhibition of high-tech products and designs for the future in Nagoya, in which the theme of almost every exhibit is some kind of ‘dream’. (In the 2000s, ‘dream’ was still often in evidence in advertising copywriting, along with variations on ‘We support your comfortable life’.) The next chapter takes up the journey and links to the theme of ‘dream’ which occurs at the beginning of the 平家物語(へいけものがたり, Tale of the Heike):

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. (trans. Helen Craig McCullough)

The author goes back in time to the days of traditional gassho-zukuri houses (“praying hands” houses, referring to the steeply pitched roofs developed for snowy winters) in Shirakawa-go* and cormorant fishing before arriving in Taira. Did the Heike arrive there too? They could have done, but there was no concrete evidence for or against, and this conclusion is in any case overshadowed by the grim news, on the final page, of the author’s cancer. How much of the book was written, or edited, when the author was aware of his illness is not clear. He avoids an obvious sense of foreboding until the end, but it is clear from the front matter and blurb, as well as numerous online reviews, that he was already dead by the time of publication, so it is impossible to read it without this in mind.

Japan has changed since Booth pounded its pavements and roads, and Japanese fashions have become more popular in the West, reducing the distance and strangeness that both sides must have felt, particularly in the days of The Roads to Sata. It is a pity that we do not have Booth here to give us his take on Japan of the 2000s and 2010s.

* The English version of the (otherwise excellent) website for Shirakawa-go advertises a “Gassho style village map”. My immediate reaction was “Oh, how clever – they have made the map in gassho style”. My second reaction, “Well, don’t all folding maps somehow resemble pointed roofs when they are being unfolded?”. Finally, I realised that the expression “gassho-style” modified “village” rather than “map”. Anyone who is reading this and teaching English, perhaps you could encourage your students to make more liberal use of the word “of”. I have noticed that non-native speakers of English from many backgrounds seem somehow reluctant to use this word. Perhaps textbooks are to blame?

The Roads to Sata

Long walks through Japan have become something of a tradition. Alan Booth (1946-1993) made a journey, entirely on foot, over the approximately 2000 miles or 3000 km between the northernmost tip of Japan, Cape Soya in Hokkaido, and its southernmost point, Cape Sata in Kyushu, and this book, The Roads to Sata, was the result.

Views from Cape Sata

Booth had been living in Tokyo for several years but had begun to suspect that Tokyo was not the ‘real Japan’ and therefore decided to embark on his journey, choosing to walk, mainly along roads rather than across country, so as to have chance to meet and talk to people along the way. He explains his motivation in an interview with a journalist after completing his trip:

“Why did you decide to do it in the first place?”

“Because I’d lived in Japan for a quarter of my life and still didn’t know whether I was wasting my time. I hoped that by taking four months off to do nothing but scrutinize the country I might come to grips with the business of living here, and get a clearer picture, for better or worse”.

but admits that he was not successful in his mission:

“Have you managed to do that?”


The trip avoids many of the typical cities and tourist sights, leaving out Tokyo (mentioned only in passing at the beginning), Osaka and Kyoto, and instead concentrates on the ordinary, everyday towns and cities along the way. Booth also eschews the usual clichés found in writing by Westerners about Japan – geishas, mono no aware, wabi-sabi, the homogeneity and consensus culture of ‘the Japanese’ and so on – presumably because Booth had been in Japan for long enough to get such things out of his system if he ever had them in his system to start with. His introduction specifically points out that he has:

“tried to avoid generalizations, particularly ‘the Japanese’. ‘The Japanese are 120,000,000 people, ranging in age from 0 to 119, in geographical location across 21 degrees of latitude and 23 of longitude, and in profession from emperor to urban guerilla.”

However, in the course of his travels, Booth finds that he cannot avoid clichés and preconceptions – not his own about ‘the Japanese’, but those of the people he meets about Westerners. Despite speaking fluent Japanese, he often has to convince the owners of the ryokans where he wishes to stay that he can indeed eat raw fish, use chopsticks and sleep on a futon, and that he in fact does all these things regularly with his Japanese wife in Tokyo. At one ryokan, the owners finally say “but we can’t speak English!” despite the fact that for the previous few minutes, they had been speaking in Japanese. Booth is also frequently accosted by schoolboys asking “Amerika?” (i.e. “Are you from America?”) and saying “Ziss is a PEN” – the first sentence in the English language textbook used in Japanese schools – and “Hey YOOO!” (I can’t imagine what sort of textbook would teach this as an appropriate way to greet, well, anyone, so I’m somewhat bemused as to where it may have come from.) The schoolgirls, on the other hand, politely asked him for his autograph, and a policeman is surprised that the money in his wallet is Japanese money.

Booth clearly wants nothing more than to blend in, be accepted and talk to people, and the constant reminders of his otherness cause great frustration. At one point in the journey, an elderly lady clearly becomes aware of his frustration and attempts an explanation:

“We don’t see many foreigners here” explained the old lady as she pedaled off. “That’s why the people stare at you. That’s why the children shout.”

but nonetheless, being treated in this way starts to get to him:

“I haven’t got any friends,” I snarled. “I’m a gaijin.”

Occasionally, the frustration boils over into what seems to be a somewhat exaggerated sense of injury. Some children are reported as saying, of the gaijin:

“Look at it!… What’s it eating? What’s it speaking?”

and later:

“See what it does when you say ‘hurro’ to it.”

although there is, to my knowledge, no way of unambiguously referring to something or someone as ‘it’ in Japanese; the only expressions I can think of that they may have used – which are admittedly not terribly polite – are:

あのもの ano mono, which could mean あの物 that thing or あの者 that person.

あの奴 (あのやつ) ano yatsu, which could mean ‘that guy’ or ‘that thing’

彼奴 (あいつ) aitsu, which means ‘he, she, that guy’ but is also used, at least in Kyushu dialect, to mean ‘that thing’, if I remember correctly.

However, it could be that I have missed an important expression here – please let me know in the comments if so!

Things have changed a great deal since the late 1970s, when Booth made his journey, and particularly in large towns and cities, people are used to seeing foreign faces and hearing non-Japanese people speak the language with varying degrees of fluency. Even by the time of Booth’s later book, Looking for the Lost (published after his death in 1993) he seems to have been accepted into ryokans without the long debates. The earlier, 1970s book gives many hints of a disappearing era; for example, older people cite distances in terms of ri – “the distance that a man with a burden would aim to cover in an hour on mountain roads” (aim to, presumably, because he may find his way impeded by bears, or be bewitched by foxes, or have some other unpleasant fate befall him). Some things remain the same, however: music and sirens blaring out at various times of day to indicate that children should go to school or go home, politicians’ vans blaring out messages “My name is Tanaka Kenji, vote for me”, tiny noodle shops run by elderly couples, a love of nature and of the restraining powers of concrete, good food, good beer and sometimes overwhelming friendliness and hospitality, adult manga in full public view (although I heard some time back that they were finally to be banished to top shelves) and the idea that Japan and the Japanese people are unique and uniquely difficult to understand. In Hokkaido, not long after the beginning of his trip Booth has a conversation with an old man and tells him that he, Booth, lives in Tokyo.

“Tokyo is not Japan,” he said. “You can’t understand Japan by living in Tokyo.”

Booth agrees and says that’s why he decided to look at the rest of Japan.

“You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it,” the old main said.

No, agrees Booth, he was also talking to the people he met. The old man tells him that you can’t understand Japan just by talking to people. How could he understand Japan, then, asks Booth.

“You can’t understand Japan,” he said.


The Roads to Sata gives an insight into a Japan that is far removed from the touristy stereotypes and is probably particularly fascinating for those who have never had a chance to visit. However, the premise of the journey – walking from one end of the country to the other – does not allow much detailed discussion of the individual places Booth travels through, and many themes come up repeatedly through the account – concrete, dead snakes, beer, pollution, to cite some examples. There are some parts of the journey that Booth himself appears to find rather tedious; certain parts of Japan are ‘away from the tourist trail’ for good reason. The Roads to Sata also, necessarily, reflects the Japan of its time, which has now partially passed away, and the state of mind of the author, who was still trying to “come to grips with the business of living [there]” and “didn’t know whether I was wasting my time”. In Looking for the Lost, we see a man who appears much more at ease with his life in Japan. Sadly, Alan Booth passed away from cancer when he was only in his 40s. An obituary can be found here and a short review of “The Roads to Sata” here.

Booth appears in this video, part of a BBC educational series.

Among the Yamabushi (Narrow Road Part 4)


Back on the road with Bashō and his straw sandals…

One of the high points of his journey, figuratively as well as literally, was his pilgrimage to the 出羽三山(でわさんざん) Dewa Sanzan, three mountains of Dewa Province, which is a very sacred place in Shintō and Buddhism and in the 修験道(しゅげんどう) Shugendō mountain ascetic sect. This is a syncretic religion combining elements of Shintō and Buddhism, Taoism and other beliefs. Practitioners are known as 修験者(しゅげんじゃ) Shugenja or 山伏(やまぶし) Yamabushi (someone who prostrates himself in the mountains – the ‘bushi’ here is not the same as the word ‘bushi’ 武士(ぶし) meaning ‘warrior’). They go on foot through the mountains practising austerities, for example meditating while standing under ice-cold waterfalls – perhaps familiar to anyone who has read Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy? (Here is an interview with a Shugendō practitioner explaining some of the practices and the philosophy behind them.)

The three mountains of Dewa are 羽黒山(はぐろさん) Haguro-san, Black Wing Mountain, 月山(がっさん) Gassan, Moon Mountain and 湯殿山(ゆどのさん) Yudono-san, ‘hot-spring mountain’. As is customary, Bashō visited them in this order. On Haguro-san he and Sora stayed at a temple and took part in a haiku gathering in the abbot’s quarters. He includes the following poem


arigata ya
yuki wo kaorasu

Among the translations and explanations of this poem, the most beautiful I could find was the following from this Japanese-language site on Oku no Hosomichi


My approximate translation: “Ah, how precious and gratitude-inducing! In this southern valley, in this lower world, the south wind has made the lingering snow on this holy mountain give off a fragrance. The atmosphere is full to the brim with purity”.

For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese: such a translation, even of an explanation that is seeking to unpack and explain a haiku, can only be approximate because the structure of English forces one to give sentences a structure of ‘who did what to whom’ that is not necessary there in the original. For example, the expression 有り難い arigatai can, according to the dictionary, be translated ‘grateful’ or ‘evoking gratitude’ which implies that it can describe the subject or object of the gratitude, or both simultaneously, or perhaps the relationship between them at that moment. (I also love the fact that Japanese has a word for ‘lingering snow’ – bear in mind that it was July by the modern calendar when Bashō was visiting so snow lingering on the ground was something worth remarking on!)

On the way to Gassan, Bashō and Sora put on paper cords around their bodies and “sacred crowns” on their heads – pilgrim clothes, perhaps similar to what these two yamabushi are wearing. The man on the right is holding (and perhaps blowing into) a conch shell.

You can see more modern yamabushi photos in this gallery by Tony McNicol.

The way to Gassan went “through the clouds, mists, and mountain air, over snows that never melt” (Keene). Although he used the services of a porter, Bashō nonetheless clearly found the climb exhausting. On the following day, on the way to Yudono-san, he noticed a cherry tree – again, unusual for July – and was deeply moved by it. Visitors to Yudono-san were forbidden to describe what is within the shrine area, and Bashō therefore “lays down his pen”


Yudono ni nurasu
tamoto kana

I cannot speak of
Yudono, but see how wet
My sleeves are with tears (trans: Keene)

The ‘wet sleeves’ expression is an often-used metaphor in Japanese poetry and indicates ‘tears’ (see here on the University of Virginia’s Ogura Hyakunin Isshu page for examples of sleeve-wetting) but there appears to be an extra wordplay here because the word ‘Yudono’ has to do with bathing. The ban on describing the object of worship at the shrine has now been extended to a photography. Having never visited, I was of course intrigued as to what might be there… For anyone who wants to avoid ‘spoilers’ please note that the “Oku Annotated” site, which gives lots of detail on Bashō and Sora’s pilgrimage to the three mountains, does contain one!.

Lesley Downer, in “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North”, tells of her interest in finding out whether there are still yamabushi in the Three Mountains – some of her colleagues in Tokyo pooh-poohed the idea that there were any such thing – and her experiences when she finds them. Most of the people she meets in the mountains are from farms and villages and have been deputised to undertake the pilgrimage to pray for success, good harvests, the safety of their families, etc., together with a few people who have undertaken the rigorous ascetic training and act as guides for the pilgrims. As this Tofugu article also explains, many yamabushi these days are former salarymen who have turned to religion after retirement.

I tried my hand at a couple of yamabushi paintings to accompany this post – the first is after one of the photos in Tony McNicol’s gallery.

yamabushi2 yamabushi1



Of crystals and choirs: the Heisig method of learning kanji

When I took a Japanese-language class while working at Tōhoku University, my Chinese-speaking colleagues seemed to make much more rapid progress than me. Although the grammar of Chinese and Japanese are very different and the characters are pronounced differently for the most part, the meanings of most characters in the two languages are the same or similar. Even when characters are different – for example, there are differences between character forms in Simplified Chinese, Japanese and Traditional Chinese and there are certain characters that exist only in Japanese – people who have grown up learning a language that requires several thousand characters to write have already acquired the facility to assimilate characters and fit them into their ‘mental map’. Those of us who grew up learning an alphabetic language only had to learn 50-odd characters and then we were set to go – although, in the case of English, we had to spend the next years learning irregular spellings!
The aim of James W. Heisig’s method in his “Remembering the Kanji” series is to bridge the gap between people with an alphabetic-language background and those with a Chinese background by teaching the characters, each associated with an English meaning or keyword. No Japanese pronunciations, compound words or examples are included in Part 1, which instead concentrates on teaching simple kanji and elements and using these to build up more complex kanji. For example, the first chapter includes the numbers and the relatively simple kanji:

口(くち) kuchi: mouth
日(ひ) hi: day, sun
月(つき) tsuki: moon, month
田(た) ta: rice field
目(め) me: eye

(but without the pronunciations) and the second chapter introduces more complex kanji using these elements, such as the following, given with their Heisig keyword:

品: goods
明: bright
朋: companion
昌: prosperous
唱: chant
晶: sparkle

Each of these kanji is assigned a keyword in English and there is a mnemonic ‘story’ suggested to help remember how the meaning of the kanji is related to those of the component parts. In my experience, some of these stories are helpful, particularly when they relate to the etymology of the words – after all, the kanji are not arbitrary series of squiggles but were developed as symbolic representations of objects and concepts and some insight into the way of thinking in ancient China can sometimes be enough to make certain characters meaningful and memorable. However, others of the keywords and stories were much less helpful for me personally. For example, the character 九(きゅう) (kyuu, nine) is introduced with its simple meaning, but when this character is used to make up other characters, it is assigned the meaning of ‘baseball’ , something which has resonance for US readers but means very little to those of us from the non-baseball-playing part of the English-speaking world and made me constantly fight against the ‘obvious meaning’ of the character when it appeared subsequently. (Interestingly, I had fewer such problems with the use of the character ‘ten’ to mean ‘needle’.) The French version of the book (a sample chapter of which can be obtained here) has eliminated the baseball references and instead used the element to mean ‘new’, a play on neuf which actually works a lot better than the original in that the character 旭(あさひ) (asahi: morning sun) can then be remembered as a new sun rather than a sun rising over a baseball field!)

One of the results of this methodology is that the kanji are not taught in the usual order used by textbooks (e.g. the order used by the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or the Japanese school system or frequency of usage). This is not necessarily a problem since all commonly used kanji are eventually covered in Part 1 (and Part 3 introduces some rarer ones). However, it does mean that the book is not especially useful as the companion to a more standard Japanese or kanji course and is perhaps best tackled before starting such a course. (This was the exact context in which Heisig developed his method.) Of the compound kanji listed above, for example, 明 is taught in Grade 2 of Japanese schools and at JLPT level N4 (it does, however, have 13 different possible pronunciations in – hoorah for Japanese for keeping things interesting!) , 唱 is taught in Grade 4 and at level N1 (example usage: 合唱団(がっしょうだん)gasshoudan: choir) and 晶 is taught at junior high school and at level N1 – and has only one pronunciation in (example usage: 結晶(けっしょう)kesshou: crystal).

To avoid potential future confusion it should also be borne in mind that the keywords do not reflect the full range of meaning and nuance of the kanji, and were additionally influenced by the need to find a unique keyword for each kanji. It’s perhaps easier to think of them as a kind of hook to hang the kanji on than as “the meaning” of the kanji. If you come across this book part-way through your kanji studies, as I did, you may find these keywords conflicting with the meaning you already associate with the kanji or the associations that you have built up around it.

What of the mnemonics? As I said before, some were helpful and some less so. The author does encourage readers to make up their own mnemonic stories as they progress through the book but there seems to be no way to change the keywords if they do not work for you, so English-speaking readers are stuck with having to develop stories based on baseball. I have also heard criticism of the stories (unfortunately I don’t remember from where) for relying too much on Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage in developing the stories. Since this is my own culture this is not a problem for me personally but I could see how this could be difficult for those who have grown up in other cultures. As with the baseball, it is not so much the idea of a foreign culture (after all, if we are learning Japanese then chances are that we are interested in getting to know other cultures) so much as of the basic associations we make in our minds. In the main, I found the mnemonics most helpful when they were derived from the etymology of the characters rather than invented stories, as I felt that I as learning something more about the characters rather than having to remember a mnemonic story in addition to the character itself, its pronunciation, etc. Presumably the mnemonics are intended as staging-posts, and the ultimate aim is that we see the character and remember its meaning and pronunciation without (conscious) recourse to a mnemonic, otherwise we are still at the equivalent stage as reading alphabetic words letter-by-letter.

Personally, I am much more able to remember bizarre and unusual words and kanji than mundane, everyday ones and I don’t believe that I am alone in this – in “Use Your Head”, Tony Buzan points out that, given a list of common words and the name “Leonardo da Vinci” to memorise, participants always recall the famous name. (In fact, until referring to it just now, I had not looked at the book “Use Your Head” for at least ten years and did not remember the book title but I still recalled the fact that there was an exercise involving memorising a list of mundane words and “Leonardo da Vinci”.) As a result, interesting kanji tend to stick in my head fairly readily, while the ones for which I really need helpful mnemonics are the somewhat more dull words – or rather, I need the mnemonics to make the seemingly dull characters interesting, and this is what Heisig is striving to provide.

In short, the Heisig approach is based on an interesting concept and does take the very important step of saying that the most effective approach for adults is to learn kanji in a systematic way rather than ‘picking them up as you go along’ and developing such a system. The difficulty for those who are already part-way along the kanji-learning journey by the time they encounter the book is that it is very much an all-or-nothing approach that is not easy to integrate with other books or approaches.

There are various websites devoted to the Heisig approach and mnemonics including Kanji Cafe.
I’d be interested in hearing about your Heisig experiences and any other links in the comments!
And finally, how about a Heisig haiku? The rules are: only the characters in the first two chapters of Heisig, plus kana, are allowed!