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.

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



Vestiges of dreams (Narrow Road part 3)

When we read Bashō’s account of his travels, it is clear that what was important to him was to visit places that were famous from history or poetry (歌枕, utamakura), but unless we are scholars of Japanese literature and history then many, if not all, of these references are lost on us unless we have the assistance of notes. Keene, in the Kodansha bilingual edition (ISBN 4770020287) provides some notes, and there is also a comprehensive annotated translation by Prof. Dennis Kawaharada of Kapi‘olani Community College, Hawaii here (discovered since the previous post!): Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Interspersed with passages that talk about the pleasures of travelling (enjoyable time spent with fellow poets) and its inconveniences (illness, tiredness and sharing sleeping quarters with lice, fleas and a urinating horse!) are sections that speak of the pathos of war and the way in which time erases the traces of past glories:


natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato

summer grasses: all that’s left of warriors’ dreams (trans.: Dennis Kawaharada)

summer grass –
that’s all that remains
of brave warriors’ dreams (trans.: Gabi Greve)

The summer grasses –
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath (trans.: Donald Keene)


muzan ya na kabuto no shita no kirigirisu

heartless: beneath the helmet, a cricket (Trans: Dennis Kawaharada)

how tragic and pitiful …
a grashopper under
his helmet (Trans: Gabi Greve)

Alas for mortality!
Underneath the helmet
A grasshopper. (Trans: Donald Keene)

The former of these two poems was written at Hiraizumi (平泉) which was once the northern capital of the aristocratic Fujiwara family and a town with golden temples to rival those of Kyoto, but fell into disrepair and obscurity after the fourth lord, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, was attacked and defeated by the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo for sheltering Yoritomo’s outlaw half-brother Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune had previously distinguished himself in battle fighting alongside Yoritomo during the war between the rival Minamoto and Taira clans (the Genpei war) but relations between the two brothers later deteriorated to the extent that Yoshitsune fled and took refuge in Hiraizumi with his faithful, and giant, companion Benkei (a Japanese analogue to Little John).


“Yoshitsune and Benkei Viewing Cherry Blossoms” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi – note that in samurai culture, manliness and love of flowers were certainly not considered to be mutually exclusive!

Hiraizumi can still be visited today, although only a few of the temples remain. The golden hall (金色堂 Konjikidō) of Chūson-ji (中尊寺), which today is protected by glass and concrete, is thought to be one of the ‘palaces’ made of gold that Marco Polo describes (Excursion in Zipangu, the Land of Gold) and that later prompted explorers such as Columbus to go off in search of golden lands in the Orient.


Lotus flowers at Hiraizumi – photo by author

A compilation of “Oku no hosomichi” links:

Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Accompanying map by Dennis Kawaharada

Narrow Road cycle trip by a modern-day Sora

World Kigo Database Matsuo Basho archive

Narrow Road (Part 2): 旅は道連れ

One of my first impressions on reading Bashō’s text was its conciseness. As the haiku form distils a thought or impression into seventeen syllables, so the poet’s account of his journey is often condensed into only a few lines of text for each staging-post of his journey; this is not an author who likes to indulge in pages of purple prose! Sometimes the text is so compressed and contains so many layers of allusions that it is difficult for us, separated as we are by language, culture and over three hundred years, to understand its meaning. A typical example of this is the very first haiku of the book, written by Bashō to mark the selling of his house as he sets off on his journey (this example is discussed by Keene in the introduction to his translation):


kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

A literal translation would be something like:

Grass door, too
change/take over dwelling
dolls’ house

which would leave the average Western reader bemused and, if they are susceptible to the power of stereotypes, muttering something to themselves about the ‘inscrutable Japanese’! The first character represents grass or any of a number of other plants (c.f. “the grass of the field”, Matt 6:30) and the third character, in addition to meaning ‘door’, is used to represent ‘house’ (“next door”), so in this line Bashō is talking about his simple home. One of the difficulties in translating from Japanese to English is that in Japanese, any parts of a sentence that are not necessary for understanding the meaning because they can be inferred by context – including the subject of the sentence – can be omitted. The second line in the poem above does not specify who is changing his dwelling, but this does not matter; most changes of dwelling involve one person or family moving out and another moving in, and the line allows us to see this from both perspectives simultaneously. The final line implies that, unlike the bachelor Bashō, the new owner has at least one daughter, who is celebrated by putting out dolls on Hinamatsuri/Girls’ Day (celebrated on 3rd March in the modern calendar).

『せき口上水端はせを庵椿やま』 (Basho’s Hermitage and Camellia Hill on the Kanda Aqueduct at Sekiguchi) by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) (1797–1858)

A second impression is that Bashō’s lack of flowery descriptions is not the result of a lack of emotion or an attempt at a ‘stiff upper lip’. He describes his desire to travel in emotional and romantic terms:

… I too for years have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming. (trans.: Keene)

but when he does set off on his journey, he is overcome with emotion at the thought of leaving his friends:

I stood at the crossways of parting in this dreamlike existence and wept tears of farewell. (trans.: Keene)

Throughout his account, Bashō describes the legends associated with the places he visits and quotes old poems; he appears to have a romantic, nostalgic attraction to the journey, even, at one point, talking of ‘men of old [who] died on the road’ as if this were a romantic and desirable thing. He is constantly aware of his frailty and appears not to be a particularly physically strong man, talking of his ‘scrawny shoulders’ and sometimes describing how he suffered on the road. The purpose of his journey does not seem to have been to demonstrate is capability of performing the physical feat, but instead seems to have been romantic or spiritual. He clearly believed, however, that there was something to be gained by physically being in a place, rather than simply reading about it from the comfort of his grass-roofed house.

The practical details of travel in the Japan of three hundred years ago are also interesting. Bashō describes his preparations for the journey, which involve patching his trousers, putting a new cord onto his hat and having Moxibustion performed on his legs to strengthen them. The contents of his pack consisted of his raincoat, pen and ink, yukata and ‘a set of paper clothes to protect me from the cold of night’. In common with everyone else who has travelled around Japan, he was in addition given parting gifts. He comments that ‘… I could not very well refuse or throw [them] away. They were a bother on the journey, but there was nothing I could do about them.’ (trans.: Keene)

There is a Japanese saying, now well known from having been quoted in Murakami Haruki’s “Kafka on the Shore”:

旅は道連れ世は情け(たびはみちづれよはなさけ) (tabi wa michizure yo wa nasake, on a journey, a travelling companion, in life, compassion)

Bashō, who seems to have cultivated compassion in his life, took as his travelling companion Kawai Sora, who lived nearby and helped him ‘with firewood and water for my kitchen’. There are many useful companions for any modern-day person wishing to retrace Bashō’s steps, either physically or on the page. Those that I have found I have included below.

National Geographic article on Bashō

Support material for Oku no hosomichi (multimedia, commentary, maps)

Blog entry on Oku no Hosomichi

Haiku on Matsushima

Another article on haiku on Matsushima

Wikitravel article on Bashō’s route

Another useful ‘companion’ is Lesley Downer’s travel book “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North: Journey into a Lost Japan” (ISBN 0-224-02473-6). Downer traces Bashō’s route and includes a map and useful background information on Bashō and the places he visits. Reading her book in conjunction with Bashō’s is highly recommended!


Narrow Road (Part 1)

Where to start in the whole of Japanese literature? Where better than with a book whose title is a matter of dispute, and which is the work of a haiku master?

奥のほそ道(おくのほそみち) (Oku no Hosomichi) by 松尾芭蕉(まつおばしょう) (Matsuo Bashō) is in the form of a travelogue interspersed with poems written at each place where Bashō and his travelling companion Sora stayed. It starts with the wonderful sentence:


which Donald Keene translates as:

The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers.

When I first came across this, I was only beginning to learn Japanese, but I was struck by what an evocative sentence this was, even though it was made up at least partly from simple kanji that even I, as a beginner, could already read – 月 (moon/month), 日 (sun/day), 百 (hundred), 行 (go), 年 (year) and 人 (person) are among the first characters to be taught in most textbooks (with the exception of Heisig – of whom more on another occasion – who starts off with the sun and goes onto crystals and choirs!). Of course, being able to recognise a few kanji and being able to read a text in seventeenth-century Japanese are two quite different things, and a good translation is definitely needed to be able to enjoy it. The version I have is the Kodansha International bilingual edition with English translation by Donald Keene and illustrations by Miyata Masayuki (ISBN 4770020284). For those who are able to read it, there is an online version of the text provided by the University of Virginia here.


So how to translate the title into English? The variants I have come across so far are “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (probably the best known), “The Narrow Road to Oku” (the Keene translation), “Narrow Road to the Interior”, “The Narrow Road Through the Provinces” and “Back Roads to Far Towns”. The “narrow road” part appears relatively uncontroversial – 細い(ほそい) (hosoi) means ‘narrow’ and 道(みち) (michi) is a road or path – but 奥(おく) (oku) has a range of meanings and nuances that are not easily covered by a single English word. It is translated as ‘interior’ or ‘heart’ (in the sense of the centre of something, rather than the organ) or ‘inner recesses’ (Keene) but the character was also part of the name of the former province of Japan, variously known as 陸奥国(むつのくに) (Mutsu no kuni), 奥州(おうしゅう) (Ōshū) or Michinoku 陸奥(みちのく) or 道奥(みちのく), to which Bashō travelled, and which corresponds to the modern Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori Prefectures and part of Akita Prefecture. This is the part of Japan where I first made my home in 2006 and the part that was, more recently, devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Apart from large cities such as Sendai, the area is still a somewhat rural part of Japan, and certainly far from the image that many people have of a high-tech world of robots and anime characters. Many of the towns that Bashō visited have a monument to the fact, such as a stone inscribed with one of his haiku, and some have created an entire tourist industry around his visit – notably Matsushima, which is more famous for a poem that Bashō may or may not have composed

matsushima ya
aa matsushima ya
matsushima ya

Ah, Matsushima!

than for the one that Sora actually did compose:

matsushima ya
tsuru ni mi o kare

Borrow your plumes from the crane
O nightingales (trans: Keene)

possibly because it is difficult to understand at this distance in time what the significance of the cranes and nightingales in Sora’s poem are. (Any haiku experts who can shed some light on this, please do leave a comment!)


After visiting Matsushima and other coastal towns, Bashō went deep into the interior  (奥)  mountain country, the realm of the ascetic Shugendō sect of Shintō . Those who have lived in Japan will know that the majority of towns and cities are along coastal plains and there are large mountainous areas in the interior part of the country that are very sparsely populated, if anyone lives there at all – some indication of this can be seen on the ‘population’ map on this page. The ‘interior’ is therefore not just the ‘back of beyond’ or ‘inland regions’ but a mysterious place, far from the bustling, worldly life of Edo (modern Tokyo). Perhaps there is even a sense that Bashō is journeying into his own interior.