Translating Japanese

From the Tales of Heike

I am introducing a very famous poem, it is the very first stanza of the renown epic The Tales of Heike, formulated by 13th century. I am introducing it because this is the epic that the Biwa (Pipa) minstrels sung over many centuries to the lay people as well as aristocrats all over the archipelago, and the episodes have been taken into different genres of theatre and literature. There are also many remote villages across the archipelago that are said to be the descendants of the Heike clan, who was the lost side in the 12th century war.




The gong of Gion temple (Jetavana Vihara)
Echoes in resonance with the reality
That nothing will exist forever unchanged.
The flower colour of Sal trees
Represents the principle that
No winner will remain the winner.
Pride goes only before a fall,
Like a momentary dream in the spring night.
The flourished ones will wither in the end;
Just as the dust before the wind.

Translation by Paromita

Most of Japanese people would remember some parts of this stanza, as we are made to memorise it at school (I don’t know about the present generation, but I hope they remember it too). Heike clan once came into strong power in the Japanese central politics, and later was chased off by the previously lost clan of Genji and its allies. This poem is particularly referring to Heike clan and its head, Kiyomori Taira.

A very known story of the ghosts of Heike clan is Mimi-Nashi-Houichi “Hoichi the Earless” written in English by Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-Irish writer who had great sympathy to Japanese culture and settled there. It can be read here; it is the first story of this compilation.

It was probably the curse, or a series of natural disasters that were considered to be the curse by the dead Heike people following their drowning in the sea of Dan-no-ura, that eventually resulted in the spread of their story, later compiled into a string of epic. Blind monk-minstrels spread the story with mantras to pacify the spirits; my next post will be on these Biwa (Pipa) monk-minstrels.

One of the places I have lived also had the legend that they were descended from Heike clan. There are so many places like that all over the country, so we do not really know how much is true. Interestingly enough, while there is a tendency for the general public to be sympathetic to the losing side, there is also a general attitude to follow the public/rulers-given rule and beat the officially-weak ones in Japan… (as there are in any other places in the world) so it is not a surprise even if they were actually descendants of people who hid themselves in remote places over centuries.

And the curse stories by the driven-out dead persons are also quite common in Japanese history. Much of the history is about conflict and then trying to pacify the lost ones who give curse but may also give blessings if properly worshiped.

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