Thursday, November 29, 2012

Minamoto no Sanetomo: Samurai with Pathos

Yoritomo no Minamoto
Can be found here
Minamoto no Sanetomo lived from 1192-1219 A.D., and was a son of the famous Minamoto no Yoritomo: founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. The Kamakura Shogunate was the first samurai controlled government (bakufu) in Japanese history. 
After Yoritomo's death, Hōjō Tokimasa, Sanetomo's grandfather, usurped all shogun powers and would then designate a figurehead Seii Taishogun as the head of state. Sanetomo assumed the role as Seii Taishogun  in 1203 at age eleven. His mother, Hōjō Masako was in fierce competition with Hōjō Tokimasa for power and influence. She used her son as a political tool to further her interests and protect herself. In 1204 his older brother Yoriie was murdered by a member of the Hōjō clan.
Minamoto no Sanetomo
Can be found here
Sanetomo realized early on that there was no hope to beat the powerful Hōjō clan and so devoted his life to poetry. He was tutored by the renowned Fujiwara no Teika. He studied poetry diligently as a way to escape the vulgar political reality he was forced into. 
Unfortunately, at the age of 28 Sanetomo was assassinated outside the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū shrine by his own nephew, son of Yoriie. The exact reasons behind of all this appear to be a mystery but it is clear there was something shady going on.
Sanetomo's poetry is very different from Fujiwara no Teika's and he flouted most of the poetic conventions ironed out before him. His waka has a very honest tone and is very direct. 
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-
Place of Sanetomo's Assassination
Can be found here



Will this world of ours
Forevermore be the same?
Along the seashore
Seamen scull their tiny crafts,
Mooring rope...brings tears to m’eyes!

Minamoto no Sanetomo

This poem is from Fujiwara no Teika’s “100 Poems from 100 Poets” (hyakunin isshu). At first glance, the essentially mundane image of this poem seems undeserving of the strong emotional content. You would not expect this kind of outburst of pathos from a samurai. There are a lot of ways to interpret this poem. For most of his adulthood, Sanetomo feared for his life because of the political machinations of those around him. He may have projected his anguish on these fishermen as a cry for help, but I feel that this interpretation may be assuming too much.

            The structure of the poem reminds of how later haiku were written. Haiku are really just shortened waka, but there are conflicting theories on how exactly to interpret them. Some believe the value of haiku comes from the simplicity of a sudden “haiku moment”, which is then portrayed as a poetic “snapshot”, while others may appreciate the subtle pathos or literary allusions. In my opinion, some of the best haiku are merely depictions of simple scenes, be it from everyday life or snippets of nature. I mean, the most famous haiku of all time is about a frog jumping into a pond. The poem above has a simple scene, but Sanetomo explicitly adds the emotional content with a directness that is not characteristic of Japanese poetry.


Can be found here

Autumn is no more,
The foliage of the trees,
Scattered by the wind,
The barren, lonely mountains
Beckon the coming winter.

Minamoto no Sanetomo

The interesting aspect of this poem is its directness. Sanetomo was a protégé of Fujiwara noTeika but apparently did not care much for his sensei’s ideas of yuugen (≈subtle beauty). This poem is quite simple and is anything but subtle. I do like it though precisely for its no nonsense approach to the nasty seasonal transition from autumn to winter.
Most Japanese poems describing the coming of winter will hint at “withered reeds” or “frosty dew” but certainly not “barren mountains”. Sanetomo apparently had little patience for the poetic conventions of his peers and I have to respect him for that. The other possibility is that he died too young to really develop a discerning aesthetic taste.


Buddhist art of Japan in 12th Century
Can be found here

Our existence
Is like a reflection
In a mirror.
It really does not exist,
But also doesn’t not exist.

Minamoto no Sanetomo

            This poem has a very Buddhist ring to it and demonstrates the heightened religiosity of the samurai in early medieval Japan. The paradox of our existence displayed in this poem is developed to a dizzying degree by later Zen philosophers. I like this poem, yet I’m not sure if it’s because I lack intellectual depth, but these kind of Buddhist paradoxes usually only bring forth in me a shallow “hmmmmm”.



The sky, then the sea,
Or the sea on top of the sky,
I can no longer tell,
The mist and the waves rise
To an increasing crescendo.

Minamoto no Sanetomo

            I like this poem mainly for the nice imagery but also because the last line is just one word: tachimichinitsutsu. Try and say that five times fast.



From the wide sea,
Ocean waves boom and thunder
Across the coastline,
Smashing! Breaking! Cascading!
Then gently scattering.

Minamoto no Sanetomo

Can be found here
            This poem has very vibrant language which is again very uncharacteristic. The last two lines consist of three verbs in a row: warete (smash) kudakete (break) / sakete (≈break/ be smashed) chiru (scatter) ka mo. My translation shows a contrast between the waves “smashing” and then “gently scattering”, which may not be so obvious in the original poem. I did it this way because the final verb chiru does literally mean “to scatter” but it is usually used in the context of leaves or flower petals scattering, which I saw as a juxtaposition to the more violent verbs which preceded it. 

1 comment:

  1. Your translations are so beautiful!
    I live in Kamakura and my age is almost same as when Sanetomo was assasinated.
    I really sympathize with his striving as artist and anguish.

    P.S.If you visit Kamakura and Hakone,you can see almost same landscape as Sanetomo's poem.