Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Catalpa Part 2: A letter to Sayaka Komata in Oakridge, Tennessee

Sayaka-San, it will be the third spring since you helped me get information regarding “Catalpa”, a tree native to the Midwest (see previous “Catalpa’s Spread in Japan, Grown from Seeds” post). The post was about the lovely friendship between Jo (Joseph) Neesima, the founder of Doshisha University in Kyoto and returnee from the U.S., the seed sender and Tokutomi brothers in Kumamoto, the seed receivers.

Kumamoto had a tough 2016. The magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit the region causing widespread damage and resulting in 50,000 evacuees. Kumamoto Castle, the symbol of the city, will require costly refurbishments. Last year I wanted to take my daughter and granddaughter (from California) to Kumamoto in May, but we had to cancel. The first anniversary of the disastrous event just came to pass.

The reason I’m writing to you is that I discovered the most impressive American Haiku related to catalpa, the tree of our mutual interest. Here’s briefly how and where I found it and whose Haiku it is.

Recently, while at the Central Kitakyushu library, I picked up a book How Haiku is accepted in England and in the U.S. (ISBN4-8302-2315-4-C) written by Akira Kawano, a Kitakyusuan (1962- ), who taught at Fukuoka University of Education, majored in English poetry during the 1960’s at Wyoming University and Purdue University.  This book was divided into two parts; an introduction of the so-called imaginist poets, such as T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, followed by Haikuists, such as Helen S. Chenoweth, Ann Atwood, Truth Mary Fowler, Jinna Johnson, Richard Wright and Annette S. Morrow.

"Popcorn flowers of catalpa
on the Spring lawn -
    Children confused."

春の芝生に/カタルパのポプコーン花や/困惑したる子供ら(河野皓訳)

This Haiku was sung by Helen S. Chenoweth from Los Altos Writers Roundtable and originally published in Borrowed Water (Charles Tuttle).

The popcorn imagery is pleasant and entertaining, describing the flower beautifully. It reminds me of the crape flower (crape myrtle) if it were white. Children would be surely confuse it with popcorn on the ground.  I salute  Helen’s flash of wit and gaiety.  A great Haiku originated from California, my second home! 

I will tell the Society of Roka Tokutomi in Kumamoto about this haiku.  I would be very happy if this haiku could help boost the number of attendance, even a little bit, for this year’s catalpa viewing and brighten the day of the people there.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

My Friend “Ace” Sang in Trieste

I call a friend of mine 'Ace' Ikeda, as he doesn’t mind being called by a nickname. He is multi-lingual and a multi-talented person. I have questioned him as to why he is so erudite in ancient European history, the Mediterranean in particular. He just modestly told me he was very fortunate in his younger days to travel Greece, Italy and Turkey a little longer than the average traveler. I know he has belonged to a chorus group for some time, singing “An die Freude” at each year-end from Beethoven’s No. 9 for Kyushu Symphony Orchestra.

Last summer, he told me he is singing for Italian operas, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, to commemorate the 150th year of diplomatic relations between Japan and Italy. Wow, that’s quite a relationship! It traces back to the Meiji Restoration! Alei-a-lei! I bought a ticket for the special occasion and enjoyed a competitive and harmonized opera production by an Italian/Japanese combination.

His New Year’s card read that he would be in Trieste, Italy in mid February and singing at the Verdi Theater. Wait a minute! The privileged Verdi Theater in Trieste? I can’t be indifferent to the glorious undertaking he is trying to accomplish. I congratulated him on a great opportunity to be at a rare destination, where Hapsburg Kingdom once reigned. I asked him to bring back as many photos as possible.

Trieste sounded close and friendly, first, because of Atsuko Suga’s famous essay “Upward Slope of Trieste”. I didn’t meet Atsuko in person but T. Suga, her uncle, was the boss at my freshman work. He often spoke of her proudly, promising to introduce her to me. I changed jobs and lost the chance. Second, the Irish James Joyce connection - I know Joyce wrote his “Dubliners” while he was an English teacher at Berlitz school in Trieste.

The NPO “Kitakyushu City Opera (KCO)” has existed since 1990, including years under its nascent Kitakyushu Music Association. The troupe launched its first production “La Traviata” by Verdi in 1993 and grew to win a Group Citizen Culture Award of Kitakyushu in 2013, thanks to Gudo Hasui, KCO Chief Director, as well as Sakuyo University visiting professor, well-known baritone singer, who had won a number of competitions not only in his soloist days in Italy but in other European countries; and thanks to the local fans, contributors, and business supporters. In 2015, the troupe performed Madama Butterfly in Lecce, southern Italy. The above mentioned 2016 operas I attended in Kitakyushu were jointly performed under an Italian conductor with major Italian singers.

I met with Ace Ikeda yesterday, who just returned from Italy and I learned that the KCO’s Trieste performance was a big success. The participating party consisted of about 40 members, including tea ceremony performers, and he is already looking forward to the next collaborative performance to be held either in Japan or Italy, which continues for the next three years.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Danny Boy

Oh, Danny Boy,
The pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side ….
But come ye back to summers in the meadow ….

This impassioned Danny Boy song I loved to sing often in my younger days. However, I had not questioned how the song originated, as I have presumed that it was one of the indigenous/traditional songs that had existed for a long, long time in Ireland. Recently I found a surprising story with a twist, which I want to share with you tonight.

In 1851, Jane Ross, a Londonderry woman, while listening to a traveling fiddler named Blind Jimmy McCurry, heard a beautiful ballad, noted it down in a hurry.  Jane was known as a keen Irish folk song collector.  She submitted the tune to Dr. George Petrie, an artist and musician in Dublin and it was then registered and published as “Londonderry Air”.  It was said many lyricists tried to make a song to match up to it, but none stood out.

At the turn of the 20th century, an unimaginable thing happened. Margaret Weathery in Colorado, US, happened to hear this Londonderry song played by an Irish immigrant band and sent it to her husband ’s brother Frederic in Somerset, UK.  The US Gold Rush to the West attracted immigrants, including the Irish, so the songs spread across the new continent.  

Danny Boy wasn’t born without a flash of wit.  Frederic Weathery was a lawyer, as well as a songwriter. As a matter of fact, he composed his version of Danny Boy but it never became popular. He placed the title Danny Boy to the song that came from the U.S. and it hit big with the arrival of the Irish tenor singer John McCormack.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Takahime (Hawk Princess) Part 2

With gradually rising tweets and faster wing fluttering movements, Takahime, the guardian of the well, starts wriggling and transforms into a goshawk, along with the heightened tempo of Noh ensemble of bamboo flute, hand drum and stick drum beats and chorus of ‘rock’ symbolizing grey colored masked Noh singers, as well as, Celtic Anuna singers.  Glittering long-sleeved robe of Takahime represents the gorgeous hawk’s two wing-mimicry.  Hypnotized by the guardian's terrible power, the old man is in trance state. Cuchulain must pass the guardian to the well for the miraculous water, but is hindered. He pulled his sword to fight. Takahime and Cuchulain sword fight intensifies to a climax. However, he is lured away from the well, which bubbles up. In his frenzy, he follows Takahime in her ascending flight, apparently forgotten that the water that would bring him immortality. When he recovers himself, the well water is gone and the old man is hopeless. He laments and begs the guardian to stay with him.

In Yeats’ “Hawk’s Well”, Cuchnulainn’s weapon is a spear. In “Takahime, the weapon is a sword. Yeats admired with awe the Japanese “Bizen Osafune” sword presented to him as surprise a gift from Junzo Sato when he traveled to Portland, Oregon in the US in 1920 for a lecture. He sang:

Is Sato's ancient blade, still as it was
Still razor-keen, 
still like a looking-glass
Unspotted by the centuries;
That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn
From some court-lady's dress and round
The wooden scabbard bound and wound
Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn.

Junzo Sato just happened to live then in Portland (on business) and saw a poster about Yeat’s lecture. He brought the sword to the U.S. It was probably his family treasure. Yeats' eulogy for Cuchulain is found in his plays “Death of Cuchulain” and “Cuchulain comforted”.

Upon my return home in Kyushu, I searched the YouTube site. A number of Hawk’s Well came up, beginning with the Nara performance where the same Gensho Umewaka, a living National Treasure, played Takahime in Shibuya. I watched Hawk Well in musical /opera formats, and experimental modern drama as well as Kabuki formats. Some of them were performed internationally – in Europe, U.S. and South America.  I know Yugen Theater, in San Francisco, specialized in its effort to promulgate Noh in California.  I remembered The Japan Foundation periodically sponsored traditional art performances like Noh and Kabuki. My  ex-employer in San Diego sponsored a couple, including the Kodo Drum troupe from Sado Island. Noh related associations in Tokyo are reportedly planning special Noh events for the participants from abroad with English subtitles in preparation for the year 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A nice incentive and gesture of welcome!

Anuna Choral singers stayed on stage from the beginning to the end, singing together with the Noh “rock” masked singers. I first thought their collaboration would come to an end sooner, so it was quite a surprise.  Reading an article by Michael McGlynn after the show, I understood what Anuna singers were trying to accomplish. Michael said they dare not compete with the Noh singers, nor try to harmonize at all. No room for competition like in opera, Michael wrote. They keep their chorus aloof and independent. It could be the breaths of humans, mythic sounds of the breeze and whisper, rustling of tree leaves, or lapping waves, created by plural voices of Anuna singers, each in different tone and scale, over and above the composite Noh ensemble including instruments, to be culminated as result in creating a piece of great artwork.  I was impressed.  Looking up the historical career, the Anuna Choral group was founded in 1987 to recreate and give a new life to medieval Irish  in the present era. Anuna singers have visited Japan often. They sang on the 1997 Japan Academy Award winning film “Princess Mononoke”, an epic historical fantasy anime directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

My Hino friend told me that the Anuna reminded her of “Holy Mother in Nagasaki”, a modern Noh written by Tomio Tada, in which a Psalm was sung by local high school girls.  I’ve heard that this Noh play was performed in New York and Boston some years ago and I’m putting it on my wish list to see it this year.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Takahime (Hawk Princess) Part 1

Thursday Feb 16, I was on board the Super Express Nozomi #4 bound for Tokyo from Kitakyushu. The dignified snow-covered Mt. Fuji showed up in a wintry landscape in 4 hours (see photo). I was in Shibuya by noon, witnessing the world's  busiest scramble intersection in front of Hachiko statue - Tokyoites’ popular rendezvous site.

My objective - meet old Hino friends, receive my reserved ticket, exchange accumulated info over a bite, watch together Celtic Noh at Orchard Hall, Bunkamura. Hino friends chose my favorite Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich which I have missed for so many years. Bunkamura offers great gourmet dining for theatergoers.

Photo courtesy of Masataka Ishida

Celtic Noh? Yes, Noh was brought to Ireland by poet Ezra Pound to the 1923 Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats (WBY: 1865-1932) who produced a number of Noh plays, including “At Hawk’s Well”.  The Hawk’s Well was performed in London in 1916 with Michio Ito as the Hawk dancer. I saw a paper advertisement of “Takahime”, a Japanese version, or Hawk Princess last year performed in Nara to commemorate the centennial performance. At about the same time my friend in Hino, who knew I was a Celtic Noh fan, purchased an advance ticket for me for another Takahime; this performance a collaborative work with the Celtic “Anuna” Chorus.

The WBY’s Noh plays were all based on the Irish mythological and folk hero Cuchulain whom I willfully compare with Susanoo, a Japanese gigantic humanoid in the Kojiki Story.  To WBY, Cuchulain was an inspiration at the time Ireland strode forcibly toward independence since the 1916 Easter Rising, along with the Celtic Revival Drive.

Cuchulain means ‘hound’ of Culann in Irish. Legend has it that a boy Setanta, at a tender age, arrived alone late for a feast at the residence of the smithy named Culann who wasn’t advised about Setanta's coming. The fierce hound was set free for intruders while the feast was going on.  Setanta was attacked by the guard hound. He fought with the dog; grabbing it by the neck, smashed it against a tree, and killed it, as per “Cuchulain of Mag Muirthemni”, written (translated from Gaelic) by Lady Gregory, mentor, financial supporter, Abbey Theatre cofounder of WBY.

The most famous story of Cuchulain is “Tain Bo Cuailinge” (Cattle Raid of Cooley) that takes place during the prolonged war between two countries, Ulster (North) and Connacht (West), caused by bluster and greed of the King and Queen of Connacht.  Competing against the white bull owned and boasted by the King, the Queen wanted to acquire an equally powerful brown bull from neighboring Ulster. War started when Ulster refused to part with its brown bull. When the Ulster troops were cursed immovable under a spell, Cuchulain, off on the spell alone defended Ulster as the sole protector until there was a truce. My favorite Cuchulain’s escapade is his salmon leap, being chased all over Ireland by the formidable witch, around the Loop Head, the rocky seashore in Clare County, just like the famous cliff of Moher.

WBY"s thorough study of the Japanese Noh was impressive. He apprehended Jo-Ha-Kyu, philosophy of Noh, roughly translated to intro, break or develop, and acceleration, all actions or efforts should start slowly, speed up, then end swiftly rising to climax. His keen interests shown in the Noh masks reverberated in his London premier.

The play At Hawk’s Well is set by a dried up well on a desolate mountainside which is guarded by a hawk-like woman. An old man has kept camp there for fifty years, waiting to drink the miraculous waters from the well which occasionally rise up.

A call to the eye of the mind
A well long choked up and dry
And boughs long stripped by the wind
And I call a mind's eye
Pallor of an ivory face,
If lofty dissolute air,
A man climbing up to a place

心の眼もて見よ 泉は古く嗄れ果てて 樹枝は長く風にさらさるるを 心の眼もて見よ 象牙の如き青き面 すさみてもけだかき姿 ひとり登り来るを

Here arrives Cuchulain, knowing by hearsay that the waters bring immortality. The Old Man urges Cuchulain to leave, telling of his wasted lifetime there and how, even when the waters did rise up, he was thwarted by a sudden urge to sleep. Cuchulain, definitely in need, is determined to stay.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Choshu Samurai Aspiring to See Dawn of Meiji

"Trying to reverse a world of boredom and tediousness"

"What allows us to savor life is the richness of human spirit"

(Linked Poem by two, first stanza by Shinsaku Takasugi, second by Buddhist nun Motoni Nomura)

Shinsaku Takasugi (1839-1867) stood out among Meiji Restoration Loyalist Samurais as a theatrical performer, comparable to Ryoma Sakamoto, who mediated the Choshu/Satsuma Clans coalition to demolish Tokugawa Shogunate. Shinsaku, in appreciation, reportedly gave his prized pistol to Ryoma for self-defense later in Kyoto.

However, Shinsaku seemed a man of precise and nimble planning, shying away and keeping skillfully out of trouble, keeping to himself for possible contingency. He didn’t join the so-called Boshin War in Kyoto nor was involved in attacking foreign ships passing through the strait of Shimonoseki. He left his own clan four times without the clan's permission - worthy of crime and punishment - and was recalled instead whenever the weight of his presence was needed; a proof that his talent was highly valued by the clan, as Shoin Yoshida’s favorite disciple.

Takasugi had four enemies to combat: 1) against Tokugawa Shogunate; 2) against the “Deference Party” (faithful to the Shogunate) of his own Choshu Clan; 3) Naval Powers of the U.S., British, French and Netherlands, winners of the Battle of the Straits of Shimoseki; and 4) His own health affected by neglected cold and chronic tuberculosis.

1) and 2) were external and internal (civil) wars to Shinsaku. First he vigorously lead the militia comprising of Samurais, merchants and farmers of just 80, attacked the Deference Party at the Shimonoseki Station and won the internal battle decisively. If 1) and 2) were like a tiger at the front gate, 3) was the wolf at the back gate. Fortunately he had settled it as a clan peace negotiator before cases 1) and 2), disguised under an alias to represent his clan lord. Shinsaku claimed that Choshu bombarded foreign vessels just following the Shogunate directives and Shogunate should be responsible for the repatriations, while Choshu was exempt. Shinsaku stubbornly refused to lease an adjacent island to Shimonoseki to the foreign powers, as he knew how miserable Colonial Shanghai looked during his younger days on a trip to Shanghai. A British Ernest Satow, the translator of the Allied Powers, seemed very impressed with Shinsaku.

The Shogunate forces invaded Choshu at four corner's fronts. Shinsaku tactics were superb. He himself was engaged in two battle fronts, 1)Suwa Oshima in Seto Inland Sea and 2) Shogunate’s watchdog Ogasawara Clan in Kitakyushu. Shinsaku on board the steamship turned battleship (bought in Nagasaki) made a surprise night attack and sank a couple of Shogunate anchored vessels. 2) Shinsaku landed at Moji and spearheaded in front. The Choshu militia, equipped with modern weapons, surpassed mostly Ogasawara soldiers but met stronger Kumamoto soldiers, and seesawed for days. The news that Iemochi Tokugawa died changed the whole picture. All the Kyushu clans supporting Ogasawara retreated. Ogasawara clan who had to fight alone gave up and lit the castle on fire.

Shinsaku was heavily sick in bed fighting the flu linked with worsening TB. He was attended by his wife and a Buddhist nun, Motoni Nomura (1808-1867). Shinsaku hid in Fukuoka care of Motoni when he faced danger from the Deference Party above mentioned. He had to flee Choshu and sought refuge in Fukuoka. It was Motoni who rendered help. Motoni was a Fukuoka poetess but entered into Buddhist nunhood when her husband died. She had traveled to Osaka and Kyoto with her plan to publish her book. During her travel, she observed a new wave among the merchants and publishers to sympathize with loyalist samurai and she herself followed suit, assisting them secretly in her capacity. She was imprisoned by the Fukuoka clan and was exiled to an off-shore island of northern Kyushu. Shinsaku rescued Motoni, sending his friends, and brought her to Choshu, close to his home.

The poem cited at the top was sung between them while Shinsaku was bedridden. Motoni was honored as grandmother (or aunt) of Meiji Revolution along with hero Shinsaku. Her book was published soon after her death by her ardent followers in Choshu and Kyoto. The 150th anniversary of her death was celebrated on November 2016 both in Yamaguchi (Choshu, the site of her death) and in Villa Hirao, Fukuoka, where she sheltered Shinsaku.

Hawaii / Japan Connection

My old friend Hawaiian-Japanese Richard Miyao sent me the latest Hawaiian Newspapers reporting how Izumo Taisha in Honolulu celebrated its 110th Anniversary in October and November. Richard is a Korean War veteran who studied law and commenced practice first in San Diego. He deals with issues regarding immigration and offers other legal counseling. He also helped Japanese expatriates to charter San Diego Minato Gakuen, a Saturday school for our children.

He relocated to Hawaii when his father, Shigemaru Miyao, the Bishop of the Izumo Taisha was at an advanced age. I was amazed and surprised to read about the history of Izumo Taisha in Hawaii - the bishop performed marriages of 6,900 couples, during the early days - girls landed ashore from Japan were all picture brides! Shigemaru’s brother was the first Bishop. Sjhigemaru succeeded him after his brother's death. Izumo Taisha certainly was responsible for a lot of family beginnings.


Hawaii, the U.S. stopover for the Japanese, had ceased its function a long time ago when trans-Pacific flights refueling became no longer necessary. I’m not alone in grieving for opportunities lost to visit. Hawaii used to be the place for a businessman’s breather, particularly on our return trip to Japan, even for an overnight stay.

Today visiting Hawaii is regarded with envy. 
I had more than a dozen visits to Hawaii; my latest one  was 20 years ago.  Before my retirement and return to Japan, (my wife and) I took our last one-week vacation in Hawaii to meet and chauffeur my wife’s sister and her friends. We circled around the Big Island of Hawaii and drove to Lahaina in Maui. The Big Island is half  the size of Shikoku (where I was born). We departed Kailua Kona in the morning, then south to Captain Cook and circled round the southern end of Mauna Loa in a counter-clockwise circle.   We drove to Volcano National Park for an hour's stop and then to Hilo.  After lunch in Hilo,  we headed north to the Kohala mountains, via Honomu, Honokaa and Waipio Valley. It was close to sunset when we rounded the north point to Kohala Coast where the sacred open-air Puukohola Heiau is located. Finally, we  hurried back to our hotel in Kailua Kona before it got dark. 


Yes, “sacred” Puukohola Heiau! The name I almost forgot came back to me when, a month ago, I visited Izumo Taisha, the oldest shrine in Japan.  Annually in October, Izumo Taisha celebrates reunions of thousands of gods from all over Japan as the God Okuninushi (Great Land Master) acts as the presiding god. October, therefore, has been called the month of no gods in Japan, as all gods are congregated in Izumo.  Okuninushi secured this presiding privilege in lieu of his land transfer to Yamato Kingdom as per the “Kojiki”, one of the oldest chronicles of Japan. 


Thousands of gods arrive at Inasa Sacred Beach lit under bonfires and travel to the shrine Izumo Taisha.  I remembered Hawaiian gods gathered at sacred beach venues called “Heiau”.  Gods, either Hawaiian or Japanese, gather to create/renew the connections among them, thus to induce humans to bond together and love one another. Okuninushi is revered as the deity of happiness, good fortune and matchmaking. Izumo Taisha was adopted in Honolulu during the Japanese migration in the early 1900s, and despite WWII hardships, has long been dedicated to Japanese Hawaiian parishioners.  This is their 110th anniversary. 



I visited Izumo Taisha Honolulu perhaps about 30 years ago. It is located on Kukui Street close to the Foster Botanical Garden, and China Town across from  Nuuanu Stream.  Kukui is a Hawaiian word meaning “tree of light” and has a spiritual meaning. It was designated as the Hawaiian State Tree in 1959.  First and foremost, kukui was a canoe plant, whose seeds, roots and cuttings arrived with Polynesian immigrants.  They knew how valuable the tree was as it turned  the kukui into a virtual botanical factory; roast, bake, grind the kukui nut for medicine, dye, food, per the wisdom of their culture.  But, nothing beat the use as  a “torch” or “light”, when an oil-rich kernel of the kukui nut provided them with their primary source of night-time light. Kukui nuts were threaded onto the stiff midribs of coconut leaflets and burned as candles, hence their English name “candlenut”.  Today the main use is for making lie, necklaces, bracelets for Hawaiian custom and ceremonies, and occasionally for children’s spinning tops; also votive offerings of “kukui” wood-carved-pigheads to their Fire-Goddess "Pele" residing on Mt. Kilauea. Seems like Hawaii and Japan are bonded in the mythic connections of gods.