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Imperial Poetry Ceremony : (Part Three)

Posted by Dave Bull at 2:20 PM, January 5, 2009

In 1999 Dave was honoured with an invitation to attend
the Utakai Hajime - the 'First Poetry Reading of the Year' -
a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every January.
This is part three of his story of the event ... (start is here)


... the reading of the poems by the ten honorary guests was continuing. One after the other each person stood up while his/her 'song' was 'sung'. Just how much of this did I understand?

The poetry that I have been dealing with for the past ten years, while working on my Hyakunin Isshu project, is sometimes fiercely complicated - full of convoluted and twisted double meanings and word play. Scholars write entire books of explication on them, and as the centuries go by, different ways of interpreting them are 'uncovered'. So what chance do I - whose native language is most certainly not Japanese - have of understanding these brand new poems on first hearing?

Well as I said, from my point of view, this wasn't so much a poetry reading, as it was a concert. I just sat back and enjoyed the sound.

And there, I ran into a bit of trouble. We were all (with the exception of the emperor and empress) sitting in black lacquered chairs. These were of simple wooden construction, with no upholstery; the smooth black surface was broken here and there by embossments in the shape of a golden chrysanthemum - the mon of the royal family. One of these flowers was positioned in the middle of the back of the chair, right in the 'worst' possible place in one's back ...

Whether or not this furniture was designed specifically with such a thing in mind or not, I can't say, but it was impossible to 'sit back and relax'. As soon as one leaned against the backrest, that golden chrysanthemum started to dig in ... and you were forced to lean forward again. At one point I started to shift in my chair to try and get a bit more comfortable, but then checked myself.

Nobody, nobody in that room was shifting around or wiggling on their chair. Nobody. I could see that the 'sub-royals' up at the front, who were in the same chairs as the rest of us, were all sitting in an interesting way. Their upper body was tilted slightly forward; none of them were leaning back against their chairs. And not one of them moved as much as a muscle.

I see. These people have trained and trained ... how to sit 'properly' in public. No fidgeting, no fuss, just sit still. Very well - if they can do it, then so can I! I leaned slightly forward, away from that flower which was apparently growing in size by the minute, and returned my concentration to the music.

I have no idea if the other guests were conscious of similar thoughts. As time went by, the men who sat on either side of me both began to have problems. The man on my left had either skipped breakfast (or perhaps ate too much), and his stomach started to add a 'counterpoint' to the poetry. After a couple of particularly loud interjections, he bowed his head ever so slightly, and we neighbours understood this gesture - a silent apology. The man on my right was having a worse time - he obviously had back trouble, and would perhaps have been uncomfortable on even a well-padded chair. Here, he was in torment. He tried manfully to keep still, but it was obvious to those of us nearby that his would be a losing battle.

Should I perhaps not write of these things? Should I instead just leave you with the impression of this ceremony as something ethereal and magical? Well, please don't be disappointed - it was indeed a wonderful ceremony to be part of; it's just that I think it is difficult for people to so suddenly shake off the 'outside' world, and reach the proper frame of mind for a ceremony like this. We had gone through a lengthy 'slowing down' process before starting, but we of course still were only temporary visitors here ...

But back to the poetry. After the ten special poems had been read, we then heard three or four more by some invited guests, I believe an Imperial poetry teacher, a special guest of the emperor, and some relatives of the emperor. And then, we moved on to the highlight of the event, the reading of the poems written by the imperial couple.

The pair of attendants again stepped forward, this time to carry the imperial poems from the trays where they had been resting over to the reader's table. This took quite a while, with much bowing and slow measured walking, but everything was finally ready.

Again a minute of silence, and then (how happy the man next to me must have been!) we all rose in our places to hear the poem by the empress. This was first spoken through, so we could readily understand the syllables, and then sung twice. We sat down again, and waited while the emperor's poem was prepared. When the readers were ready again we rose.

And here, I must again 'spoil' the mood for you. Just at this moment, at the very highlight of the entire ceremony, disaster struck. Many of the guests were quite elderly people, and after sitting for so long in such a rigorous way, to suddenly stand up straight, and then try and stay motionless ... One elderly gentleman, over on the opposite side of the room from me, didn't make it. He fainted, and began to fall straight forward ...


(concluded in Part Four)


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