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Imperial Poetry Ceremony : (Part Two)

Posted by Dave Bull at 6:32 PM, January 3, 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 two of his story of the event ... (start is here)


The double doors opened out away from us, pulled back by unseen hands, and we rose to our feet. No trumpets sounded, no fanfare ... All was completely silent, as the emperor walked forward into the room, the empress immediately behind him.

Although this was a court ceremony, there was no feeling of pompousness. There were no purple robes, no crowns, simply a slightly elderly couple walking into the room. He wore a suit (unlike the rest of us in morning coats), and she a simple quiet dress. Behind them came the rest of the royal family, and the silence was then quite broken by the clatter of their shoes on the hard polished wooden floor. I must say that I did feel the mood to be a bit spoiled by the entrance of this 'crowd'. There were more than a dozen of them, all the women in different coloured dresses, with little funny hats, etc. I felt they were quite a contrast to the quiet and reserved couple who had preceded them.

Once they were all seated, the doors closed behind them, the rest of us also sat, and the silent mood was restored. A pair of attendants stepped forward and slowly paced in step to a location behind a large screen that stood behind the royal couple. We could hear their footsteps as they moved out of sight. They reappeared a minute later, each bearing a tray containing a large piece of folded paper. These, we would learn later, were the two royal poems. The trays were ceremonially placed on small tables in front of the royal couple, and the attendants returned to their places. Again, all was still.

Everything moved at a glacially slow pace, and if I tell you this, you may get the impression that it was boring. But there was no such feeling. Later, when I was back home thinking over what I had seen, I realized that from the very moment that our car had entered the palace grounds, 'time' had moved in a different way. You may scoff at this idea, but it really was different. The walk through the palace hallways, the silent wait in the large anteroom, the very slow walk to the Pine Room ... These had all been part of the 'programming' to prepare us for the ceremony. A gradual slowing down of one's pace of life ... of breathing ... of existence itself.

Here in the Pine Room, everything moved at this incredibly slow tempo, with enormous 'blank' gaps between. It seems that one cannot approach a thousand year old poetry ceremony in a 'Tokyo' frame of mind. One has to have one's clock adjusted first. Perhaps only after actually having the experience of participating in a court ceremony like this can one understand just how natural it was to be moving at that pace ...

The group of readers made their way to a table in the centre of the room, on which was a large lacquered tray containing some folded papers. The eldest man in the group (there were no women), removed the papers from this tray, turned it upside down, then placed it back on the table. He removed a sheet from the bundle of paper, opened it out and passed it to his neighbour. I was positioned behind him and could see that it contained a poem, brushed in large flowing characters. The sheet was quite large, and I could actually read the beginning of the poem from where I sat. Each year's poetry follows a certain theme, and that for this time - 'blue' - had been announced a year ago; all the poems we were to hear this morning would have some connection with this topic.

One of the ten main guests then rose in his place, to face the emperor and empress, and was introduced with his home town and name. Interestingly enough, no honorific was used after his name, something that quite shocked my ear. (It is absolutely impossible to hear someone's name in Japan without also hearing 'san', or one of the other common honorifics. But it seems that in this place, the rules are different.)

The reading of his poem then began. I use the verb 'read', but of course 'sing' would be more appropriate. In fact, in Japanese, the same word 'uta' is used for both song and poem - there is no distinction made between the two. One of the reciters started off, turning the poem into something between a chant and an actual melody. He went through the poem twice, alone for the first pass, but joined by the other reciters for the second time through.

The deep and resonant male voices (is that why no women were reciters?) completely filled the room with sound. They stretched out the lines, their voices rising and falling, hanging on some notes for a long time. When they came to the end of the poem they dropped their pitch to the point where the human voice could no longer produce sound; the song ended in silence ...

The poet sat down and the room fell silent once more. The chief reciter then reached for another sheet of paper, and the cycle began again.

There was no applause, no reaction at all to the 'performance'. We sat completely still, the emperor and empress even more so - absolute statues. The only movement was the rustle of the large sheets of poetry, and the standing of the poets.

These ten people had been selected from some tens of thousands of applicants. They were not 'poets' in a professional sense, but simply citizens with an interest in traditional poetry. The youngest, the first one in line, was a middle school student, and the eldest seemed about eighty. It was an incredible honour for them to have their poem read this way, and for some of them, it was perhaps the highlight of their lives ...


(continued in Part Three)


Following comment posted by: tim on January 4, 2009 10:53 AM

brilliant description. Loved 1 and 2 can't wait for 3. but i guess i should slow down like you describe. This is fascinating....love it, Slow down Tim

Following comment posted by: MIke L on January 5, 2009 2:13 PM

This has been really interesting, as have been most of your descriptions of Japanese life. I wish I could have been there, though I don't speak the language, as this seems a real connection to times long ago. The stillness, the slowness, perhaps is something done to push off the passage of time and focus just on the event of reading poetry. I don't know. But I look forward to hearing more and envy you for having this chance. Thanks for writing it out!

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