“Autumn Lovers,” a Tanabata Sequence

Tanabata is a Japanese star festival derived from the similar Chinese celebration of Qixi. Meaning “seventh night,” Tanabata marks the yearly reunion in late summer or early fall of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (Weaver Princess and Boy Star), which correspond to the stars Vega and Altair. In the mythology…

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Bussokusekika #20

Bussokusekika is a rare form of Japanese poetry that consists of six lines written in a 5-7-5-7-7-7 mora pattern. Arising during the Nara period, the form had essentially died out by the Heian period. For centuries, the only existing examples were the twenty one poems inscribed beside the stone Buddha…

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“Dream People,” by Monk Sōgi

A zen monk from a humble background, Iio Sōgi became one of the most respected poets of 15th-century Japan, lauded by major figures and followed by a crowd of students. We may realize that people are merely dreams: the house abandoned, its wild garden becomes home to a swarm of…

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“The Emperor’s Visit” by Sotōri

The fifth-century Emperor Ingyō (c. 411-453) took as his lover Princess Sotoshi no iratsume (better known to us as Sotōri), the younger sister of Empress Oshisaka no Ōnakatsuhime. To avoid offending the Empress, Ingyō provided a residence for Princess Sotoshi far away from her older sister, first in Fujiwara near…

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“The Way of Walking Alone” by Miyamoto Musashi

A week before he died, Japanese swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi composed his Dokkōdō or Way of Walking Alone, a series of twenty-one precepts that spell out his philosophy of ascetic, honorable living. I do not oppose the age-old paths. I do not plot ways to find pleasure. I do not bias…

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“Love in Ruins” by Ise

Lady Ise was one of the most important Japanese poets in history, the woman with the most pieces collected in the imperial anthology Kokin Wakashū (Kokinshū). Named one of the Sanjūrokkasen or 36 Immortals of Poetry, Ise was born in the late 9th century CE and became involved in relationships…

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“The Pledge” by Ukon

Ukon was a Japanese poet of the Heian period, active toward the end of the 10th century, named one of the Nyōbō Sanjūrokkasen or 36 Female Immortals of Poetry. She was a lady-in-waiting of Empress Onshi. The following poem is number 38 in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a classical Japanese…

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“The Spirit of the Japanese” by Motoori Norinaga

Motoori Norinaga was a Japanese scholar and poet in the 16th century who emphasized mono no aware or “the pathos of things” in his literary philosophy, insisting on the role of empathy in life and in composition. The following waka is one of his most famous poems: it was usurped…

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“Final Journey” by Matsuo Bashō

Japanese poet Bashō composed the following haiku in the winter of 1694, just four days before his death. At the time, despite his illness, he had embarked on another trek across the Japanese countryside. Ill on a journey— Through desolate fields my dreams Aimlessly wander. —Translated by David Bowles, July…

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“Octopus Traps” by Matsuo Bashō

Japanese poet Bashō composed the following haiku in the summer of 1688 and later published it in Backpack Notes. The “octopus traps” are jars that would be lowered into the water by fishermen in the afternoon and then raised the next morning. The creatures that had slipped inside what appeared…

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