FEATURE: Poems of Emperor Meiji now in English after more than 30 years of work


Anglophone readers can now appreciate 100 classic poems by Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) thanks to more than 30 years of translation work by Harold Wright, an American scholar of Japanese literature who was a student of the late Japanologist Donald Keene.

Released in Japan last month, the collection of poems in “Bridge on the Shikishima Way” brings to life the feelings of an emperor who lived in an era where tradition and modernity intersected, with Japan transforming from a feudal state during his reign.

Photo taken on August 24, 2022, shows “Bridge on the Shikishima Way”, featuring poems by Emperor Meiji and their English translation. (TBEN)

“Emperor Meiji was not only a thoughtful emperor to his people, but also a gifted poet…(who) deeply felt that the world should live in peace with deeper feelings of international understanding,” said Wright, who is now a professor emeritus . Japanese Language and Literature at Antioch College in Ohio in the United States.

Emperor Meiji. (TBEN)

This year marks the 110th anniversary of the death of Emperor Meiji, who composed some 100,000 poems during his lifetime, many of which contain a wish for peace.

One particular poem lamenting the outbreak of war between Japan and Russia in 1904 is said to have moved then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who led the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth that formally ended the Russo-Japanese War the following year. war.

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It was our belief

that all the oceans of the world

were born of one mother,

so why do the wind and the waves?

now rise up in furious rage?

The poem was read in September 1941 by Emperor Hirohito, grandson of Emperor Meiji, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, to express his desire for peace at a conference involving the Japanese government and military leaders, at which Japan decided it would was going to war against the United States just three months before the Pacific War began.

In addition to prayers to the gods – a tradition of the Imperial family – the 100 ‘waka’ poems contain sentiments about international goodwill and war, as well as the lives of the people, with some rich in emotion.

Not tired of watching

cherry blossoms in the hills

on spring days,

even after nightfall

we still see them in our minds.

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Waka poetry was developed in the sixth century by the court aristocracy. A “tanka” poem, which is typically synonymous with waka, consists of 31 syllables in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7.

The idea of ​​translating imperial poems into English arose in 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics. Shinichiro Takasawa, who would later become Chief Priest of the capital’s Meiji Jingu Shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, wanted to welcome international guests with some poems by the Emperor and his wife Empress Shoken as some game-related events were to be held on the grounds of the sanctuary.

After deliberation, Keene introduced Wright, who at the time was a Fulbright scholar of Japanese poetry at Keio University, as a translator. In 1982, Wright received another request to translate more manuscripts of Imperial poetry, which he later worked on while working in Antioch.

Included photo shows Harold Wright, an American scholar who translated poems by Emperor Meiji, in Tokyo on November 6, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Meiji Jingu Shrine) (TBEN)

Wright conducted extensive research into Japanese history, culture and religion, striving to stay true to the original rhythm of each poem while maintaining a balance between meaning and imagery in a manner consistent with the foundations of English poetry. .

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Each poem took several months, and in some cases a year, to translate, with Wright repeatedly reading aloud both the original Japanese and English translations to check the cadence.

“The most important feeling I had when I completed the translations was a deep sense of gratitude that at this advanced age I could finally finish the important work that was asked of me so many years ago,” said Wright, who turned 91. this year.

Kazuhiro Nagata, a waka poet and cell biologist, said in his commentary on the book that it would help spread knowledge of the traditional poetic form and its long history, a “supported by the Imperial family and the people of Japan.”

“That is to say, this opportunity for readers around the world to experience the roots of Japanese culture should be of immense importance,” Nagata said.

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