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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Age of the Prose Classics

By Japanese Literature

  • 900–1200 A.D.

    The Maid of Unai
  • [From the ‘Yamato Monogatari,’ 900–1000, translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain. Author of these ‘Stories of Yamato’ (Japan) unknown, but said to have been, in part at least, the retired Emperor Kwanzan, 983–985. The stories contain nearly three hundred poems.]

  • IN days of old there dwelt a maiden in the land of Settsu, whose hand was sought in marriage by two lovers. One, Mubara by name, was a native of the same country-side; the other, called Chinu, was a native of the land of Idzumi. The two were alike in years, alike in face, in figure, and in stature; and whereas the maiden thought to accept the wooing of him that should the more dearly love her, lo! it fell out that they both loved her with the same love. No sooner faded the light of day than both came to do their courting, and when they sent her gifts the gifts were quite alike. Of neither could it be said that he excelled the other, and the girl meanwhile felt sick at heart. Had they been men of lukewarm devotion, neither would ever have obtained the maiden’s hand; but it was because both of them, day after day and month after month, stood before the cottage gate and made evident their affection in ten thousand different ways, that the maiden pined with a divided love. Neither lover’s gifts were accepted, and yet both would come and stand, bearing in their hands gifts. The maiden had a father and a mother, and they said to her:—“Sad is it for us to have to bear the burden of thine unseemly conduct in thus carelessly, from month to month and from year to year, causing others to sorrow. If thou wilt accept the one, after a little time the other’s love will cease.” The maiden made answer, “That likewise was my thought. But the sameness of the love of both has made me altogether sick at heart. Alas! what shall I do?”

    Now in olden days the people dwelt in houses raised on platforms built out into the river Ikuta. So the girl’s father and mother, summoning to their presence the two lovers, spake thus: “Our child is pining with a love divided by the equal ardor of your worships. But to-day we intend, by whatever means, to fix her choice. One of you showeth his devotion by coming hither from a distant home; the other is our neighbor, but his love is boundless. This one and that are alike worthy of our pitying regard.” Both the lovers heard these words with respectful joy; and the father and mother continued:—“What we have further in our minds to say is this: Floating on our river is a water-bird. Draw your bows at it; and to him that shall strike it will we have the honor to present our daughter.” “Well thought!” replied the lovers twain; and drawing their bows at the same instant, one struck the bird in the head and the other in the tail, so that neither could claim to be the better marksman. Sick with love, the maiden cried out:—

  • “Enough, enough! Yon swiftly-flowing wave
  • Shall free my soul from her long anxious strife;
  • Men call fair Settsu’s stream the stream of life,
  • But in that stream shall be the maiden’s grave!”
  • and with these words, let herself fall down into the river from the platform that overlooked it.

    While the father and mother, frantic with grief, were raving and shouting, the two lovers plunged together into the stream. One caught hold of the maiden’s foot and the other of her hand, and the three sank together and perished in the flood. Terrible was the grief of the girl’s father and mother, as, amid tears and lamentations, they lifted her body out of the water and prepared to give it burial. The parents of the two lovers likewise came to the spot, and dug for their sons graves beside the grave of the maiden. But the father and mother of him that dwelt in the same country-side raised an outcry, saying, “That he who belongs to the same land should be buried in the same place, is just. But how shall it be lawful for an alien to desecrate our soil?” So the parents of him that dwelt in Idzumi laded a junk with Idzumi earth, in which, having brought it to the spot, they laid their son. And to this day the maiden’s grave stands there in the middle, and the graves of her lovers on either side.

  • How the Sea was Calmed
  • [From the ‘Tosa Nikki’; William George Aston’s translation. Tsurayuki traced his descent to one of the Mikados. He held office his life throughout. This diary was written in 935, on the return journey from Tosa, a province he had been governing, to Kyōto the capital.]

  • MEANWHILE a sudden gale sprung up, and in spite of all our efforts we fell gradually to leeward, and were in great danger of being sent to the bottom. “This god of Sumiyoshi,” said the captain, “is like other gods. What he desires is not any of the fashionable articles of the day. Give him nusa as an offering.” The captain’s advice was taken, and nusa were offered; but as the wind, instead of ceasing, only blew harder and harder, and the danger from the storm and sea became more and more imminent, the captain again said, “Because the august heart of the god is not moved for nusa, neither does the august ship move: offer to him something in which he will take greater pleasure.” In compliance with this advice I thought what it would be best to offer. “Of eyes I have a pair; then let me give to the god my mirror, of which I have only one.” The mirror was accordingly flung into the sea, to my very great regret. But no sooner had I done so than the sea itself became as smooth as a mirror.

  • Discovery of the Isle of Immortal Youth, Mt. Hōrai
  • [From the ‘Taketori Monogatari,’ 850–950; translated by F. Victor Dickins. Authorship unknown, but ascribed to one Minamoto Jun. Materials of the story taken from Chinese and Indian sources. This extract is part of a description of the wanderings of a “Japanese Ulysses.”]

  • THEN the Ancient fell to busying himself with putting the chamber in order, and after a while went out and accosted the Prince again, saying, “Your servant would fain know what manner of place it may be where grows this tree,—how wonderful a thing it is, and lovely and pleasant to see!” And the Prince answered: “The year before yester-year, on the tenth of the second month, we took boat at Naniwa and sculled out into the ocean, not knowing what track to follow: but I thought to myself, what would be the profit of continuing life if I might not attain the desire of my heart; so pressed we onwards, blown where the wind listed. If we perished even, what mattered it? While we lived we would make what way we could over the sea-plain, and perchance thus might we somehow reach the mountain men do call Hōrai. So resolved, we sculled further and further over the heaving waters, until far behind us lay the shores of our own land. And as we wandered thus, now, deep in the trough of the sea we saw its very bottom; now, blown by the gale we came to strange lands, where creatures like demons fell upon us and were like to have slain us. Now, knowing neither whence we had come nor whither we tended, we were almost swallowed up by the sea; now, failing of food we were driven to live upon roots; now again, indescribably terrible beings came forth and would have devoured us; or we had to sustain our bodies by eating of the spoil of the sea. Beneath strange skies were we, and no human creature was there to give us succor; to many diseases fell we prey as we drifted along, knowing not whitherwards; and so tossed we over the sea-plain, letting our boat follow the wind for five hundred days. Then about the hour of the dragon, four hours ere noon, saw we a high hill looming faintly over the watery waste. Long we gazed at it, and marveled at the majesty of the mountain rising out of the sea. Lofty it was and fair of form; and doubting not it was the mountain we were seeking, our hearts were filled with awe. We plied the oar and coasted it for two days or three, and then we saw a woman arrayed like an angel come forth out of the hills, bearing a silver vessel which she filled with water. So we landed and accosted her, saying, ‘How call men this mountain?’ and she said, ‘’Tis Mount Hōrai;’ whereat our hearts were filled with joy.”

  • Court Festivals in the Eleventh Century
  • [From the ‘Makura no Sōshi,’ 1000–1050; William George Aston’s translation. The author, Sei Shōnagon, was a direct descendant from a Mikado, and was for some time chief lady-in-waiting to the Empress. With the death of her mistress in the year 1000 she left the court, entered a convent, and there composed this ‘Pillow Book,’ a masterpiece in Japanese prose.]

  • WHAT delightful anniversaries festivals are! Each one brings its special pleasures, but none to my mind is so enjoyable as New Year’s Day. It is early springtime then, when the weather is settled, and the morning breaks serenely. A quiet haze is spread over hill and dale, which the sun disperses when he rises, and shows the dewdrops sparkling in his rosy beams. The world seems glad and happy; and in the shining faces of the neighbors, glowing from the frosty air of morning, content and peace is plainly written. How pleasant it is to watch them as they pass, in holiday attire, intent on making their congratulations to their master, and ignorant the while that their very lightness of heart is an unconscious compliment to themselves.

    It is the 7th day of the month when people, tempted by the fineness of the weather, go out in company to pick the wakana (wild pot-herbs). The snow is off the ground, and great is the excitement amongst the ladies of the court, who have so seldom the opportunity of a country trip. What fun to watch the farmers’ wives and daughters, arrayed in all their hoarded finery, and riding in their wagons (made clean for the occasion), as they come to see the races in the court-yard of the palace. It is most diverting to observe their faces from our grated windows. How prim and proper they appear, all unconscious of the shock their dignity will get when the wagon jolts across the huge beam at the bottom of the gate, and knocks their pretty heads together, disarranging their hair, and worse still, mayhap breaking their combs. But that is after all a trifle when compared to their alarm if a horse so much as neighs. On this account the gallants of the court amuse themselves by slyly goading the horses with spear and arrow-point, to make them rear and plunge and frighten the wenches home in fear and trembling. How silly too the men-at-arms look, their foolish faces painted with dabs of white here and there upon their swarthy cheeks, like patches of snow left on a hillside from a thaw!

    Then there is the 15th of the first month, when appointments for the next four years are made. How eagerly candidates for office rush here and there through falling snow and sleet, with their memorials in their hands! Some have the jaunty air and confidence of youth; but others, more experienced, are weary and dejected-looking. How the old white-headed suitors crave an audience of the ladies of the palace, and babble to them of their fitness for the places they seek! Ah! little do they suspect when they have turned their backs what mirth they have occasioned! How the ladies mimic them—whining and drawling!

  • On the Character of Women
  • [From the ‘Genji Monogatari,’ 1004, translated by Kenchō Suyematsu. This romance of Prince Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of noble birth and a member of the great family of the Fujiwara, who were at the time practically rulers of Japan. It is said that not only does the classic literature of Japan find consummate illustration in this story, but that the history of the time, especially in its social characteristics, is here most vividly set forth.]

  • “HOW varied are the characters and the dispositions of women! Some who are youthful and favored by nature strive almost selfishly to keep themselves with the utmost reserve. If they write harmlessly and innocently, yet at the same time they are choice in their expressions, which have delicate touches of bewitching sentiment, this might possibly make us entertain a suddenly conceived fancy for them; yet they would give us but slight encouragement….

    “Among characters differing from the above, some are too full of sentimental sweetness; whenever occasion offers them romance they become spoilt. Such would be decidedly better if they had less sentiment and more sense.

    “Others again are singularly earnest—too earnest, indeed—in the performance of their domestic duty; and such, with their hair pushed back, devote themselves like household drudges to household affairs. Man, whose duties generally call him from home all the day, naturally hears and sees the social movements both of public and private life, and notices different things, both good and bad. Of such things he would not like to talk freely with strangers, but only with some one closely allied to him. Indeed, a man may have many things in his mind which cause him to smile or to grieve. Occasionally something of a political nature may irritate him beyond endurance. These matters he would like to talk over with his fair companion, that she might soothe him and sympathize with him. But a woman as above described is often unable to understand him, or does not endeavor to do so; and this only makes him more miserable. At another time he may brood over his hopes and aspirations; but he has no hope of solace. She is not only incapable of sharing these with him, but might carelessly remark, ‘What ails you?’ How severely would this try the temper of a man!

    “If then we clearly see all these, the only suggestion I can make is that the best thing to do is to choose one who is gentle and modest, and strive to guide and educate her according to the best ideal we may think of. This is the best plan; and why should we not do so? Our efforts would surely not be all in vain. But no! A girl whom we thus educate, and who proves to be competent to bear us company, often disappoints us when she is left alone. She may then show her incapability, and her occasional actions may be done in such an unbecoming manner that both good and bad are equally displeasing. Are not all these against us men? Remember however that there are some who may not be very agreeable at ordinary times, yet who flash occasionally upon us with a potent and almost irresistible charm.”

    Thus Sama-no-Kami, though eloquent, not having come to one point or another, remained thoughtful for some minutes, and again resumed.

    “After all, as I have once observed, I can only make this suggestion: That we should not too much consider either birth or beauty, but select one who is gentle and tranquil, and consider her to be best suited for our last haven of rest. If in addition she is of fair position, and is blessed with sweetness of temper, we should be delighted with her, and not trouble ourselves to search out or notice any trifling deficiency. And the more so as, if her conscience is clear and pure, calmness and serenity of features can naturally be looked for.

    “There are women who are too diffident and too reserved, and carry their generosity to such an extent as to pretend not to be aware even of such annoyances as afford them just grounds for of complaint. A time arrives when their sorrows and anxieties become greater than they can bear. Even then, however, they cannot resort to plain speaking and complain; but instead thereof they will fly away to some remote retreat among the mountain hamlets, or to some secluded spot by the seaside, leaving behind them some painful letter or despairing verses, and making themselves mere sad memories of the past….

    “Worse than this, the woman—led astray perhaps by ill advice—may even be beguiled into more serious errors. In the depth of her despairing melancholy she will become a nun. Her conscience when she takes the fatal vow may be pure and unsullied, and nothing may seem able to call her back again to the world which she forsook. But as time rolls on, some household servant or aged nurse brings her tidings of the lover who has been unable to cast her out of his heart, and whose tears drop silently when he hears aught about her. Then when she hears of his affections still living, and his heart still yearning, and thinks of the uselessness of the sacrifice she has made voluntarily, she touches the hair on her forehead, and she becomes regretful. She may indeed do her best to persevere in her resolve, but if one single tear bedews her cheek she is no longer strong in the sanctity of her vow. Weakness of this kind would be in the eyes of Buddha more sinful than those offenses which are committed by those who never leave the lay circle at all, and she would eventually wander about in the ‘wrong passage.’

    “But there are also women who are too self-confident and obtrusive. These, if they discover some slight inconsistency in men, fiercely betray their indignation and behave with arrogance. A man may show a little inconsistency occasionally, but yet his affection may remain; then matters will in time become right again, and they will pass their lives happily together. If therefore the woman cannot show a tolerable amount of patience, this will but add to her unhappiness. She should, above all things, strive not to give way to excitement; and when she experiences any unpleasantness, she should speak of it frankly but with moderation. And if there should be anything worse than unpleasantness, she should even then complain of it in such a way as not to irritate the man. If she guides her conduct on principles such as these, even her very words, her very demeanor, may in all probability increase his sympathy and consideration for her. One’s self-denial, and the restraint which one imposes upon one’s self, often depend on the way in which another behaves to us. The woman who is too indifferent and too forgiving is also inconsiderate. Remember, ‘The unmoored boat floats about.’ Is it not so?”

    Tō-no-Chiūjiō quickly nodded assent, as he said:—“Quite true! A woman who has no strength of emotion, no passion of sorrow or of joy, can never be a holder of us. Nay, even jealousy, if not carried to the extent of undue suspicion, is not undesirable. If we ourselves are not in fault, and leave the matter alone, such jealousy may easily be kept within due bounds. But stop,” added he suddenly: “some women have to bear, and do bear, every grief that they may encounter, with unmurmuring and suffering patience.”

    So said Tō-no-Chiūjiō, who implied by this allusion that his sister was a woman so circumstanced. But Genji was still dozing, and no remark came from his lips.