Cranes Line Art

Introduction to Idiophonics (Natural Sounds) in Early Japanese Women's Poetry
- - - - - - -
with prose and poetry by
Princess Shikishi, Chiyo-ni, Otagaki Rengetsu, Abutsu-ni, Lady Ise,
Michitsuna no Haha, Sei Shonagon, Priestess Senshi & Ema Saiko
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Japanese Women Poets Bibliography with links to online publications
Sources for natural sound effects on the Internet, see also:
Early Japanese Women Poets: Bamboo
Flowers and leaves
of all colors
let them be —
late winter night
has its pine wind sound.
- - - - -
Princess Shikishi
(from the tr. by Hiroaki Sato)

whistling pine wind
(wav 529K)

      IDIOPHONES are "self-sounders," (idio="self"), that is, musical instruments where the resonant wood, stone, metal or glass substance of the instrument itself excites the sound. Many of these instruments are made from objects found in nature, for example, the stones of stone chimes, the gourds of maracas, the cactus of a rainstick (wav 1.2 MB), or the driftwood strips of hand-made beach marimbas.

For the purpose of this page, the term, idiophonics, is extended to include the "self-sounding" of all of the sounds of nature as they occur in the wild (as well as everyday sounds of human activity), wherever these sounds are appreciated as aesthetically beautiful, melodic, symbolic or otherwise meaningful. In music, idiophones are separated into various categories according to the way in which the sound is produced. Similar distinctions might also apply to the types of natural idiophonic sounds used in Japanese poetry.
Full moon --
stepping through the snow
the sound of the stones.
- - - - -
(tr. by Patricia Donegan, Yoshie Ishibashi)

(wav 488K)

I shattered the ice
to draw water --
no matter, this morning
frozen just as solid.
- - - - -
Otagaki Rengetsu
(tr. by John Stevens)

ice cracking
(wav 748K)

A working list of the sources of natural idiophonic sound found in Japanese poetry might include the following categories:

(1) Struck directly -- for example, the striking of clogs against stones, or hailstones against various surfaces, the crack and chip of an ice pick, the rap at a door, the slapping together of the slats of a window blind, or various religious practice such as striking a gourd with a stick of bamboo. Also tapping, for example the drumming of a black woodpecker (mp3 93 K).

(1b) Struck indirectly by scraping -- for instance, the sound of various trees scraping against the eaves of a hut or against a window pane, or the rustling of branches scraping against each other.

(1c) Struck indirectly by dropping to the ground or other surface -- for example, the dropping of leaves, twigs, or the rushing sound of rain hitting a roof or striking bamboo, the plunging of ducks (wav, 68 K), aquatic animals or inanimate objects into water. The crushing sound of footsteps in snow (wav 80 K) might also be included in this category.
Each time the shower returns,
the leafy oak
waiting in my garden
and takes it in.
- - - - -
Princess Shikishi
(tr. by Hiroaki Sato)

spring rain
(wav 368K)

(2) Flapping or shaking -- such as the sound of the flapping wings (aif 152 K) of a bird or butterfly or the shaking of ice from a grebe's wings.

(3) Snapping or breaking -- such as the sound of the snapping of a twig, the shattering of ice, or the snapping of an archer's bow.
Ema Saiko (1787-1861)
(tr. by Hiroaki Sato)

Years pass swiftly like an arrow shot from the string.
My small nephew's now past my hips, the big one past my shoulders.
In our living room I 've observed both children grow,
and feel my "fragrant years" further decrease.

the snap of a bow string
(au, 48K)

and the twang of the bow
(wav, 16K)

(4) Rubbed -- for instance, sounds made by insects, such as katydids with specialized organs which make a sound when rubbed together. The sound of sea edge waves (wav 240 K), or water lapping or rubbing against poles, or a rocky stream (wav 210 K), might also be included in this category.
From a crack in the wall
of my mountain hut,
katydids announce themselves
and the moonlight too
pours in.
- - - - -
Otagaki Rengetsu
(tr. by John Stevens)

lesser pine katydid
(wav 272K)

(5) Blown -- such as the delightful song of the little Japanese cuckoo ("hototogisu") (wav 408 K) or plaintive calls such as a whooping crane (wav 449 K), or Japanese cranes -- Shikishi cries out herself saying, "across the frost of harvested fields, a crane calls." And or course innumerable other bird songs, such as the little ringed plover, or little egret, also deer calls, barking, neighing and other vocal animal sounds, as well as human speech suddenly called out, or sighs, a girl laughing (wav 40 K) or an old man snoring.
If it is you there
In the light boat on the pond,
I long to beg you :
"Do not go; linger a while
Among us here in this place."
Lady Ise (9th c.)

back streets' snoring
and today's full moon
bright, bright
(tr. by Patricia Donegan, Yoshie Ishibashi)

man snoring
(wav, 344K)

(6) Plucked -- such as the sound of the tongues of a rake plucked as they move over pebbles or leaves, or the plucking of the bristles of a broom sweeping a floor.

(7) Echo -- all forms of echo in the wild are indirectly carried by the landscape itself, for instance the echo of a mountain temple bell, or the reverberating sound of chopping wood. In Rengetsu's poem the mountain landscape becomes her brass singing bowl (mp3, 332K), struck before zazen (sitting meditation):
The echo of the bell
at Yoshimizu --
I am here, too,
in a black robe
set against the white mist.
- - - - -
Otagaki Rengetsu
(tr. by John Stevens)

temple bell
(wav 247K)

Some of the most delightful poems written by early Japanese women center on these sounds heard in nature and appreciated as aesthetically meaningful, and including as well the silence of a sound, which indirectly suggests the sound itself ("the frozen stream has no voice"). In addition the head note, or the context provided by the poet within a travel diary, will sometimes indicate a sound environment not mentioned or even implied in the poem proper. Since these introductions are composed as poetic prose, they can be read not only as narrative descriptions but as essential elements of the poem itself.
Abutsu-ni's (1222?-1283)
Journal of the Sixteenth-Night Moon
(tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

"Toward dawn, we set out from Moruyama in the faint light
of the lingering moon. The fog was thick when we crossed
the Yasu River, and only the clop of horses' hoofs revealed
the presence of travelers ahead:"

All together,
The travelers take their leave
When morning arrives;
They ford the stream on horseback
Through the Yasu River fog.

compare with:

Michitsuna no Haha (fl. 954-974)
(Mother of Michitsuna)
(tr. from the Kagero Diary, tr. by Sonja Arntzen)

For so many years
I have lived by these mountains,
crossing them time and
time again, even the most
stubborn colt is used to me.

clop of horses' hooves
(wav 100K)

Finally, poems were sometimes composed in the context of a traditional natural sound which may not be mentioned directly. For instance, Matsuo Basho's (1644-1694) haiku about the splash of a frog in an ancient pond was so well known and loved that every frog leaping into a stream ever after carried with it the memory of Basho's splash ("The ancient pond! /a frog plunged / the sound of water!"). Other creatures may be associated with a sound so memorable, that just the name, for instance of a tiger, will bring with it the tiger's roar. or a coyote, its poignant call. In the same way all Japanese poetry retains the memory of a long tradition of classical sights and sounds, which are meant to suggest themselves to the mind of the reader even if they are not described.

Hokku poets: Chiyo & Ninagawa Chikamasa, by Ki Baikei (detail)


Three of the most important early Japanese women poets to work with idiophonics are Princess Shikishi (ca. 1150-1201), a royal Shinto priestess in her early life and also strongly influenced by Buddhism, becoming a nun in her later years; Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), a Pure Land Buddhist nun, a very liberated, independent woman, and perhaps the most respected by women of all the early Japanese women haiku poets; and finally the compassionate Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), trained in the martial arts, acclaimed as a waka poet, as well as a calligrapher and potter, and like Shikishi and Chiyo, a Buddhist nun in the Pure Land tradition. All three women entered into the writing and appreciation of poetry both as a creative activity as well as a spiritual path (kado). In fact the presence of sounds in their poems might be compared to sacred music, since what is heard is always meant to be understood in the context of a deeper listening, that is, in the context of an enlightened and compassionate awareness.

Flowers and leaves
of all colors
let them be --
late winter night
has its pine wind sound.
--- Princess Shikishi (d. 1201) (tr. by Hiroaki Sato)

Full moon --
stepping through the snow
the sound of the stones.
--- Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) (tr. by Patricia Donegan, Yoshie Ishibashi)

The echo of the bell
at Yoshimizu --
I am here, too,
in a black robe
set against the white mist.
-- Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875) (tr. by John Stevens)


For further study, the Journal of Abutsu-ni and the Diary by Michitsuna no Haha are replete with evocative sights and sounds. The unique sound applications in each of these works are exquisite. They both undertake that deepest thread in Japanese literature of what can be seen and what is obscured, what can be heard and that which is unheard, of sight and sound, the two always working together as "not two" to suggest the unity of yin and yang. In the following Diary entry by Michitsuna no Haha, the poet develops enlightened connections which leap beyond the finite place of "where" a sight or a sound resides. And though the passer-by playing a flute cannot be seen outside on the big road, the music can still be cupped, like the light of the moon, free for all, inside.
    Michitsuna no Haha (Mother of Michitsuna) (fl. 954-974)
    (from Kagero Diary, tr. by Sonja Arntzen, p. 187-189)

    "In a pond in front of someone's house, the full moon of the
    eighth month is reflected, as some women gaze at it, a person
    playing a flute passes by on the big avenue outside the garden wall."

    From beyond the clouds,
    the voice of a bamboo flute,
    approaches -- listening,
    it seems the moon's reflection
    is right here in our cupped hands.

    Japanese shakuhachi flute
    (wav, 397K)
Finally, marvelous gleanings of sound prose and poetry are discoverable in Sei Shonagaon's most famous PILLOW BOOK (ca. 1000-1010), sections of which are included also in Helen Craig Mccullough's CLASSICAL JAPANESE PROSE. In the following citation, three women are mentioned: first, Sei Shonagon, the author and a court lady, who is here serving the second lady, Empress Fujiwara no Teishi, and delivering a poem by the third participant, the "Kamo Virgin," or Shinto Priestess, that is, Princess Senshi. Princess Senshi or Senchi (964-1035), is also the author of an enlightened book of annotated Buddhist-inspired poetry (translated by Edward Kamens, see: "The Buddhist Poetry of the Great Kamo Priestess: Daisaiin Senchi and Hosshin Wakashu").
    By pulling the go table over to stand on, I managed to raise the heavy shutter opposite the curtain-dais -- a hard task for one person. But with nobody helping from the other side, there was such a loud squeak that Her Magesty woke up.
          "Why are you doing that? she asked.
          "A letter has come from the Kamo Virgin. Could it be that I wouldn't hurry to give it to you?" I said.
          "It has arrived very early." She got up. The letter contained two hare sticks, each about five inches long, which were wrapped at the top like hare wands and decorated daintily with spearflower berries, club moss, and wild sedge. There was no message.
          "There must be something else." Looking again, she discovered a poem, which was inscribed on the small piece of paper wrapped around the head of one of the sticks:
    The echo of axes
    reverberating in the hills
    proves to be none other
    than the sound of men felling trees
    to make the festive wands.

    chopping wood
    (aif, 100K)

    open creaky shutter door
    (wav, 148K)

• SB - String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi,
trans. by Hiroaki Sato, University of Hawaii Press, 1993

• CNWHM - Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master,
ed. by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi, Tuttle, 1998

• LM - Lotus Moon: the Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu,
tr. and with notes by John Stevens, Inklings, 1994

• CJP - Classical Japanese Prose: an Anthology,
by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford University Press, Dover,
1996: "Journal of the Sixteenth-Night Moon," by Abutsu-ni
      "Pillow Book" by Sei Shongagon (selections)

• KD - The Kagero Diary [by Michitsuna no Haha],
A Woman's Autobiographical Text from Tenth-Century Japan
[also known as the Gossamer Years], translated with notes
and introduction by Sonja Arntzen, University of Michigan, 1997

• BTB - Breeze through Bamboo: Kanshi of Ema Saiko,
tr. by Hiroaki Sato, Columbia University Press, 1998
___ ___ ___ ___ ___

• FBF - Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women:
an Anthology tr. by Makoto Ueda,
New York Columbia University Press, 2003

• IDM - The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems
by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu,
ed. by Jane Hirshfield, Vintage Books, 1990

• JWP - Japanese Women Poets: an Anthology,
ed. by Hiroaki Sato, M.E. Sharpe, 2008

• TSIWP - Thirty-Six Immortal Women Poets,
by Eishi Hosoda, Andrew J. Pekarik, G. Braziller, 1991.

• LRS - A Long Rainy Season : Haiku & Tanka,
tr. by Leza Lowitz, Miyuki Aoyama, Akemi Tomioka,
Stone Bridge Press, 1994

• BRWM - Black Robe, White Mist,
Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, ed. by
Melanie Eastburn, poetry translated by John Stevens,
National Gallery of Australia, 2007
Illustration: Whooping Cranes (detail) (public domain line art)
from National Image Library, USFWS

whooping cranes
(wav 452K)

sandhill crane
(wav 780K)
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