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The Country Where Turtles Cry: Climate and Poetry of Japan

The Country Where Turtles Cry: Climate and Poetry of Japan
By Nakanishi Susumu
Translated by Bruce Allen
Kadokawa (2022)
ISBN: 978-4048844673
Review by Renae Lucas-Hall

It’s an honour to review this book by the distinguished scholar and haiku master, Nakanishi Susumu (1929-). According to The Chugoku Shimbun, Nakanishi is a resident of Kyoto and a former director of the Koshinokuni Museum of Literature in Toyama Prefecture. He was chairperson of the Japan Studies Foundation and Professor Emeritus at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Nichibunken, in Kyoto. Nakanishi received Japan’s Order of Cultural Merit award in 2013 and he contributed to the naming of his country’s current era “Reiwa”.

Nakanishi is well-known for his research into comparative literature and Japanese culture and he is also a leading scholar of the Man’yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves),the oldest anthology of Japanese classical poetry written by emperors, courtiers, and the nobility, circa 718-785.

In The Country Where Turtles Cry: Climate and Poetry of Japan Nakanishi focuses on different aspects and forms of Japanese traditional poetry, from waka (the original word for Japanese poem) to tanka (short poems) and haiku, sharing insights about its history and cultural influence in Japan and beyond. This review looks at some of the highlights from the book, a few of Nakanishi’s favourite haiku, and some of his brilliant observations and findings.

In his first chapter ‘Style of traditional Poetry’, Nakanishi attempts to put into context the appeal of the poems and songs of the Man’yoshu. He believes humans can only exist as a totality and says’ by making ourselves like notes, the whole of music can be played’” (pp. 12-13). The beautiful symphony of our lives can only be orchestrated through the harmonious co-existence of the human race. Nakanishi goes on to compare the Man’yoshu to the Kokinshu which was a collection of short poems compiled in the 8th to 10th centuries. He affirms traditional poetry can show common elements or allude to an older poem readers would recognize. This is called honkadori (本歌取り) in Japanese. This waka by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) is a fine example (p. 15):


haru no yo no yume no ukihashi todaeshite mine ni wakaruru yokogumo no sora

(in spring night, floating bridge of dreams vanishes in the middle — bank of clouds departing from the ridges in the sky)


The words “floating bridge of dreams” are borrowed from the older classic The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978 – c. 1014). Teika’s father, Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204), was also a Japanese poet and courtier of the Heian period. He believed one could only aspire to be an accomplished waka poet if one were familiar with The Tale of Genji.

In his section ‘Physical Attributions of Waka’, Nakanishi recalls how he was invited to attend the Imperial Court in 1994 as a meshudo or person especially selected by the emperor to compose waka. He saw this opportunity as a good reason to reconsider the history of the Japanese Imperial House and the tradition of waka, as well as language and politics. He tells the reader there’s a long tradition of emperors going into towns to listen to the songs of commoners. Waka were a way for a lord and his people to unite. He also promotes the idea that individual people and different countries can participate through poetry and culture to forge strong international relationships.

Nakanishi’s chapter ‘Fiction in Haiku’ encourages the reader to suspend disbelief or “fall into an air-pocket” (p.26) to fully appreciate Japanese poetry. In this chapter, Nakanishi also explains the title of this book, The Country Where Turtles Cry. After reading the Saijiki or Compendium of Japanese Seasonal Words he explains how Imaizumi Yoshinori (1914-2007), a famous zoologist, wrote in detail about the fact turtles cannot cry. Therefore, in his view, to appreciate certain elements of Japanese poetry we must believe that the turtles can cry as the haiku below by Masajo Suzuki (1906-2003) confirms (p. 27):


kame naite Chinzan-so ni tsubaki nashi

(turtles cry, no camellia trees in Chinzan- so, the camellia residence)


The power of poetry in the classics by writers like Murasaki Shikubu as well as the Hakushimonju (a collection of poems and essays by the famous Chinese poet Hakukyoi (772-846)), is the subject of the chapter ‘Haiku in Different Contexts’. Nakanishi tells the reader that haiku were born as the unlikely children of waka poetry and that tanka is the literature of “occurrences” and “emotions” while haiku is that of “objects”. Waka follows a pattern where the emotion is the upper phrase and the object is the lower phrase. He refers to Japan’s foremost haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, born in the 17th century who is considered the first master of haiku. He also introduces Yosa Buson, the great haiku poet of the 18th century, who regularly wrote about the Heian period of the 9th and 11th centuries.

‘Expectations of the Effectiveness of Things’ is a chapter dedicated to an appreciation of Roland Barthes’ (1915-1980) essay on ecriture as well as his understanding that Japan is an ‘empire of signs’. This refers to kanji, or the logographic Chinese characters, as well as things (mono in Japanese) which is related to the theme mono no aware or the transient nature of life, an awareness of ephemera, and a feeling of pathos. Barthes believes “things” in Europe exist as zero but in Japan “things” can be effective because of its signage.

Next, Nakanishi discusses pivot words or makurakotoba. These words add depth to poems and represent ancient language. Nakanishi uses soramitsu as an example. In the Nihonshiki (Chronicles of Japan) in April of the year Jinmu 31, Prince Nigihayahi flew around in the vast sky on heaven’s boat and disembarked when he saw the country of Yamato (an ancient name for Japan). Therefore, the country was called ‘soramitsu Yamato country’; that is, the country of the vast sky. If the reader suspends disbelief this story of a prince flying in the sky is believable. In ancient times, “seeing” was also a “blessing” so one could interpret this tale as Japan being blessed. Makurakotoba are therefore holy words that have great power.

In his chapter ‘The Seasonal Words Innate to Japanese are Unable to be Shared with the World’, Nakanishi sees this as a theory and shares a couple of haiku with cherry blossoms as the central theme. These poems would have more relevance in Japan where one can appreciate hanami, or the custom of flower viewing, as it’s described in the haiku. But Nakanishi is also partial to haiku written in other countries. Take this delightful poem on page 61 by the Japanese poet Arima Akito (1930-2020) which was written in Frankfurt am Main:


tsujigakushi boshi ni tameru zeni to ochiba

(a street performer—saving coins and fallen leaves in his hat)


Moving on to Part II: Nature is the Cradle for the Body, in the chapter ‘History of Cherry Blossoms and Plum Blossoms’, Nakanishi tells a story from the Nihonshiki. In the entry of this book for November 6th of the third year of the era of Emperor Richu, a happening with a cherry blossom petal is described. One day when the emperor and the empress were sailing, a cherry blossom petal flew into a sake cup and the emperor asked his men to find out where it came from. Despite the fact it was the start of winter, it came from Mount Muroyama at the foot of the Katsuragi Mountains, before reaching an area near the foot of Mount Kagu. The emperor wondering why a spring flower had fallen in winter, called this untimely or “not of time”, implying cherry blossoms represent eternity. This is additional proof cherry blossoms were seen as representing the transient nature of life as far back as ancient times.

Another example of the use of the cherry blossoms trope apears in page 75 when Nakanishi discusses about a song popular since the Meiji period (1868-1912):


sakura sakura
yayoi no sora wa miwatasu kagiri
kasumi ka kumo ka nioizoizuru
izaya izaya miniyukamu

(cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, blooming in the sky in March, seem like mists or clouds, let’s go to look at them)


This is a well-known folk song and part of a collection of songs to accompany beginners learning the koto, a traditional Japanese string instrument. Nakanishi affirms the feeling Japanese people get from being able to celebrate hanami far surpasses the sentiments for ume (plum) blossoms. However, ume covered in snow represent purity and the importance of leading an honourable life. In Japan, plum trees are also associated with pine trees and bamboo or shochikubai, representing “the three friends of winter” in China and symbolising steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience.

Nakanishi also reflects on The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra (1939–), an Austrian-born American physicist. This book claims there’s a link between Oriental mysticism and Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and physics. Nakanishi provides an example of this mysticism in a haiku by Nagata Koi (1900-1997) on page 110. Nagata was asked to write a poem about a woman losing her husband, suggesting “life in calmness”.


rakkason yomo ni kenkon shiroshi kuroshi

(falling blossoms-jizo in all directions, the universe is white, and is black)


Keeping in mind jizo are traditional Buddhist statues, petals in this poem create a “cosmic dance”, and the universe is white and black, tossing the reader into what feels like a third dimension. This poem incorporates piety, nostalgia, and the warmth of a climate in springtime.

Another one of Nakanishi’s favourite poets is Mori Sumio (1919–2010). In this regard, Nakanishi explains how “gazing” up at the sun is linked with composing and the essence of poetry and uses a poem from Mori to demonstrate this idea. The haiku on page 118 is from Mori’s twelfth collection of haiku, Tenjitsu (The Sun) and provides a sense of calmness:


onozukara sora ni me wo yaru mugetsu kana

(unnoticed I glanced up at the sky there is no moon)


In haiku, certain flowers and animals can reflect an entire season. In the old times, people described snow “as the flower to follow chrysanthemums” in winter. Nakanishi loves this comparison. He’s also fond of the peony and the way it inspires both ancient and modern haiku. Nakanishi says, ‘In the long history of peony haiku, I presume this is a truly superb one’ (p. 128). Below is a haiku by Takaha Shugyo (1930-) composed in 1997:    


ten yori no hikari wo kuraku hakubotan

(making the light from the heaven darken the white peony)


The talented poet Hoyon Son (1923-2003) enjoyed writing tanka from a young age. Hoyon was born in Japan, moved to South Korea, and returned to Japan to study. Unfortunately, she passed away when she was eighty years old, not long before the Japanese Prime Minister  Koizumi Jun’ichiro recited her tanka at a summit conference in South Korea in 2005:


setsujitsuna negai ga ware ni hitotsu ari isakai no naki kuni to kuni nare

(one earnest desire I have — there is no trouble between your country and my country)


In this short poem on page 146, Hoyon is attempting to make a small but significant contribution towards world peace. This can be seen as a proof of how the power and allure of haiku have endured for centuries and will continue to calm minds and create unity. If our beliefs and opinions clash our hearts they can still convene through poetry.

These examples of poems and ideas included here were just a few of the many more included in Nakanishi’s book, a fascinating work on Japanese traditional poetry. Although the English translation is at times literal and complex, The Country Where Turtles Cry: Climate and Poetry of Japan is a marvellous portal into the world of haiku which can be appreciated now and in the future. For those interested in writing and reading haiku, I would recommend to visit The Japan Society Haiku Corner where they can contribute to “Haiku of the Week”.