Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cont. Ed: The Sound of One Hand: the Hand in Japanese Culture

ATTENTION: Second presentation of the lecture Saturday, April 28 at 2:30 PM in Tateuchi Community Room

by aleks
SJG • 4/24/12 - Camellia
japonica 'Cheerful', Area C
‘The Sound of One Hand:  the Hand in Japanese Culture ‘was the title of Jesse Hiraoka lecture for docents at the first 2012 Cont. Ed meeting.   Jesse opened with stating that after 9/11 tragedy happened over 10 years ago, counselors and therapists were sent to NYC to help people deal with their anguish and pain; and that after Fukushima disaster in the spring of 2011 the haiku writers were sent to northern Japan to help people cope with similar feelings, and there was a big spike in writing haiku all over Japan.

Jesse referred to haiku written by Minoru Ozawa, who was asked by a poetry journal to write an encouraging work for the victims of Fukushima.  Ozawa initially wasn't able to write anything, as he was too pain stricken and overwhelmed himself, but eventually came up with this haiku:

 “Cherry blossoms
will bloom again
in harbours up north”

['Poetry after the Fukushima disaster' in Excalibur includes very interesting story from 9/21/11 on this  and other haiku and on how  “haiku is a collaboration between the dead and the living,” as Ozawa put it.]

Jesse’s  lecture was based on a thought that unlike in the western cultures, where emotions are often expressed by voice and oral output, the  Japanese culture expresses feelings via hand, not mouth, which leads to creation of origami, bonsai, gardening, writing and other forms of via-hand expression.

SJG • 4/24/12 - Camellia
japonica "Lily Pons', Area C
He also mentioned that while it's perfectly all right for a western type of counseling/therapy to allow the  expression of anguish come out in any, even the most clumsy form if necessary, the Japanese culture expects the person to somehow package the feeling into the form more manageable (comfortable?) for others before presenting it...

It made me think that it may be the reason the Japanese culture seems so elegant to many of us, and also that various forms of art therapy in western culture attempt to do the same: to channel rough feelings into another form of expression - strong, raw emotion can be a destructive force.   After all that is how artists the world over deal with their feelings of personal torment: they translate it into universal language of art - be it music, painting or literature - something that the rest of humanity can relate and connect to.

I want to share something new I learned about haiku from Jesse during his lecture; he referred to famous ‘frog haiku’ by Matsuo Basho and its many translations to the English language, all trying to ‘interpret’ it differently (proof here: this link to Bureau of Public Secrets  will take you to 31 translations and one commentary on the frog haiku):

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.
Translated by Lafcadio Hearn

SJG • 4/24/12 - Camellia
japonica 'Takayama', area B
Jesse explained that it’s up to the reader to figure out what to do with the haiku poem and how to take it in: if you know something about old ponds, connect on that level; if you know about frogs let your imagination do something with it; and if you know about sound of water it’s also up to you to make a leap (so to speak) in that direction.  One can relate to any one or all of the three thoughts presented, so all interpretations should be that of your own, and not the translator's;  it might be even somewhat insulting to tell the reader what to think of it and how to absorb it into his/her own word.

This notion is challenging for any translator and even the translation concept itself.  Yes, for haiku to find its own meaning in each reader is like any other perception of what's around us - we can only 'get' what somehow incorporates well into the rest of our understanding of the world, which is why opinions differ about books, films, music, even facts(!);  but the art of  literary translation is generally understood as an attempt  to convey the meaning of the language,  and not its separate words, as Horace famously said a long time ago: Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere fidus interpres - As a true translator you will take care not to translate word for word.   This means, I guess,  that every translation you'll ever read  is just a personal 'perception' of that translator, and nothing more;  the only difference from your own interpretation is that it was published.

SJG • 4/24/12 - Camellia
japonica ' Nuccio's Jewel', Area B
Jesse doesn’t like his lectures to be recorded or videotaped – he feels that once ‘published’ his thoughts are ‘closed’, canonized  and kind of set in stone, with no room for further  divagation or evolving about the subject, so there are no handouts or notes from this lecture. When I asked him to look over this post for accuracy before pushing the 'publish' button, he smiled and said something to the effect (and true to the heart of his lecture)  that he will not interfere with my personal take on his presentation (paraphrasing from memory here, as there is no record of his actual words)...   So  I' m leaving this cluttered and rumbling subjective interpretation of his lecture as is, for at this point I'm unable to improve on it -  with hope of some day rewriting  it as  haiku or a string quartet :)....

Jesse has kindly responded to requests from garden volunteers who could not attend his talk on April 19 and is offering a second presentation of "The Sound of One Hand: the Hand in Japanese Culture." If you were out of town or committed elsewhere on April 19, here's your opportunity to enjoy his thought-provoking and inspiring talk:  at 2:30 PM, Saturday, April 28 in Tateuchi Community Room.

Thank you, Jesse!
Jesse Hiraoka, PhD, is a retired Professor of French Literature at Western Washington University, and currently a fellow docent at Seattle Japanese Garden.

P.S. It's camellia season - all pics come from the SJG plant committee ID session...


  1. Aleks, I was at the Japanese Garden on Saturday, around 3pm, and I peeked inside Tateuchi Community Room - was Jesse's lecture given for garden volunteers only? I think it was, am I correct?

  2. Hanna: yes, the lectures are meant for garden volunteers, but we occasionally bring interested guests; too bad you didn't call me - i believe we could have accommodated you - Monzie is on the committee that runs that universe and she was there... you missed a treasure - i think Jesse's lecture would stir the translator in you as much as it did in me:)... let me know in the future - the lectures are posted in calendar page, and if you are interested particularly in Jesse, i think i can pry from him his speaking engagements elsewhere...

    1. Thank you, Aleks. I will let you know if I see something interesting in calendar page.
      Anyway, when I went there, the garden looked beautiful and very peaceful, as always.