Stone Bridge Cafe is a bi-weekly online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories, poems, non-fiction pieces, photographs, and artwork from and/or about East Asia. For submission guidelines and info, follow the link at the bottom of this post.
This week we're serving up an eloquent haibun (a poetry-and- prose form from Japan) written by M.C. Danzinger that meditates on the classic Japanese war epic, The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari, 平家物語)—a tale full of dramatic death and heartbreaking tragedy. Of the epic's many conflicts, Danzinger chose to focus on one particularly important battle: the battle of Dan no Ura. Besides being one of the battles that sealed the fate of the Taira (Heike) clan, it is also where one of the most tragic deaths of the entire story takes place. Enjoy!
What Was Lost at Dan no Ura
Imagine the ocean, deep, dark and angry. Imagine cruel conflict between two ancient families. Imagine being a six-year-old emperor, and sailing on those warring waters. The battle of Dan no Ura is where the forces of the warrior-clan Taira lost the Genpei war (1180-1185) to the opposing clan of Minamoto at the strait between Honshu the main island of Japan, and the southern island of Kyushu. In the dramatized epic The Tale of the Heike, the losses are described to us in poetic detail, and the words reach across centuries to touch us. None of these deaths is more tragic than the death of the young emperor Antoku.
young boy forced to take the throne,
royal in life, home,
blood, and bone.
The name Antoku is special; the Chinese character for “virtue” (toku 徳) is only included in the posthumous names of emperors who died far from the ancient capital of Kyoto. The other character (an 安) ironically means “peace” and “safety.” That, and his innocent attire described in the Heike add to the tragedy.
looped hair cradled by his shoulders,
robes of pleasant green and grey
belie the gravity of fate.
The main theme of the Heike is one of the Buddhist ideal of impermanence. The opening lines of the tale itself reflect this; “The Jetvana Temple bells / ring the passing of all things.” Buddhism, especially the Pure Land sect which believes in rebirth in the “Pure Land”, was practiced widely at this time. When Antoku’s grandmother Kenreimon’in realizes along with the rest of the Taira forces that their situation is hopeless, she decides that it would be more merciful to have Antoku drown in the turbulent waters of the Shimonoseki strait than fall victim to the opposing Minamoto.
in fervent prayer clasped tiny hands,
to the east and west,
for purer lands.
grandmother forced you to the sea,
in the capital below the waves.
Adolphson, Mikael S., and Anne Commons. Lovable Losers: the Heike in Action and Memory. 2015.
Tyler, Royall, translator. The Tale of the Heike. Viking, 2012.
M.C. Danzinger studies Japanese language and literature at the University of Alberta. He tutors high school English language arts and tries to inspire his students to enjoy poetry as much as he does.
If you would like to submit your own work to Stone Bridge Cafe, follow this link for submission info and guidelines: http://www.stonebridge.com/sbp-blog/stone-bridge-cafe-guidelines-submission-info