I first heard the choice of the new era name while I was falling asleep to the BBC World Service news. Which is why I began the following day half-convinced that there had been a radical break from tradition and we were about to enter the era of ‘Layla’.  But no; the Derek and the Dominoes restoration will not occur.

Nevertheless, the choice of the new era name, 令和/Reiwa, has managed to work up a bit of controversy, which is quite an achievement for what is otherwise a fairly obscure process.  By ‘obscure process’ I mean a process that I don’t understand.  It seems to be one in which the relevant authorities find a sentence  in classical Chinese and extract two characters from it to make up a kind of  phrase-cum-title which presumably is thought to be auspicious.  In this case the Chinese sentence was composed by Ōtomo no Tabito, a general who, in the eighth century, was despatched to quell the Hayato, the less than harmonious natives of southern Kyushu and then became the Governor of Dazaifu, the military post from where Kyushu was governed.  He was also a well-known, if second-rate, poet (not one of the 36 Immortals), distinguished by his lyrical celebrations of getting drunk in preference to everything else.  But it’s not a poem but the foreword to one section of the Manyōshū from which the two characters have been plucked. This was written to mark  the holding of a plum blossom party and the tradition is maintained:  every year at plum blossom time a group of ladies, dressed for the occasion in rather elegant ancient costumes, gathers at  the remains of the Dazaifu buildings to recite this passage. Not quite as big in scale as the cherry blossom parties but considerably less cloying. Perhaps a group of similarly attired men recite his poems while getting absolutely slammed but it does not seem to be publicised.

  Any the relevant sentence is:


And the two relevant phrases seem to mean ‘a fair month in  early spring’ and ‘the air is fresh and the breeze gentle’.  Which is all very pleasant.  So  if we take the meanings as in this sentence, i.e.  ‘fair’ and ‘gentle’, we get  a hopeful, blossoming peaceful sort of vibe.  But it’s the extraction process that I find difficult.   令 is only ‘fair’ in a compound such as令月/fair month, which is unusual to say the least (and apparently modelled on a far older Chinese poem, which makes it both obscure and archaic).  By itself, once extracted from this context, it tends to revert to its dictionary definitions and  my twelve-volume kanwa dictionary lists ‘fair’ only as the sixth meaning  (where the definition  is the fairly stolid ‘よい/good’). Otherwise it’s ‘command’, or ‘law’ or ‘official’ and  that’s the first range of meanings that comes to (my) mind.  I suppose 和/wa/gentle is on safer ground.  It means ‘gentle’, ‘harmonious’ (and ‘Japan’); far preferable to 倭/wa (the rather dismissive ancient Chinese name for Japan) which it replaced.

But the government says it’s ‘lovely harmony’ or something like it and it’s their era name. But even so, I can’t help seeing what I see and that really isn’t the official version.

And does that matter?


 And then my mind wanders to Tabito’s more famous son, Ōtomo no Yakamochi,  the prime mover of the Manyōshū  and one of the 36 Immortals, who is remembered for his determination to protect, and die for, the emperor.  His most famous poem was lightly adapted to become the lyric to the hit song, Umi yukaba.  But more of that some other time.

For a more authoritative reaction to reiwa and so on:

For the other Ōtomo’s hit song:

Golden Week Special

Cherry in full bloom at High Bank Hill

Golden Week this year sees the end of the Heisei era as the blossom fades and the beginning of the Reiwa era as the new green emerges. At present the great cherry tree outside Donko Books is in full bloom and petals are just starting to drift away. Farewell Heisei and welcome Reiwa!

Birthday for Masako and her book

Yesterday was 21 February 2017 and the birthday of our author Masako Saito. She would have been 86 years old. In celebration and in fondest memory of this remarkable writer and scholar we published her novel blossom on Kobo and Kindle. The next step will be a ‘physical book’ which shouldn’t be too far down the road. In the meantime, you have the opportunity to read blossom on an e-reader, which is at least convenient. But why should you?

Because there is nothing else like it. It’s a completely different world of power struggles, passionate love, poetry, wonderful clothes, beautiful nature and lots more – but not as you have ever known them. This is ninth century Japan, the hero and narrator is one of Japan’s greatest poets and the events in the Heian court represent the flowering of a literary and aesthetic culture equal to any other in the world. And there are secret conspiracies and at least one imperial assassination (or was it?), dark family secrets, passionate love affairs (with the perfect woman and when that becomes impossible her younger sister) and blizzards of cherry blossom. All long ago and far away but relax into it and you’ll be there in the great mansions, in the crowds flocking to the blazing gate of the Imperial Palace and under the cherry trees as you ride into the abandoned capital of Nara  Masako Saito’s profound knowledge of classical Japan and unique imagination combine here in her greatest and, sadly, last book.


February in Cumbria

Snowdrops are in flower and the first daffodil waves and bobs its golden head outside Ona Ash.  Light enough in the morning for an early walk at 7am and in the evening for a late stroll at 6pm.  But everywhere is thick crusty clarty mud!