Abe's Second Chance

Letter from Japan

"Even the heart free / Of all longing for this world / Is moved to sadness, / When in the autumn twilight / The snipe rises from the marsh.” So wrote Sato Norikyo (1118–90), who at the age of twenty-two abandoned the Heian court and his position as a Palace Guard to become a Buddhist monk, taking the name Saigyo. The pensive mood of his poetry no doubt reflects the turbulent times in which he lived. Power had passed from the refined but effete nobility to the ruthlessly competing warrior clans, their struggle culminating, five years before the poet’s death, in the triumph of the Minamoto (Genji) over the Taira (Heike) in a famous sea battle off the coast of southern Japan and the drowning of six-year-old Emperor Antoku.

Political transitions in Japan today are far more peaceful, but something of the spirit of Saigyo and of his fellow monks remains. In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, there is, to be sure, the ubiquitous slogan Nihon ganbare (“Carry on, Japan!”), along with the Chinese character read kizuna (“the ties that bind”). But the Japanese are an old people, both historically and demographically, and the youthful cry of “Yes, we can!” fits neither their character nor their culture.

In late 2012, fifty-nine-year-old...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Charles De Wolf is a linguist and translator of Japanese literature. He is professor emeritus at Keio University, where he continues to teach linguistics and comparative culture.