Me and Japanese Poetry – Part 3
So there I was going to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Now I needed a job. So I applied for an opening with the Janitorial staff at the University itself. The rule was that the University wasn’t supposed to hire students as janitors. But I adopted an early version of the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy. When I applied they didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. So I got the job. (The rule led to some funny situations. In my second year I was elected to be the Union Representative for the Janitors. So I would finish class, go to my locker and change into work clothes so I could attend the negotiation meeting looking like a “Janitor”.)
One building I was assigned to clean was the Geophysical Institute, a famous institute that studied mostly high atmosphere phenomena, such as aurora. The institute was linked to two others, one in Russia and one in Norway. I discovered that for the most part scientists loved to talk about their work; even to the night janitor. And they were completely willing to explain technical terms and in general talk in a way I could comprehend. Some of the scientists there were Japanese and I got to be friendly with them. Their English was good, but I would ask how to say such-and-such in Japanese and they would tell me and over time I absorbed a lot of basic vocabulary; things like “hello”, “what time is it”, counting, “please”, “thank you”, etc. It was all very informal. But years later, when I went to Korea and Japan to study Buddhism, I found that I could get around Kyoto with what I had learned. Not bad. (There was no attempt to teach Japanese writing, which was probably a good thing. For those who don’t know, the Japanese writing system may be the most complicated in the world; there are actually three distinct writing systems you have to learn and none of the three are alphabets. All three systems can be used in a single sentence. Imagine having to learn the Latin alphabet, the Greek alphabet, and the Cyrillic alphabet because all three systems of writing could be used in a single sentence in “English” and you have somewhat of an idea of how it works.)
This was an auspicious beginning to learning Japanese. Friendly, informal, intimate. Sometimes I would ask about Japanese poetry and they would respond with as much as they knew. This was the first time I heard about Sugawara no Michizane, a Japanese poet from the from the 800’s who was later deified by the Shinto hierarchy and has now become a major Deity in the practice of Shinto. As a Deity Sugawara no Michizane became known as Tenjin.
This was the first time I caught a glimpse of the high status that Japanese poets occupy in Japanese culture. Sugawara no Michizane is not the only poet to be deified in Shinto; much more recently Basho has been inducted into the Shinto Pantheon. Coming from a culture which relegates poetry to a very marginal role, this information was eye-opening for me. It began a long process of looking at the function of poetry in culture in general, what role it plays, and what is its function.