The Molted Cicada

This was written for one of my classes this semester. The class is titled Women’s Voices in Japanese Literature. The assignment was to compare/contrast two poems from The Tale of Genji, one of the staples of classic Japanese literature.

There are many tanka poems in The Tale of Genji. These short poems, each consisting of a total of thirty-one syllables in five lines, form the most important conversations in the story. They are used in place of dialogue when the characters’ emotions are strongest; each poem bursts forth from the character, expressing his or her situation or emphasizing a point the way songs do in a good musical. These poems help shape the story for the reader, regardless of whether it is being read in English or Japanese. Since the poems represent dialogue, they often have more impact when all the poems in a dialogue are considered together.

Metaphor for a Desired Wife

Take, for instance, the two poems found in chapter 3. The first is from Genji to the wife of the Iyo Deputy. Genji writes it after his second foray to see her in the night. She hears him coming and flees from her room to avoid him, during which she leaves her sleeping robe behind. He ends up spending time with her lady guest, so as not to hurt the woman’s feelings, but heads back to his own sleeping area wishing he’d found the Iyo Deputy’s wife instead. Unable to sleep, he composes the poem to tell her how he feels.

Underneath this tree
where the molting cicada
shed her empty shell,
my longing still goes to her,
for all I knew her to be.

This poem uses a molted cicada as a metaphor for the Iyo Deputy’s wife. A cicada crawls out of the earth as a larva, molts, and then climbs into the trees. Genji likens the woman’s actions to the life cycle of a cicada, leaving a shell – her sleeping robe – behind to go someplace he couldn’t reach her, like a cicada moving out of reach up a tree. The poem ends with a straightforward expression of Genji’s longing for her.

A Scandalized Rebuttal

The Iyo Deputy’s wife is conflicted after reading the poem. While faithful to her husband and scandalized by Genji’s attempts to seduce her, she can’t help but be touched by Genji’s persistence. The poem she writes in response uses the same metaphor of a cicada having climbed up a tree.

Just as drops of dew
settle on cicada wings,
concealed in this tree,
secretly, O secretly,
these sleeves are wet with my tears.

She directly compares a cicada’s dew-wet wings with her own tear-wet sleeves to let Genji know that she secretly pines for him as well. However, she also makes it clear she plans to keep that passion to herself, never acting on it. The restatement of the metaphor from her perspective also uses the tree to represent the figurative distance between them, but makes it clear that she welcomes the protection it affords. In this way, she effectively turns Genji’s own metaphor against him, simultaneously expressing desire and rejection.

Metaphorical Comparisons

The two poems do a beautiful job of approaching the same situation from the poets’ differing perspectives while staying within the framework of a single metaphor. While Genji metaphorically looks up from the ground, wishing for the cicada in the tree to return to him, the Iyo Deputy’s wife sits in the tree and looks down, crying silently to herself over her unwillingness to accede to his wishes. The two poems even use similar formats – the first three lines in each poem use the shared cicada in a tree metaphor as a jo, a prologue section, to introduce the author’s perspective on the situation, while the last two lines describe how he or she feels about it.

This is true of both the English translations of these tanka as presented in Royall Tyler’s English translation and in the Japanese version of the poetry as presented on the Japanese Classic Literature Research Institute’s web site on The Tale of Genji.

If we compare Genji’s poem in Japanese:


utsusemi no
mi wo kahetekeru
ki no moto ni
na wo hitogara no
natsukashiki kana

to that of the Iyo Deputy’s wife:


utsusemi no
hane ni oku tsuyu no
ki ga kurete
shinobi shinobi ni
fururu sode kana

then we see the same pattern of a three-line cicada metaphor jo in both poems followed by two lines of how each author feels. Unlike the poems in translation, however, there are three points in each poem where the Iyo Deputy’s wife used the same exact word or words as Genji did in his poem.

These corresponding points occur at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the poems. The first line in each poem is identical: utsusemi no. The third lines are mostly different, but both start with ki, the tree. The fifth and final lines of each poem differ for the first five syllables but both end in kana. Only the second and fourth lines of each poem are completely different when the two poems are compared; the second line in the response poem written by the Iyo Deputy’s wife even contains an eighth syllable.

Since utsusemi is the Japanese word for “molted cicada”, both Genji and the Iyo Deputy’s wife pin the cicada metaphor down right off the bat. The importance of the tree element of the metaphor seen when the poems are compared is emphasized by the identical placement of the word. The use of kana at the end of the poems may or may not be incidental, given its grammatical function of eliciting a pensive tone, but it still serves to tie the two messages and the authors’ feelings of longing together at the end.

Technical Comparisons

A tanka poem’s thirty-one syllables are divided among five lines, with the first and third lines having five syllables and the second, fourth, and fifth lines having seven syllables. In order to keep the poems in this 5-7-5-7-7 format for the English translation, they are not literally translated. Literal translations would have either too many or too few syllables per line. However, they do a fine job of capturing the essence of the poems. In addition to keeping the three-line jo, or prologue, the words “cicada” and “tree” appear in both poems, which keeps the strength of the metaphor intact. There is no equivalent to the repetition of kana, but that does nothing to harm the expression of longing by both parties. The translations are eloquent in a way that sounds natural in English and reflect the eloquence of the originals in Japanese.

There are other technical comparisons readers can make between the poetry as written in Japanese and as translated into English. Rhyme and alliteration, the use of which are pointless in Japanese poetry, are also unused in the English translations. The English versions flow with something closer to fully-formed sentence structure than do the Japanese versions. These differences, however, are the sort of changes which are inevitable when dealing with two languages whose linguistic makeups are so different.

Interestingly, the modified eight-syllable length of the second line of the Iyo Deputy’s wife’s response poem is neglected in the translation. This may be an oversight by the translator, but I doubt it. Since the English language allows for for the use of poetic tools such as stressed syllables, rhyme, and alliteration, western scholars have traditionally emphasized adherence to strictly defined poetry formats. Japanese poets have fewer such tools at their disposal, so the leeway they take with syllable counts serves to add texture to their poetry. Therefore, the translator likely chose to keep to the strict 5-7-5-7-7 format to meet the expectations of English readers.

A Nickname

There is one minor detail that is potentially important to the reader’s entertainment and perception of the work that is lost in translation. The Japanese word for molted cicada is pronounced utsusemi. It is from these two poems, therefore, that the readers of The Tale of Genji take the nickname of the Iyo Deputy’s wife. The metaphor is so striking that over time it has become tied to her identity and purpose in the story. Readers of The Tale of Genji in Japanese are likely to recall this pair of poems and the molted cicada metaphor whenever they see her name. Readers of the story in English translation who have little or no familiarity with the Japanese language, however, are unlikely to recall the association as vividly.

In both languages, the two poems form a closely-related pair. They have a symbiotic relationship. Genji sets the stage by creating a simple image with which to express his longing for Utsusemi, an image which she uses to illustrate the tension between them. Neither poem is complete without the other, though; it is only in juxtaposition that they express the full complexity of the relationship between the two characters. In a sense, they define the relationship for the reader. Before these two poems are presented, Genji and Utsusemi are just playing a brief game of cat and mouse.

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