Out of the Street: Japanese Folk-Songs


"These," said Manyemon, putting on the table a roll of wonderfully written Japanese manuscript, "are Vulgar Songs. If they are to be spoken of in some honorable book, perhaps it will be necessary to say that they are Vulgar, so that Western people may not be deceived."

Next to my house there is a vacant lot, where washermen (sentakuya) work in the ancient manner,—singing as they work, and whipping the wet garments upon big flat stones. Every morning at daybreak their singing wakens me; and I like to listen to it, though I cannot often catch the words. It is full of long, queer, plaintive modulations. Yesterday, the apprentice—a lad of fifteen—and the master of the washermen were singing alternately, as if answering each other; the contrast between the tones of the man, sonorous as if boomed through a conch, and the clarion alto of the boy, being very pleasant to hear. Whereupon I called Manyemon and asked him what the singing was about.

"The song of the boy," he said, "is an old song: —

Things never changed since the Tine of the Gods:
The flowing of water, the Way of Love.

I heard it often when I was myself a boy."

"And the other song?" "The other song is probably new: —

Three years thought of her,
Five years sought for her;
Only one night held her in my arms.

A very foolish song!" "I don't know," I said. "There are famous Western romances containing nothing wiser. And what is the rest of the song?"

"There is no more: that is the whole of the song. If it be honorably desired, I can write down the songs of the washermen, and the songs which are sung in this street by the smiths and the carpenters and the bamboo-weavers and the rice-cleaners. But they are all nearly the same."

Thus came it to pass that Manyemon made for me a collection of Vulgar Songs.

By "vulgar" Manyemon meant written in the speech of the common people. He is himself an adept at classical verse, and despises the hayari-uta, or ditties of the day ; it requires something very delicate to please him. And what pleases him I am not qualified to write about; for one must be a very good Japanese scholar to meddle with the superior varieties of Japanese poetry. If you care to know how difficult the subject is, just study the chapter on prosody in Aston's Grammar of the Japanese Written Language, or the introduction to Professor Chamberlain's Classical Poetry of the Japanese. Her poetry is the one original art which Japan has certainly not borrowed either from China or from any other country; and its most refined charm is the essence, irreproducible, of the very flower of the language itself: hence the difficulty of representing, even partially, in any Western tongue, its subtler delicacies of sentiment, allusion, and color. But to understand the compositions of the people no scholarship is needed: they are characterized by the greatest possible simplicity, directness, and sincerity. The real art of them, in short, is their absolute artlessness. This was why I wanted them. Springing straight from the heart of the eternal youth of the race, these little gushes of song, like the untaught poetry of every people, utter what belongs to all human experience rather than to the limited life of a class or a time; and even in their melodies still resound the fresh and powerful pulsings of their primal source.

Manyemon had written down forty-seven songs; and with his help I made free renderings of the best. They were very brief, varying from seventeen to thirty-one syllables in length. Nearly all Japanese poetical metre consists of simple alternations of lines of five and seven syllables; the frequent exceptions which popular songs offer to this rule being merely irregularities such as the singer can smooth over either by slurring or by prolonging certain vowel sounds. Most of the songs which Manyemon had collected were of twenty-six syllables only ; being composed of three successive lines of seven syllables each, followed by one of five, thus : —

Ka-mi-yo ko-no-ku-ta

Ka-wa-ra-uu mo-no wa:

Mi-dzu no na-ga-re to

Ko-i no mi-chi.

[Literally, "God - Age - since not - changed things as-for: water-of flowing and love-of way."]

Among various deviations from this construction I found 7-7-7-7-5, and 5-7-7-7-5, and 7-5-7-5, and 5-7-5; but the classical five-line form (tanka), represented by 5-7-5-7-7, was entirely absent.

Terms indicating gender were likewise absent; even the expressions corresponding to " I " and " you " being seldom used, and the words signifying "beloved" applying equally to either sex. Only by the conventional value of some comparison, the use of a particular emotional tone, or the mention of some detail of costume, was the sex of the speaker suggested, as in this verse: —

I am the water-weed drifting, —finding no place of attachment:
Where, I wonder, and when, shall my flower begin to bloom?


Evidently the speaker is a girl who wishes for a lover; the same simile uttered by masculine lips would sound in Japanese ears much as would sound in English ears a man's comparison of himself to a violet or to a rose. For the like reason, one knows that in the following song the speaker is not a woman: —

Flowers in both my hands, —flowers of plum and cherry:
Which will be, I wonder, the flower to give me fruit?

Womanly charm is compared to the cherry flower and also to the plum flower; but the quality symbolized by the plum flower is moral always rather than physical. The verse represents a man strongly attracted by two girls: one, perhaps a dancer, very fair to look upon; the other beautiful in character. Which shall he choose to be his companion for life?

One more example: —

Too long, with pen in hand, idling, fearing, and doubting,
I cast my silver pin for the test of the tatamizan.

Here we know from the mention of the hairpin that the speaker is a woman, and we can also suppose that she is a geisha; the sort of divination called tatamizan being especially popular with dancing-girls. The rush covering of floormats (tatami), woven over a frame of thin strings, shows on its upper surface a regular series of lines about three fourths of an inch apart. The girl throws her pin upon a mat, and then counts the lines it touches. According to their number she deems herself lucky or unlucky. Sometimes a little pipe—geishas' pipes are usually of silver—is used instead of the hairpin.

The theme of all the songs was love, as indeed it is of the vast majority of the Japanese chansons des rues et des bois; even songs about celebrated places usually containing some amatory suggestion. I noticed that almost every single phase of the emotion, from its earliest budding to its uttermost ripening, was represented in the collection; and I therefore tried to arrange the pieces according to the natural passional sequence. The result had some dramatic suggestiveness.


The songs really form three distinct groups, each corresponding to a particular period of that emotional experience which is the subject of all. In the first seven songs the surprise and pain and weakness of passion find utterance; beginning with a plaintive cry of reproach and closing with a whisper of trust.


You, by all others disliked!—oh, why must my heart thus like you?


This pain which I cannot speak of to any one in the world:
Tell me who has made it,—whose do you think the fault?


Will it be night forever ?— I lose my way in this darkness:
Who goes by the path of Love must always go astray!


Even the brightest lamp, even the light electric,
Cannot lighten at all the dusk of the Way of Love.


Always the more I love, the more it is hard to say so:
Oh! how happy I were should the loved one say it first!


Such a little word!—only to say, "I love you!"
Why, oh, why do I find it hard to say like this?


Clicked-to the locks of our hearts; let the keys
remain in our bosoms.

After which mutual confidence the illusion naturally deepens; suffering yields to a joy that cannot disguise itself, and the keys of the heart are thrown away: this is the second stage.


The person who said before, "I hate my life since I saw you,"
Now after union prays to live for a thousand years.


You and I together,—lilies that grow in a valley:
This is our blossoming-time—but nobody knows the fact.


Receiving from his hand the cup of the wine of greeting,
Even before I drink, I feel that my face grows red.


I cannot hide in my heart the happy knowledge that fills it;
Asking each not to tell, I spread the news all round.


All crows alike are black, everywhere under heaven:
The person that others like, why should not I like too?


Going to see the beloved, a thousand ri are as one ri;
Returning without having seen, one ri is a thousand ri.

[One ri is equal to about two and half English miles.]


Going to see the beloved, even the water of ricefields
Ever becomes, as I drink, nectar of gods to the taste.


You, till a hundred years; I, until nine and ninety:
Together we still shall be in the time when the hair turns white.


Seeing the face, at once the folly I wanted to utter All melts out of my thought, and somehow the tears come first!


Crying for joy made wet my sleeve that dries too quickly:
'T is not the same with the heart,—that cannot dry so soon!


To heaven with all my soul I prayed to prevent your going:
Already, to keep you with me, answers the blessed Rain.

So passes the period of illusion. The rest is doubt and pain; only the love remains to challenge even death : —


Parted from you, my beloved, I go alone to the pine-field:
There is dew of night on the leaves; there is also dew of tears.

Even to see the birds flying freely above me
Only deepens my sorrow,— makes me thoughtful the more.

Corning? or coming not? Far down the river gazing. —
Only oniagi shadows astir in the bed of the stream.

Letters come by the post ; photographs give me the shadow!
Only one thing remains which I cannot hope to gain.

If I may not see the face, but only look at the letter,
Then it were better far only in dreams to see.

Though his body were broken to pieces, though his bones on the shore were bleaching,
I would find my way to rejoin him, after gathering up the bones.

[The only song of this form in the collection. The use of the verb soi implies union as husband and wife.]

Thus was it that these little songs, composed in different generations and in different parts of Japan by various persons, seemed to shape themselves for me into a ghost of a romance,—into the shadow of a story needing no name of time or place or person, because eternally the same, in all times and places.

Manyemon asks which of the songs I like best; and I turn over his manuscript again to see if I can make a choice. Without, in the bright spring air, the washers are working; and I hear the heavy pon-pon of the beating of wet robes, regular as the beating of a heart. Suddenly, as I muse, the voice of the boy soars up in one long, clear, shrill, splendid rocket-tone, and breaks, and softly trembles down in coruscations of fractional notes; singing the song that Manyemon remembers hearing when he himself was a boy: —

Things never changed since the Time of the Gods: The flowing of water, the Way of Love.

I think that is the best," I said. "It is the soul of all the rest."

"Hin no nusubito, koi no uta," interpretatively murmurs Manyemon. "Even as out of poverty comes the thief, so out of love the song!