The Romance of the Milky Way - And Other Studies & Stories
by Lafcadio Hearn
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Lafcadio Hearn, known to Nippon as Yakumo Koizumi, was born in Leucadia in the Ionian Islands, June 27, 1850. His father was an Irish surgeon in the British Army; his mother was a Greek. Both parents died while Hearn was still a child, and he was adopted by a great-aunt, and educated for the priesthood. To this training he owed his Latin scholarship and, doubtless, something of the subtlety of his intelligence. He soon found, however, that the prospect of an ecclesiastical career was alien from his inquiring mind and vivid temperament, and at the age of nineteen he came to America to seek his fortune. After working for a time as a proof-reader, he obtained employment as a newspaper reporter in Cincinnati. Soon he rose to be an editorial writer, and went in the course of a few years to New Orleans to join the editorial staff of the "Times-Democrat." Here he lived until 1887, writing odd fantasies and arabesques for his paper, contributing articles and sketches to the magazines, and publishing several curious little books, among them his "Stray Leaves from Strange Literature," and his translations from Gautier. In the winter of 1887 he began his pilgrimages to exotic countries, being, as he wrote to a friend, "a small literary bee in search of inspiring honey." After a couple of years, spent chiefly in the French West Indies, with periods of literary work in New York, he went in 1890 to Japan to prepare a series of articles for a magazine. Here through some deep affinity of mood with the marvelous people of that country he seems suddenly to have felt himself at last at home. He married a Japanese woman; he acquired Japanese citizenship in order to preserve the succession of his property to his family there; he became a lecturer in the Imperial University at Tōkyō; and in a series of remarkable books he made himself the interpreter to the Western World of the very spirit of Japanese life and art. He died there of paralysis of the heart on the 26th of September, 1904.

* * * * *

With the exception of a body of familiar letters now in process of collection, the present volume contains all of Hearn's writing that he left uncollected in the magazines or in manuscript of a sufficient ripeness for publication. It is worth noting, however, that perfect as is the writing of "Ultimate Questions," and complete as the essay is in itself, the author regarded it as unfinished, and, had he lived, would have revised and amplified some portions of it.

But if this volume lacks the incomparably exquisite touch of its author in its arrangement and revision, it does, nevertheless, present him in all of his most characteristic veins, and it is in respect both to style and to substance perhaps the most mature and significant of his works.

In his first days as a writer Hearn had conceived an ideal of his art as specific as it was ambitious. Early in the eighties he wrote from New Orleans in an unpublished letter to the Rev. Wayland D. Ball of Washington: "The lovers of antique loveliness are proving to me the future possibilities of a long cherished dream,—the English realization of a Latin style, modeled upon foreign masters, and rendered even more forcible by that element of strength which is the characteristic of Northern tongues. This no man can hope to accomplish, but even a translator may carry his stones to the master-masons of a new architecture of language." In the realization of his ideal Hearn took unremitting pains. He gave a minute and analytical study to the writings of such masters of style as Flaubert and Gautier, and he chose his miscellaneous reading with a peculiar care. He wrote again to the same friend: "I never read a book which does not powerfully impress the imagination; but whatever contains novel, curious, potent imagery I always read, no matter what the subject. When the soil of fancy is really well enriched with innumerable fallen leaves, the flowers of language grow spontaneously." Finally, to the hard study of technique, to vast but judicious reading, he added a long, creative brooding time. To a Japanese friend, Nobushige Amenomori, he wrote in a passage which contains by implication a deep theory not only of literary composition, but of all art:—

"Now with regard to your own sketch or story. If you are quite dissatisfied with it, I think this is probably due not to what you suppose,—imperfection of expression,—but rather to the fact that some latent thought or emotion has not yet defined itself in your mind with sufficient sharpness. You feel something and have not been able to express the feeling—only because you do not yet quite know what it is. We feel without understanding feeling; and our most powerful emotions are the most undefinable. This must be so, because they are inherited accumulations of feeling, and the multiplicity of them—superimposed one over another—blurs them, and makes them dim, even though enormously increasing their strength.... Unconscious brain work is the best to develop such latent feeling or thought. By quietly writing the thing over and over again, I find that the emotion or idea often develops itself in the process,—unconsciously. Again, it is often worth while to try to analyze the feeling that remains dim. The effort of trying to understand exactly what it is that moves us sometimes proves successful.... If you have any feeling—no matter what—strongly latent in the mind (even only a haunting sadness or a mysterious joy), you may be sure that it is expressible. Some feelings are, of course, very difficult to develop. I shall show you one of these days, when we see each other, a page that I worked at for months before the idea came clearly.... When the best result comes, it ought to surprise you, for our best work is out of the Unconscious."

Through this study, reading, and brooding Lafcadio Hearn's prose ripened and mellowed consistently to the end. In mere workmanship the present volume is one of his most admirable, while in its heightened passages, like the final paragraph of "The Romance of the Milky Way," the rich, melancholy music, the profound suggestion, are not easily matched from any but the very greatest English prose.

In substance the volume is equally significant. In 1884 he wrote to one of the closest of his friends that he had at last found his feet intellectually through the reading of Herbert Spencer which had dispelled all "isms" from his mind and left him "the vague but omnipotent consolation of the Great Doubt." And in "Ultimate Questions," which strikes, so to say, the dominant chord of this volume, we have an almost lyrical expression of the meaning for him of the Spencerian philosophy and psychology. In it is his characteristic mingling of Buddhist and Shinto thought with English and French psychology, strains which in his work "do not simply mix well," as he says in one of his letters, but "absolutely unite, like chemical elements—rush together with a shock;"—and in it he strikes his deepest note. In his steady envisagement of the horror that envelops the stupendous universe of science, in his power to evoke and revive old myths and superstitions, and by their glamour to cast a ghostly light of vanished suns over the darkness of the abyss, he was the most Lucretian of modern writers.

* * * * *

In outward appearance Hearn, the man, was in no way prepossessing. In the sharply lined picture of him drawn by one of his Japanese comrades in the "Atlantic" for October, 1905, he appears, "slightly corpulent in later years, short in stature, hardly five feet high, of somewhat stooping gait. A little brownish in complexion, and of rather hairy skin. A thin, sharp, aquiline nose, large protruding eyes, of which the left was blind and the right very near-sighted."

The same writer, Nobushige Amenomori, has set down a reminiscence, not of Hearn the man, but of Hearn the genius, wherewith this introduction to the last of his writings may fitly conclude: "I shall ever retain the vivid remembrance of the sight I had when I stayed over night at his house for the first time. Being used myself also to sit up late, I read in bed that night. The clock struck one in the morning, but there was a light in Hearn's study. I heard some low, hoarse coughing. I was afraid my friend might be ill; so I stepped out of my room and went to his study. Not wanting, however, to disturb him, if he was at work, I cautiously opened the door just a little, and peeped in. I saw my friend intent in writing at his high desk, with his nose almost touching the paper. Leaf after leaf he wrote on. In a while he held up his head, and what did I see! It was not the Hearn I was familiar with; it was another Hearn. His face was mysteriously white; his large eye gleamed. He appeared like one in touch with some unearthly presence.

"Within that homely looking man there burned something pure as the vestal fire, and in that flame dwelt a mind that called forth life and poetry out of dust, and grasped the highest themes of human thought."


September, 1905.


Of old it was said: 'The River of Heaven is the Ghost of Waters.' We behold it shifting its bed in the course of the year as an earthly river sometimes does.

Ancient Scholar

Among the many charming festivals celebrated by Old Japan, the most romantic was the festival of Tanabata-Sama, the Weaving-Lady of the Milky Way. In the chief cities her holiday is now little observed; and in Tōkyō it is almost forgotten. But in many country districts, and even in villages, near the capital, it is still celebrated in a small way. If you happen to visit an old-fashioned country town or village, on the seventh day of the seventh month (by the ancient calendar), you will probably notice many freshly-cut bamboos fixed upon the roofs of the houses, or planted in the ground beside them, every bamboo having attached to it a number of strips of colored paper. In some very poor villages you might find that these papers are white, or of one color only; but the general rule is that the papers should be of five or seven different colors. Blue, green, red, yellow, and white are the tints commonly displayed. All these papers are inscribed with short poems written in praise of Tanabata and her husband Hikoboshi. After the festival the bamboos are taken down and thrown into the nearest stream, together with the poems attached to them.

* * * * *

To understand the romance of this old festival, you must know the legend of those astral divinities to whom offerings used to be made, even by, the Imperial Household, on the seventh day of the seventh month. The legend is Chinese. This is the Japanese popular version of it:—

The great god of the firmament had a lovely daughter, Tanabata-tsumé, who passed her days in weaving garments for her august parent. She rejoiced in her work, and thought that there was no greater pleasure than the pleasure of weaving. But one day, as she sat before her loom at the door of her heavenly dwelling, she saw a handsome peasant lad pass by, leading an ox, and she fell in love with him. Her august father, divining her secret wish, gave her the youth for a husband. But the wedded lovers became too fond of each other, and neglected their duty to the god of the firmament; the sound of the shuttle was no longer heard, and the ox wandered, unheeded, over the plains of heaven. Therefore the great god was displeased, and he separated the pair. They were sentenced to live thereafter apart, with the Celestial River between them; but it was permitted them to see each other once a year, on the seventh night of the seventh moon. On that night—providing the skies be clear—the birds of heaven make, with their bodies and wings, a bridge over the stream; and by means of that bridge the lovers can meet. But if there be rain, the River of Heaven rises, and becomes so wide that the bridge cannot be formed. So the husband and wife cannot always meet, even on the seventh night of the seventh month; it may happen, by reason of bad weather, that they cannot meet for three or four years at a time. But their love remains immortally young and eternally patient; and they continue to fulfill their respective duties each day without fault,—happy in their hope of being able to meet on the seventh night of the next seventh month.

* * * * *

To ancient Chinese fancy, the Milky Way was a luminous river,—the River of Heaven,—the Silver Stream. It has been stated by Western writers that Tanabata, the Weaving-Lady, is a star in Lyra; and the Herdsman, her beloved, a star in Aquila, on the opposite side of the galaxy. But it were more correct to say that both are represented, to Far-Eastern imagination, by groups of stars. An old Japanese book puts the matter thus plainly: "Kengyū (the Ox-Leader) is on the west side of the Heavenly River, and is represented by three stars in a row, and looks like a man leading an ox. Shokujo (the Weaving-Lady) is on the east side of the Heavenly River: three stars so placed as to appear like the figure of a woman seated at her loom.... The former presides over all things relating to agriculture; the latter, over all that relates to women's work."

* * * * *

In an old book called Zatsuwa-Shin, it is said that these deities were of earthly origin. Once in this world they were man and wife, and lived in China; and the husband was called Ishi, and the wife Hakuyō. They especially and most devoutly reverenced the Moon. Every clear evening, after sundown, they waited with eagerness to see her rise. And when she began to sink towards the horizon, they would climb to the top of a hill near their house, so that they might be able to gaze upon her face as long as possible. Then, when she at last disappeared from view, they would mourn together. At the age of ninety and nine, the wife died; and her spirit rode up to heaven on a magpie, and there became a star. The husband, who was then one hundred and three years old, sought consolation for his bereavement in looking at the Moon and when he welcomed her rising and mourned her setting, it seemed to him as if his wife were still beside him.

One summer night, Hakuyō—now immortally beautiful and young—descended from heaven upon her magpie, to visit her husband; and he was made very happy by that visit. But from that time he could think of nothing but the bliss of becoming a star, and joining Hakuyō beyond the River of Heaven. At last he also ascended to the sky, riding upon a crow; and there he became a star-god. But he could not join Hakuyō at once, as he had hoped;—for between his allotted place and hers flowed the River of Heaven; and it was not permitted for either star to cross the stream, because the Master of Heaven (Ten-Tei) daily bathed in its waters. Moreover, there was no bridge. But on one day every year—the seventh day of the seventh month—they were allowed to see each other. The Master of Heaven goes always on that day to the Zenhōdo, to hear the preaching of the law of Buddha; and then the magpies and the crows make, with their hovering bodies and outspread wings, a bridge over the Celestial Stream; and Hakuyō crosses that bridge to meet her husband.

There can be little doubt that the Japanese festival called Tanabata was originally identical with the festival of the Chinese Weaving-Goddess, Tchi-Niu; the Japanese holiday seems to have been especially a woman's holiday, from the earliest times; and the characters with which the word Tanabata is written signify a weaving-girl. But as both of the star-deities were worshiped on the seventh of the seventh month, some Japanese scholars have not been satisfied with the common explanation of the name, and have stated that it was originally composed with the word tané (seed, or grain), and the word hata (loom). Those who accept this etymology make the appellation, Tanabata-Sama, plural instead of singular, and render it as "the deities of grain and of the loom,"—that is to say, those presiding over agriculture and weaving. In old Japanese pictures the star-gods are represented according to this conception of their respective attributes;—Hikoboshi being figured as a peasant lad leading an ox to drink of the Heavenly River, on the farther side of which Orihimé (Tanabata) appears, weaving at her loom. The garb of both is Chinese; and the first Japanese pictures of these divinities were probably copied from some Chinese original.

In the oldest collection of Japanese poetry extant,—the Manyōshū, dating from 760 A.D.,—the male divinity is usually called Hikoboshi, and the female Tanabata-tsumé; but in later times both have been called Tanabata. In Izumo the male deity is popularly termed O-Tanabata Sama, and the female Mé-Tanabata Sama. Both are still known by many names. The male is called Kaiboshi as well as Hikoboshi and Kengyū; while the female is called Asagao-himé ("Morning Glory Princess")[1], Ito-ori-himé ("Thread-Weaving Princess"), Momoko-himé ("Peach-Child Princess"), Takimono-himé ("Incense Princess"), and Sasagani-himé ("Spider Princess"). Some of these names are difficult to explain,—especially the last, which reminds us of the Greek legend of Arachne. Probably the Greek myth and the Chinese story have nothing whatever in common; but in old Chinese books there is recorded a curious fact which might well suggest a relationship. In the time of the Chinese Emperor Ming Hwang (whom the Japanese call Gensō), it was customary for the ladies of the court, on the seventh day of the seventh month, to catch spiders and put them into an incense-box for purposes of divination. On the morning of the eighth day the box was opened; and if the spiders had spun thick webs during the night the omen was good. But if they had remained idle the omen was bad.

[Footnote 1: Asagao (lit., "morning-face") is the Japanese name for the beautiful climbing plant which we call "morning glory."]

* * * * *

There is a story that, many ages ago, a beautiful woman visited the dwelling of a farmer in the mountains of Izumo, and taught to the only daughter of the household an art of weaving never before known. One evening the beautiful stranger vanished away; and the people knew that they had seen the Weaving-Lady of Heaven. The daughter of the farmer became renowned for her skill in weaving. But she would never marry,—because she had been the companion of Tanabata-Sama.

* * * * *

Then there is a Chinese story—delightfully vague—about a man who once made a visit, unawares, to the Heavenly Land. He had observed that every year, during the eighth month, a raft of precious wood came floating to the shore on which he lived; and he wanted to know where that wood grew. So he loaded a boat with provisions for a two years' voyage, and sailed away in the direction from which the rafts used to drift. For months and months he sailed on, over an always placid sea; and at last he arrived at a pleasant shore, where wonderful trees were growing. He moored his boat, and proceeded alone into the unknown land, until he came to the bank of a river whose waters were bright as silver. On the opposite shore he saw a pavilion; and in the pavilion a beautiful woman sat weaving; she was white like moonshine, and made a radiance all about her. Presently he saw a handsome young peasant approaching, leading an ox to the water; and he asked the young peasant to tell him the name of the place and the country. But the youth seemed to be displeased by the question, and answered in a severe tone: "If you want to know the name of this place, go back to where you came from, and ask Gen-Kum-Pei."[2] So the voyager, feeling afraid, hastened to his boat, and returned to China. There he sought out the sage Gen-Kum-Pei, to whom he related the adventure. Gen-Kum-Pei clapped his hands for wonder, and exclaimed, "So it was you!... On the seventh day of the seventh month I was gazing at the heavens, and I saw that the Herdsman and the Weaver were about to meet;—but between them was a new Star, which I took to be a Guest-Star. Fortunate man! you have been to the River of Heaven, and have looked upon the face of the Weaving-Lady!..."

[Footnote 2: This is the Japanese reading of the Chinese name.]

* * * * *

—It is said that the meeting of the Herdsman and the Weaver can be observed by any one with good eyes; for whenever it occurs those stars burn with five different colors. That is why offerings of five colors are made to the Tanabata divinities, and why the poems composed in their praise are written upon paper of five different tints.

But, as I have said before, the pair can meet only in fair weather. If there be the least rain upon the seventh night, the River of Heaven will rise, and the lovers must wait another whole year. Therefore the rain that happens to fall on Tanabata night is called Namida no Amé, "The Rain of Tears."

When the sky is clear on the seventh night, the lovers are fortunate; and their stars can be seen to sparkle with delight. If the star Kengyū then shines very brightly, there will be great rice crops in the autumn. If the star Shokujo looks brighter than usual, there will be a prosperous time for weavers, and for every kind of female industry.

* * * * *

In old Japan it was generally supposed that the meeting of the pair signified good fortune to mortals. Even to-day, in many parts of the country, children sing a little song on the evening of the Tanabata festival,—Tenki ni nari! ("O weather, be clear!") In the province of Iga the young folks also sing a jesting song at the supposed hour of the lovers' meeting:—

Tanabata ya! Amari isogaba, Korobubéshi![3]

But in the province of Izumo, which is a very rainy district, the contrary belief prevails; and it is thought that if the sky be clear on the seventh day of the seventh month, misfortune will follow. The local explanation of this belief is that if the stars can meet, there will be born from their union many evil deities who will afflict the country with drought and other calamities.

[Footnote 3: "Ho! Tanabata! if you hurry too much, you will tumble down!"]

* * * * *

The festival of Tanabata was first celebrated in Japan on the seventh day of the seventh month of Tombyō Shōhō (A.D. 755). Perhaps the Chinese origin of the Tanabata divinities accounts for the fact that their public worship was at no time represented by many temples.

I have been able to find record of only one temple to them, called Tanabata-jinja, which was situated at a village called Hoshiaimura, in the province of Owari, and surrounded by a grove called Tanabata-mori.[4]

[Footnote 4: There is no mention, however, of any such village in any modern directory.]

Even before Tembyō Shōhō, however, the legend of the Weaving-Maiden seems to have been well known in Japan; for it is recorded that on the seventh night of the seventh year of Yōrō (A.D. 723) the poet Yamagami no Okura composed the song:—

Amanogawa, Ai-muki tachité, Waga koïshi Kimi kimasu nari— Himo-toki makina![5]

It would seem that the Tanabata festival was first established in Japan eleven hundred and fifty years ago, as an Imperial Court festival only, in accordance with Chinese precedent. Subsequently the nobility and the military classes everywhere followed imperial example; and the custom of celebrating the Hoshi-mat-suri, or Star-Festival,—as it was popularly called,—spread gradually downwards, until at last the seventh day of the seventh month became, in the full sense of the term, a national holiday. But the fashion of its observance varied considerably at different eras and in different provinces.

[Footnote 5: For a translation and explanation of this song, see infra, page 30.]

The ceremonies at the Imperial Court were of the most elaborate character: a full account of them is given in the Kōji Kongen,—with explanatory illustrations. On the evening of the seventh day of the seventh month, mattings were laid down on the east side of that portion of the Imperial Palace called the Seir-yōden; and upon these mattings were placed four tables of offerings to the Star-deities. Besides the customary food-offerings, there were placed upon these tables rice-wine, incense, vases of red lacquer containing flowers, a harp and flute, and a needle with five eyes, threaded with threads of five different colors. Black-lacquered oil-lamps were placed beside the tables, to illuminate the feast. In another part of the grounds a tub of water was so placed as to reflect the light of the Tanabata-stars; and the ladies of the Imperial Household attempted to thread a needle by the reflection. She who succeeded was to be fortunate during the following year. The court-nobility (Kugé) were obliged to make certain offerings to the Imperial House on the day of the festival. The character of these offerings, and the manner of their presentation, were fixed by decree. They were conveyed to the palace upon a tray, by a veiled lady of rank, in ceremonial dress. Above her, as she walked, a great red umbrella was borne by an attendant. On the tray were placed seven tanzaku (longilateral slips of fine tinted paper for the writing of poems); seven kudzu-leaves;[6] seven inkstones; seven strings of sōmen (a kind of vermicelli); fourteen writing-brushes; and a bunch of yam-leaves gathered at night, and thickly sprinkled with dew. In the palace grounds the ceremony began at the Hour of the Tiger,—4 A.M. Then the inkstones were carefully washed,—prior to preparing the ink for the writing of poems in praise of the Star-deities,—and each one set upon a kudzu-leaf. One bunch of bedewed yam-leaves was then laid upon every inkstone; and with this dew, instead of water, the writing-ink was prepared. All the ceremonies appear to have been copied from those in vogue at the Chinese court in the time of the Emperor Ming-Hwang.

[Footnote 6: Pueraria Thunbergiana.]

* * * * *

It was not until the time of the Tokugawa Shōgunate that the Tanabata festival became really a national holiday; and the popular custom of attaching tansaku of different colors to freshly-cut bamboos, in celebration of the occasion, dates only from the era of Bunser (1818). Previously the tanzaku had been made of a very costly quality of paper; and the old aristocratic ceremonies had been not less expensive than elaborate. But in the time of the Tokugawa Shōgunate a very cheap paper of various colors was manufactured; and the holiday ceremonies were suffered to assume an inexpensive form, in which even the poorest classes could indulge.

The popular customs relating to the festival differed according to locality. Those of Izumo—where all classes of society, samurai or common folk, celebrated the holiday in much the same way—used to be particularly interesting; and a brief account of them will suggest something of the happy aspects of life in feudal times. At the Hour of the Tiger, on the seventh night of the seventh month, everybody was up; and the work of washing the inkstones and writing-brushes was performed. Then, in the household garden, dew was collected upon yam-leaves. This dew was called Amanogawa no suzuki ("drops from the River of Heaven"); and it was used to make fresh ink for writing the poems which were to be suspended to bamboos planted in the garden. It was usual for friends to present each other with new inkstones at the time of the Tanabata festival; and if there were any new inkstones in the house, the fresh ink was prepared in these. Each member of the family then wrote poems. The adults composed verses, according to their ability, in praise of the Star-deities; and the children either wrote dictation or tried to improvise. Little folk too young to use the writing-brush without help had their small hands guided, by parent or elder sister or elder brother, so as to shape on a tanzaku the character of some single word or phrase relating to the festival,—such as "Amanogawa," or "Tanabata," or "Kasasagi no Hashi" (the Bridge of Magpies). In the garden were planted two freshly-cut bamboos, with branches and leaves entire,—a male bamboo (otoko-daké) and a female bamboo (onna-daké). They were set up about six feet apart, and to a cord extended between them were suspended paper-cuttings of five colors, and skeins of dyed thread of five colors. The paper-cuttings represented upper-robes,—kimono. To the leaves and branches of the bamboos were tied the tanzaku on which poems had been written by the members of the family. And upon a table, set between the bamboos, or immediately before them, were placed vessels containing various offerings to the Star-deities,—fruits, sōmen, rice-wine, and vegetables of different kinds, such as cucumbers and watermelons.

But the most curious Izumo custom relating to the festival was the Nému-nagashi, or "Sleep-wash-away" ceremony. Before day-break the young folks used to go to some stream, carrying with them bunches composed of némuri-leaves and bean-leaves mixed together. On reaching the stream, they would fling their bunches of leaves into the current, and sing a little song:—

Nému wa, nagaré yo! Mamé no ha wa, tomaré!

These verses might be rendered in two ways; because the word nému can be taken in the meaning either of némuri (sleep), or of nemuri-gi or némunoki, the "sleep-plant" (mimosa),—while the syllables mamé, as written in kana, can signify either "bean," or "activity," or "strength," "vigor," "health," etc. But the ceremony was symbolical, and the intended meaning of the song was:—

Drowsiness, drift away! Leaves of vigor, remain!

After this, all the young folk would jump into the water, to bathe or swim, in token of their resolve to shed all laziness for the coming year, and to maintain a vigorous spirit of endeavor.

* * * * *

Yet it was probably in Yédo (now Tōkyō) that the Tanabata festival assumed its most picturesque aspects. During the two days that the celebration lasted,—the sixth and seventh of the seventh month,—the city used to present the appearance of one vast bamboo grove; fresh bamboos, with poems attached to them, being erected upon the roofs of the houses. Peasants were in those days able to do a great business in bamboos, which were brought into town by hundreds of wagonloads for holiday use. Another feature of the Yédo festival was the children's procession, in which bamboos, with poems attached to them, were carried about the city. To each such bamboo there was also fastened a red plaque on which were painted, in Chinese characters, the names of the Tanabata stars.

But almost everywhere, under the Tokugawa régime, the Tanabata festival used to be a merry holiday for the young people of all classes,—a holiday beginning with lantern displays before sunrise, and lasting well into the following night. Boys and girls on that day were dressed in their best, and paid visits of ceremony to friends and neighbors.

* * * * *

—The moon of the seventh month used to be called Tanabata-tsuki, or "The Moon of Tanabata." And it was also called Fumi-tsuki, or "The Literary Moon," because during the seventh month poems were everywhere composed in praise of the Celestial Lovers.

* * * * *

I think that my readers ought to be interested in the following selection of ancient Japanese poems, treating of the Tanabata legend. All are from the Manyōshū. The Manyōshū, or "Gathering of a Myriad Leaves," is a vast collection of poems composed before the middle of the eighth century. It was compiled by Imperial order, and completed early in the ninth century. The number of the poems which it contains is upwards of four thousand; some being "long poems" (naga-uta), but the great majority tanka, or compositions limited to thirty-one syllables; and the authors were courtiers or high officials. The first eleven tanka hereafter translated were composed by Yamagami no Okura, Governor of the province of Chikuzen more than eleven hundred years ago. His fame as a poet is well deserved; for not a little of his work will bear comparison with some of the finer epigrams of the Greek Anthology. The following verses, upon the death of his little son Furubi, will serve as an example:—

Wakakeréba Nichi-yuki shiraji: Mahi wa sému, Shitabé no tsukahi Ohité-tohorasé.

—[As he is so young, he cannot know the way.... To the messenger of the Underworld I will give a bribe, and entreat him, saying: "Do thou kindly take the little one upon thy back along the road."]

Eight hundred years earlier, the Greek poet Diodorus Zonas of Sardis had written:—

"Do thou, who rowest the boat of the dead in the water of this reedy lake, for Hades, stretch out thy hand, dark Charon, to the son of Kinyras, as he mounts the ladder by the gang-way, and receive him. For his sandals will cause the lad to slip, and he fears to set his feet naked on the sand of the shore."

But the charming epigram of Diodorus was inspired only by a myth,—for the "son of Kinyras" was no other than Adonis,—whereas the verses of Okura express for us the yearning of a father's heart.

* * * * *

—Though the legend of Tanabata was indeed borrowed from China, the reader will find nothing Chinese in the following compositions. They represent the old classic poetry at its purest, free from alien influence; and they offer us many suggestions as to the condition of Japanese life and thought twelve hundred years ago. Remembering that they were written before any modern European literature had yet taken form, one is startled to find how little the Japanese written language has changed in the course of so many centuries. Allowing for a few obsolete words, and sundry slight changes of pronunciation, the ordinary Japanese reader to-day can enjoy these early productions of his native muse with about as little difficulty as the English reader finds in studying the poets of the Elizabethan era. Moreover, the refinement and the simple charm of the Manyōshū compositions have never been surpassed, and seldom equaled, by later Japanese poets.

As for the forty-odd tanka which I have translated, their chief attraction lies, I think, in what they reveal to us of the human nature of their authors. Tanabata-tsumé still represents for us the Japanese wife, worshipfully loving;—Hikoboshi appears to us with none of the luminosity of the god, but as the young Japanese husband of the sixth or seventh century, before Chinese ethical convention had begun to exercise its restraint upon life and literature. Also these poems interest us by their expression of the early feeling for natural beauty. In them we find the scenery and the seasons of Japan transported to the Blue Plain of High Heaven;—the Celestial Stream with its rapids and shallows, its sudden risings and clamourings within its stony bed, and its water-grasses bending in the autumn wind, might well be the Kamogawa;—and the mists that haunt its shores are the very mists of Arashiyama. The boat of Hikoboshi, impelled by a single oar working upon a wooden peg, is not yet obsolete; and at many a country ferry you may still see the hiki-funé in which Tanabata-tsumé prayed her husband to cross in a night of storm,—a flat broad barge pulled over the river by cables. And maids and wives still sit at their doors in country villages, on pleasant autumn days, to weave as Tanabata-tsumé wove for the sake of her lord and lover.

* * * * *

—It will be observed that, in most of these verses, it is not the wife who dutifully crosses the Celestial River to meet her husband, but the husband who rows over the stream to meet the wife; and there is no reference to the Bridge of Birds.... As for my renderings, those readers who know by experience the difficulty of translating Japanese verse will be the most indulgent, I fancy. The Romaji system of spelling has been followed (except in one or two cases where I thought it better to indicate the ancient syllabication after the method adopted by Aston); and words or phrases necessarily supplied have been inclosed in parentheses.

Amanogawa Ai-muki tachité, Waga koïshi Kimi kimasu nari Himo-toki makéna!

[He is coming, my long-desired lord, whom I have been waiting to meet here, on the banks of the River of Heaven.... The moment of loosening my girdle is nigh![7]]

[Footnote 7: The last line alludes to a charming custom of which mention is made in the most ancient Japanese literature. Lovers, ere parting, were wont to tie each other's inner girdle (himo) and pledge themselves to leave the knot untouched until the time of their next meeting. This poem is said to have been composed in the seventh year of Yōrō,—A.D. 723,—eleven hundred and eighty-two years ago.]

Hisakata no[8] Ama no kawasé ni, Funé ukété, Koyoï ka kimi ga Agari kimasan?

[Footnote 8: Hisakata-no is a "pillow-word" used by the old poets in relation to celestial objects; and it is often difficult to translate. Mr. Aston thinks that the literal meaning of hisakata is simply "long-hard," in the sense of long-enduring,—hisa (long), katai (hard, or firm),—so that hisakata-no would have the meaning of "firmamental." Japanese commentators, however, say that the term is composed with the three words, hi (sun), sasu (shine), and kata (side);—and this etymology would justify the rendering of hisakata-no by some such expression as "light-shedding," "radiance-giving." On the subject of pillow-words, see Aston's Grammar of the Japanese Written Language.]

[Over the Rapids of the Everlasting Heaven, floating in his boat, my lord will doubtless deign to come to me this very night.]

Kazé kumo wa Futatsu no kishi ni Kayoëdomo, Waga toho-tsuma no Koto zo kayowanu!

[Though winds and clouds to either bank may freely come or go, between myself and my faraway spouse no message whatever may pass.]

Tsubuté[9] ni mo Nagé koshitsu-béki, Amanogawa Hédatéréba ka mo, Amata subé-naki!

[To the opposite bank one might easily fling a pebble; yet, being separated from him by the River of Heaven, alas! to hope for a meeting (except in autumn) is utterly useless.]

[Footnote 9: The old text has tabuté.]

Aki-kazé no Fukinishi hi yori "Itsushika" to—; Waga machi koîshi Kimi zo kimaséru.

[From the day that the autumn wind began to blow (I kept saying to myself), "Ah! when shall we meet?"—but now my beloved, for whom I waited and longed, has come indeed!]

Amanogawa Ito kawa-nami wa Tatanédomo, Samorai gatashi— Chikaki kono sé wo.

[Though the waters of the River of Heaven have not greatly risen, (yet to cross) this near stream and to wait upon (my lord and lover) remains impossible.]

Sodé furaba Mi mo kawashitsu-béku Chika-kerédo, Wataru subé nashi, Aki nishi aranéba.

[Though she is so near that the waving of her (long) sleeves can be distinctly seen, yet there is no way to cross the stream before the season of autumn.]

Kagéroï no Honoka ni miété Wakarénaba;— Motonaya koïn Aü-toki madé wa!

[When we were separated, I had seen her for a moment only,—and dimly as one sees a flying midge;[10] now I must vainly long for her as before, until time of our next meeting!]

Hikoboshi no Tsuma mukaë-buné Kogizurashi,— Ama-no-Kawara ni Kiri no tatéru wa.

[Footnote 10: Kagéroï is an obsolete form of kagérō, meaning an ephemera.]

[Methinks that Hikoboshi must be rowing his boat to meet his wife,—for a mist (as of oar-spray) is rising over the course of the Heavenly Stream.]

Kasumi tatsu Ama-no-Kawara ni, Kimi matsu to,— Ikayō hodo ni Mono-suso nurenu.

[While awaiting my lord on the misty shore of the River of Heaven, the skirts of my robe have somehow become wet.]

Amanogawa, Mi-tsu no nami oto Sawagu-nari: Waga matsu-kimi no Funadé-surashi mo.

[On the River of Heaven, at the place of the august ferry, the sound of the water has become loud: perhaps my long-awaited lord will soon be coming in his boat.]

Tanabata no Sodé maku yoï no Akatoki wa, Kawasé no tazu wa Nakazu to mo yoshi.

[As Tanabata (slumbers) with her long sleeves rolled up, until the reddening of the dawn, do not, O storks of the river-shallows, awaken her by your cries.[11]]

[Footnote 11: Lit., "not to cry out (will be) good"—but a literal translation of the poem is scarcely possible.]

Amanogawa Kiri-tachi-wataru: Kyō, kyō, to— Waga matsu-koïshi Funadé-surashi!

[(She sees that) a mist is spreading across the River of Heaven.... "To-day, to-day," she thinks, "my long-awaited lord will probably come over in his boat."]

Amanogawa, Yasu no watari ni, Funé ukété;— Waga tachi-matsu to Imo ni tsugé koso.

[By the ferry of Yasu, on the River of Heaven, the boat is floating: I pray you tell my younger sister[12] that I stand here and wait.]

[Footnote 12: That is to say, "wife." In archaic Japanese the word imo signified both "wife" and "younger sister." The term might also be rendered "darling" or "beloved."]

Ō-sora yo Kayō waré sura, Na ga yué ni, Amanokawa-ji no Nazumité zo koshi.

[Though I (being a Star-god) can pass freely to and fro, through the great sky,—yet to cross over the River of Heaven, for your sake, was weary work indeed!]

Yachihoko no Kami no mi-yo yori Tomoshi-zuma;— Hito-shiri ni keri Tsugitéshi omoëba.

[From the august Age of the God-of-Eight-Thousand-Spears,[13] she had been my spouse in secret[14] only; yet now, because of my constant longing for her, our relation has become known to men.]

[Footnote 13: Yachihoko-no-Kami, who has many other names, is the Great God of Izumo, and is commonly known by his appellation Oho-kuni-nushi-no-Kami, or the "Deity-Master-of-the Great-Land." He is locally worshiped also as the god of marriage,—for which reason, perhaps, the poet thus refers to him.]

[Footnote 14: Or, "my seldom-visited spouse." The word tsuma (zuma), in ancient Japanese, signified either wife or husband; and this poem might be rendered so as to express either the wife's or the husband's thoughts.]

Amé tsuchi to Wakaréshi toki yo Onoga tsuma; Shika zo té ni aru Aki matsu aré wa.

[From the time when heaven and earth were parted, she has been my own wife;—yet, to be with her, I must always wait till autumn.[15]]

[Footnote 15: By the ancient calendar, the seventh day of the seventh month would fall in the autumn season.]

Waga kōru Niho no omo wa Koyoï mo ka Ama-no-kawara ni Ishi-makura makan.

[With my beloved, of the ruddy-tinted cheeks,[16] this night indeed will I descend into the bed of the River of Heaven, to sleep on a pillow of stone.]

[Footnote 16: The literal meaning is "béni-tinted face,"—that is to say, a face of which the cheeks and lips have been tinted with béni, a kind of rouge.]

Amanogawa. Mikomori-gusa no Aki-kazé ni Nabikafu miréba, Toki kitarurashi.

[When I see the water-grasses of the River of Heaven bend in the autumn wind (I think to myself): "The time (for our meeting) seems to have come."]

Waga séko ni Ura-koi oréba, Amanogawa Yo-funé kogi-toyomu Kaji no 'to kikoyu.

[When I feel in my heart a sudden longing for my husband,[17] then on the River of Heaven the sound of the rowing of the night-boat is heard, and the plash of the oar resounds.]

[Footnote 17: In ancient Japanese the word séko signified either husband or elder brother. The beginning of the poem might also be rendered thus:—"When I feel a secret longing for my husband," etc.]

Tō-zuma to Tamakura kawashi Nétaru yo wa, Tori-gané na naki Akéba aku to mo!

[In the night when I am reposing with my (now) far-away spouse, having exchanged jewel-pillows[18] with her, let not the cock crow, even though the day should dawn.]

[Footnote 18: "To exchange jewel-pillows" signifies to use each other's arms for pillows. This poetical phrase is often used in the earliest Japanese literature. The word for jewel, tama, often appears in compounds as an equivalent of "precious," "dear," etc.]

Yorozu-yo ni Tazusawari ité Ai mi-domo, Omoi-sugu-béki Koi naranaku ni.

[Though for a myriad ages we should remain hand-in-hand and face to face, our exceeding love could never come to an end. (Why then should Heaven deem it necessary to part us?)]

Waga tamé to, Tanabata-tsumé no, Sono yado ni, Oreru shirotai Nuït ken kamo?

[The white cloth which Tanabata has woven for my sake, in that dwelling of hers, is now, I think, being made into a robe for me.]

Shirakumo no I-ho é kakurité Tō-kédomo, Yoï-sarazu min Imo ga atari wa.

[Though she be far-away, and hidden from me by five hundred layers of white cloud, still shall I turn my gaze each night toward the dwelling-place of my younger sister (wife).]

Aki saréba Kawagiri tatéru Amanogawa, Kawa ni muki-ité Kru[19] yo zo ōki!

[Footnote 19: For kofuru.]

[When autumn comes, and the river-mists spread over the Heavenly Stream, I turn toward the river, (and long); and the nights of my longing are many!]

Hito-tosé ni Nanuka no yo nomi Aü-hito no— Koï mo tsuki-néba Sayo zo aké ni keru!

[But once in the whole year, and only upon the seventh night (of the seventh month), to meet the beloved person—and lo! The day has dawned before our mutual love could express itself![20]]

[Footnote 20: Or "satisfy itself." A literal rendering is difficult.]

Toshi no koï Koyoï tsukushíté, Asu yori wa, Tsuné no gotoku ya Waga koï oran.

[The love-longing of one whole year having ended to-night, every day from to-morrow I must again pine for him as before!]

Hikoboshi to Tanabata-tsumé to Koyoï aü;— Ama-no-Kawa to ni Nami tatsu-na yumé!

[Hikoboshi and Tanabata-tsumé are to meet each other to-night;—ye waves of the River of Heaven, take heed that ye do not rise!]

Aki-kazé no Fuki tadayowasu Shirakumo wa, Tanabata-tsumé no Amatsu hiré kamo?

[Oh! that white cloud driven by the autumn-wind—can it be the heavenly hiré[21] of Tana-bata-tsumé?]

[Footnote 21: At different times, in the history of Japanese female costume, different articles of dress were called by this name. In the present instance, the hiré referred to was probably a white scarf, worn about the neck and carried over the shoulders to the breast, where its ends were either allowed to hang loose, or were tied into an ornamental knot. The hiré was often used to make signals with, much as handkerchiefs are waved to-day for the same purpose;—and the question uttered in the poem seems to signify: "Can that be Tanabata waving her scarf—to call me?" In very early times, the ordinary costumes worn were white.]

Shiba-shiba mo Ai minu kimi wo, Amanogawa Funa-dé haya séyo Yo no fukénu ma ni.

[Because he is my not-often-to-be-met beloved, hasten to row the boat across the River of Heaven ere the night be advanced.]

Amanogawa Kiri tachi-watari Hikoboshi no Kaji no 'to kikoyu Yo no fuké-yukéba.

[Late in the night, a mist spreads over] the River of Heaven; and the sound of the oar[22] of Hikoboshi is heard.]

[Footnote 22: Or, "the creaking of the oar." (The word kaji to-day means "helm";—the single oar, or scull, working upon a pivot, and serving at once for rudder and oar, being now called ro.) The mist passing across the Amanogawa is, according to commentators, the spray from the Star-god's oar.]

Amanogawa Kawa 'to sayakéshi: Hikoboshi no Haya kogu funé no Nami no sawagi ka?

[On the River of Heaven a sound of plashing can be distinctly heard: is it the sound of the rippling made by Hikoboshi quickly rowing his boat?]

Kono yūbé, Furikuru amé wa, Hikoboshi no Haya kogu funé no Kaï no chiri ka mo.

[Perhaps this evening shower is but the spray (flung down) from the oar of Hikoboshi, rowing his boat in haste.]

Waga tama-doko wo Asu yori wa Uchi haraï, Kimi to inézuté Hitori ka mo nen!

[From to-morrow, alas! after having put my jewel-bed in order, no longer reposing with my lord, I must sleep alone!]

Kazé fukité, Kawa-nami tachinu;— Hiki-funé ni Watari mo kimasé Yo no fukénu ma ni.

[The wind having risen, the waves of the river have become high;—this night cross over in a towboat,[23] I pray thee, before the hour be late!]

[Footnote 23: Lit. "pull-boat" (hiki-funé),—a barge or boat pulled by a rope.]

Amanogawa Nami wa tatsutomo, Waga funé wa Iza kogi iden Yo no fukénu ma ni.

[Even though the waves of the River of Heaven run high, I must row over quickly, before it becomes late in the night.]

Inishié ni Oritéshi hata wo; Kono yūbé Koromo ni nuïté— Kimi matsu aré wo!

[Long ago I finished weaving the material; and, this evening, having finished sewing the garment for him—(why must) I still wait for my lord?]

Amanogawa Sé wo hayami ka mo? Nubatama no Yo wa fuké ni tsutsu, Awanu Hikoboshi!

[Is it that the current of the River of Heaven (has become too) rapid? The jet-black night[24] advances—and Hikoboshi has not come!]

[Footnote 24: Nubatama no yo might better be rendered by some such phrase as "the berry-black night,"—but the intended effect would be thus lost in translation. Nubatama-no (a "pillow-word") is written with characters signifying "like the black fruits of Karasu-Ōgi;" and the ancient phrase "nubatama no yo" therefore may be said to have the same meaning as our expressions "jet-black night," or "pitch-dark night."]

Watashi-mori, Funé haya watasé;— Hito-tosé ni Futatabi kayō Kimi naranaku ni!

[Oh, ferryman, make speed across the stream!—my lord is not one who can come and go twice in a year!]

Aki kazé no Fukinishi hi yori, Amanogawa Kawasé ni dédachi;— Matsu to tsugé koso!

[On the very day that the autumn-wind began to blow, I set out for the shallows of the River of Heaven;—I pray you, tell my lord that I am waiting here still!]

Tanabata no Funanori surashi,— Maso-kagami, Kiyoki tsuki-yo ni Kumo tachi-wataru.

[Methinks Tanabata must be coming in her boat; for a cloud is even now passing across the clear face of the moon.[25]]

[Footnote 25: Composed by the famous poet Ōtomo no Sukuné Yakamochi, while gazing at the Milky Way, on the seventh night of the seventh month of the tenth year of Tampyō (A.D. 738). The pillow-word in the third line (maso-kagami) is untranslatable.]

—And yet it has been gravely asserted that the old Japanese poets could find no beauty in starry skies!...

Perhaps the legend of Tanabata, as it was understood by those old poets, can make but a faint appeal to Western minds. Nevertheless, in the silence of transparent nights, before the rising of the moon, the charm of the ancient tale sometimes descends upon me, out of the scintillant sky,—to make me forget the monstrous facts of science, and the stupendous horror of Space. Then I no longer behold the Milky Way as that awful Ring of the Cosmos, whose hundred million suns are powerless to lighten the Abyss, but as the very Amanogawa itself,—the River Celestial. I see the thrill of its shining stream, and the mists that hover along its verge, and the water-grasses that bend in the winds of autumn. White Orihimé I see at her starry loom, and the Ox that grazes on the farther shore;—and I know that the falling dew is the spray from the Herdsman's oar. And the heaven seems very near and warm and human; and the silence about me is filled with the dream of a love unchanging, immortal,—forever yearning and forever young, and forever left unsatisfied by the paternal wisdom of the gods.


Recently, while groping about an old book shop, I found a collection of Goblin Poetry in three volumes, containing many pictures of goblins. The title of the collection is Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari, or "The Mad Poetry of the Hyaku-Monogatari." The Hyaku-Monogatari, or "Hundred Tales," is a famous book of ghost stories. On the subject of each of the stories, poems were composed at different times by various persons,—poems of the sort called Kyōka, or Mad Poetry,—and these were collected and edited to form the three volumes of which I became the fortunate possessor. The collecting was done by a certain Takumi Jingorō, who wrote under the literary pseudonym "Temmér Réōjin" (Ancient of the Temmér Era). Takumi died in the first year of Bunkyū (1861), at the good age of eighty; and his collection seems to have been published in the sixth year of Kaéï (1853). The pictures were made by an artist called Masazumi, who worked under the pseudonym "Ryōsai Kanjin."

From a prefatory note it appears that Takumi Jingorō published his collection with the hope of reviving interest in a once popular kind of poetry which had fallen into neglect before the middle of the century. The word kyōka is written with a Chinese character signifying "insane" or "crazy;" and it means a particular and extraordinary variety of comic poetry. The form is that of the classic tanka of thirty-one syllables (arranged 57577);—but the subjects are always the extreme reverse of classical; and the artistic effects depend upon methods of verbal jugglery which cannot be explained without the help of numerous examples. The collection published by Takumi includes a good deal of matter in which a Western reader can discover no merit; but the best of it has a distinctly grotesque quality that reminds one of Hood's weird cleverness in playing with grim subjects. This quality, and the peculiar Japanese method of mingling the playful with the terrific, can be suggested and explained only by reproducing in Romaji the texts of various kyōka, with translations and notes.

The selection which I have made should prove interesting, not merely because it will introduce the reader to a class of Japanese poetry about which little or nothing has yet been written in English, but much more because it will afford some glimpses of a supernatural world which still remains for the most part unexplored. Without knowledge of Far Eastern superstitions and folk-tales, no real understanding of Japanese fiction or drama or poetry will ever become possible.

* * * * *

There are many hundreds of poems in the three volumes of the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari; but the number of the ghosts and goblins falls short of the one hundred suggested by the title. There are just ninety-five. I could not expect to interest my readers in the whole of this goblinry, and my selection includes less than one seventh of the subjects. The Faceless Babe, The Long-Tongued Maiden, The Three-Eyed Monk, The Pillow-Mover, The Thousand Heads, The Acolyte-with-the-Lantern, The Stone-that-Cries-in-the-Night, The Goblin-Heron, The Goblin-Wind, The Dragon-Lights, and The Mountain-Nurse, did not much impress me. I omitted kyōka dealing with fancies too gruesome for Western nerves,—such as that of the Obumédori,—also those treating of merely local tradition. The subjects chosen represent national rather than provincial folklore,—old beliefs (mostly of Chinese origin) once prevalent throughout the country, and often referred to in its popular literature.


The Will-o'-the-wisp is called kitsuné-bi ("fox-fire"), because the goblin-fox was formerly supposed to create it. In old Japanese pictures it is represented as a tongue of pale red flame, hovering in darkness, and shedding no radiance upon the surfaces over which it glides.

To understand some of the following kyōka on the subject, the reader should know that certain superstitions about the magical power of the fox have given rise to several queer folk-sayings,—one of which relates to marrying a stranger. Formerly a good citizen was expected to marry within his own community, not outside of it; and the man who dared to ignore traditional custom in this regard would have found it difficult to appease the communal indignation. Even to-day the villager who, after a long absence from his birthplace, returns with a strange bride, is likely to hear unpleasant things said,—such as: "Wakaranai-mono we hippaté-kita!... Doko no uma no honé da ka?" ("Goodness knows what kind of a thing he has dragged here after him! Where did he pick up that old horse-bone?") The expression uma no honé, "old horse-bone," requires explanation.

A goblin-fox has the power to assume many shapes; but, for the purpose of deceiving men, he usually takes the form of a pretty woman. When he wants to create a charming phantom of this kind, he picks up an old horse-bone or cow-bone, and holds it in his mouth. Presently the bone becomes luminous; and the figure of a woman defines about it,—the figure of a courtesan or singing-girl.... So the village query about the man who marries a strange wife, "What old horse-bone has he picked up?" signifies really, "What wanton has bewitched him?" It further implies the suspicion that the stranger may be of outcast blood: a certain class of women of pleasure having been chiefly recruited, from ancient time, among the daughters of Éta and other pariah-people.

Hi tomoshité Kitsuné no kwaséshi, Asobimé[26] wa— Izuka no uma no Honé ni ya aruran!

[Footnote 26: Asobimé, a courtesan: lit., "sporting-woman." The Éta and other pariah classes furnished a large proportion of these women. The whole meaning of the poem is as follows: "See that young wanton with her lantern! It is a pretty sight—but so is the sight of a fox, when the creature kindles his goblin-fire and assumes the shape of a girl. And just as your fox-woman will prove to be no more than an old horse-bone, so that young courtesan, whose beauty deludes men to folly, may be nothing better than an Éta."]

[—Ah the wanton (lighting her lantern)!—so a fox-fire is kindled in the time of fox-transformation!... Perhaps she is really nothing more than an old horse-bone from somewhere or other....]

Kitsuné-bi no Moyuru ni tsukété, Waga tama no Kiyuru yō nari Kokoro-hoso-michi!

[Because of that Fox-fire burning there, the very soul of me is like to be extinguished in this narrow path (or, in this heart-depressing solitude).[27]]

[Footnote 27: The supposed utterance of a belated traveler frightened by a will-o'-the-wisp. The last line allows of two readings. Kokoro-hosoi means "timid;" and hosoi michi (hoso-michi) means a "narrow path," and, by implication, a "lonesome path."]


The term Rikombyō is composed with the word rikon, signifying a "shade," "ghost," or "spectre," and the word byō, signifying "sickness," "disease." An almost literal rendering would be "ghost-sickness." In Japanese-English dictionaries you will find the meaning of Rikombyō given as "hypochondria;" and doctors really use the term in this modern sense. But the ancient meaning was a disorder of the mind which produced a Double; and there is a whole strange literature about this weird disease. It used to be supposed, both in China and Japan, that under the influence of intense grief or longing, caused by love, the spirit of the suffering person would create a Double. Thus the victim of Rikombyō would appear to have two bodies, exactly alike; and one of these bodies would go to join the absent beloved, while the other remained at home. (In my "Exotics and Retrospectives," under the title "A Question in the Zen Texts," the reader will find a typical Chinese story on the subject,—the story of the girl Ts'ing.) Some form of the primitive belief in doubles and wraiths probably exists in every part of the world; but this Far Eastern variety is of peculiar interest because the double is supposed to be caused by love, and the subjects of the affliction to belong to the gentler sex.... The term Rikombyō seems to be applied to the apparition as well as to the mental disorder supposed to produce the apparition: it signifies "doppelgänger" as well as "ghost-disease."

* * * * *

—With these necessary explanations, the quality of the following kyōka can be understood. A picture which appears in the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari shows a maid-servant anxious to offer a cup of tea to her mistress,—a victim of the "ghost-sickness." The servant cannot distinguish between the original and the apparitional shapes before her; and the difficulties of the situation are suggested in the first of the kyōka which I have translated:—

Ko-ya, soré to? Ayamé mo wakanu Rikombyō: Izuré we tsuma to Hiku zo wazuraü!

[Which one is this?—which one is that? Between the two shapes of the Rikombyō it is not possible to distinguish. To find out which is the real wife—that will be an affliction of spirit indeed!]

Futatsu naki Inochi nagara mo Kakégaë no Karada no miyuru— Kage no wazurai!

[Two lives there certainly are not;—nevertheless an extra body is visible, by reason of the Shadow-Sickness.]

Naga-tabi no Oto we shitaïté Mi futatsu ni Naru wa onna no Sāru rikombyō.

[Yearning after her far-journeying husband, the woman has thus become two bodies, by reason of her ghostly sickness.]

Miru kagé mo Naki wazurai no Rikombyō,— Omoi no hoka ni Futatsu miru kagé!

[Though (it was said that), because of her ghostly sickness, there was not even a shadow of her left to be seen,—yet, contrary to expectation, there are two shadows of her to be seen![28]]

[Footnote 28: The Japanese say of a person greatly emaciated by sickness, miru-kagé mo naki: "Even a visible shadow of him is not!"—Another rendering is made possible by the fact that the same expression is used in the sense of "unfit to be seen,"—"though the face of the person afflicted with this ghostly sickness is unfit to be seen, yet by reason of her secret longing [for another man] there are now two of her faces to be seen." The phrase omoi no hoka, in the fourth line, means "contrary to expectation;" but it is ingeniously made to suggest also the idea of secret longing.]

Rikombyō Hito ni kakushité Oku-zashiki, Omoté y dëasanu Kagé no wazurai.

[Afflicted with the Rikombyō, she hides away from people in the back room, and never approaches the front of the house,—because of her Shadow-disease.[29]]

[Footnote 29: There is a curious play on words in the fourth line. The word omoté, meaning "the front," might, in reading, be sounded as omotté, "thinking." The verses therefore might also be thus translated:—"She keeps her real thoughts hidden in the back part of the house, and never allows them to be seen in the front part of the house,—because she is suffering from the 'Shadow-Sickness' [of love]."]

Mi wa koko ni; Tama wa otoko ni Soïné suru;— Kokoro mo shiraga Haha ga kaihō.

[Here her body lies; but her soul is far away, asleep in the arms of a man;—and the white-haired mother, little knowing her daughter's heart, is nursing (only the body).[30]]

[Footnote 30: There is a double meaning, suggested rather than expressed, in the fourth line. The word shiraga, "white-hair," suggests shirazu, "not knowing."]

Tamakushigé Futatsu no sugata Misénuru wa, Awasé-kagami no Kagé no wazurai.

[If, when seated before her toilet-stand, she sees two faces reflected in her mirror,—that might be caused by the mirror doubling itself under the influence of the Shadow-Sickness.[31]]

[Footnote 31: There is in this poem a multiplicity of suggestion impossible to render in translation. While making her toilet, the Japanese woman uses two mirrors (awasé-kagami)—one of which, a hand-mirror, serves to show her the appearance of the back part of her coiffure, by reflecting it into the larger stationary mirror. But in this case of Rikombyō, the woman sees more than her face and the back of her head in the larger mirror: she sees her own double. The verses indicate that one of the mirrors may have caught the Shadow-Sickness, and doubled itself. And there is a further suggestion of the ghostly sympathy said to exist between a mirror and the soul of its possessor.]


In the old Chinese and Japanese literature the toad is credited with supernatural capacities,—such as the power to call down clouds, the power to make rain, the power to exhale from its mouth a magical mist which creates the most beautiful illusions. Some toads are good spirits,—friends of holy men; and in Japanese art a famous Rishi called "Gama-Sennin" (Toad Rishi) is usually represented with a white toad resting upon his shoulder, or squatting beside him. Some toads are evil goblins, and create phantasms for the purpose of luring men to destruction. A typical story about a creature of this class will be found in my "Kottō," entitled "The Story of Chugōrō."

Mé wa kagami, Kuchi wa tarai no Hodo ni aku: Gama mo késhō no Mono to kosō shiré.

[The eye of it, widely open, like a (round) mirror; the mouth of it opening like a wash-basin—by these things you may know that the Toad is a goblin-thing (or, that the Toad is a toilet article).[32]]

[Footnote 32: There are two Japanese words, keshō, which in kana are written alike and pronounced alike, though represented by very different Chinese characters. As written in kana, the term keshō-no-mono may signify either "toilet articles" or "a monstrous being," "a goblin."]


The term Shinkirō is used in the meaning of "mirage," and also as another name for Hōrai, the Elf-land of Far Eastern fable. Various beings in Japanese myth are credited with power to delude mortals by creating a mirage of Hōrai. In old pictures one may see a toad represented in the act of exhaling from its mouth a vapor that shapes the apparition of Hōrai.

But the creature especially wont to produce this illusion is the Hamaguri,—a Japanese mollusk much resembling a clam. Opening its shell, it sends into the air a purplish misty breath; and that mist takes form and defines, in tints of mother-of-pearl, the luminous vision of Hōrai and the palace of the Dragon-King.

Hamaguri no Kuchi aku toki ya, Shinkirō! Yo ni shiraré ken Tatsu-no-miya-himé!

[When the hamaguri opens its mouth—lo! Shinkirō appears!... Then all can clearly see the Maiden-Princess of the Dragon-Palace.]

Shinkirō— Tatsu no miyako no Hinagata[33] wo Shio-hi no oki ni Misuru hamaguri!

[Lo! in the offing at ebb-tide, the hamaguri makes visible the miniature image of Shinkirō—the Dragon-Capital!]

[Footnote 33: Hinagata means especially "a model," "a miniature copy," "a drawn plan," etc.]


The etymological meaning of Rokuro-Kubi can scarcely be indicated by any English rendering. The term rokuro is indifferently used to designate many revolving objects—objects as dissimilar as a pulley, a capstan, a windlass, a turning lathe, and a potter's wheel. Such renderings of Rokuro-Kubi as "Whirling-Neck" and "Rotating-Neck" are unsatisfactory;—for the idea which the term suggests to Japanese fancy is that of a neck which revolves, and lengthens or retracts according to the direction of the revolution.... As for the ghostly meaning of the expression, a Rokuro-Kubi is either (1) a person whose neck lengthens prodigiously during sleep, so that the head can wander about in all directions, seeking what it may devour, or (2) a person able to detach his or her head completely from the body, and to rejoin it to the neck afterwards. (About this last mentioned variety of Rokuro-Kubi there is a curious story in my "Kwaidan," translated from the Japanese.) In Chinese mythology the being whose neck is so constructed as to allow of the head being completely detached belongs to a special class; but in Japanese folk-tale this distinction is not always maintained. One of the bad habits attributed to the Rokuro-Kubi is that of drinking the oil in night-lamps. In Japanese pictures the Rokuro-Kubi is usually depicted as a woman; and old books tell us that a woman might become a Rokuro-Kubi without knowing it,—much as a somnambulist walks about while asleep, without being aware of the fact.... The following verses about the Rokuro-Kubi have been selected from a group of twenty in the Kyōka Hyaku-Monogatari:—

Nemidaré no Nagaki kami woba Furi-wakété, Chi hiro ni nobasu Rokuro-Kubi kana!

[Oh!... Shaking loose her long hair disheveled by sleep, the Rokuro-Kubi stretches her neck to the length of a thousand fathoms!]

"Atama naki Bakémono nari"—to Rokuro-Kubi, Mité odorokan Onoga karada we.

[Will not the Rokuro-Kubi, viewing with astonishment her own body (left behind) cry out, "Oh, what a headless goblin have you become!"]

Tsuka-no-ma ni Hari we tsutawaru, Rokuro-Kubi Kéta-kéta warau— Kao no kowasa yo!

[Swiftly gliding along the roof-beam (and among the props of the roof), the Rokuro-Kubi laughs with the sound of "kéta-kéta"—oh! the fearfulness of her face![34]]

[Footnote 34: It is not possible to render all the double meanings in this composition. Tsuka-no-ma signifies "in a moment" or "quickly"; but it may also mean "in the space [ma] between the roof-props" [tsuka]. "Kéta" means a cross-beam, but kéta-kéta warau means to chuckle or laugh in a mocking way. Ghosts are said to laugh with the sound of kéta-kéta.]

Roku shaku no Byōbu ni nobiru Rokuro-Kubi Mité wa, go shaku no Mi wo chijimi-kéri!

[Beholding the Rokuro-Kubi rise up above the six-foot screen, any five-foot person would have become shortened by fear (or, "the stature of any person five feet high would have been diminished").[35]]

[Footnote 35: The ordinary height of a full screen is six Japanese feet.]


The Snow-Woman, or Snow-Spectre, assumes various forms; but in most of the old folk-tales she appears as a beautiful phantom, whose embrace is death. (A very curious story about her can be found in my "Kwaidan.")

Yuki-Onna— Yosō kushi mo Atsu kōri; Sasu-kōgai ya Kōri naruran.

[As for the Snow-Woman,—even her best comb, if I mistake not, is made of thick ice; and her hair-pin[36], too, is probably made of ice.]

[Footnote 36: Kōgai is the name now given to a quadrangular bar of tortoise-shell passed under the coiffure, which leaves only the ends of the bar exposed. The true hair-pin is called kanzashi.]

Honrai wa Kū naru mono ka, Yuki-Onna? Yoku-yoku mireba Ichi-butsu mo nashi!

[Was she, then, a delusion from the very first, that Snow-Woman,—a thing that vanishes into empty space? When I look carefully all about me, not one trace of her is to be seen!]

Yo-akéréba Kiété yuku é wa Shirayuki[37] no Onna to mishi mo Yanagi nari-keri!

[Having vanished at daybreak (that Snow-Woman), none could say whither she had gone. But what had seemed to be a snow-white woman became indeed a willow-tree!]

[Footnote 37: The term shirayuki, as here used, offers an example of what Japanese poets call Kenyōgen, or "double-purpose words." Joined to the words immediately following, it makes the phrase "white-snow woman" (shirayuki no onna);—united with the words immediately preceding, it suggests the reading, "whither-gone not-knowing" (yuku é wa shira[zu]).]

Yuki-Onna Mité wa yasathiku, Matsu wo ori Nama-daké hishigu Chikara ari-keri!

[Though the Snow-Woman appears to sight slender and gentle, yet, to snap the pine-trees asunder and to crush the live bamboos, she must have had strength.]

Samukésa ni Zotto[38] wa surédo Yuki-Onna,— Yuki oré no naki Yanagi-goshi ka mo!

[Though the Snow-Woman makes one shiver by her coldness,—ah, the willowy grace of her form cannot be broken by the snow (i.e. charms us in spite of the cold).]

[Footnote 38: Zotto is a difficult word to render literally: perhaps the nearest English equivalent is "thrilling." Zotto suru signifies "to cause a thrill" or "to give a shock," or "to make shiver;" and of a very beautiful person it is said "Zotto-suru hodo no bijin,"—meaning! "She is so pretty that it gives one a shock merely to look at her." The term yanagi-goshi ("willow-loins") in the last line is a common expression designating a slender and graceful figure; and the reader should observe that the first half of the term is ingeniously made to do double duty here,—suggesting, with the context, not only the grace of willow branches weighed down by snow, but also the grace of a human figure that one must stop to admire, in spite of the cold.]


The spirits of the drowned are said to follow after ships, calling for a bucket or a water-dipper (hishaku). To refuse the bucket or the dipper is dangerous; but the bottom of the utensil should be knocked out before the request is complied with, and the spectres must not be allowed to see this operation performed. If an undamaged bucket or dipper be thrown to the ghosts, it will be used to fill and to sink the ship. These phantoms are commonly called Funa-Yūréï ("Ship-Ghosts").

The spirits of those warriors of the Héïké clan who perished in the great sea-fight at Dan-no-ura, in the year 1185, are famous among Funa-Yūréï. Taïra no Tomomori, one of the chiefs of the clan, is celebrated in this weird rôle: old pictures represent him, followed by the ghosts of his warriors, running over the waves to attack passing ships. Once he menaced a vessel in which Benkéï, the celebrated retainer of Yoshitsuné, was voyaging; and Benkéï was able to save the ship only by means of his Buddhist rosary, which frightened the spectres away....

Tomomori is frequently pictured as walking upon the sea, carrying a ship's anchor on his back. He and his fellow-ghosts are said to have been in the habit of uprooting and making off with the anchors of vessels imprudently moored in their particular domain,—the neighborhood of Shimonoséki.

Erimoto yé Mizu kakéraruru Kokochi seri, "Hishaku kasé" chō Funé no kowané ni.

[As if the nape of our necks had been sprinkled with cold water,—so we felt while listening to the voice of the ship-ghost, saying:—"Lend me a dipper!"[39]]

[Footnote 39: Hishaku, a wooden dipper with a long handle, used to transfer water from a bucket to smaller vessels.]

Yūrei ni Kasu-hishaku yori Ichi-hayaku Onoré ga koshi mo Nukéru senchō.

[The loins of the captain himself were knocked out very much more quickly than the bottom of the dipper that was to be given to the ghost.[40]]

[Footnote 40: The common expression Koshi ga nukéru (to have one's loins taken out) means to be unable to stand up by reason of fear. The suggestion is that while the captain was trying to knock out the bottom of a dipper, before giving it to the ghost, he fell senseless from fright.]

Benkéï no Zuzu no kuriki ni Tomomori no Sugata mo ukamu— Funé no yūréï.

[By the virtue of Benkéï's rosary, even the ship-following ghost—even the apparition of Tomomori—is saved.]

Yūréï wa Ki naru Izumi no Hito nagara, Aö-umibara ni Nadoté itsuran?

[Since any ghost must be an inhabitant of the Yellow Springs, how should a ghost appear on the Blue Sea-Plain?[41]]

[Footnote 41: The Underworld of the Dead—Yomi or Kōsen—is called "The Yellow Springs;" these names being written with two Chinese characters respectively signifying "yellow" and "fountain." A very ancient term for the ocean, frequently used in the old Shintō rituals, is "The Blue Sea-Plain."]

Sono sugata, Ikari wo ōté, Tsuki-matoü Funé no hésaki ya Tomomori no réï!

[That Shape, carrying the anchor on its back, and following after the ship—now at the bow and now at the stern—ah, the ghost of Tomomori.[42]]

[Footnote 42: There is an untranslatable play upon words in the last two lines. The above rendering includes two possible readings.]

Tsumi fukaki Umi ni shidzumishi, Yūréï no "Ukaman" toté ya! Funé ni sugaréru.

[Crying, "Now perchance I shall be saved!" The ghost that sank into the deep Sea of Sin clings to the passing ship![43]]

[Footnote 43: There is more weirdness in this poem than the above rendering suggests. The word ukaman in the fourth line can be rendered as "shall perhaps float," or as "shall perhaps be saved" (in the Buddhist sense of salvation),—as there are two verbs ukami. According to an old superstition, the spirits of the drowned must continue to dwell in the waters until such time as they can lure the living to destruction. When the ghost of any drowned person succeeds in drowning somebody, it may be able to obtain rebirth, and to leave the sea forever. The exclamation of the ghost in this poem really means, "Now perhaps I shall be able to drown somebody." (A very similar superstition is said to exist on the Breton coast.) A common Japanese saying about a child or any person who follows another too closely and persistently is: Kawa de shinda-yūréï no yona tsuré-hoshigaru!—"Wants to follow you everywhere like the ghost of a drowned person."]

Ukaman to Funé we shitaëru Yuréï wa, Shidzumishi híto no Omoï naruran.

[_The ghosts following after our ship in their efforts to rise again (or, "to be saved") might perhaps be the (last vengeful) thoughts of drowned men.[44]]

[Footnote 44: Here I cannot attempt to render the various plays upon words; but the term "omoï" needs explanation. It means "thought" or "thoughts;" but in colloquial phraseology it is often used as a euphemism for a dying person's last desire of vengeance. In various dramas it has been used in the signification of "avenging ghost." Thus the exclamation, "His thought has come back!"—in reference to a dead man—really means: "His angry ghost appears!"]

Uraméshiki Sugata wa sugoki Yuréï no, Kaji we jama suru Funé no Tomomori.

[With vengeful aspect, the grisly ghost of Tomomori (rises) at the stern of the ship to hinder the play of her rudder.[45]]

[Footnote 45: There is a double meaning given by the use of the name Tomomori in the last line. Tomo means "the stern" of a ship; mori means "to leak." So the poem suggests that the ghost of Tomomori not only interferes with the ship's rudder, but causes her to leak.]

Ochi-irité, Uwo no éjiki to Nari ni ken;— Funa-yūréï mo Nama-kusaki kazé.

[Having perished in the sea, (those Héïké) would probably have become food for fishes. (Anyhow, whenever) the ship-following ghosts (appear), the wind has a smell of raw fish![46]]

[Footnote 46: Namakusaki-kaze really means a wind having a "raw stench;" but the smell of bait is suggested by the second line of the poem. A literal rendering is not possible in this case; the art of the composition being altogether suggestive.]


Readers can find in my "Kottō" a paper about the Héïké-Crabs, which have on their upper shells various wrinklings that resemble the outlines of an angry face. At Shimono-séki dried specimens of these curious creatures are offered for sale.... The Héïké-Crabs are said to be the transformed angry spirits of the Héïké warriors who perished at Dan-no-ura.

Shiwo-hi ni wa Séïzoroë shité, Héïkégani Ukiyo no sama we Yoko ni niramitsu.

[Marshaled (on the beach) at the ebb of the tide, the Héïké-crabs obliquely glare at the apparition of this miserable world.[47]]

[Footnote 47: Hi, the third syllable of the first line of the poem, does duty for hi, signifying "ebb," and for hikata, "dry beach." Séïzoroë is a noun signifying "battle-array"—in the sense of the Roman term acies;—and séïzoroé shité means "drawn up in battle-array."]

Saikai ni Shizumi-nurédomo, Héïkégani Kōra no iro mo Yahari aka-hata.

[Though (the Héïké) long ago sank and perished in the Western Sea, the Héïké-crabs still display upon their upper shells the color of the Red Standard.[48]]

[Footnote 48: The ensign of the Héïké, or Taïra clan was red; while that of their rivals, the Genji or Minamotō, was white.]

Maké-ikusa Munen to muné ni Hasami ken;— Kao mo makka ni Naru Héïkégani.

[Because of the pain of defeat, claws have grown on their breasts, I think;—even the faces of the Héïké-crabs have become crimson (with anger and shame).]

Mikata mina Oshi-tsubusaréshi Héïkégani Ikon we muné ni Hasami mochikéri.

[All the (Héïké) party having been utterly crushed, claws have grown upon the breasts of the Héïké-crabs because of the resentment in their hearts.[49]]

[Footnote 49: The use of the word hasami in the fifth line is a very good example of kenyōgen. There is a noun hasami, meaning the nippers of a crab, or a pair of scissors; and there is a verb hasami, meaning to harbor, to cherish, or to entertain. (Ikon wo hasamu means "to harbor resentment against.") Reading the word only in connection with those which follow it, we have the phrase hasami mochikéri, "got claws;" but, reading it with the words preceding, we have the expression ikon wo muné ni hasami, "resentment in their breasts nourishing."]


Modern dictionaries ignore the uncanny significations of the word Yanari,—only telling us that it means the sound of the shaking of a house during an earthquake. But the word used to mean the noise of the shaking of a house moved by a goblin; and the invisible shaker was also called Yanari. When, without apparent cause, some house would shudder and creak and groan in the night, folk used to suppose that it was being shaken from without by supernatural malevolence.

Tokonoma ni Ikéshi tachiki mo Taoré-keri; Yanari ni yama no Ugoku kakémono!

[Even the live tree set in the alcove has fallen down; and the mountains in the hanging picture tremble to the quaking made by the Yanari![50]]

[Footnote 50: The tokonoma in a Japanese room is a sort of ornamental recess or alcove, in which a picture is usually hung, and vases of flowers, or a dwarf tree, are placed.]


The term Sakasa-bashira (in these kyōka often shortened into saka-bashira) literally means "upside-down post." A wooden post or pillar, especially a house-post, should be set up according to the original position of the tree from which it was hewn,—that is to say, with the part nearest to the roots downward. To erect a house-post in the contrary way is thought to be unlucky;—formerly such a blunder was believed to involve unpleasant consequences of a ghostly kind, because an "upside-down" pillar would do malignant things. It would moan and groan in the night, and move all its cracks like mouths, and open all its knots like eyes. Moreover, the spirit of it (for every house-post has a spirit) would detach its long body from the timber, and wander about the rooms, head-downwards, making faces at people. Nor was this all. A Sakasa-bashira knew how to make all the affairs of a household go wrong,—how to foment domestic quarrels,—how to contrive misfortune for each of the family and the servants,—how to render existence almost insupportable until such time as the carpenter's blunder should be discovered and remedied.

Saka-bashira Tatéshi wa tazo ya? Kokoro ni mo Fushi aru hito no Shiwaza naruran.

[Who set the house-pillar upside-down? Surely that must have been the work of a man with a knot in his heart.]

Hidayama we Kiri-kité tatéshi Saka-bashira— Nanno takumi[51] no Shiwaza naruran?

[That house-pillar hewn in the mountains of Hida, and thence brought here and erected upside-down—what carpenter's work can it be? (or, "for what evil design can this deed have been done?")]

[Footnote 51: The word takumi, as written in kana, may signify either "carpenter" or "intrigue," "evil plot," "wicked device." Thus two readings are possible. According to one reading, the post was fixed upside-down through inadvertence; according to the other, it was so fixed with malice prepense.]

Uë shita wo Chigaëté tatéshi Hashira ni wa Sakasama-goto no Uréï aranan.

[As for that house-pillar mistakenly planted upside-down, it will certainly cause adversity and sorrow.[52]]

[Footnote 52: Lit., "upside-down-matter-sorrow." Sakasama-goto, "up-side-down affair," is a common expression for calamity, contrariety, adversity, vexation.]

Kabé ni mimi Arité, kiké to ka? Sakashima ni Tateshi hashira ni Yanari suru oto!

[O Ears that be in the wall![53] listen, will ye? to the groaning and the creaking of the house-post that was planted upside-down!]

[Footnote 53: Alluding to the proverb, Kabé ni mimi ari ("There are ears in the wall"), which signifies: "Be careful how you talk about other people, even in private."]

Uri-iyé no Aruji we toëba, Oto arité: Waré mé ga kuchi wo Aku saka-bashira.

[When I inquired for the master of the house that was for sale, there came to me only a strange sound by way of reply,—the sound of the upside-down house-post opening its eyes and mouth![54] (i.e. its cracks).]

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