REVIVED PREWAR ORATORIO WILL ENABLE YOUNGER GENERATION TO APPRECIATE ORIGIN OF JAPAN
I recently had the rare chance to attend the first post-war performance in Tokyo of Kaido Tosei, a prewar concert piece based on the Eastern Expedition of the legendary first emperor of Japan, Jinmu..
The eight-movement oratorio, originally produced in 1940 to mark the 2,600th anniversary of Emperor Jinmu’s founding of Japan, has twice been performed in Osaka, sponsored by the conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun, but I was unable to attend. (Editor’s note: An oratorio, unlike an opera, is generally performed with little or no interaction between characters and no props or elaborate costumes.)
Learning that its performance was scheduled for April 19 in Tokyo, I lost no time applying for a ticket, pleasantly surprised to realize that the 2,000 tickets available would quickly be sold out. I also invited some of my women friends who are a generation or so younger than I.
Kaido Tosei, which depicts the mythical founding of Japan, is a masterpiece composed by Kiyoshi Nobutoki (1887-1965) with lyrics by poet Hakushu Kitahara (1885-1942).
Despite being a beautiful piece of music born of our national character, this spectacular oratorio had unfortunately been consigned to oblivion, largely because it was misconstrued as epitomizing Japanese militarism. As a result, it completely failed to see the light of day in post-war Japan until its Osaka performance two years ago. No wonder the younger people I spoke to—those born in the 1970s and 1980s—knew nothing about it. To tell the truth, I myself was only faintly familiar with it.
After all, since regaining independence following the end of the American occupation in 1952, little has been taught at home or at school in Japan about our history, our mythology, or the origin of our race.
The two-part concert, held at the Metropolitan Theater in Ikebukuro, was truly exquisite.The first part of the program was another oratorio: “Mythology for Orchestra: Story of Ama-no-Iwayato.”
As mythology has it, when Amaterasu, the sun goddess, took shelter in a rocky cave in heaven, exasperated by the violent behavior of her tempestuous brother, Susano-o, the storm god, the world was thrown into darkness. Incidentally, according to the Kojiki—a collection of myths compiled in 712 A.D.—both heaven and earth were enveloped in darkness when Amaterasu hid herself in the cave. Her primary task in heaven had been to enlighten both worlds. Seriously inconvenienced by the sudden darkness, the other gods and goddesses started desperately trying various measures to entice her out.
A cock crowed three times as Amaterasu was about to leave the cave, according to the myth. The shrill sound of a trumpet effectively portrayed this scene in the oratorio.
Birth of Japan
At the Grand Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, western Japan, a deity is installed in a brand new white wooden shrine every 20 years in a solemn ritual marking the occasion. It begins with the chief priest mimicking a cock and chanting “Kakekko!” (Japanese onomatopoeia for crowing) three times. There is a deep connection between Shinto gods and cocks.
Using the crowing as a sign for action, the gods start hooting and hollering in a happy party in which scantily clad goddesses dance in front of the cave. Hearing the commotion, Amaterasu can not help pushing slightly ajar the boulder blocking the entrance to take a peek out, curious about what is happening.
At that very instance, Tajikara-o, the god of force, determined to not lose her again, swiftly squeezes his arm in and grabs hold of her arm, entreating her to come out. She complies and her radiance returns, now illuminating heaven and earth once again. Her good humor restored, Amaterasu is once again protecting the land of Yamato with compassion and radiance together with the other gentle gods and goddesses. To portray this scene, the orchestra used bongo drums in rhythm with other instruments.
With this, the first half of the concert came to an exciting climax, the gods and goddesses singing together, rejoicing over the return of Amaterasu. Then came time for the much-awaited second part of the concert—the performance of Kaido Tosei.
At the beginning of Kaido Tosei, Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi-no-mikoto is sent from Takama-ga-hara, the dwelling place in heaven of gods and goddesses, to pacify Japan, landing on the peak of Mt. Takachiho in Kyushu.
Poet Kitahara wrote the lyrics for this mythical beginning of Japan in the first movement of Kaido Tosei, entitling it “Takachiho.” Baritone Harada magnificently sang Ninigi’s descent to Mt. Takachiho to the accompaniment of a flute.
The second movement—“Yamato Shibo” (Yearning for Yamato)—based on a Manyo waka poem, sings the praises of Yamato: “Yamato is the greatest place on earth. Securely surrounded by scenic hills and mountains filled with layers of lush green hedges, Yamato is a truly charming domain.” Nobotoki’s melody is captivating.
The third movement is based on another Manyo poem, “O-funade” (Setting Sail), which depicts four princes three generations behind Ninigi setting sail from Hyuga, Kyushu, on an expedition to conquer the Yamato region (Nara Prefecture today): “The sun rises in the madder-colored sky with clouds fluttering like countless flags, celebrating the princes’ setting sail from this beautiful port of Mimitsu.” The melody enables one to imagine the four young eager princes aboard a ship leaving port in bright morning light.
En route to the east, the four brothers fight fierce battles against savage gods and encounter dangerous storms, with only one of them surviving the ordeal. The youngest prince, Yamato Iware-biko, manages to reach Yamato to accomplish the quartet’s mission. He is later named Emperor Jinmu, the founder of Japan and the Japanese imperial family that has lasted 125 generations spanning 26 centuries.
Kaido Tosei dramatically depicts the founding of Japan through its eight movement, the music sometimes beautiful, sometimes powerful, gently filling the listener’s heart with pure joy. The young ladies I had invited to attend with me had known nothing about Kaido Tosei, but they clearly had a grand time. I was pleased to feel certain that these ladies would now take a fresh interest in our nation’s mythology and history.
The Words of Earlier Generations
As an encore, the orchestra played “Umi Yukaba” (“Far Away to the Sea”), another well-known Manyo poem by Otomo-no-Yakamochi set to music by Nobutoki. Many men and women rose reverently from their seats to join in the chorus, including the gentleman next to me who held forth enthusiastically in a deep and melodious voice. The lyrics: “If I go away to the sea, I shall be a corpse washed up. If I go away to the mountain, I shall be a corpse in the grass. But if I die for the Emperor, I will not regret it.”
There may have been many in the audience who were unable to readily fathom the lyrics at a time when the Imperial Rescript on Education (promulgated in 1890 by Emperor Meiji) is erroneously criticized for supposedly advocating an education that calls on the Japanese to die for the emperor. In “Umi Yukaba and the Showa Era” (Epsilon Shuppan Kikaku Co., Tokyo; 2006, edited by Yuji Shimpo), renowned scholar of religion Tetsuo Yamaori wrote an essay entitled “What is a Corpse?” in which he noted:
In a nut shell, as is obvious from the Manyo elegies, a corpse is “the mere empty shell of one’s departed soul.” After death, one’s soul leaves his body and soars far beyoud the mountain peaks and the far-away seas, benevolently watching over the wellbeing of the country and its people from high above. The Japanese of old showed no attachment to the corpse left behind, only love and respect for the departed soul.
In the same book, poet Shuntaro Tanikawa wrote: “In my childhood, I didn’t dislike music; frankly, I was rather fond of it. But ‘Umi Yukaba’ was the first music that truly shook my body and soul…My favorite was Kaido Tosei, the legendary oratorio…”
Critic Kenichi Matsumoto (1946-2014), who was a good friend of mine, quoted the late stage director and author Teruhiko Kuze (1935-2006) as stating:
“One should listen to ‘Umi Yukaba’ with his eyes closed. Who could become belligerent listening to this gentle song? …I see the beautiful rivers and mountains of our motherland, and beyond…the faces of my cousins who sacrificed their lives in order to defend this beautiful land of ours.”
Messrs. Matsumoto and Kuze are gone now, along with many others of that earlier
generation. But all of the words they have left behind come straight to my heart. At the concert, I stood with the audience to respectfully join them in singing ‘Umi Yukaba’, gently moved by the sound of the chorus slowly swelling across the spacious hall.
My young women friends appeared to be having difficulty comprehending the full meaning of the music. That is why I am in this column introducing them to these thoughtful words of those who have gone before us.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 752 in the May 4-11, 2017 combined issue of The Weekly Shincho)