A Poem attributed to Anrakuan Sakuden (1554-1642) 


Scholar’s Pick 2: Fragment 75


Glynne Walley 
Associate Professor 
East Asian Languages & Literatures 
University of Oregon 


Because I am a specialist in early modern literature – particularly playful, popular things – this fragment caught my eye immediately. It’s attributed to Anrakuan Sakuden 安楽庵策伝, who lived from 1554 to 1642. Sakuden was a Buddhist priest and abbot of the Seiganji temple in Kyoto but is better remembered for his enthusiasm for various aesthetic pursuits than for his religious devotion. He was a connoisseur of tea, which he studied with Kobori Enshū 小堀遠州 (1579-1647), a painter and garden designer. Sakuden ultimately founded his own tea school (the Anrakuan-ryū 安楽庵流), which flourished in the early Edo period. He wrote poetry, both serious and comic, including in the new haikai style associated with his friend Matsunaga Teitoku 松永貞徳 (1571-1654). In short, he epitomizes the refined but light-hearted tastes of Kyoto high society at the turn of the seventeenth century.

Today, however, he’s perhaps best known as the putative founder of rakugo 落語, comic storytelling, a decidedly plebeian art form that flourished from the late eighteenth century and still enjoys broad popularity. It’s doubtful that Sakuden performed rakugo in any way that would be recognizable today, but he did compile a landmark collection of humorous anecdotes that scholars and rakugo aficionados rank as the granddaddy of Japanese jokebooks. This was Seisuishō 醒睡笑, or Laughs to Banish Sleep. Sakuden compiled it at the behest of the Kyoto magistrate, to whom he presented it in 1628 (Kan’ei 5). In his preface, Sakuden says the book was the product of a lifetime of collecting funny stories.

This fragment contains a comic poem, which makes it a perfect encapsulation of Sakuden’s wit and joie de vivre. It runs: tsutsu izutsu / itsutsu iritaru / marubukuro / tsutsumu ni amaru / go nengoro kana. The first phrase, tsutsu izutsu, is taken from a famous poem that occurs in Section 23 of the Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari 伊勢物語) and that was later taken up in the noh play Izutsu: “Cradle, well-cradle / well-cradle that told / who was the taller: / I’ve grown up, love / since I saw you last.”1 A “well-cradle” was a wooden frame around the lip of a well, and in the story a boy and a girl growing up together would measure their heights against it; later they became lovers, and even later they were separated.

It’s a terribly romantic story, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Sakuden’s poem. Most likely, Sakuden is merely playing with the catchy sound of the phrase tsutsu izutsu 筒井筒 (cradle, well-cradle) and using it as an occasion to pun on itsutsu 五つ (five), which in premodern Japanese was orthographically identical to izutsu. The playful repetition of the tsu/zu syllable is extended with the word tsutsumu, “to wrap.”

A literal-ish rendering might be: “Cradle, well-cradle / five of them stuffed into / a round sack / can no more be contained / than can your earnest kindness.” If we assume that tsutsu izutsu is used here for its sound and not its meaning, we could take some liberties and come up with a less literal but more accurately playful rendition: “Heaven, seventh heaven, / seven stuffed into / a circle sack / can’t even be contained / and nor can your earnest kindness.”

Unfortunately, we’re still left with more questions than answers here. What’s being stuffed into a “circle sack”? And what is a “circle sack” anyway? It may not matter, as long as we get the idea of something being stuffed until it splits open to reveal what’s inside – just as the poem’s subject’s kindness will always be conspicuous. And that’s the real question: what kind of kindness is it?

The headnote gives us a hint, although like the poem it harbors obscurities. The gist of it seems to be that the poem was composed at the Jūhōin 十方院 (or Jippōin), an unidentified cloister, or for its resident, as a witty remark on a joyous occasion. Clearly, it’s an occasional poem, in some way meant to flatter or entertain or perhaps tease Sakuden’s host. Beyond that? I don’t know. The most tantalizing suggestion I’ve heard (from someone who will remain anonymous) is that the poem could be understood in the context of the male-male love that was common in Buddhist monasteries at the time. The tsutsu izutsu line does carry romantic, even erotic, overtones, and nengoro can mean intimacy as well as kindness. Maybe the poem means something like this: “Those guys are five pounds of loving in a two-pound sack.”

The moral of the story is that comic literature often requires just as much explication as “straight” literature, but seldom gets it. And this is why – it’s really difficult! But tantalizing. You know there’s a laugh in there, just bursting to get out.

1. For an English translation of this play, see Royall Tyler, trans. and ed., “Izutsu: The Well-Cradle,” in Japanese Nō Dramas (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992), 120-32.

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