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Modes of Quoting: Parody and Honkadori
by Akiko Tsukamoto

It has been often remarked that the Japanese are good at imitating and adopting foreign ideas, methods, and philosophies but not as good at creating original ones. I believe that this view, while exaggerated and imprecise, does contain an important element of truth.

Through a large part of its known history Japanese culture showed certain characteristics that made it relatively easy for it to serve as container for foreign cultural content by providing clever and skillfully selective devices for the borrowing and importing of elements of various cultures and keeping and re-shaping them in its own way. It is also true that the Japanese have traditionally not cared as much as Westerners about the originality and novelty of their ideas or styles.

There are various theories which attempt to explain that tradition, including the much longer persistence of feudal values, and the fact that Japan is a small island located near a continent, etc. Whatever the reasons, it is true that within the Japanese cultural tradition there is a well-developed custom of quoting and borrowing.

In fact, more than just a custom is involved here: various ways of quoting were themselves regarded as artistic techniques and were admired and appreciated in the same way as original works of art. It is natural to suppose that an 'art of quoting' could be appreciated by connoisseurs who share common knowledge with the artists, since quoting is quoting something that is known by those who quote and those who listen, view or read. Such a society has to possess a high degree of stability and leisure, for knowledge of this kind cannot be acquired quickly and needs to be cultivated. At the same time it also needs a certain degree of mobility so that various crossovers, borrowing and arrangements--which are different forms of quoting--can have sufficient variety to generate and maintain interest. By 'mobility' I do not necessarily mean 'social mobility' but rather the movement of diverse influences, for example from outside cultures or different artistic genres.

The art of borrowing and quoting is exemplified in various arts and cultural activities in Japan, but most notably in the making and enjoying of waka, an art that can be said to have enjoyed the longest history of continual popularity among the widest layers of Japanese society.

Making waka poems was practiced before the Japanese created their own script (hiragana). A waka, meaning 'Japanese poem' (contrasting those composed in the Chinese manner), is also sometimes called a tanka (meaning a 'short poem'), and consists of five lines in the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern. Until the present day it has been the principal Japanese form of lyric poetry. The Manyoshu, the largest and oldest surviving collection of Japanese lyric poetry, compiled in the second half of the 8th century, contains about 4500 poems of which some 4200 are waka, written down with the borrowed Chinese characters, sometimes used as phonetic and sometimes as hieroglyphic signs.

The Japanese intellectuals, while relying on foreign concepts and foreign language, arranged and structured Japanese indigenous legends, ballads and themes with the specific intention of supporting the Japanese administrative and legal system, which itself had been relatively recently borrowed from China. It is characteristic that the Japanese national poetic form, waka, was originated by people educated in Chinese poetics. An earlier hybrid form was choka: long-poems, which preserve the rhythmic feeling of the popular ballads. In fact they sometimes include the 5-7-5-7-7-syllable form as the last line. Eventually the waka form became dominant, but it is characteristic of Japanese arts that there was a long period when two or three traditions existed side by side until eventually the other forms disappeared or were swallowed up by the dominant form.

The 'art of quoting', Honkadori, appeared later, in the Kamakura period (11th to 13th century). The imperial court based in Kyoto had long controlled institutionalised waka . As this ascendance faded there developed a new consciousness of poetry freed from the dictates of any political regime.

There are two important aspects to this new development of waka theory. One is the assertion of aesthetic values expressed in such words as yugen (refined elegance) or ushin (sincerity), and the second is its traditionalism. In terms of the composition of poetry itself, they were both reflected in the emergence of Honkadori, which were new poems composed on the basis of famous poems from earlier times, presenting a different meaning and atmosphere from that of the original poem, but having a reverberatory effect towards the original.

How about the West? If somebody tried to summarise the stylistic character of 20th century western art what should he say? One thing he might say is that the 20th century was one in which each artist was expected to have his own style, and possessing this sort of uniqueness and individuality of style was the necessary condition of being considered an artist at all.

In general, in modern western art strict adherence to tradition is not very highly valued. Of course, we must remember an obvious exception here: the relatively recent trend for 'authenticity' in the performance of old music. However, this actually arose as a kind of new approach that went against the tradition established in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In any case, the view that the uniqueness of a work is its most important trademark still dominates in the contemporary artistic world.

At the same time modern technology has made copying and editing a powerful and much used technique in art. There is also a tendency towards the fusion of styles and many instances of crossover between genres. Unusual arrangements of classical musical pieces and new stagings of plays attract the attention of critics and are making a claim to be considered independent works of art. The result is that the questions of what constitutes legitimate artistic imitation, influence, editing and quoting, and what forgery and plagiarism needs a careful reconsideration.

It is notable that when the concept of Honkadori was introduced in 12th century Japan something similar was happening. Honkadori emerged in the Kamakura period, when there were few anonymous poems, and most authors tried to display their originality whilst at the same time demonstrating the historical continuity of Japan. This parity of circumstance makes it possible to reflect on the historical experience for a new insight into current conditions.

A certain amount of repeating of another person’s work is normally admitted as a quotation; once this limit has been clearly exceeded, the work is called a forgery or plagiarism. If a western poem includes borrowed lines it may, under certain circumstances, be considered as a quotation or some mode of quotation, such as parody, but under others, plagiarism. However, there does not seem to be in the West any practice which quite corresponds to the traditional Japanese 'art of quotation'. There are of course in western poetry, music and other arts various instances of 'quoting' which may be compared to Honkadori, but of these only parody seems to be structurally close to Honkadori (which, however, does not contain a comic element). That said, a number of Japanese aesthetic concepts have a structural resemblance to humour and irony, particularly in the use of under-statement; so some aspects of the western art of rhetoric do seem to have relevance.

In traditional rhetorical theory one comes across the term 'allusion', which is a kind of quoting in a wide sense, but in a narrower sense it breaks a fundamental rule of quoting: an allusion contains no explicit reference. The same is, of course, true of forgery or plagiarism. Like both of these illicit practices, allusion borrows the expression but does not give the name of the one who lent it. Moreover, not only does it borrow without explicit acknowledgement, but it also modifies what it borrows to the current needs of the author. Normally allusion is used where the lender or the borrowed passage is so well known that there is, or is felt, no need to make him or it explicit. Parody could be said to be a sort of allusion. The Greek word for parody actually belongs to the same family as imitate (mimesis). One imitates someone or something famous, but with a bit of a change designed to produce the special effect of parody. How this effect arises, and how exactly an allusion becomes parody is rather complicated. For its effect parody requires both similarity and difference. And moreover, a parody is not expected to retain the artistic quality of the object parodied (assuming it has any). In fact, it deliberately distorts them in order to achieve a comic effect. It makes what is beautiful ugly and what is ugly still uglier. But its effect is not displeasing and indeed it may actually under certain circumstances be superior to the object parodied (e.g., many passages form Byron's great poem Don Juan, which contains numerous instances of parody).

We do not usually enjoy a perfect repetition of the familiar (except in the case of music) but generally need something new. As Aristotle said, to notice or discover similarity is an intellectual pleasure. It is sometimes claimed that finding analogy is the method used in science in general. At the same time it takes experience to be able to do this well. Once parody was something associated with old age, and somewhat cynical world-wisdom. What does the fashion for parody among young people today tell us? It may be that in youth, one should use intellect more productively. Surely in the age of enlightenment, intellect was used more productively, and thus more usefully. Nowadays intellect seems allied to feelings of redundancy or powerlessness; the various systems and organisation of society, culture, are perceived to be beyond the scope of the individual. But the intellect wants to work. And hence parody.

Thus it seems as if parody is a certain pseudo-creative act. Parody is one of the major forms of modern self-reflexivity. It is a form of inter-art discourse. Italo Calvino has a most overt and explicit formulation of its nature and function in fiction. But in other art forms, parody is just as important or even more important--e.g., paintings; theatre. It also plays a major role in advertising.

Parody has been called a parasitic and derivative art and has on occasion been seen as the philistine enemy of creative genius and vital originality. These terms give a clue to the reasons for the denigration of a form that is pervasive in the art of our century. Some critics reject what they see as parody’s superimposition of an external order upon a work that is presumed to be original.

What is clear from these sorts of attacks is the continuing strength of a Romantic aesthetics that values genius, and individuality. In such a context, parody needs to be considered at best a very minor form. But recently we have witnessed a renewed interest in the question of textual appropriation and even influence. Parody may be one mode of coming to terms with the texts of that rich and intimidating legacy of the past. Modern artists seem to have recognised that change entails continuity and have offered us a model for the process of transfer and reorganisation of that past.

This way of dealing with past recalls in many ways the Classical and Renaissance attitude as well as the Japanese. Once imitation of previous works was considered part of the labour of writing poetry. After the concept of genius, craft and knowledge of the past have come back into focus today. Michel Foucault has argued that the entire concept of an artist or an author as an original instigator of meaning is only a privileged moment of individualisation in the history of art. In this light it is likely that the Romantic rejection of parodic forms as parasitic reflected a growing capitalist ethic that made literature into a commodity to be owned by an individual. The last century saw the rise of copyright laws.

As I suggested, a peculiar combination of sophistication and parochiality is needed for a good parody--the former for obvious reasons, and the latter because the audience must be homogeneous enough to get to the point. The potential for elitism in parody has frequently been pointed out, but little attention has been paid to the didactic value of parody in teaching or co-opting the art of the past by textual incorporating and ironic commentary. Many cultural codes are shared, even if we have to be reminded of them. And here we see some potential of genuine creation through quoting.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls parody 'a composition in prose or verse in which the characteristic turns of thought and phrase in an author or class of authors are imitated in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous, especially by applying them to ridiculously inappropriate subjects. An imitation of a work more or less closely modelled on the original, but so turned as to produce a ridiculous effect'. But para in Greek can also mean 'beside' and therefore there is a suggestion of an accord or intimacy instead of a contrast. It is this second, neglected meaning of the prefix that broadens the pragmatic scope of parody in a way most helpful to discussions of modern art forms and Japanese context. There is nothing in parody that necessitates the inclusion of a concept of ridicule, as there is in the joke, or of burlesque.

If then parody is to be taken more seriously, what is needed is a broader notion of the conventions of reading. Here I shall give one example of quoting for creation from Japanese art, Honkadori, quoting an original poem.

As I suggested above, whether a sort of parody which borrows imagery is plagiarism or quotation was, in fact, already a problem in Japan of the Kamakura period, where there were also debates concerning the borderline between Honkadori and seishi (the forbidden use of certain phrases that had already been used in poetry).

It was in the Kamakura period that what had previously been regarded as stealing was for the first time admitted as a valid artistic technique and the art of quotation of original poems received a new status. But at the same time many rules of quoting were introduced in order to stop wholesale theft from waka, though these rules fall far short of what would be required in the West.

The Japanese did not fully recognise the value of originality or respect formal copyright; and the spiritual value of a work of art, which was the essential point of it, was considered not to come from the artist but rather from the artist’s spiritual state which allowed him to directly access an absolute Truth or Way. The True Way is found and lost, and one cannot 'own' it, a way of thinking central to Buddhist philosophy. The effect was to reduce, if not exactly eliminate, the perception that the artist was an original creator.

Another element that also played a role was the idealisation of the past and past masters, a factor typical of all feudal societies and one which had an exact parallel in the West before the 19th century. In any case, the effect was that one of the aims of an artist was to produce something similar or coming near to the old classical works of the great artists of the past. For example, imitating the spirit of past masters was seen as the aim of calligraphy or poetry. Many schools and dynasties were formed in various genres of art/craft which regarded deviation from tradition as a 'sin'. Still in all these arts, as in waka, there were many different ways of imitating old masters or old works and the way of doing so could be sometimes remarkably original.

In ordinary life it is quite usual to quote old clichés or proverbs (e.g., 'out of sight, out of mind') which seem to fit the present situation, without attribution and without even knowing anything about their originator. This basically amounts to an attempt to interpret the present situation using an old, familiar formula. By the same token, the aristocrats of the Heian period quoted old Japanese and Chinese poems in order to confirm and emphasise the situation they wished to convey.

In the famous 12th century novel, The Tale of Genji, prince Genji, the novel’s hero, leaves Kyoto, as he expects to be banished for his perceived misconduct. Since his exile is voluntary, there is no limit to it.

. . . he goes to Suma by boat, and remembers a waka -poem . . . / He looked at the waves coming and receding at the shore and recited "Oh, how I envy . . ." / This is a well known saying, but when Genji says it, it / sounds very fresh, and sad, his attendants thought . . .

When Genji said 'Oh, how I envy' he was actually quoting a very famous Ariwara no Narihira poem:

More and more
Do I yearn for
The Capital I have left
Oh, how I envy incoming
Waves that can return.

It was composed when Narihira went to the East, having had to leave the capital Kyoto--and it seemed likely that he would never go back. This is a famous poem in a famous tale and this kind of 'feeling of homesickness toward the capital Kyoto' had formed a kind of pattern (kata) and was shared by many exiled aristocrats of the time. Genji chose Narihira’s poem as suitable for expressing his own feeling. He not only felt homesick, but he also recognised the nature of his feeling.

Murasaki-shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, says only 'How envy . . .' (Urayamashiku-mo), assuming that the rest would be understood by the readers (as it most likely would have been in her day). Still, it seems difficult to guess the reference to the original poem (of 32 by 7 syllables), and actually Murasaki gives some contextual hints which make it easier.

First there is the similarity between Genji leaving Kyoto anticipating his exile and Narihira being sent away from Kyoto to the 'barbarian' east of Japan. Murasaki-Shikibu suggested the connection through the narrative. He looked at the shore and at the incoming and returning waves and recited 'How I envy . . .' Already there are words incoming and returning. Thus Murasaki-Shikibu quotes only the most notable phrase and puts into the narrative several words and phrases from the original poem. It must have been felt rather unsophisticated to quote the whole poem.

The Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry), the first Japanese royal anthology made in the beginning of 10th century, contains one thousand waka and thus, as it were, one thousand 'types' of emotion are thus registered, so to speak, to the world. Later poets can, according to their own situation, find something that expresses what they want to express, and refer to whatever poem is the most fitting. This was not only quotation but also a confirmation of the correspondence between the individual case and a traditional model. One looks at the present situation in the light of universal experience that is encoded in the poem. If the correspondence is exact, then only one phrase is enough to make the link and the whole poem is called back. Perhaps one can even say that it is the present situation that becomes modified. Various present details are thrown away or absorbed into the old 'model' or 'type'. If Genji said to himself 'How I envy!' with tears in his eyes, looking at the coming and returning waves, the attendants eyes could not see the waves of the sea shore of Suma joyfully any more. They became sad and homesick. And their tears were shed for Narihira, too, since they shed tears for the common pattern shared by Narihira, Genji and all unfortunate people who had to suffer this fate.

Thus, one basic function of quotation is to turn the present individual moment into a common, shared experience and give old meaning to a new situation. 'My' situation and 'my' feeling are then felt and appreciated anew through a clear pattern and become universal and understandable. To quote is to make the present fleeting emotion an example, a token of a universal 'type'. In some cases it is not only using the old poem as a type, but also there are two poems, old poem and new poem, which have a certain relation to each other. It is as if we drew a line and another line in the same plane. We then see not only two lines but also the plane containing them. Or, if we hear one sound and a different sound we hear not only the two sounds but also the difference and the harmony between them. We confirm which is the original and which is the borrowed version, and also look at the reason for the borrowing, which makes us understand and share the emotion. In order to do that we compare the contexts in which each poem was composed and examine the relationship and hidden significance of the new one. Thus we see not so much of the meaning of the words, but the meaning of 'the way of usage' of words.

The practice of Honkadori will be summed up in several key points:

  • the quotation of an old poem is used to make one’s present situation emotionally more explicit. In this case the present situation becomes an example, or representation, or repetition of the old poem. The present vague 'my situation' acquires a definite contour and objectivity, thanks to the type or model. Thus it is no longer 'private' and can be understood by others.
  • by using the old poem as a 'raw material' and the operation of quoting, one can re-shape the old poem and make the intention and technique of re-shaping itself the object of appreciation.
    In both cases the situation in which the quoted poem was created is of central importance. In the first case to absorb the present situation into the model, and in the second case quotation is enjoyed only in the present context.

Fujiwara-no Teika states that Honkadori must not be 'stealing', but the difference between a genuine Honkadori and a false one lies, in his view, in the effect on the reader (or listener, if the poem is recited). It does not mean that the reader can decide for himself if something is a Honkadori or mere plagiarism. However, whether a Honkadori is successful or not depends on the particular effect which appears or does not appear at the stage of appreciation. Teika’s aesthetics always assumes an objective reader possessing full knowledge and the ability to grasp well-made allusions and references. Of course, if an actual reader does not know the original poem he may fail to grasp and appreciate it, but Japanese court poetry was intended for a class of connoisseurs, which of course is the only context in which this sort of use of quotation can play the desired role.

Teika’s classic Honkadori was Honka (Original by Naganoimi Kiyokimaro from the Manyoshuu Imperial Anthology):

Kurushikumo furikuru ameka miwanosaki
Sanono watari ni ie mo

Unfortunately it started to rain.
There is no shelter near the Sano ferry-boat port.


Koma tomete, sodeuchiharau kagemonashi
Sano no watari no yuki no yuugure.

I would like to stop my horse, and clean my sleeves of snow
But I cannot see any shelter near the Sano river ferry-boat port.
While evening snow is falling, evening falls.

On the surface the two poems are very similar. The first poem is about rain and the second one about snow. But the heart, or intention, of the poems is completely different. The former is essentially complaining about the rain, and the inconvenience of travel. It is basically 'gray coloured'. In the latter one, the main theme is the beauty of the scene. A striking contrast is evoked between the darkness of evening and the light coming form the shining of the falling snow. Still the latter poem calls upon the former and Teika deliberately uses the phrase Sano no watari (the boat port in Sano).

Looked at in this way, this song includes two points of view. First, the pattern of gloom and melancholy of a traveller, and then this melancholy turns into a 'point in a larger picture'. We see both the outer and the inner sides of a traveller. This picture is observed in a state of almost religious contemplation.
The point is, that in order to produce a 'new heart' (new meaning), one uses the 'old heart' (meaning) embedded in what have become cliché words.

The original poem conjures up the feeling (of melancholy in this case) which is already registered. The poet quotes this type, and tries to go beyond it, using the model as his material. He does it by quoting a familiar pattern of emotion, and arranging some additional elements, which are not contained in it. In this way he makes the reader see the world through a different angle but within an objective, shared emotional context.
Thus we see how Honkadori, 'the art of quoting', becomes a key element in creating something that is new and original yet shared and familiar.

This text of this article is abridged from an address to the international conference 'Frontiers of Transculturality in Contemporary Aesthetics' held at the University of Bologna, Italy in October 2000.

Professor Akiko Tsukamoto lectures on Body Theory and Aesthetics at Edogawa University in Chiba prefecture.

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