kirigirisu, a cricket cries

How piteous!
Beneath the warrior’s helmet
A cricket cries.

むざんや   な甲の下の   きりぎりす
muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu


Saito Sanemori

An everyday object comes alive when Basho hears a cricket chirp underneath a warrior’s helmet. Winter is approaching.

On the 8th of September, 1689, Matsuo Basho, and his companion Sora, visited Komatsu and the Shrine Tada Jinja 多太神社, the birthplace of the Genji-clan, in Ishikawa prefecture. The shrine was famous as it contained contained the 12th century helmet of the Samurai warrior Saito Sanemori 斉藤実盛 who sided with the losing Heike. The old warrior was brought back from retirement, when he died in battle in 1183. To conceal his age, Sanemori dyed his white hair black.

Basho explains:

We visited Tada shirine where Sanemori’s helmet and a piece of his brocade robe are stored. It is said they were given to the Sanemori by Lord Yoshitomo of Minaoto,when Sanemori served with the Genji clan.

It was no ordinary helmet. From the peak to the turned-back ear flanges, it was embellished with chrysanthemum arabesques in gold. The crest was a dragon’s head, and the helmet had proud and graceful fla, gilded “horns.”

When Sanemori was killed in battle, Kiso Yoshinaka sent Jiro of Higuchi to offer these relics to the shrine. All this is vividly recorded in the shrine’s chronicles.

The first line of Basho’s haiku comes from a play, Sanemori, by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), in which a traveling priest encounters Sanemori’s ghost, who narrates his own story and death at Shinowara. During the clash, Sanemori’s head is struck off, only to be found later by an enemy general, Higuchi Jiro. The severed head is washed in a pond and the white hair is revealed. Recognizing the familiar white hair, Higuchi Jiro cries out “Muzan ya na!” “How piteous!”. Awe-struck with grief, Higuchi Jiro is brought back to reality by the sound of a cricket.

Notes on translation

むざんや, Muzan ya na, clearly more than a simple interjection, muzan conveys the sense of grief and tragedy.

, Kabuto, a Japanese Samurai helmet

きりぎりす, Kirigirisu, literally a cricket or a grasshopper and nothing more; unspoken, but implied is the human emotion of crying. A cricket seems less significant to me than a grasshopper, though the two terms were indistinguishable to Basho. Moreover, in Japanese culture, the cricket is an autumn symbol, a sign of approaching winter and death, a kind of melancholy, nostalgic feeling.

samurai costume

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