Yoko Tawada

Shirabyoshi  (English translation by Susan Bernofsky)


I’d been invited to Bergamo to speak on the topic “Emotion.“ I thought it would be a shame if my talk didn’t have any Italian sounds in it. But what could I do? I don’t speak Italian. Then it occurred to me that I’d learned some Italian words in my music lessons to be able to understand the notes. Most of these words had to do with speed (accelerando) or volume (pianissimo), there were even some that indicated an emotion, for example “piangendo” (lamenting) or “triste” (sad). Maybe I could find enough words in a dictionary f musical terms to cover all the emotions in my text.

I liked the idea of speaking about feelings in a language I’d never learned. Feelings speak a different language than we do. Feelings cannot be artificially produced, but they can be artistically represented by changing the tempo and volume.

It’s good to be able to speak a language. But not being able to speak a language ought to have advantages as well.

1. The Sisters

In 12th century Japan, when overripe court culture was beginning to rot in its own bittersweet perfume and it became necessary to abandon the main stage of politics to the professional fighters, the samurais, a new sort of dance arose that was known as “Shirabyoshi.” The representatives of this new dance were women dressed as men with a sword at the hip. Perhaps it was a leftover of the shamanic tradition in which a change of gender was understood as a sign that the person in question had come in contact with the gods. The transition from the old rituals to dance was fluid, though Shirabyoshi was not a religious dance.

At that time, the Japanese capital Kyoto was home to two sisters, Gio and Gi-nyo, who were celebrated as young, talented Shirabyoshi dancers.

The older sister, Gio, soon became the concubine of Kiyomori, the most powerful samurai of the day, who saw dance as an indispensable part of life.

Thanks to her older sister, the younger sister, Gi-nyo, also enjoyed great repute among her colleagues, though at times it was mixed with cold, wet envy.

Kiyomori provided Gio with a villa in Kyoto so that her family could live there, though she herself spent most of her time with him at his residence. Her mother, who had eaten bitter rice long enough after the death of her husband, rejoiced at the carefree life she was able to lead in the elegant villa. Each month, the family received 180,000 liters of rice and a heap of gold coins.

 平清盛、重々しくマエストーソmaestoso、 インペリオーソ imperioso, 雄大な空グランディオーソgrandioso 四つの海を支配し、恐いものなし、やりたい放題。世間の誹(そし)りも かえりみず、いつも気まぐれ カプリチョーソcapriccioso、欲望もりもり、非常識。 欲しい物は何でも欲しい、欲しい時に欲しい。捨てたいものは何でも捨てる、捨てたい時に捨てる。

姉と妹、 祇王と祇女(ぎにょ)。 白拍子の踊り子姉妹が 京の都で評判になっている。清盛は、姉の祇王に恋をして、熱く熱く、アッパシオナートappassionato 寵愛する。ファヴォーレfavore, ファヴォーレfavore。


姉が囲われ愛されれば、妹の祇女(ぎにょ)も世間にもてはやされ、母親の刀自(とじ)は、 毎月お米がざらざら、お金もざっくざっく。豪邸を建てて何の不自由もない暮らし。不自由の逆は自由ではないが、まだそんなことには気づかない。


2. The New Star

One day another dancer appeared in the capital, attracting all the city-dwellers’ attention. She was 16 years old, came from the Kaga region, and was called Hotoke. You couldn’t tell if it was her talent or her youthful beauty that made her whole being so radiant. She loved herself because her audience loved her. Even the wind always blew in a way that favored her, so she had not yet experienced a single defeat.

One day she thought: “I have made a name for myself as a Shirabyoshi dancer. But Kiyomori, the most powerful man of our time, has not once invited me to perform for him. Today I shall invite myself to his home in accordance with street artist customs.”

Hotoke set out for Nishihachijo, where Kiyomori had his residence.



三年後、 舞踏界の天空にあらわれた新しい星。年は十六、名前は仏(ほとけ)、自信満々、わたしが一番。とは言うものの、まだ清盛様の前で踊ったことがない。 お呼びがないなら、こちらから押しかけましょう。ほとけは大胆、アニモーサメンテanimosamente, 西八条の清盛の御殿に向かう。恐れを知らず、元気満々、コン・エネルジーアcon energia、ほとけは若くて向こう見ず。


When Kiyomori heard there was a dancer who wanted to see him, and that she was already standing at the gate, he was seized with fury. Someone who enjoys too much power as he did can easily be taken aback. He said to his concubine Gio, whom he had come to prize not only as a dancer but also as a conversation partner and advisor: “This girl has invited herself to my home. What outrageous impertinence! Artists should appear only when I send for them. Besides, all dancers are boring compared to you. Send the conceited creature home! She should consider herself fortunate to be sent away without punishment!”

Meanwhile Hotoke had crept into the courtyard and was listening at the door. Kiyomori’s hard words injured her pride. She wanted to leave, but then overheard the words Gio was saying to Kiyomori: “I know the customs of the street artists. They visit the court without an invitation to show their art. They are free in their behavior, and the only rule that governs them is that of gravity. Hotoke is still very young and inexperienced. If she wants to visit you, this is because of her reverence for you, not out of contempt. You shouldn’t punish her with poisoned words.”


清盛、勝手に押しかけてきた仏のずうずうしさにいらいら怒り、イーラ ira、 怒り イーラ ira、怒ってラッビア rabbia、腹をたてるが、 祇王がとりなす。「芸術家は呼ばれなくても芸を見せに来るものです。しかもこの子は若くて純粋、インノチェンテ innocente。追い返すものじゃありません。」


Kiyomori grew calm again and said: “Very well. Let the girl come in and dance for us. Set up the stage.”

In those days, wealthy samurais had dance stages in their homes. For them, dance was not only a matter of aesthetic pleasure but also an archive of knowledge crucial for survival. Dance was a record of the body positions and movements from which fighting techniques were derived, and a source of new ones. Complex knowledge that could not be notated on paper was inscribed in the dancing body, and this was an excellent method, since even if video cameras had existed in the 12th century, it wouldn’t have been possible to film every view of every muscle and bone for every movement and to preserve these shots in such a way as to make them useful in real life.

3. Power

Hotoke stepped on stage and let her body glide slowly. Kiyomori’s gaze fluttered about nervously in the air, in the end landing like an exhausted butterfly upon the dancer’s skin. Kiyomori was unable to move, he felt powerless faced with this young woman who had effortlessly placed herself front and center. Standing still, she appeared mobile, and radiated peace when she was rapidly in motion. Her silken hair tickled the sovereign’s heart from the inside. He could breathe only with difficulty, as though his chest were tightly laced. He felt so constricted that he was suddenly forced to get to his feet. He could not bear it for another second that the dancer did not belong to him.


仏は 屋敷にあがって、すぐにスービトsubito すぐにトスト tosto, 踊り出す。初めは静かにカルマート calmato、段段速くアッチェレランドaccelerando、優雅にグランディオーソgrandioso、そして華やかにブリッランテ brillante、清盛は目が離せない。仏をいつくしむ心が芽生え、燃え上がる、火のように コンフォーコ con fuoco、 熱狂的に、パッシオナータメンテ passionatamente!


Kiyomori asked Hotoke to stay, inviting her to spend this night or an additional night or several nights and months with him. His amorous whisperings went on and on until Hotoke interrupted him: “Your Majesty, I must ask your forgiveness. I am sorry, but I cannot stay here with you. I came here uninvited, and so I shall depart again despite your invitation. No one can tie the wind to a pillar. Besides, I owe it to Gio that I was able to dance here. How could I do anything to hurt her?”

When Kiyomori heard this, he ordered his concubine Gio to leave his house at once so that Hotoke would no longer have to take her feelings into consideration. Then he went back again to trying to convince Hotoke to stay with him.


インバラツァーレ imbarazzare! 仏は恥じらう。「祇王様のおかげで御殿にあがれた。どうして祇王様を押しのけてここに残ることができましょう。きょうは家へ帰らせて下さい。」仏が頼んでも、清盛は聞く耳を持たず。仏が気後れするからと、祇王を家に帰した。


Gio was certainly mature enough to understand that an influential man like Kiyomori would abandon her sooner or later. He had no reason to keep his old concubine if a new, younger woman pleased him more. But she hadn’t suspected how suddenly the day of her departure would come. One hour before, she had still been Kiyomori’s beloved, and there was not a single black cloud on the horizon to suggest the coming storm. Now she was having to leave behind, at once, not only her lover, but also the familiar rooms of this house, the private stage, the beautiful silk garments, faithful servants, dear writing utensils and tea sets, the pink blossoms in the peaceful garden and all her accustomed habits.


今すぐ出て行けと、清盛、祇王を追い出す。もとより思ひまうけたる道なれども、さすがに昨日今日とは思いよらず、苦しげに アッファンナートaffannato、悲しげに ピアンジェンドpiangendo 祇王は去る。


Gio’s family no longer received any support from Kiyomori. They found a modest house at the edge of town whose floors did not remain dry during a rainstorm. Her mother, who was able to judge the value of art only by the fame and riches it brought, suffered an emotional collapse and took out her frustration on Gio: “What use is your dancing? You’re almost twenty years old, an old woman!” Her mother complained and wept until her mouth was twisted. The younger sister, Gi-nyo, no longer set foot outside the house. She feared the scorn of the colleagues who once had envied her. Only Gio preserved a tiny flame in her heart, just big enough to go out on the street again and dance for the passers-by. She danced for workmen, peddlers, geishas, dogs, samurais, mailmen and other pedestrians who happened to be walking past. Most of them stopped before her, forgetting their duties and work. Gio did not resist when she was overcome with sorrow in the middle of her dance. Instead she let everything that could possibly be felt flow into her limbs, dancing with them. Her head emptied, her breast felt ever lighter, a terrifying strength rose up out of the ground and shot through her body to the tips of her hair. The audience was shaken, and a beggar even threw her the last coin he possessed.


4. Illness


This frugal life soon found its own rhythm, and Gio gradually recovered from the injury she had suffered at Kiyomori’s hands. Happily, the word “happy” was still unknown in the Middle Ages. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the consistently cheerful disposition she had already acquired and would have gone on searching for happiness.

One day a messenger arrived from Nishihachijo. Kiyomori had sent him to Gio because Hotoke was suffering from a grave, mysterious illness. Hotoke refused to touch her chopsticks, lying all night with her eyes wide open like an owl, and her mouth had dried out since she no longer spoke. She liked best to sit alone in a dark corner of the house, staring at the sharp edge of the sword.

Kiyomori tried to cheer Hotoke up, he had concerts and plays performed on the house stage, but her condition did not improve. Kiyomori thought that Gio should dance before Hotoke, because if there was an artist who could give her back her life force, it was Gio. Filled with enthusiasm for his own idea, he was incapable of imagining how Gio would respond to his suggestion.

When Gio learned from the messenger what Kiyomori wanted her to do, bitter tears flowed from her eyes. She sent the messenger back without an answer and locked herself in an invisible cocoon in which she could weep undisturbed.


清盛と暮らす仏、トリステ triste、さびしそうに、メストmesto, メランコリカメンテmelancolicamente, どうしてこんなに寂しいのか分からない、寵愛されているのに。


それを聞いて、祇王、悲しむピアジェンドpiagendo、  悲しむ ピアジェンテpiagente、  悲しむ ピアジェーヴォレpiagevole、涙流すばかりで、返事を渡さず、使いを清盛の元へ返す。


Gio’s mother and sister heard about Kiyomori’s unkind request and wept as well. But her mother’s tears had already dried when she said to Gio: “You have turned down Kiyomori’s request without an excuse, which I can certainly understand. But surely he will punish you. I assume we will be banished from Kyoto. You and your sister are still young, you’ll have no difficulty starting a new life elsewhere. But my hair is already white. I wouldn’t survive being forced to leave Kyoto and spend the rest of my life in an uncivilized province. I’d rather die here and now in the capital.”

母親は悲しそうに エレジアコelegiaco, こんなことを言う。「清盛様の命令をはねつければ、殺されないまでも、都を追放されるでしょう。悲しいね、ドロローソdoloroso、お前たちはまだ若いけれど、わたしは知らない土地に行って、岩と樹木の間で死ぬのはいやだ。田舎 No! ルスティカーノ rusticano!京都、京都、京都で死にたい。」悲しげに、ドロローサメンテdolorosamente! そう言うのだった。


For her mother’s sake, Gio now set out for Nishihachijo to dance for Hotoke’s recovery. Gio thought that Kiyomori’s ignorance with regard to her feelings was a matter of indifference to her, he meant less to her than some miserable crow on the roof. When she was led into the house by a servant and shown a seat beside the stage, she suddenly felt ill. Something was wrong. A few teardrop pearls fell from her eyes, and soon after she was able to put into words what had so pierced her heart. The room, which she knew very well, seemed unfamiliar to her because she had been given a low seat where she had never before sat. This was where the lower class sat.

She secretly wiped her tears with her sleeve and stepped onto the stage disguised as a man, a sword in her heart. Without stopping to think, she began to sing a song and at the same time to dance. Hotoke was carefully placed upon her seat by the servants without raising her eyes even once. When she understood the words of the song, she gave a start and looked at Gio. “One day realization comes to everyone. For some it takes longer, for an obstacle lies before them. The tragedy of the present in which each person preserves his own loneliness. It is merely displaced time that appears to separate us.”



御殿へ行ってみると、舞台は一段ひくいところに作られていた。祇王は涙を流して歌う。声を震わして、トレマンド・ラ・ボーチェ tremando la voce!

「仏も昔はただの男」、ラクリマンドlacrimando, ラクリモーソlacrimoso, 「我らもついには仏なり」、ラメンタービレlamentabile,、ラメンタビルメンテlamentabilmente、「いずれも、ぶっしょう具せる身を」、ラメンタンドlamentando、ラメンタートlamentato、「へだつるのみこそかなしけれ」。ラメントーソlamentoso!


5. The Farewell


On this day Gio understood that even she could not be free of jealousy, longing and the desire for revenge. On her twenty-first birthday, Gio had her luxuriant, shiny hair shaved off, and she moved into an abandoned hut deep in the mountains where no mailman delivered letters and no traveling salesmen brought medicine. Her sister and mother followed her.

 この世は仮の宿りなり。はぢてもはぢで#も何ならず。ただ長き世の闇こそ心憂けれ。暗く悲しい アンゴッシェーヴォレ angoscevole 、闇 亡霊の影、オンブラ ombra!


The three women no longer missed city life. They forgot Kiyomori, and along with him all the faces of all the people who were dependent on his power. Foxes and badgers were the only faithful friends to pay regular visits to the women’s hut. Generous Nature gave them fruit, roots, berries and beans without discussing “interest rates” or “credit.” The fresh spring water quenched their thirst, and only their love of dance remained unquenched since they had no other audience than the easily satisfied squirrels.

Fickle winter did not stay for long. It powdered the forests white but removed this makeup the moment the first green shoots appeared. Impulsive spring dyed the landscape in bright colors and then withdrew to the rear of the stage without comment when the blue summer sky showed up with its white, threatening monster clouds. A sudden shower washed away the rest of their painful memories, and the heat that then followed healed all their wounds from which thick scabs soon fell. These were the leaves with which prettily clothed, vain autumn admitted its impermanence.

6. The Decision

It was an ordinary autumn evening. Gio, her sister and mother sat by the faint light of a candle, listening to the wind outside gossip with the bamboo leaves. The flame trembled violently as a draft slipped in through the straw wall. The women’s shadows on the wall swayed, dissolved and once more showed the shadows of four women. Gio heard a voice from outside. Gi-nyo asked their mother if she’d heard something. Then all three of them clearly heard a voice, and they huddled together, feeling suddenly afraid. It wasn’t the wind, nor even an animal; it was clearly the voice of a young woman. It could only be the spirit of a woman who had died, for no one could have found this pathless way to their hut at night.



The women began to pray to fend off the evil spirit, but the voice from outside became ever more distinct. Suddenly Gio stood up and opened the door. In the faint light of the candle, a female form became visible. Gio recognized the figure and cried “Hotoke, it’s you!”


竹のあみ戸をあけたれば、魔縁にては なかりけり。仏御前ぞ いできたる。


Hotoke came inside, her head covered, her body smelled of sandalwood. She sat down beside the women, smoothed her torn dress to hide her legs with their bloody scratches beneath it and began to speak: “I don’t wish to burden you with the whole story of my suffering, but let me speak of a sentence I found written on one of our paper walls: Autumn comes for everyone. Gio, you wrote that. I immediately understood what was meant, but I wasn’t yet prepared to leave Kiyomori. The nights grew ever longer, and the sunrise no longer brought me pleasure, since the day did not belong to me. Even dancing seemed to me like a punishment. Kiyomori’s presence oppressed me more and more. When by chance I heard that the three of you were living in a hut in the mountains, I felt the urge to join you. I was even convinced that I was one of you. Kiyomori would not permit me to visit you, and so I cut off my connection to him – cut it off with scissors, as you see.”

Hotoke took off her shawl. The head of the seventeen-year-old woman was shaved bare.

From that day on, the four women lived together in their hut whose scent was determined by incense and the blossoms of the season. According to an old temple chronicle, the four women were buried in a single grave.




 四人の女たちはそれぞれの生をまっとうし、往生した年にはかなり開きがあったものの、一箇所に埋葬されたようで、後白河法皇の長講堂の過去帳にも「妓王 妓女 仏 刀自 等が尊霊」と書かれている。フィーネ。

English translation by Susan Bernofsky




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Celan reads Japanese:


Events 2014   in us

April 15th


April 16th


(Paul Lovens can not come)

April 19th


April 21th










Yoko Tawada’s Portrait of a Tongue
An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright



Yoko Tawada wins Yomiuri-Literary-Prize 2013…



THE NEW YORKER / October 19, 2012

“Yoko Tawada’s Magnificent Strangeness”




1.March Symposium “Writing and Reading in a Globalized World” Florida State University, USA

2.March Symposium “Catastrophe and Catharsis” Interdisciplinary Perspective. University of Cincinnati, USA

4.March – 6.March Readings at University of Wisconsin, USA


The Future of Futurity: Alexander Kluge and Yoko Tawada (The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory Volume 86, Issue 3, 2011) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00168890.2011.585082


Chinese:  http://global.yup.cn/culture/1724.jhtml


The Worlds 2012 literature conference in Norwich, UK: Tuesday  19th June, 2-3.30pm, UEA Drama Studio, Free Afternoon Reading: Language & Experiment A  free afternoon reading on the theme of Language and Experiment. Featuring Joe Dunthorne (UK), Alvin Pang (Singapore), Manon Uphoff (Netherlands), Yoko Tawada (Japan) and Valerie Henitiuk from the British Centre for Literary Translation as host.

Editor David Karashima and writer Yoko Tawada discuss a new anthology of stories responding to the



Yoko Tawada wins Noma-Literary-Prize: http://junbungaku.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/tawada-yoko-wins-noma-literary-prize/

October 20 – 23, 2011

Women in German Conference, Guest Speaker

Yarrow Golf and Conference Center, Augusta, Michigan


Coordinator:  Helga Thorson (helgathorson@uvic.ca)

October 23 – 25, 2011

Michigan State University, Campus Visit

Coordinator:  Liz Mittman (mittman@msu.edu)

October 25 – 28, 2011

University of Notre Dame, Campus Visit

Provost’s Distinguished Women’s Lecturer Series

Coordinator:  Denise Della Rossa (dellarossa.1@nd.edu)

October 28 – November 2, 2011

University of Victoria, Campus Visit

Distinguished Women Scholars Lecture Series

Coordinator:  Helga Thorson (helgathorson@uvic.ca)

April 2011



Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960, educated at Waseda University and has lived in Germany since 1982, where she received her Ph.D. in German literature. She received the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for The Bridegroom Was a Dog. She writes in both German and Japanese, and in 1996, she won the Adalbert-von-Chamisso Prize, a German award recognizing foreign writers for their contributions to German culture. She also received the Goethe-Medal, an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany. E-Mail-Address: tawadaoo@yahoo.co.jp


March 28. Washington University, St.Louis


March 29. University of Minnesota

March 31. Penn State University, State College

April 5. Brown University, Providence

Available in English

1. The Bridegroom Was a Dog: novels. published by Kodansha International, in New York 1998

2. Where Europe Begins. New Directions, New York 2002

3. Facing the Bridge: novels. New Directions, New York. 2007  http://www.ndpublishing.com/books/tawadafacingthebridge.html

4. The Naked Eye. New Directions, New York 2009  http://www.brooklynrail.org/2009/04/books/the-new-global-novel-of-disorientation

The Naked Eye. New Directions, New York 2009

“Tawada’s slender accounts of alienation achieve a remarkable potency.”—Michael Porter, The New York Times

A precocious Vietnamese high school student — known as the pupil with “the iron blouse”—in Ho Chi Minh City is invited to an International Youth Conference in East Berlin. But, in East Berlin, as she is preparing to present her paper in Russian on “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism,” she is abruptly kidnapped and taken to a small town in West Germany. After a strange spell of domestic-sexual boredom with her lover-abductor—and though “the Berlin Wall was said to be more difficult to break through than the Great Wall of China” — she escapes on a train to Moscow . . . but mistakenly arrives in Paris. Alone, broke, and in a completely foreign land, Anh (her false name) loses herself in the films of Catherine Deneuve as her real adventures begin. (…) Dreamy, meditative, and filled with the gritty everyday perils of a person living somewhere without papers (at one point Anh is subjected to some vampire-like skin experiments), The Naked Eye is a novel that is as surprising as it is delightful—each of the thirteen chapters titled after and framed by one of Deneuve’s films. “As far as I was concerned,” the narrator says while watching Deneuve on the screen, “the only woman in the world was you, and so I did not exist.” By the time 1989 comes along and the Iron Curtain falls, story and viewer have morphed into the dislocating beauty of both dancer and dance.


Writer-in-Residence in USA

1. Villa Aurora, Pacific Palisades Oct.-Nov 1996

2. M.I.T. Boston Feb.-May 1999

3. University of Kentucky April 2004

4. Deutsches Haus of New York University Nov.-Dec. 2004

5. Washington University in St.Louis March-April 2008

6. Stanford University Feb.2009

7. Cornell University April 2009