National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Gazing in wonder at the many faces of the moon

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Why do the sun and the moon see so little of each other?

Their quarrel, explains the eighth-century chronicle “Nihon Shoki,” was one between siblings. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was born of their father’s left eye; Tsukiyomi, the moon god, of his right eye. The birth of Ukemochi, the food goddess, is not recorded, but the sun goddess one day sent the moon god to visit her. Ukemochi, overjoyed, promptly vomited forth a banquet — fish, game, rice; delectable, and yet the manner of its delivery revolted Tsukiyomi, who cried, “How filthy, how vile! That you should offer up the things you vomit from your mouth to me!” He drew his sword and slew the goddess. Amaterasu was appalled: “You are an evil god. I may not look upon you.” And so it is to this day: The sun shines by day, the moon by night.

Of the two, Amaterasu seems the more fortunate. She reigns supreme over the Shinto religion as its most august deity, and over Japan as the supposed ancestress of its imperial line. Tsukiyomi vanished. He played his role, did his part, was given no other, and was forgotten — the end.

Not quite. Priests minister to the sun, poets to the moon. The sun is majesty, the moon beauty. Desanctified it may be — but how the Japanese love the moon!

It goes very far back. “One is always moved by the full moon,” sighs the hero of the 11th-century “Tale of Genji” — “but somehow the moon this evening takes me to other worlds.” The poet-monk Saigyo (1118-90) sang, “Not a soul ever visits my hut/ except for the friendly light of the moon.”

The monk Kenko (1284-1350) reflected much on the moon in the “Tsurezuregusa” (“Grasses of Idleness”). Once, “at the invitation of a certain gentleman, I spent the night wandering with him viewing the moon” — a lost pastime!

“Are we to look at the moon,” he asked, “only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain … is even more deeply moving.” “The autumn moon,” he asserted, “is incomparably beautiful. Any man who supposes the moon is always the same, regardless of the season … must be exceedingly insensitive.”

Matsuo Basho, the haiku poet (1644-94), was always traveling — seeking on his journeys what Saigyo sought on his: “sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon.”

A generation before Basho’s birth, sometime around 1600, a Dutch spectacle-maker invented — quite by accident, apparently — a device that came to be known as a telescope. Its first application was military. Galileo (1564-1642), visionary that he was, used his to explore the heavens. His “pure ecstasy” as he gazed upon the moon was very different from Basho’s.

“Let me speak first,” he wrote in “The Starry Messenger” (1610), “of the surface of the moon which is turned toward us.” Describing certain spots that “have never been observed by any one before me,” he concluded “that the surface of the moon is not perfectly smooth, free from inequalities and exactly spherical, as a large school of philosophers considers with regard to the moon and the other heavenly bodies, but that, on the contrary, it is full of inequalities, uneven, full of hollows and protuberances, just like the surface of the Earth itself.”

That’s not poetry — but the future, as we now know, belonged to science. There were telescopes in Japan during Basho’s lifetime — some 150 of them by the 1670s, courtesy of Dutch traders. Imagine Galileo saying to Basho, “Come, my friend, let me show you the real moon!” What would Basho have replied? There’s no knowing. We know that no Japanese of the time is on record as having followed Galileo’s example. Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93), in “The Life of an Amorous Man” (1682), put a telescope into the hands of a 9-year-old boy — who used it to spy on a maid in the bath.

Galileo spied on the heavens — God’s heavens — drawing on his head the reactionary fury of the Catholic Church. It crushed Galileo but not science. Science begins with the asking of questions. Questions flooded the restless Western mind. What is motion? What is light? How long would a cannonball fired from the moon take to land on Earth? The Japanese mind was less troubled. Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966) addressed that point in “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959): “The Japanese are not given to verbosity; they are not argumentative, they shun intellectual abstractions.”

Maybe that’s why they love the moon: “The moonlight singularly attracts the Japanese imagination. … The Japanese are lovers of softness, gentleness, semi-darkness, subtle suggestiveness.” Under moonlight, “a certain mystic obscurantism pervades, and this seems to appeal to the Japanese generally.”

The Japanese generally didn’t, in other words, ask “What is light?” — as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Robert Hooke (1635-1703) did a generation after Galileo’s death. What is light? Particles, said Newton; waves, said Hooke — little dreaming that 20th-century physics would show them both right.

What — again we wonder — would Basho have thought reading Newton’s letter to the British Royal Society detailing his experiments that passed light rays through a prism? “Comparing the length of (the resulting) colored spectrum with its breadth, I found it about five times greater.” Measurements, calculations, further experiments followed, until “the true cause of the length of that image was detected to be no other, than that light consists of rays differently refrangible.”

“Come, my friend,” Basho might have said — “let me show you real light! No? Very well, I leave you to your prisms.” “No oil to read by … I am off to bed/ but ah! … my moonlit pillow.”

This concludes a two-part series on haiku, frogs, flowers and the moon. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”