The Twelve Songs of the Teodori were composed by Oyasama between the first and eighth lunar months of 1867, which would correspond to between February and September 1867 according to the Gregorian calendar.1 It comprises a large portion of the liturgy Mikagura-uta, the Songs for the Tenrikyo Service or Tsutome.
Motivations and approaches in writing my commentary
I have wanted to do an English commentary on the Twelve Songs for a long time because I have always found the official English translation of the Mikagura-uta to be wanting.
Further, it might be worthy to point out there is only one official translation of a commentary on the Mikagura-uta, and it was first published in 1962. A revised translation was published in 1978 yet the original itself was revised in 1980. When comparing the Japanese edition one normally can purchase in Tenri with the translation, one will notice there are missing citations and entire sections untranslated. Quotes from the Ofudesaki and The Doctrine of Tenrikyo are outdated translations as well. Rev. Takanori Nagao’s lecture on the Mikagura-uta to Women’s Association leaders was published in the English Michi no dai in recent years but it is not easily available for purchase.
This present work (simply titled “Twelve Songs Commentary”) will strive to achieve bridging the gap in the lack of English commentaries. Instead of selecting one particular commentary to translate, I chose to write an English one completely from scratch while referring to the several Japanese commentaries that are readily available.
Further, in this work I seek to pick up on several subtleties that any straight-ahead translation of the Twelve Songs would fail to convey. I feel there are certain ambiguities in interpreting the original text that need to be pointed out, otherwise, a great disservice is being made to followers who are unable to read the Japanese language.
I readily admit that I did not grow up knowing the Twelve Songs or currently know the English translation by heart. It was not after until I finished college that I finally learned the Twelve Songs during Shuyoka between November 1998 and January 1999. I consider this to be an advantage as I have no attachments to the current English translation and will be able to give a fresh perspective to certain verses that cannot be conveyed through a straight-ahead translation.
My main objective is to explain the Twelve Songs from a Japanese readers’ perspective as best as I can in English. I also have no qualms of diverging from the established conventional interpretation and current official translation. My objective is to be truthful to the ambiguities of the original text. I will do my best to bring attention any notable unconventional interpretations I came up on my own or from my readings.
The main thrust of my commentary is to explain the text of the Twelve Songs. Although I will make comments here and there on the dance motions, I will refrain from describing the dance in detail.2
I must admit I greatly changed my approach during the writing of this commentary. For Songs One to Four, I tried to be comprehensive as possible, reading each commentary carefully and translating entire portions I felt that were most representative or happened to be novel enough to be worth mentioning. I also made much use of paraphrasing various Ofudesaki verses since it shares much of the terminology found in the Twelve Songs.
However, in August 2014 (about the time I was about to begin writing Song Five), my physical stamina deteriorated to the point my initial approach became unsustainable. I no longer had the physical stamina and mental focus needed to read each commentary in depth. Instead of pouring carefully through each commentary, my approach changed to write the main gist of each verse and referring to various commentaries only when I felt I needed more insight. The difference between the two approaches is noticeable and admittedly jarring and I deeply apologize for it. I only hope the change in approach makes the reading after Song Four a bit easier on the reader.3
One admittedly unconventional step I chose to take was to eschew using “God” and “God the Parent” and use the Japanese terms “Kami” and “Oyagami” instead. Part of the reason is because I don’t think these terms are useful when translated; there is too much “supernatural” baggage attached to these words when what we want is merely “superhuman.” I personally do not feel there is anything that surpasses the forces of nature and the Cosmos.
In this work I have adopted the rather unconventional gloss “Cosmic Space-Time” as a translation for “Tsukihi.” I feel Tsukihi does not merely mean “Moon-Sun” (signifying “Space”) but also “Months-Days” (signifying “Time”). I will also refer to the divine providence and divine intention as “Cosmic Providence/Protection” and “Cosmic Intention.”
I have decided to concentrate on a commentary on the Twelve Songs only and not the other sections of the Tenrikyo Service. My motivation for doing so is difficult to put into words. One reason is I feel that I am not qualified to write at length on the Songs of the Kagura since I have not really seen it performed in full at the Jiba by the ten dancers. I also lack sufficient understanding of the Yorozuyo, especially as studied in depth by Rev. Colin Saito of Honolulu Church.
Characteristics of the Twelve Songs and the Japanese language
Lastly, there are a few aspects of the style of the Twelve Songs and the Japanese language itself that bear mentioning that make interpretation a tricky matter.
First of all, the Twelve Songs are all in a “counting song” format. With a few notable exceptions, the basic form of each Song begins with “Hitotsu” (one) and ends with Tōdo (Ten, finally). Each number is followed by a phrase beginning with the same syllable as the beginning number.
The Twelve Songs also make use of metaphors and being poetic in nature, its verses are evocative at times. In terms of understanding these metaphors correctly, one commentator writes that:
“We must, however, be very careful about how we interpret metaphors. Metaphors point at ‘something’ but they are not the thing itself. Picture a mother trying to show her baby how bright the moon is by pointing her finger at the moon. The baby will merely fix its gaze on the finger pointing at the moon, but the moon is not at the tip of the finger. Since the moon is hundreds of thousands of kilometers in the distance, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.
“Some people reading the Mikagura-uta interpret Oyasama’s metaphors, such as ‘fields’ and ‘fertilizer’ only in their literal sense without perceiving what they are actually pointing at. These people are no different from the infant gazing at the finger instead of the moon. There is nothing between the finger and the moon, yet it is possible to get from the finger to the moon. With spiritual growth, we come to see the fa-reaching, profound truths that the Mikagura-uta is pointing at.”4
Further, the grammatical style of Japanese sentences often eschew the subject of the sentence, which is sometimes referred as “zero subject.” There are places in the Twelve Songs where there is a dialogue going on between Kami and human beings. (Notable examples include Songs Three and Seven.) In the rare case the pronoun “washi” (I) is used (Song Three’s verse 8, Song Four’s verse 9, Song Seven’s verse 5 and 9, and Song Eleven’s verse 5), it is thought by one commentator as Oyasama expressing a statement from a follower’s standpoint and allows us to melt into Oyagami’s intention.5
In cases where the subjects are merely implied in the context of the sentence, I will put the implied subject in brackets. An example is “arigatai” (Song Four, verse 10) which can be translated as “[I] am thankful” or “[We] are thankful.”
There are rare cases when the subject cannot be determined by the context of the sentence and is ambiguous. A good example is Song Seven, verse 2.
Homonyms and pivot words
It may be noted that the Twelve Songs, like the Ofudesaki, was largely written in kana and that its intended meaning of certain words can be ambiguous as the Japanese language contains many homonyms. These ambiguities cannot easily rendered in English and will be noted. Notable examples include Song One, verse 3 and Song Nine, verse 1. In these cases, it may be argued there is also the poetic use of “pivot words” in the Twelve Songs as well. A pivot word is a poetic use of a word that can hold multiple meanings at the same time.
Indeterminate plurality of nouns
It also should be noted that the plurality of Japanese nouns are often indeterminate, it is ambiguous in some cases to determine any set of particular nouns are singular or plural in a way that is obvious in the English language (i.e., addition of a “s” after a noun). An example is “muhon no ne” and “yamai no ne.” Although the official translation has these as the “root of rebellion” and “root of illness,” a case can be made that these nouns are plurality. (I.e., “roots of rebellion” and “roots of illness”).
*Note: This post has been revised since its original publication. Most recently revised on August 22, 2015.