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Polyglot poem festival

The Utamasturi is going international — what’s next?

By Bill Roberts

Traditional tanka poems chanted in Esperanto, Arabic, and Hebrew – what’s happening to Oomoto’s poem festival? The ancient poem festival (Utamatsuri in Japanese) is increasingly becoming multilingual and international.

In August 2007, Oomoto performed an entire Utamatsuri in Esperanto for the first time. At an Utamatsuri in April 2008, Oomoto included poems written by four Middle Eastern diplomats in their native languages, also a first.

Each time the results were well received – by the dozens of visiting Esperantists who listened enthusiastically at the 2007 festival and by the diplomats who praised the chanters’ pronunciation of their poems at the 2008 festival.

This internationalization of the Utamatsuri merges Oomoto’s commitment to Japanese arts with Bankyo Dokon, a doctrine spelled out by Co-founder Onisaburo Deguchi. Bankyo Dokon translates loosely as “all religions spring from the same root.” Oomoto believes that God has been revealed to many people in many cultures throughout history in ways appropriate to each time and place; thus, religions should have no conflict with each other and should work together to create God’s kingdom on earth.

Bankyo Dokon has guided Oomoto into interfaith activity for nearly 100 years, and has been a motivating factor in various art efforts, notably the traveling exhibit of art works of Onisaburo and previous Spiritual Leaders held at several sites in Europe and North America over three years in the 1970s. The exhibit often led to joint services with other religions, and some of those inter-religious relations continue to this day.

The Utamatsuri is one of Oomoto’s most colorful pageants. The ancient Japanese gathered to chant poems at a shrine, beside a river or on a mountain top. The practice died out about 900 years ago to be revived by Oomoto at Onisaburo’s instigation in 1935.

The poetic form for the festival is the 5-line, 31-syllable tanka (5-7-5-7-7), Japan’s oldest poetic form. Onisaburo wrote thousands of them in his lifetime. Many current Oomoto followers write tanka for a monthly poetry journal. The poems are often prayers of gratitude and hope.

In recent decades, Oomoto has usually held two Utamatsuri each year. Oomoto followers submit hundreds of poems for these occasions; between 40 and 50 are chanted by a choir accompanied by two ancient instruments, the two-string yakumogoto and the bow drum.

The recent international Utamatsuri had their challenges; first the story of the 2007 Esperanto Uta Fest, and then the 2008 event with the Middle Eastern flavor.

Global contributions

Following the International Esperanto Congress held in Yokohama in August 2007, Oomoto hosted 74 Esperantists from around the world at its spiritual headquarters in Ayabe. Esperanto is a culturally neutral language invented by Dr. L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), a Polish Jew and ophthalmologist.

When Onisaburo first heard about Esperanto, he declared it to be the language of heaven. Oomoto adopted Esperanto as its universal language in 1923. The intent is not to replace native tongues, but to have a universal language to use throughout the world. Many Oomoto followers study Esperanto and Oomoto promotes it through conferences, publications, and workshops. A portion of this web site is in Esperanto.

While the visiting Esperantists were in Ayabe, Oomoto performed an Utamatsuri – 46 poems, including one by the Spiritual Leader, in Esperanto. There was one exception – the opening poem, an ancient prayer believed to be the first Japanese poem, which is always chanted in Japanese. Poems were chosen from 451 contributed by Esperantists in 13 countries, including Oomoto followers in Japan. The project took a year from the initial request for the poems to the performance on August 14, 2007, on the Noh stage in the main shrine in Ayabe.

The Oomoto chanters were joined by a young Brazilian woman who spent several months at Oomoto teaching Esperanto and studying tea ceremony. Ildete Barbosa de Aquino helped edit the poems for publication, and taught them to the chanters.

Kyotaro Deguchi, a grandson of Onisaburo, was the chief priest for the event. A lifelong student of Esperanto and a tireless promoter of the language, Kyotaro wrote, “My Travels in Esperanto Land,” a book about staying with Esperanto hosts during his travels in Europe and North America as a young man.

Poems and hugs

Poems by four Middle Eastern diplomats were included in the Utamatsuri held at the shrine in Oomoto’s new Tokyo headquarters building on April 17, 2008. The Utamatsuri was the second event in the shrine, held a few days after the first monthly service there.

Members of the Oomoto International Department, who have spent several years cultivating relations with various Middle Eastern embassies in Tokyo, were able to convince four top diplomats to write a tanka in their native languages and to attend the event to hear the poems chanted. The diplomat-poets were: Egyptian Ambassador Walid Abdelnasser; Jordanian Ambassador Samir Nouri; Palestinian Chief of Mission Waleed Siam; and Israeli Ambassador Nissim Ben Shitrit. Ambassador Ben Shitrit could not attend the event and was represented by his deputy, Chaim Choshen.

Why the Middle East? It is highly important to Oomoto. Onisaburo wrote a two-book volume in “Reikai Monogatari” (“Stories from the Spiritual World”) to explain how Jerusalem fits into God’s plan to reconstruct the world. Onisaburo had hoped to perform the Noh drama “Seiobo” (“Queen Mother of the West”), in Jerusalem, but never got the chance.

In recent years, Oomoto has invited many Middle Eastern religious leaders, academics, and diplomats to speak at its events. The four diplomats participating in the Utamatsuri came from the three biblical religions. The Egyptian and Palestinian are Muslim; the Israeli is Jewish; and the Jordanian is Christian.

Poems for the Tokyo Utamatsuri were written as prayers for peace. Fine-tuning the diplomats’ raw creative efforts into tanka form required visits to their offices, follow-up phone calls, and many emails. I was involved in these efforts because I had studied Hebrew and Arabic years ago.

Once the poems were ready, the chanters had to learn the words, and this was no easy task because Hebrew and Arabic sound nothing like Japanese. Each poet was asked to recite his poem into a recorder, giving the chanters something to work with.

The final challenge was getting the poems written on poem cards (shikishi), which are placed on the altar. This required a last minute visit to each embassy to have a native speaker write the poem. The Jordanian and Egyptian ambassadors did the writing themselves; in the two other cases, a staff member filled in.

A few hundred Oomoto followers, joined by 100 Japanese religious representatives, attended the event. The Middle Eastern poems – chanted at the end—were well received. Here’s the gist of each poem in English.

Israeli poem: “Tomorrow peace will come, they say. But nobody is willing to pay the price. This is what we must teach ourselves.”

Palestinian poem: “Let us settle our nation with help from all who want peace. This is our desire. Please join hands with us to bring peace to Palestine.”

Egyptian poem: “O mankind, let's work together for Justice and Peace for mankind.”

Jordanian poem: “My brothers across the wide, wide world in the East and West. I stretch out my hand -- shake it. My heart returns love to you.”

There is an interesting story behind the Jordanian poem. Ambassador Nouri’s late father was a well-known poet in Jordan. Nouri revised a portion of one of his father’s poems to fit the tanka form.

At each Utamatsuri, the Spiritual Leader’s tanka is chanted at the end. Mme. Kurenai Deguchi’s poem was recited in Japanese, Esperanto and English. Here is the English rendering of it, for which I accept responsibility:

We transcend nation,
language and religion,
with beautiful words
and just pray for worldwide peace
at this poem festival

The only thing better than their poems was the reception the diplomats received from the audience. At the end, each was asked to say a few words. Palestinian Siam received thunderous applause when he called Israeli Chosen “my brother,” and the two received another round of applause when they embraced in a big hug before leaving the room.

It was actually their second hug of the day; out of sight of the audience, they had hugged in the tea room upon first greeting. Both hugs were initiated by Siam, but Chosen appeared to be a willing participant, not flinching or pulling back either time.

Next year in Jerusalem?

The Esperanto Uta Fest of 2007 and the Tokyo Utamatsuri of 2008 are preludes to more ambitious undertakings. Oomoto plans an Utamatsuri in Brazil in 2010, with poems to be chanted in Japanese, Esperanto and Portuguese. The sect has several hundred followers in Brazil, mostly descendants of Japanese who immigrated there decades ago. But Oomoto expects to attract a wider audience, and plans to perform the event at two venues.

A longer term goal is to conduct an Utamatsuri in Jerusalem. The Fifth Spiritual Leader expressed her feelings about this in – what else – a tanka poem, chanted at the Utamatsuri in August 2005. She wrote in Japanese; the poem was translated into Esperanto and English, and all three versions were chanted. Here was the English version, for which I take full responsibility.

My wish is to see
a poetry festival
in Esperanto
with all our fellow brothers
in sacred Jerusalem

Denied his chance to perform a Noh drama in the Holy City of three great religions, Onisaburo would no doubt approve if Oomoto were able to perform an Utamatsuri there.

At the 2007 Uta Fest, 46 poems were chanted in Esperanto.

Ildete Barbosa de Aquino of Brazil (in orange) was one of the chanters.

Kyotaro Deguchi (in all white), long-time Esperantist, served as chief priest.

The only poem chanted in Japanese was the opening prayer.

Chanters worked for months to learn the Esperanto poems.

Esperantists watch the performance.

In the Utamatsuri, chanters are accompanied by the yakumogoto (middle) and the bow drum (right).

Audience follows along with printed versions of the poems.

Ambassador Ben Shitrit of Israel.

Ambassador Nouri of Jordan writes his poem on the poem card.

Eyad M. Al-Hindi, first secretary of the Palestinian Mission, writes the chief of mission’s poem onto the poem card.

Tal Frank, chief of the ambassador's secretariat at the Israeli Embassy, writes the ambassador’s poem on the poem card.

Ambassador Abdelnasser of Egypt writes his poem on the poem card.

Waleed Siam of Palestine and Chaim Chosen of Israel hug in the tea room.

From left: Deputy Chief of Mission Chaim Choshen of Israel; Chief of Mission Walid A. Siam of Palestine; Siam's wife, Mrs. Maali Almagayda; Spiritual Leader of Oomoto, Mme. Kurenai Deguchi; Mrs. Shizuko Nouri; Ambassador Samir Nouri of Jordan; Ambassador Dr. Walid Mahmoud Abdelnasser of Egypt.

Middle Eastern poems sit on the front of the altar.

The chanters worked hard to learn one Hebrew and three Arabic poems.

The diplomats greet the audience.

The Palestinian and the Israeli hug again.

And the audience loves it.
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