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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Math In Japanese Poetry

I like Prime numbers.

A prime number is a natural number that is greater than one (1) that has no positive dividers other than itself or the number 1.

For example... the number 47. Those of you who know me realize that whenever I write a fictional story or comic book, I toss in the number 47 somewhere.

There are two reasons for it. One... when I played soccer, there where ever only two numbers I ever had. The number 7 on my jersey for 11 years, and the number 4 for one. That is a fact.

The other reason is that Matthew Hall, a way back when we were neighbors in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan loaned me some Arthur C. Clarke science-fiction novels: Rendezvous With Rama, Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed.

Clarke is perhaps best known for his 2001: A Space Odyssey short story that eventually morphed into 2010, 2061 and 3001 - all excellent novels. All you need to know is that the usual solar system throughout the galaxies have binary star systems - two suns. This is supposed to be a fact. Now... along with our sun, Sol, we also have gas giants (brown dwarf stars) that lack the fuel to ignite, namely Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. 'nuff said.

But... in these books that Matthew lent me, the discussion of Prime Numbers is very important. For some reason this resonated with me from then on. In my writing.

I know... Matthew has no idea that it was he who first led me astray in adding a prime number into my stories... into every single short story I ever wrote (not the blogs!) - and that was some 147 of them. Give or take.

Heck... I once tried to write a story for my friend Rob without adding the number 47... and it felt wrong... so I decided to count every 47th word in the story (the story even ended on a 47th word! completely by chance - or was it?!) and what I came up with was a secret message that made complete sense to me, but perhaps not so much to anyone else... really... why would you count words in a story? Why the hell did I?

Symmetry, perhaps. Symmetry in my own warped mind. Heck... I watch TV shows all the time and the number 47 pops up. Just last week when the boss took myself and others out to lunch, I laughed as the coat check number I was given was 47. Really. I made a big deal of it with them, but they all thought I was crazy. Crazy like a fox!

So... aside from that Japanese relationship of a book lent to me in Japan by a fellow AET (assistant English teacher) on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme... and how it influenced my writing style... of what possible reason would I even mention it now?

How about Japan's use of the Prime Number? How about in its poetry? How about in Haiku?

Think about it... A series of Prime Numbers begins with: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97...

What's this got to do with Haiku?

Well... a Japanese Haiku poem contains three lines (3).

A Haiku's three lines consist of a line made up of 5 syllables, then 7 syllables and lastly 5 syllables.  

Three, five, seven... all Prime Numbers.

Want more? Add up the number of syllables: 5+7+5 = 17. Another Prime Number.

Tanka poems are 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables... add them up... 31. Another Prime Number.

Katuata poems are 5, 7, 7 syllables... add them up... 19. Another Prime Number.

Want a scary Prime Number Haiku?

Five in the first line
Seven in the second line
Five in the last line

So is there a link between Haiku and Prime Numbers that the Japanese found appealing, or is it another coincidence? 

Of course, a real Japanese Haiku should contain a 'season' word, like snow, or summer or rebirth (spring) and there should be an element of emotion (surprise, elation, realization). Although the Senryu form of Haiku does away with the whole 'season' thing and focuses more on human nature and emotions rather than the natural world.

Just like music, poetry is based on mathematics...which is strange since I can play all brass, woodwinds and keyboards and can write poetry, but failed Grade 9 math twice, Grade 10, 11 and 12 math once each. That's five failures in math for me. Five is a Prime Number.

So... should you listen to a guy that failed math five times in high school (but actually passed a math class in university) or should you listen to the guy that showed you how Prime Numbers seem to be a part of the nature of Japanese poetry?

By the way... in a Japanese Haiku, the syllable is actually known as onji, a 'sound symbol', but each syllable is actually called an 'on'.

The 5 and 7 numbers are thought to be a part of Taoism... Taoist numerology... which is also seen in Japan's 7-5-3 (Shichi-Go-San) Children's Festival and the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan.

There were also originally (Originally? What does that mean?) five main Japanese festivals back in the old days:
  1. First month, first day = Kochōhai (小朝拝), New Year Celebration, together with the seventh day after the New Year known as Jinjitsu (人日) or Nanakusa no sekku 七草の節句 (feast of seven herbs);
  2. Third month, third day = Kyokusui no en (曲水の宴), Drinking Around a Rolling Stream;
  3. Fifth month, fifth day = Tango no sekku (端午の節句) or Boys’ Festival;
  4. Seventh month, seventh day = Kikkouden (乞功奠) or Tanabata (七夕) Festival;
  5. Ninth month, ninth day = Chōyō no en (重陽の宴) or Feast of Chrysanthemums.
After Japan changed its lunisolar calendar system to adopt the solar calendar back in 1873, some of these festival dates were altered... but those dates above were the original ones. You can read about the lunisolar calendar HERE.

All Prime Numbers (except for the first, but it is part of that whole divisible by itself and the number 1 thing).

So... was ancient Japan stuck on Prime Numbers?

Andrew Joseph

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