English translated lyrics for Ningen Isu, Rashômon

Back in my youth, I thought that One Day I’d know enough Japanese to translate the songs of rock bands I like, and I’d become famous and loved as an Internet lyrics translator. This memory popped out of the blue, and I thought: I wonder if I could do it already? I’ve read the original for Rashômon, after all, and this isn’t Onmyô-za; how hard it could be?

Well… quite hard. :)

Ningen Isu is a hard-prog band (comparable to King Crimson in style) whose concept/theme/gimmick is literature (as the name suggests). If one happens to like all three of literature, heavy rock, and Japanese culture, they kind of hit a sweet spot; otherwise, I won’t blame you for not caring. This song is based on the eponymous Akugatawa short story, and not on Kurosawa’s eponymous film, which is based on another, non-eponymous Akutagawa short story.

I’m having difficulty with a few points, but since I already started I might as well post it. I couldn’t do English poetry if my life depended on it, so I made no effort at all for proper metrics &c.


suzaku ooji no chihei ni
shogyô-mujô no hi wa ochi
haruka ushitora no haha yo
ashita ware wa tabidachinu

All about the Suzaku Avenue¹
the sun of evanescence² is setting.
Oh distant Mother of Northeast³,
tomorrow I leave on a journey.


kono kuni wa tare mo oni no katachi
fuku kaze mo mune wo toori-nukeru
koko wa

In this country, everyone has the semblance of demons
and then
even the wind blows through our chest
—This is the


are wa toribeyama no sô
amida negai waga-mi yaku

That’s a monk from Mount Toribe
The Amida Vows would scorch me⁴


shiawase wa ubai-tsukamu mono ka
yuku kawa ni mi wo makasu koto ka
koko wa

To snatch happiness and take it by force
or else
To entrust myself to the flowing river?⁵
—This is the

通りゃんせ通りゃんせ あの世とこの世の六道の
通りゃんせ通りゃんせ 帰りは難儀な辻なれど

tooryanse tooryanse ano-yo to kono-yo no rokudô no
tooryanse tooryanse kaeri wa nangi na tsuji naredo

Tooryanse, tooryanse⁶
The Six Paths⁷ of this world and the other world
Tooryanse, tooryanse
Oh after this crossing⁸ it’s hard to go back

東の方 青竜昇りて上弦の月なる
西の方 白虎の漲(みなぎ)る血潮を飲み干さん
南の方 朱雀(しゅじゃく)の囀(さえず)り音にも聞け我を
北の方 玄武に跨(またが)り暁(あかつき)へ駆けゆく

higashi no kata: seiryû noborite jôgen no tsuki naru
nishi no kata: byakko no minagiru chishio wo nomi-hosan
minami no kata: shujaku no saezuri oto ni mo kike ware wo
kita no kata: genbu ni matagari akatsuki e kakeyuku

To the East: The Blue Dragon⁹ rises and becomes the crescent
To the West: The White Tiger gushes blood that I’ll drink dry
To the South: The Vermillion Bird’s song is what I can hear!
To the North: I ride the Black Warrior and stride for the dawn


  1. Suzaku is Zhūquè, the guardian spirit of South (see below). Suzaku Avenue was a main pathway in the Heian capital, linking the Rashômon gates of the city at the south to the Suzakumon gates of the inner palace at the north. Notice Akutagawa changed the spelling of Rashômon, 羅城門、 to 羅生門; the pronunciation is the same, but the change in characters suggest “gates of life” instead of “gates of the castle”.

  2. “Evanescence”: Shogyô-mujô, “impermanence of worldly things”. A fairly transparent Buddhist doctrine, and one of the Three Seals 三法印 sanbôin of the Dharma. Buddhism is a major motif in the short story, providing the moral ideals that the protagonist will ultimately give up.

  3. “Mother of Northeast”: This is a cool word. The Chinese have a system of mnemonics called the Twelve Branches, often referred to in English (and Japanese) by their associated “zodiac” animals. But the branches are used to organize various other sequences, such as directions on the compass; of interest here are two Branches, 丑 chǒu and 寅 yín, standing at 30° and 60° from North. The Japanese usually read the characters for the Branches with the translation of their associated animal; in this case, the Ox (ushi) and the Tiger (tora). Therefore, Northeast (the point midway between the two) is ushitora “ox-tiger”.

    And why is this written 艮 and not, say, 丑寅 or 牛虎? More correspondences: The etymology of the character is disputed, but 艮 was borrowed early to denote one of the I Ching trigrams, ☶ gèn (J. gon), which happens to stand for northeast in a Bāguà scheme.

    And who the hell is the Mother of Northeast? Well, here I’m stumped. It sounds like one of the Bāguà “family positions”, except that the Mother should be at southwest, in the opposite direction. I don’t know what the line means.

  4. Mount Toribe is the classical locus for cremations in the Capital. The Amida Buda made 48 vows, the most notoriously being to not achieve enlightenment until all beings have done so; to help them in the path, he grants the faithful an afterlife in the Western Paradise. The subject appears to be cynical about this doctrine of Grace, since, in his social position, following Amida would quickly lead him to burn in Toribeyama.

  5. The flowing river: A trope for the impermanence of things, made famous in the preface of the Hôjôki, of which the song line might be a direct quote: yuku kawa no nagare wa taezu shite, “the flowing river never ceases…”

  6. Tooryanse (something like “go on through”) is a children’s song. The verses here are pastiches. A passage from the original that resonates below is iki wa yoi yoi, kaeri wa kowai: “going is easy-peasy, returning is scary”.

  7. The Six Realms in Buddhism are a like a maze where lost beings wander.

  8. The protagonist of course stands at a metaphorical crossroads, but perhaps it should be noted that The Crossing of the Six Worlds is an actual place in Kyôto (though not at the time of the tale, I think).

  9. Blue Dragon, &c.: The Four Symbols 四象 sì xiàng (J. Four Gods 四神 shijin) of the four cardinal directions. Notice Suzaku is here referred with the alternative palatalized reading, Shujaku.

What I like in this song is how the writing and the melody both reflect the path of the protagonist, from suffering to doubt to resolve. Also, the motifs of directions and correspondences are quite apropos for both the original short story and for Heian culture in general.

Credits and thanks:

  • Bathrobe and Matt Treyvaud, for corrections.
  • This post by Javudoppel.
  • Haruo Shirane’s Classical Japanese: A Grammar.
  • The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism.
  • Wikipedias, Ningen Isu, Akutagawa Ryûnosuke.

13 thoughts on “English translated lyrics for Ningen Isu, Rashômon

  1. You should’ve started with the lyrics of AKB48’s “Heavy Rotation”. Half of it is in English anyway. Then again, it’s impossible to listen to that song for more than 10 seconds, but ignore me: I’m clearly not the target market.

    I had to Google “hard prog”. My musical preferences tend towards Mendelssohn. However, even if I’m not going to rush out to buy Ningen Isu, I really enjoyed reading about their lyrics. I’m beginning to understand why you need time to research your posts …

    PS: The websites onmarkproductions and taleofgenji are two of my favourites, too. ^^

  2. A true tour de force of Japan’s cultural roots and beyond.

    I was just wondering why you translated 漲る as ‘swell’ and 飲み干さん as ‘won’t dry’. The image that it suggest to me is one of overflowing blood that can’t be drunk dry. Grandiose and grotesque, but reminiscent of the blood-red sky of the setting sun.

  3. Rurou: Funny that you say you aren’t rushing, since “Rush” is one of the most famous progressive rock bands :) “Progressive” rock tends to construct long songs with varying rhythms and strongly conceptual overtones, while “hard” or “heavy” are adjectives describing a musical æsthetics favouring distortion, dissonance, power chords, and (often) emotionally negative lyrics. Don’t try to find much artistic value in this sort of music; it’s an acquired bad taste, like horror flicks.

    Robe: Oh I didn’t put much thought into it, really. Edict gave this:

    • chishio (n) (1) blood spilt from the body/(2) blood cirulating within the body (often as an metaphor for strong emotion or hot-bloodedness)/
    • minagiru (v5r, vi) (uk) to swell up/to rise/to be (brim) full of/to pervade/
    • nomihosu (io) (v5s,vt) to drink up/to drain (cup)/

    I went with 2) for chishio, and nomihosan = nomihosanu. Looking now, I suppose “dry” was in fact too generic for a specific image like nomi-hosu. I guess I didn’t know what to do with the image (who is drinking the tiger’s blood? why?)

  4. Nice! Weird how they use both pronunciations of 朱雀. You think they are intentionally differentiating them?

    I wonder if 飲み干さん isn’t just the bungo equivalent of Modern Japanese “飲み干そう”. ん as the negative ending doesn’t seem to fit in with the elevated style of the rest… (Also I think that 陽は落ち is just “the sun sets” with fancy kanji — fits in with the eponymous story, too.)

  5. You are SUCH a language person! Only a language person would use a ligature instead of taking the easy way out with ae (or, horror, opting for e)! :D

    Right, let me look for “Rush” on YouTube …

  6. 飲み干そう certainly fits the context better.

    Incidentally, 難儀 is often identified with Kansai dialect. I’m supposing its use here is deliberate.

    The line 吹く風も胸を通り抜ける makes me curious. I seem to have seen this kind of ‘blowing through the chest’ expression before but I’m not totally sure what it signifies. Presumably it means blow past the chest, but what are the circumstances where a wind ‘blows past the chest’?

  7. Good point about the sun setting.

    So you think ぬ→ん would be too colloquial/modern, and this is like intentional む→ん? But then I’m even more at a loss about the meaning, since the other 3 animals all are described in metaphors of energy and power (rising, chirping, galloping) and the Tiger would be in a position of weakness (bleeding, with someone about to drink his blood dry)… Wait… Is the protagonist… Charlie Sheen?? It all makes sense now.

    Rurousha: Curiously, that’s a leftover from my days as a computer person; it takes three keystrokes for me to type a ligature in my highly customized Linux keyboard, so I might as well use them :)

  8. I guess I see “drink the White Tiger’s blood” as fitting in OK with “ride the Black Tortoise” as a sort of omnidirectional all-purpose graaargh, I will become as powerful as the Four Symbols! thing.

  9. I guess you shouldn’t expect too much from rock lyrics, but somehow riding the Black Tortoise into the dawn (i.e. to the east) seems inapt. I would have expected it to, I don’t know, ride off into Aurora borealis or somewhere up north.

  10. Yes, graaargh sounds about ok. Thanks for the corrections, guys.

    I can’t criticize them for riding Genbu to dawn, since in my first attempt I had actually rendered akatuki as “rising sun”! I thought it sounded better… luckly I noticed the absurdity quickly and changed to “dawn”, thinking that it’s not too weird to think of a red-tinted north as part of “dawn”.

    Looking into it, Gogen says akatsuki doesn’t come from “red” at all but from OJ akatoki “clear hour”, thought it originally had more of a nuance of “early morning grey” than actual “daybreak”. I figure we can be generous and picture tigerblood man flying into a grayish northern sky.

    (The borrowed kanji for akatsuki, 曉, does suggest “sunrise” xiǎo in Chinese; it’s even composed of 日 sun + 堯 rise, pile up. Though of course character structure doesn’t necessarily reflect the nuances of the actual words, but in this case it seems like it does. But they say xiǎo can also be used for “explain, understand” (~=“it dawned on me”?), which are not meanings of the Japanese word akatsuki, as far as I know.)

  11. In some Chinese dialects — Mandarin dialects — 晓得 means ‘to know’ (a synonym of 知道).

    I haven’t got any references, but I vaguely understand that words like 赤, 明るい, and 開く are believed to be etymologically related way back, with a common thread of openness and light. So 暁 as ‘clear hour’ isn’t necessarily unrelated to lightness and redness…

  12. Yeah there’s this common trend where one semantically broad Japanese morpheme could be translated by three or four more specific Chinese morphemes—which is unremarkable, since that’s true of any pair of two languages; but, because several characters could be reasonably used to write/translate/gloss the Japanese word, they start to think of a single word as a pack of homophones (“there are many miru in Japanese, since there is 見る and 観る and 視る and 診る and…”). I find the relationship between Chinese and Japanese so fascinating. Words will subtly shift meaning so that they better fit characters as used in Classical Chinese… It sounds very plausible that aka/赤 and aka/明 &c. would be originally the same thing. I recall the Hanafuda card text, akayoroshii, of disputed meaning but thought to be “obviously good”.

    Tangentially, there’s at least one study that thinks aka used to denote more of an orangeish shade, though earlier Matt has expressed doubts about it.

  13. “Words will subtly shift meaning so that they better fit characters as used in Classical Chinese”

    Not sure if I’ve encountered many of these, though that’s not to say they don’t exist.

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