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Old poems

Filtering by Tag: Lion of Philosophy

Lion of Philosophy

Maria S. Mendes


"Lion of Philosophy" (“Tetsugaku no Lion”)



Lion is fond of "Philosophy".



That's because Snail kindly told him that a lion is King of Beasts who should look philosophical.



Today Lion thought he would be "philosophical".



He thought that this philosophy thing would seem better when one contrives a way to sit, so he sat on his belly with his tail curled to the right, and placed his paws on top of each other.



He then stretched his neck, and looked up to the right. This is a better way, judging from the way the tail is curled. If the tail goes right and the face goes left, he would end up looking spoony.



Beyond where Lion’s face was pointed to, there were miles of fields, with one lone tree standing.



Lion stared at the branches of the tree. The leaves on the branches swayed in the wind. Lion's mane also swayed from time to time.



(I wish somebody would come. When they ask me "What are you doing?", I will reply, "I'm doing philosophy".)



Lion stayed still, watching in the corner of his eye if somebody would come, but nobody came.



The dusk had fallen. Lion had stiff shoulders and he became hungry.



(Philosophy gives me stiff shoulders. When I'm hungry, philosophy is no good.)



He thought he'd finish with "philosophy" for today, and go over to Snail.



"Hi Snail. I was philosophy today."



"Hi Lion. That's great to hear. And how was it?"



"Yeah, it was like this."



Lion showed him how he was when he did philosophy.



Just like a few moments ago, he stretched his neck and looked up to the right, and then there was the sunset sky.



"Oh how wonderful it is! Lion, your philosophy is so beautiful and so magnificent!"



"Really? You said what? Could you tell me that again?"



"Sure, so beautiful and so magnificent!"



"Really? My philosophy is so beautiful and so magnificent? Thank you, Snail."



Lion forgot all about his stiff shoulders and hunger, and in a standstill, he has become philosophy.


Kudo Naoko, “Lion of Philosophy (Tetsugaku no Lion),” Tetsugaku no Lion. Tokyo: Risosha, 1982.



I like this anthropomorphic poem because it represents in a very plain language the sensibility of childhood and juvenility as something positive and profound. In contemporary Japanese society, anthropomorphic mascots and characters inundates not only the commercial spheres but also political ones, as local governments, police and even courts create their own characters to promote their administrations. In this sense, the whole Japanese society may seem to be affected by juvenilization. As much as posing criticism on this phenomenon, we could also ask ourselves if juvenilization is simply a sign of detestable immaturity, or something valuable is underlying it. This poem seems to me to offer an excellent path to understanding this issue.

So how should we look at the poem which, despite its popularity in Japan, seems to be overlooked outside of the country? One thing we need to remember is that Kudo Naoko has been writing poetry extensively for children. In fact, “Lion of Philosophy” has been adopted many times into the secondary school Japanese textbooks since its publication in 1982. In the face value, the poem depicts bizarre and childish conversations about the “would-be” philosopher Lion and his friend Snail, perhaps in the savanna of Africa which is very much exotic to Japan. Does this mean that her literature should be understood as “juvenile”?  We should not overlook, however, the poet’s careful uses of Japanese language in representing something that could look plain comical and fantastic. In the Japanese original, we notice that the word “philosophy” is carefully differentiated. In Lion’s discourse, philosophy (“tetsugaku”) is written in Hiragana characters (てつがく). To readers with Japanese language skills, this implies a trace of juvenility in Lion, as grown-ups would write philosophy in more complex Kanji characters (哲学). The juvenility of Lion is juxtaposed to the Snail’s lines: Snail always talks about philosophy in Kanji character. The concept of philosophy is alien to Lion, while for Snail, it is an established and lived knowledge. Thus, Kudo represents Lion in his heart-warmingly childish struggle to assimilate himself to the new knowledge he heard from Snail, who is, to him, a wise master whose words revealed himself in the way he could have never seen before. The Lion’s awkwardness for the alien concept of philosophy is reinforced by the uses of quotation marks in lines 1, 3 and 12. Consequently Lion tries to be “philosophy” itself (“tetusgaku” as in noun — which is ungrammatical), rather than becoming “philosophical” (“tetsugakuteki” as in grammatically correct adjective), which is what Snail initially tells him to be in line 2.

At the end of the poem, Lion has indeed “become philosophy.” At a glance, Lion seems to have mastered the way he is supposed to look like. This is not to say, however, that the lion becomes “philosophical” — note that in the poem’s last lines he still uses the word “tetsugaku” in Hiragana character. One could dismiss Lion for being preoccupied with superficial appearance of philosophy/philosophical, and for wishfully thinking that he will be able to show off his new identity through mere affectation and posing. But that is not the point of this poem. On the contrary, the beauty of this poem lies, I think, in the fact that it appreciates Lion who indeed becomes philosophy itself in his unique way. The quaint beauty of the Lion “of philosophy” — who inadvertently became even more “beautiful and magnificent” than the pre-established “philosophical Lion” — makes us think about the potential in an unknowledgeable child who opens themself up to the new world and puts themself there in solitude for the first time in their life. We then realize that, after all, that is what philosophy is about.

Thus, minutely differentiating the writing of the word “philosophy,” Kudo Naoko’s anthropomorphic poem brings charm to Lion’s trial-and-error in self-fashioning himself as unknown other. Finding one’s new self through the voice of another signifies the process of discovering one’s unexpected potential. This is not an easy process for anybody: we need to be prepared to suffer from stiff shoulders, and to feel hungry and lonely. Yet, like Lion, we may be able to find the quaint beauty and magnificence in the end. The poem’s sensibility in representing this sort of potential in a very plain language may suggest that being juvenile is perhaps not always such a bad thing.

Akihiko Shimizu

Akihiko Shimizu teaches Japanese at the University of Edinburgh. He also does research on Ben Jonson and early modern English literature. Years ago when Aki bumped into a three-line epigram by Jonson, he found it so baffling that he decided to find out what on earth the poem is on about. He ended up writing a PhD thesis, Ben Jonson and Character.