J-WOTD: 若い燕

わかいつばめ (wakai tsubame)
wakai tsubame

* “J-WOTD” = “Japanese Word of the Day”

Since antiquity the sparrow has always been seen as a bird of love in the west. It was associated in classical mythology with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and Catullus, the Roman poet, famously used the sparrow as a symbol of true love and spiritual connection to his lover. In Japan the sparrow does not carry the same connotations except in the phrase wakai tsubame which literally means a young sparrow but refers to a younger lover of an older woman, or, 女にとって年下の愛人。

The term wakai tsubame is credited to a artist called Okumura Hirofumi, 奥村博史, the lover of author and feminist Hiratsuka Raicho (平塚らいてう or 平塚雷鳥). Okumura, who was five years younger than Hiratsuka, began seeing her 1914. However, when their relationship soured Okumura wrote the following lines in a farewell letter to her:

(A sparrow flew in amongst a group of happily playing quiet waterfowl and disturbed the peace. For the sake of the pond’s peace the young sparrow will leave and fly away.)

It is from this letter that the term took hold and gained a lasting place in the Japanese language. However, despite this poetic farewell, their relationship continued and they would eventually marry in 1941.

One thought on “J-WOTD: 若い燕”

  1. Not too sure whether it’s for good or worse, but I seem to be a “wakai tsubame” for a Japanese wife. Anyone else out there?

    I mentioned this to her yesterday, and she asked me where I heard that term – obviously she’s not a stippy fan.

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