A new angle on the sea SLUG vs. sea CUKE  name problem    Is the author sea slug/cucumber OBSESSED? 

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Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!                                                                                           by robin d. gill

(a sample of slugs:  footnote marks had to be removed because of html problems with line spacing.)


by Namako Hakase

holothurian culture in japan

Visiting the West, one is struck by the absence of the sea cucumber. It is not that the holothurian itself is absent. With 1,400 odd species found around the globe, sea cucumbers are cosmopolitan.  (ed. note: The popular and poetically necessary term “sea slug,” used in this book, is misleading, for the scientist and skin-diver’s “sea slug” is the nudibranch, a shell-less mollusk with colorful tentacle-like projections on its back.). Nor is there a lack of scientific interest in this plain-looking relative of the sea urchin and starfish. The sea cucumber’s unique physiology – how it quickly hardens or softens itself, how it throws away organs and later re-grows them, how it survives without a brain – fascinates Occidental researchers, as it does ours, in Japan. Its various medicinal uses are achieving worldwide attention and, with some species endangered from over-fishing and poaching, non-Japanese marine biologists, ecologists and diving enthusiasts are doing much to help publicize and protect and grow this creeping vacuum-cleaner so vital to the health of the sea floor.  No, what is missing outside of Japan is not information nor concern for the sea cucumber, it is something more subtle, something we Japanese take for granted: the traditional sea cucumber, the holothurian as culture.

In Japan, one never knows when or where one is going to run into a sea cucumber (namako).  There is, of course, our culinary culture, boasting various namako delicacies; but the namako provides us with far more food for our head than for our belly. Holothurians pop up in science fiction under guises such as the “sea-cucumber starman” (namako-hoseijin), in pop music songs such as the recent “sea cucumber who slept-in” (neboke-namako), in midi files (short animation) where they dance, snore and otherwise show off, in web-page names such as “sea cucumber soliloquy” (namako-no-hitorigoto, an exceptionally boring diary) or “sea cucumber shrine” (namako-jingu, a fortune-teller’s web-page), in the martial arts as the “sea cucumber sword-guard” (namako-tsuba) of Miyamoto Musashi or simply the “sea cucumber” (namako) once used to restrain criminals (ed. note: It is vernacular for the sodegarami, or “sleeve-grabber.”), in the marital arts as the “sea cucumber ring”(namako-wa), a tickler, in architecture as raised grout “sea cucumber walls” (namako-kabe), “sea cucumber roof tiles” (namakogawara),“sea cucumber (corrugated) iron sheet” (namako-ita) and swollen rounded “sea cucumber (door) frames”(namakobuchi),  in foundries as “sea cucumber (pig) iron” (namakosen), in dress as bumpy “sea cucumber weave” (namako ori) and stylish sea cucumber tie-dye (namako shibori), in pottery as the complex purplish-gray sea cucumber glaze (namakogusuri) for expensive “sea cucumber hand-warming-pots” (namako-hibachi) or “sea cucumber-handled [pots]” (namakode), in folk events, such as occasional reenactments of ancient tribute-bearing delegations or the annual “sea cucumber drag” (namako-hiki), where a sea cucumber doll is dragged around by children on the day the Big New Year gods are sent off, or even as a mascot for a low entropy-creating ecological lifestyle. (ed. note: To get a gut-feeling of why this book uses the scientifically incorrect “slug,” compare the sound of “sea slug starman,” “the sea slug who slept in,” or “sea slug soliloquy” with the cacophonous “cucumber” versions of the same, above!)

The high level of holothurian consciousness in Japan is further reflected in the quality and quantity of the poems translated in this book and in the contemporary publishing world, where mass-market paperbacks largely or wholly about sea cucumbers boasting titles that translate as The Sea Cucumber’s Eye, The Sea Cucumber and the Sea Urchin, The Dolphin, Sea Cucumber and Sea People, and Sea Cucumber Reader are not only printed but reprinted, this in marked contrast to the situation in the English language world, where the only "books" on our subject are pamphlets about fishery issues (the exception is a novel named for, but not primarily about namako –  by a Japanese-American – and a book of poetry called The Sea Cucumber, but containing only a single line about them!).  If we add Japanese books new and old which use a trait of the namako as an allegory but do not concern the sea cucumber itself, such as the early twentieth century Droll Haiku: The Sea Cucumber’s Tongue, mid-twentieth century science essay The Sea Cucumber’s Bones, and a popular author’s recent best seller The Sea Cucumber Watching the Moon, the gap is even more obvious.

Perhaps, the difference in the degree of familiarity of the namako in our respective cultures is best summed up by the fact that in the English-speaking world and, doubtless, the rest of the West, the sea cucumber is often described as “looking like a cucumber,” whereas, in Japan, to the contrary, the kiuri, or cucumber, has been described as “a warty thing like a namako.  Some of the stunted ones are the spitting image of it."  Were it not for the fact that our kiuri (cucumber) are generally far too sleek and elongated to resemble said holothurian, the vegetable would probably be called a “land namako!”

The first appearance the namako makes in our culture was by no means a felicitous one,  In the Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters (712 AD), when the gods round up all the fish, fat and thin and ask them if they are ready to serve the children of the gods, that is to say, the Japanese, only the Namako remained mum.  Amanouzume-no-mikoto – the same goddess with the presence of mind to powder her face and do the world's first striptease to make all the gods laugh and entice the sun goddess Amaterasu-ômikami out of the cave – angrily pulled out her dagger and saying, “so that mouth of yours renders no reply,” rendered Namako's mouth.  (One must look at a live sea cucumber's mouth to fully appreciate the punishment: there are no lips, no tongue, only what appears to be a horribly lacerated orifice).  Just so, the Record concludes, “it remains cut out and the namako is silent.”

Thus chastened, for almost a millennium the Japanese sea cucumber held its silence. You cannot find any mention of it in old poetic forms such as waka or renga. It took the emergence of the hokku (the first verse in traditional linked-verse) as an independent short poem, that is to say, the development of what we now call “haiku,” to finally give the namako back its voice.  With the publication of this book by the American writer and translator Robin D. Gill, a.k.a. “keigu,” the Japanese sea cucumber will make itself heard around the world.  And, translated back into Japanese, which it surely will be, a new generation of readers will, many for the first time, hear the voice of the traditional sea cucumber, the namako of old Edo's poets, a confused and melancholy but always witty character, who sometimes has great trouble making himself heard over the electronic din of today's popular culture.

(You will need to see the book for the best part, the notes, which are longer than the Preface! There were 12 in the above section.)




(First part of the Foreword)


why “sea slug?”

(japanese removed for non-japanese browsers. )

haikai no jôzu o kokorozasu namako – loser (1995)

(haikai's skillful/better[obj] aspire/s sea cucumber/s[subj])


sea slugs:

for the betterment

of haikai

My twenty-book selection of Edo era poetry, In Praise of Olde Haiku, has only two hundred themes. The namako, or “sea slug” – patience, biologists, an explanation for the wrong name is in the next paragraph! – is one of them, despite the fact that it barely makes the top five-hundred themes included in Japanese saijiki, or haiku almanacs. Why, then, include it? And why expand it further in this spin-off?  Because sea slug offers a unique challenge.  Namako is not only a winter theme.  It is a three-dimensional litmus test. To some poets it is food. To some it is a grotesque creature. To others it is chaos embodied. Unlike most of the main haiku themes, the sea slug is freshly invented, for it did not grace classical Japanese poetry.  This may owe something to its low cultural visibility over the waka-writing centuries (900-1500), something that changed in the Tokugawa era (1603-1867) when the dried slug (trepang) became the mainstay of Japan's trade with China. But the general consensus is that  this  “mere blob of fleshy matter”  (Blyth: Hv4))   did  not appeal to the haute culture of the waka and renga poets  because it was,  in a word,  gross.   For the same reason,  it offered haikai poets who wrote what came to be called haiku as well as poems that were far too risque for the current canon) a good chance to prove how different they were, to show off their a-lyrical stuff.  Finally,  it offers me a chance to prove to readers not fluent in Japanese, that even a subject this foreign to their literary tradition – “the winter kigo [seasonal word/theme] ‘sea slugs’ does not resonate for us,” writes one American haiku association may be interesting.

In this book, the holothurian is not a cuke as science would have it, but a slug.  Exacting readers may find me like Humpty Dumpty, who smugly informed Alice that when he used a word, it meant what he meant it to mean. Unlike Humpty, I am happy to explain. The word “sea slug” is both good and bad for our subject. It is good because “slug” suggests something sluggish, which the holothurian certainly is. It may lack those tremulous “horns” with eyes on them and lack the proper descent from a soft-bodied animal, but it is clearly even more sluggish (slow) than most scientifically correct slugs (mollusks), land or sea. It is bad, however, because it drives true sea slugologists – and other nudibranch lovers – completely bananas.  This is because, with sea cucumber/slug confusion endemic, they are already on edge. (How would you like to waste half your time responding to inquiries about the wrong animal on your web site?)

 (continues next page, but no more here)



(This is part of a couple pages between the Foreword and Chapter 1 which, in the book, includes an illustration from Tristam Shandy)


 the . . . . . . . . sea slug

Each chapter of RISE, YE SEA SLUGS!  focuses on a different type of sea cucumber, not a different biological species, but a different semiological species.  In biology, the line between species is not always solid.  Even with DNA called in to arbitrate, arbitrary lines, i.e. definitions, have to be made. The same thing is true with respect to organizing a poetic typology.

 (Japanese is removed for browsers that can't take it)

chokusen o shiranu zonzenu namako kana --- matsuku hide (contemp)

(straight-line/s[obj], know/ing-not, knowing/existing-not, seaslug/s[subj] !/?/ǿ) #11


allogical animal


straight lines

are beyond the ken

of a sea slug

Moreover, I had to do this work completely de novo, with no Linnaean system, indeed no prior system at all, to assist me.   My modus operandi was simple.  I collected every old haiku and senryu on the sea cucumber I could – and tried to divide them thematically.  I wavered back and forth as I made new finds. It was something like playing cards, where a new draw might make you decide to go for a full-house rather than a straight.  In the end, I had a good hand.   As the Table of Content shows, I managed to invent no less than twenty-one semiological species –  metaphorical groupings, if you prefer – and, as the text will show, many more sub-species, scores of which have been compiled into a large extra chapter of Sundry Slugs.

oh, sea slug!

not knowing not living

straight lines

If the range of individual difference for a given trait in a species can be listed in serial or drawn as a simple distribution curve, even a complex graph of overlapping curves – or for that matter, a tree – cannot show the convoluted relationship of many species, sub-species and their various traits.  That is to say, my chapters and the haiku within them not only overlap each other, but do so in ways that defy proper narrative.  The overall relationship can only be grasped at a glance by three-dimensional modeling, or the next best thing, overlapping Venn diagrams, a sample of which, I plan to offer (below) in the best tradition of Laurence Sterne.  Arranging such material in a serial narrative was, to borrow holothurian expert and curator Philip Lambert's fine pun, truly a taxing problem!  I hope that even if the ride is occasionally bumpy, good readers from every ilk of life will still find themselves transported by my sea slug serenade.


tristam sandy


straight lines

are beyond sea slug's

wildest dreams



More another day.  Now I must put in hypertext and get this website up!  All of this a first for me!


Most of the haiku are by Japanese, but the author (Keigu is his haiku name=go) could not help joining in. (Sometimes it gets him in trouble. The above examples contain an error in the Japanese, though the Romanization of the Japanese English readers see is correct.  The "e" in Japanese was written "he" in order to make it archaic, but it so happens that the particular type of verb never took a "he."  As they say, a little knowledge is . . . Not to worry!  That is why this book has an on-line Errata. )   For all other poets, dates are given.  The dates they lived, the date of the book in which the haiku appeared or the time period as close as i could guess. One more photo, below shows what I mean.   (Ossicle photos in background are courtesy of Dr Mike Reich and very clear in the original) 




A new angle on the sea SLUG vs. sea CUKE  name problem    Is the author sea slug/cucumber OBSESSED?