Lessons in Classical Japanese Poetry 2: Hitomaro and Akahito

This is my second post on classical Japanese literature. This time I focus on two famous mid-Man’yōshū poets, Kakinomoto no hitomaro and Amabe no akahito. We saw in my previous post that early Manyoshu poems were fairly simple and declarative, strongly rooted in animism and used for ritual/religious purposes of appeasing the gods of the land. With the somewhat later Princess Nukata we see the beginnings of aesthetic judgment come into the picture, however. The two poets we will look at here brought an even more aesthetic, lyrical aspect to Japanese poetry, though they were still highly ritualistic.

The two sets of poems below are called choka, or “long poems,” and are accompanied by hanka, a sort of envoy to the main poem which usually reiterates important parts of the main poem. These hanka are in the standard 5-7-5-7-7 syllable format of modern tanka, and the choka generally take on a 5-7 alternating pattern. Now before we talk more about the poems, let’s just have a look. First, the earlier Hitomaro:


やすみしし 我(わ)が大君(おほきみ)の 聞こしをす 天(あま)の下に 国はしも さはにあれども 山川(やまかわ)の 清き河内(かふち)と 御心(みこころ)を 吉野の国の 花散(はなぢ)らふ 秋津(あきづ)の野辺(のへ)に 宮柱(みやばしら) 太(ふと)しきませば ももしきの 大宮人(おほみやひと)の 舟(ふね)並(な)めて 朝川(あさかは)渡り 舟競(ぎほ)ひ 夕川(ゆふかは)渡る この川の 絶ゆる事なく この山の いや高知(たかし)らす みなそそく 滝のみやこは 見れど飽かぬかも


見れど飽かぬ 吉野の川の 常滑(とこなめ)の 絶ゆる事なく またかへり見る

Poems written by Kakinomoto no Asomi Hitomaro when he went to the palace at Yoshino—

In peace and tranquility
Our Great Lord
Rules the land.
In all her domain
Many are the lands
But to the pristine pools
Of the mountain streams
That form in the ravines
She gave her heart
And in the fields of Akizu
In the land of Yoshino
Where the blossoms fall
She erected the pillars
Of her palace.
The courtiers of the Ōmi capital
Of the myriad stones
Line up their boats
And cross the morning river,
Race in their boats
And cross the evening river.
Like this river
May it last forever,
Like this mountain
May it rise to lofty heights.
Though I gaze upon this palace
By the swift-running current
Never shall I tire of it.



Though I gaze I do not tire
Of Yoshino, and
Like its ceaseless river
Never shall I cease
To return to gaze upon it.

(MYS I: 36-37)

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro from Ogura Hyakunin Isshu

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro from Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Written on the card is the first three ku of a poem by Hitomaro: あしひきのやまどりのをのしだりをの. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This poem is highly ritual and basically a form of propaganda, extolling the Empress Jitō. But the language of the original Japanese is incredibly sophisticated. The section from “Many are the lands” to “May it rise to lofty heights” is a single sentence in the original. And we see an interesting construct that is lost in modern Japanese. To liken two things in Japanese we use the construct no yō ni (“like”), but in classical we see a condensed version of this, no. What this does is creates a stronger identification between tenor and vehicle. It’s something like the difference between a simile and a metaphor in English, but with ties to the elaborately connected animistic worldview of the day. Rather than being “like” the river, the Palace at Yoshino is part of the landscape, partaking in the magic of the place, and as the river and as the mountain (or as some immediate extension of them) it will therefore go on forever and rise to lofty heights.

This poem begins with a statement of the grandeur of Empress Jitō and the palace, then describes the courtiers’ expressions of fealty, and finally ends with an emotional climax, exclaiming the joy of looking upon the palace.  This lyrical climax is then carried into the hanka, in which much of the same vocabulary is used. We will see a considerable difference in the choka / hanka relationship in Akahito’s poems.

And here they are:

山部宿禰赤人(やまべのすくねあかひと)の作る歌二首 并(あわ)せて短歌

やすみしし わご大君(おほきみ)の 高知(たかし)らす 吉野の宮は たたなづく 青垣*(あをかき)ごもり 川なみの 清き河内(かふち)そ 春へには 花咲きををり 秋されば 霧立ち渡る その山の いやますますに この川の 絶ゆることなく ももしきの 大宮人(おほみやひと)は 常に通はむ


み吉野の 象山(あさやま)のまの 木末(こぬれ)には ここだも騒く 鳥の声かも

ぬばたまの 夜のふけゆけば 久木(ひさぎ)生(お)ふる 清き川原(かわら)に 千鳥(ちどり)しば鳴く

Poems written by Yamabe no Akahito, with tanka

In peace and tranquility
Our Great Lord rules.
From the lofty palace
At Yoshino,
Surrounded by walls of green
Layer upon layer,
The water of its river
So pristine.
In the spring uncountable flowers
Blossom, bending the branches,
In the autumn
The mist rises and spreads about.
Like this mountain,
Rising higher and higher,
Like this river,
Without end,
The courtiers of Ōmi
Of the myriad stones,
Will always come here. 


In the valley of Kisa Mountain
In Fair Yoshino
From the treetops
Come the voices
Of the singing birds!

When dark falls
Black as jet,
From the pristine river,
Where the red oak grow,
Cry a thousand birds!

(MYS VI: 923-25)

Hyakuninisshu 004

Yamabe no Akahito from Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. たごのうらにうちいでてみればしろたへの. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Akahito lacks in linguistic ingenuity he makes up for in his loving descriptions of nature. This poem, with its many similarities to Hitomaro’s earlier poem, puts a much greater emphasis on nature. The main poem is still propaganda, its primary purpose being praise of the Yoshino palace and the emperor, but where we have a vague reference to flowers blooming in Hitomaro’s poem, Akahito writes of flowers blooming in such profusion as to cause the branches to bend. The river is “pristine” like in Hitomaro’s poem, but the palace is even more splendid for it is “surrounded by walls of green / layer upon layer.”

Akahito’s use of the metaphorical no is also different than Hitomaro’s. In Hitomaro’s poem, it is the palace that, like the river and the mountain, is eternal and reaches to great heights.  In Akahito’s poem, if we look closely at the grammar of the original Japanese, it is the courtiers who seem to be like the river, ceaselessly coming to Yoshino, and like the mountain rising more and more in number.

Lastly, the choka / hanka relationship is much different in Akahito’s poems. Rather than mere repetition of the choka, Akahito’s hanka add content. The first hanka only mentions Yoshino by name, giving most of its attention to the birds crying from the trees, while the second hanka focuses solely on nature, not bothering to mention Yoshino again. Akahito’s hanka continue the tendencies toward natural imagery and seem as though they could stand alone. This may be indicative of larger changes taking place in Japanese literary history at the time. Namely, in later centuries the choka form would slowly die out and the shorter tanka would become the predominant form in Japanese poetry for a very long time.


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