Lessons in Classical Japanese Poetry 3: Makurakotoba and A Personal Poem by Hitomaro

First of all I would like to apologize for my loooong absence. I had my hands full between the JAT Translation contest and JLPT N1 study which I needed to focus on after that. Plus, I’m not going to lie, I got a little burned out with translating.

But never fear, this squirrel is back and better than ever. Today I want to look at another poem by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, who, if you’ll remember, is a very famous court poet from the Man’yōshū period of poetry (specifically the late 600’s CE). Much of the poetry at this point was highly public in nature, but poets did write poetry that was of a personal, if not exactly private, nature. Hitomaro wrote the following poem upon parting from his wife in Iwami to go to the capital. This happened at least twice, as we know from the existence of another poem he wrote earlier on the same topic. This later poem is certainly public in nature, as we can tell from the various conventions of public court poetry which Hitomaro uses. For example we see an extensive use of a sort of epithet called a makurakotoba or “pillow word,” which comes before place names as a sort of decoration. Though after Hitomaro’s time they came to be a mere decorative convention, makurakotoba were probably originally linked to the animism of the early Japanese worldview. Intoning the name of a place and their special epithets was likely a means of appeasing the gods of that place. There is probably some of that going on here, too, but Hitomaro also tended to use makurakotoba which added appropriate imagery or deeper meaning to his poems. This poem is a prime example, as I will discuss afterward. For now, here is the poem (MYS II: 135).


On the reef of cape Kara
Where the speech sounds strange to the ear,
In the sea of Iwami
Of the creeping vines,
There grows the deep-sea-pine—
On the rocky shore
There grows the gemweed,
Yielding gently to the current, like my beloved
As she lay with me in sleep,
And though my love for her is deep
As the vast ocean where grows the deep-sea-pine,
The nights we slept thus seem too few.
Since we parted, like the crawling vines
That spread in all directions,
I look back, my heart pained,
Longing and longing for her.
But through the chaos of the falling leaves at Watari,
The mount from which great ships set sale,
I cannot clearly see the sleeves of my beloved.
How I long for her, disappearing as the moon passing
through a rift in the clouds above Yakami,
That mount where husbands hide their wives away,
And in the light of the setting sun
That traces across the sky,
I, who had thought myself a stout-hearted man
Find the sleeves of my robes soaked through with tears.



つのさはふ 石見(いはみ)の海の 言(こと)さへく 韓(から)の崎なる 海石(いくり)にそ 深海松(ふかみる)生(お)ふる 荒礒(ありそ)にそ 玉藻は生ふる 玉藻なす 靡き寐し兒を 深海松の 深めて思(も)へど さ寢(ね)し夜は いくだもあらず 這(は)う蔓(つた)の 別れし來れば 肝向(きもむか)ふ 心を痛み 思ひつつ かへりみすれど大船の 渡(わたり)の山の 黄葉(もみちば)の 散りの亂(まが)ひに 妹(いも)が袖 さやにも見えず 嬬隱(つまごも)る 屋上(やかみ)の山の 雲間より 渡らふ月の惜しけれども 隱(かく)ろひ來れば 天つたふ 入日さしぬれ 大夫(ますらを)と 思へるわれも 敷栲(しきたへ)の 衣の袖は 通り濡(ぬ)れぬ

English: Kakinomoto no hitomaro, 1 print : woo...

English: Kakinomoto no hitomaro, 1 print : woodcut, color ; 34.3 x 23.1 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Final notes:

Returning again to the idea of makurakotoba, the “strange speech” of the place called Kara, which would normally be a mere conventional epithet, in this poem also adds a sense of alienation and loneliness appropriate for a poem on parting. Furthermore, the “creeping vines” of Iwami provides an image which is repeated later to describe how the couple parted. Two more makurakotoba in the middle section refer to mountains. First there is “Watari, / The mount from which great ships set sale,” which resonates with the theme of parting. Then there is “Yakami, / That mount where husbands hide their wives away,” an epithet whose semantic and tonal contribution to the poem hardly needs to be explained.

The poem is very touching and undoubtedly important to Hitomaro on a personal level, but the use of ritual conventions gives the poem a public character that can’t be denied. Despite this, over the years many (Japanese and non-Japanese alike) have found this poem to be exceptionally beautiful. Perhaps that was Hitomaro’s genius, that he was able to reconcile personal feeling and public ritual, attaining something timeless, universal.

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