The poetry of bygone times in old Japan

The poetry of bygone times in old Japan

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The highly esteemed poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro comes from old Japan. He is deemed to be one of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals based on his prominence in volumes 1 and 2 of the highly acclaimed Man’yōshū. Therefore, this waka poet who belongs to the late Asuka period remains revered in modern Japan.

The notoriety of Hitomaro applies to his deep thinking and elegant long poems. For you can feel his poetic soul.

Little is known about his life and doubts persist if his notoriety began under Emperor Temmu (631-686) or Emperor Tenji (626-672)? In the past, it was widely believed that his career began under Emperor Temmu.

Yet the notable scholar Kitayama Shigeo points in the direction of Emperor Tenji. This is based on a pair of composed poems alluding to mourning the loss of a lady who belonged to the court of Emperor Tenji. Hence, differences in historical interpretation continue in modern times.

It is believed that Hitomaro died in the early eighth century. Thus his poetry relates to the seventh century.

He wrote forlornly after his wife died:


while our ways of love we still kept secret,

secret as pool sheltered in warm rocks,

my world a sunless waste became,

and clouds snuffed out the moon that lit my heaven.

For she, my love – as graceful as deep kelp fronds-

has faded from my days like autumn’s glory.

Such is the news the running messenger brings.

Like the clang of the bow-strings on

a whitewood bow they hit my ear,

but I find no word to answer

or means to offer solace,

any words are aching pain.

Hitomaro concludes:

In autumn’s fall of scarlet forest leaves

I see the message coming for me

and think of one day of love

that never more shall be.

The life and death of Hitomaro are connected to two Shinto shrines in the province of Iwami (modern-day Shimane Prefecture). While a special Shinto shrine in Hyogo Prefecture dedicates itself to Hitomaro.


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