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Spring 2006, vol 4 no 1

Songs of Mountains and Coves: Japanese Ancient Pre-haiku Poetry
by Professor Emeritus Harold Wright

Being a translator of Japanese poetry, and a resident of Japan off and on, for over 50 years, I have often been asked, "Do you translate haiku?" Or just meeting someone for the first time I might be told, "Oh, I just love haiku. . . ." I merely agree and say, "I love haiku too, and have translated some." But many people are surprised when I often add, "The Japanese poetry that I really appreciate, however, is tanka. It is a thousand years older than haiku!" Sometimes I add with a chuckle, "Haiku poetry is really pretty modern! I like the older poetry."

Let me explain.

Japanese poetry sprang from the hidden valleys of the mountains and secluded coves along the rugged shores of the ancient islands of Japan. Poems were the chants of the rice fields and fishing boats, the prayers to the deities of earth, sky and sea. Poems were the love songs, sometimes in wooing contests, in the forests behind village shrines where boys and girls would gather, away from their parents, after festivals. Poems were the sounds heard in the songs of birds, the call of the deer, or the honk of the wild geese migrating towards one's longed for home. Poems were the songs in praise of hues of autumn or blossoms in spring. Poetry was the voiced awe of the world in which we are all born and to which we all die.

Poetry was an important part of a long oral tradition existing long before the Japanese, under the early influence of the Chinese, devised a system of writing down their literature. Stories, legends, myths, and poems were memorized and passed on by kataribe or guilds of reciters often associated with the families in power. Only later were these stories and poems actually written down. The oldest extant book of anything we have appeared in the year ca. 712. It is the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) that was written down by a scribe named O no Yasumaro, who was said to have copied down the memorized words of the woman reciter Hieda no Are. The book contains familiar stories about the creation of the islands and the birth of the Sun Goddess and her siblings. It also tells about the linage of the emperors up to that date, and contains about 500 "uta," which means both songs and poems. Poetic form varies in the Kojiki, but we do see the appearance of the tanka (also called waka) which is one of the many poetic forms that utilized an alternative 5,7,5 syllable count. In the case of the tanka, however, the poem ends the 31 syllables with a 7, 7 couplet. The tanka became the main stay of Japanese poetry, in aristocratic circles anyway, for the remainder of Japanese history.

Let me add a comment about the use of the two terms to describe the 5,7,5,7,7 or 31 syllable poem form. "Tanka" means "short poem," as opposed to the "Choka" or "Nagauta" (both terms mean "long poem" that was popular in 8th century Japan). "Waka" (Japanese Poem) is the term used to define all kinds of Japanese poems in contrast to the kanshi or poems written by Japanese poets in the Chinese language. Tanka became the most popular of the waka poetry and so, now the terms "tanka" and "waka" are often used as synonyms. Poets now writing these poems in modern times, anyway, seem to prefer the term "tanka." The reason for the preference of alternating syllables of 5 and 7 is not clear. The preference appeared way back in pre historical oral literature, and the reasons can only now be debated. Some say there is a Chinese influence. Some say that the line length is related to the breath. Still others say it is because asymmetrical aesthetics appeal to the Japanese in nearly everything. No one knows for sure.

The Emperor Meiji, who led in modernizing his country during his reign from 1868 to 1912, is said to have written between 90,000 and 100,000 of these 31 syllable waka poems. His wife, the Empress Shoken, was said to have written 30,000. My own translations of a sampling of both these works can be seen on the Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine) web site or are available in book form at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. But we just leaped forward in our discussion more than 1000 years.

Now, returning to the year 712, and the Kojiki, the oldest book, in which we are told that Susano o Omikami, the brother of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess of Japan, wrote the following poem after he saved a young woman from being eaten by a great serpent and then married her. The area in which this is said to have happened is called Izumo, which means "appearing clouds." It is the site of the second most important Shinto Shrine in Japan, the Izumo Shrine dedicated to Susano o. Anyway his poem is considered to be the very first 31 syllable poem, or tanka, in the Japanese language.

Yakumo tatsu
       Izumo yaegaki
             tsumagomi ni
yaegaki tsukuru
       sono yaegaki o

Many clouds rise up
       clouds appear to form a fence
             holding this couple;
They form layers of a fence
       Oh, the layers of that fence.

Other than the 31 syllable tanka, as seen above, some of the oldest poems in the Japanese language have been handed down to us as folksongs. One of my favorites deals with the difficulty of farming in stony fields. It appeared in the form of an ancient, probably 9th century, scroll entitled Kinkafu (Music for Japanese Harp), that was not even discovered until 1924. But an anonymous farmer probably sang this song over a thousand years ago. It can be noted that the syllable count is much freer and we have no idea how it was actually sung.

Amehito no
tsukurishi ta no
ishida wa inae
ishida wa ono o tsukureba
"kawara" to "yura" to naru
ishida wa inae
ishida wa inae

These fields!
Made by Noblemen!
Damn stony fields!
Planting in stony fields
All I hear is "kuwara" and "yura"
Damn stony fields!
Damn stony fields!

Taketori Monogatari (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) is one of the oldest folk legends in Japan to be written down as a story. One of the characters in the later, but still a thousand year old, Tale of Genji, the world's first novel, tells us that The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is the "parent of all tales." The story is ancient and some scholars believe it originally came from China. Anyway, in the story an old bamboo cutter finds a tiny beautiful girl in a stalk of bamboo. She grows up to be the most desirable young woman of the land. She rejects all suitors. Even the Emperor himself was rejected when the moon princess chose to return to her home in the land of the sky. To console the sovereign, he was given a magic medicine that would permit him to live forever. But he didn't want to live forever without his love. So he had the potion taken to the top of the highest mountains in Japan to be burned. Because of the undying fire at the top, the mountain was named "Fuji", which means "no death." The story ends with the Emperor then composing the 31 syllable tanka poem.:

Au koto mo
       namida ni ukabu
             waga mi ni wa
shinanu kusuri mo
       nani ka wa semu

Now not seeing her
       I find myself just floating
             in a flood of tears . . .
What could I possibly do
       with an "undying" potion.

The first if not the most important anthology of early Japanese poetry is the Manyoshu (Collection of Ten-Thousand Leaves). Compiled in its final form sometime during the 8th century, the anthology contains 4,516 poems arranged in twenty volumes. Embodying the strengths of feeling, sincerity, and simplicity, these poems have been honored as the purest expression of the early Japanese spirit. Later scholars, however, have been able to discern much in terms of Chinese, and even Korean influence. Japan in the 8th century was coming under much continental influence in terms of politics, architecture, Buddhism, and even literature.

Much of the Manyoshu's richness is derived from the varied backgrounds of over 400 known contributors. There are also many anonymous poets whose work is included in the collection. Aristocratic sentiments, rustic expressions of frontier guards, folk songs, poems in praise of sake, longer poems on legends, and even poems of love are found in great numbers.

Kakinomto Hitomaro (8th century) wrote in one of his well-known poems:


    nu ni kagiroi
             tatsu miete
Kaerimi sure ba
tsuki katabuki nu


Looking to the east
       we saw the glow of morning
             rising over fields
Then turning to look behind
       the moon was just then setting.

Many of the love poems were written on themes of separation rather than on the praise of one's physical attractions. Poetry was a basic form of communication between lovers, who were not always permitted to meet as frequently or as openly as they might have wished. One of the major themes is the sadness in "longing for love."

In this early period, Japan was growing, under the cultural influence of China, into a more solidified nation-state in which the family was becoming a rigid social unit. Once the Imperial Family had established itself, in terms of divine and secular power, as the central authority of the island nation, marriage was openly used as a political device to aid other powerful families or clans to move upward in terms of power. Having a daughter married to the Emperor or the son of an emperor was the ambition of many aristocrats, for in this way, an ambitious man may see his own grandson ascend to the throne. "Marriage Politics" was the major way for ambitious families to achieve power and prestige. As a result, men and women often were not permitted to marry or to have open relationships with those most attractive to them in fear of jeopardizing, not only their own reputations, but the political unions of the time. Gossip then, was not merely the idle amusement of the leisure class; it was a weapon. A scandal could lead to the downfall of the holders of power.

We can read in the love poems themselves that men and women, even though officially married, were often living separately. Women had their own homes. Perhaps this system is a remnant of a matriarchal or matrilineal past, but Japan was moving towards a more patriarchal society. It would be centuries, however, before the Japanese woman would be forced to surrender title, name, and inherited home in her marriage with a man selected by her parents. Aristocratic women of the Manyoshu, anyway, were still independent enough to retain their own identities and homes even in marriage. They did not live alone, however; they were surrounded by extended family members, ladies in waiting, servants and the like. Prying eyes were everywhere. Confucian morality put some pressure on women to remain chaste and faithful, but that confining thought did not influence the Japanese man very much. The Manyo male, like the later hero of the famed Tale of Genji, was probably seeing a number of women at the same time. He may even have had several legal wives, and he certainly did not want any of the ladies to know too clearly where he spent each night, when they were expected to "pass the night alone". Gossip was everywhere.

It is believed that the Japanese love poems sprang out of occasional song fests associated with Shinto fertility rites of the distant past. Songs were an important part of the wooing ritual. Later, after the Japanese had developed a written language, these spontaneous love songs were written down and sent by messengers to one's love. Even the lower classes of soldiers, or frontier guards, were involved with the writing of love poems to women back home. One fellow, by the name of Mononobe Akimochi (8th century), didn't seem too happy about being drafted for distant duty.

We have received
    our Imperial Orders
       and from tomorrow
We will sleep among the reeds
    while our wives remain behind.

Many of the other Manyoshu poems were written in or around the city of Nara, which was the imperial capital at the time this anthology was compiled. It is believed that the editor was Otomo Yakamochi (716-785), who was able to include as many as 500 of his own poems, as well as many pieces by those in his circle, in the collection. He even included many love poems addressed to himself in the work. One Lady Kasa, wrote him over 20 poems pleading for his attention, but the cad did not have the manners to reply even once! I think in the end, she gave up on him and wrote:

To love someone
    who does not return that love
       is like offering prayers
Back behind a starving god
within a Buddhist temple.

Still, the much sought after Otomo Yakamichi was able to write to someone else perhaps:

I am all alone
    and feel the deepest sadness
       but for condolence
I have come outside to hear
     the crying of cicadas.

Well maybe, but I can guess he spent the rest of the night reading the love poems from Lady Kasa and others.

The 31 syllable tanka poetic form became the mainstay of Japanese Imperial poetry, and it has continued right down to the present day as a viable verse form. It has begun to regain some of its popularity in the general population, much like the later haiku. Just a few years ago, a young woman by the name of Tawara Machi wrote a book of tanka that dealt with contemporary themes like dating and eating hamburgers. The book, entitled Sarada Kinenbi (Memorial Day of the Salad), sold upwards of 3 million copies. Let me include one example in translation.

Just like standing up
    to leave a seat in some shop
       that sells hamburgers . . .
That's the way I'm really
    going to get rid of that man.

Now tanka, like haiku, is written the world over in many languages other than Japanese. I myself started writing English language tanka in 1952, on my first trip to Japan. I had discovered the poetry of the Manyoshu in translation long before I learned to read or write in Japanese. I remember having a serious crush on a young Japanese woman in Iwakuni, Japan. I wrote:

Warm breeze that I breathe
    that drifts from yonder mountain
       in whose shade you dwell
Has been sweetened, I believe,
    by blowing through your hair.

I also remember, sadly, like many Manyoshu lovers 1200 years before me, of "spending my night alone."

J. Thomas Rimer Harold Wright is Professor of Japanese at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He is the author of Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems From the Manyoshu, Translated From the Japanese. The poems herein were newly translated for this article.