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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3

A Poetic Guide to an Ancient Capital: Aizu Yaichi and the City of Nara
by Michael F. Marra
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


     The heavenly king Jigoku
Lifting up
     His sleeves
That later people
Have re-attached to the statue

Aizu Yaichi (1881-1956), who also used the pen name Shūsō Dōjin, a poor, sickly, unmarried professor of Waseda University in Tokyo, resurrected a language unused for over 10 centuries, the dialect spoken by the people of Nara during the 8th century, and made famous in the Man'yoshu, the first poetic anthology of Japanese verse, compiled in 759. An art historian and poet, Yaichi composed tanka about the ancient city of Nara and its adjacent basin, and the sad state many of the city's Buddhist temples and monuments were in, that caught the attention of the Japanese populace and politicians, and became the major force in revitalizing the city and it's culture, turning Nara into a modern city that has preserved its historical heritage and contributions to Japanese culture. In this ancient language, Aizu found a world of linguistic order which stood in stark contrast to the chaotic state of disrepair of the monuments of the ancient capital. For Aizu the sound of the past could only be conveyed by the Yamato language (Yamato kotoba)—a language made of a limited number of words, each of which had a variety of meanings. Not a single Chinese character appears in Aizu’s poetry, as a result of his conscious effort never to close off the polyphony of Japan’s ancient language within the limits of monograms.

Comments Marra, "Aizu explains his poetics in an essay, “Uta no Kotoba” (The Language of Songs), written on March 16, 1942. He immediately acknowledges his indebtedness to the language of the Man’yōshū, although he takes issue with Shakuchōkū (Orikuchi Shinobu, 1887-1953), who had labeled Aizu’s poetry “Yakamochi soybean paste” (Yakamochi-miso), in reference to the revered Man’yō poet Ōtomo no Yakamochi (717?-785). Aizu was impressed by the way the Man’yō poets felt, and by their attitude towards language, especially their ability to make sound reverberate in their poems. However, this reverence should not be assumed to be a simple repetition of ancient expressions, since this attitude would ignore the sense of contemporaneity that the Man’yō poets were able to create. They did not hesitate to include in their vocabulary expressions that at the time were simply loanwords from alien cultures such as, for example, “tera” (temple), or “Hotoke” (Buddha), or “tō” (pagoda). Rather than repeating vocabulary in a trite manner, Aizu’s poetry attempts to reproduce the spirit and attitude that he found in the poetry of the Man’yōshū. Aizu believed that this could be accomplished by using expressions found in ancient poetry, as long as the poet found in these expressions new meaning which took into account the changes that language undergoes though the centuries."

Would it keep raining so strongly,
     Until my fellow travelers,
The students from Waseda,
Stop speaking?

Aizu Yaichi's words and resonant poetry accomplished what letters, complaints, and political pleas couldn't. He became Nara's heartbeat, an ardent student of Greek history who made it his goal to find a comparable cultural fullness in Japan, and in doing so, found it in the region of Yamato ("Outside the mountains"), known today as the Nara basin of the Kansai region. Yaichi first visited Nara in 1908, when he was 28. Nara was the home of Japan's first human emperor, Jinmu, 660 - 585 B.C. (the Japanese believed their emperors to be descendants of the gods). Writes professor Marra in the book's introduction: "The relationship established between Jinmu, the alleged first human emperor, and Yamato was sufficient to endow this region with a mythical aura; and it made Yamato the cradle of Japanese culture. Many classical texts could easily be summoned as proof of the sacredness of Yamato, beginning with the eighth-century Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720), which takes the construction of the Kashiwara capital in Yamato (Yamato no kuni Kashiwara no Miya) to mark the end of a period of uncertainty and unsettledness in Japanese history. In other words, ancient records set up Yamato as the original signifier of political and social fullness (culture)."

Unfortunately through the centuries, as happened to Athens, Greece, the city of Nara (Yamato) and its surrounding area, had lost its prominence. The region's Buddhist temples, statues, and shrines were "in a state disrepair" surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds.

Furusato to
Narinishi Nara no
Miyako ni mo
Iro wa kawarazu
Hana wa sakikeri
Even in the capital Nara
That has become
An old village,
The cherry trees bloom,
Their colors unchanged.

Studious, as well as modest, humble and sickly, Aizu Yaichi was a poet, aesthetician, and art historian at Waseda University. Quiet and persistent by nature, he dedicated the remainder of his life to resurrecting the cultural fullness of what had once been the cradle of Japanese culture. A young woman named Kiiko for several years took care of Aizu, doing the household chores, laundry, cooking, etc. to allow Aizu the time to pursue his studies. She became his adopted daughter. She too was sickly and died at the age of 33 in 1945, during World War II when American bombers were bombing the countryside killing innocent people prior to the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The sickly Aizu never gave up until his death in 1956.

Writes Marra, "Aizu's poetry is undoubtedly the most influential writing on the city of Nara in the twentieth century. Aizu's poetry, which soon became very popular, [assisted] his efforts to preserve the monuments of the ancient city of Nara as a cultural icon in the modern age." He was able to do for Nara what he could not do for Athens, a city and culture he greatly admired.

     As I sleep
Facing the city,
     my Buddhas
stand even in my dreams
On an autumn night.

Referring to the statue of the Four Heavenly Kings from the Daianji

     People say that
Faded colors are good,
     But the mouth of the Buddha
should glow red,
like an apple.

From Nara to a friend in Tokyo

          Today again
Many people will stand,
In the shallow shade
Of the Asura's eyebrows

The Village of Horiuji (Ikarugadera)

     Walking on the ground,
Over the shadow of the great temple's
     Round columns
That the moon casts,
Absorbed in thought.


     That you might sleep
     Rather than weeping over
The present circumstances
Of the big temple.

Writes Marra in a footnote:

Aizu points out that the celebration of the anniversary of Shotoku Taishi's death should be an occasion for the villagers to re-live the spirit of the prince, who, in the seventh century, had introduced continental culture to Japan. Aizu wrote a variation of this poem in the scroll Nanto Yuso which he sent to his friend Date Toshimitsu:

     Spring has come
When the villagers of Nara
     Of the blue-green earth
Should return
To ancient times.

Tachibanadera (A temple that was originally the Palace of Emperor Yomei and the birthplace of Shotoku Taishi):

     I came yearning
For the grass on the hill
     Trodden upon
By black colts
Dashing along in the morning,

The Kikoji Temple of in Sugwara:

     The young grass,
Lying in confusion,
     Mixes with withered grass:
Oh, the pain of treading upon
The capital's ruins.

The three story pagoda, Yakushiji:

     While the devil
     In the present world,
We do not know the whereabouts
Of the Buddha who tramples on him.

Aizu Yaichi's final poem in Marra's book sums up the importance of Nara to Aizu Yaichi and his mission of restoration:

     Since the day I left
Nara mountain,
     Every morning, every day,
The vivid images of the holy temples and the holy Buddhas
Come to my mind.


A Poetic Guide to an Ancient Capital: Aizu Yaichi and the City of Nara
by Michael F. Marra
Modern English Tanka Press
ISBN 978-193539807-3
$25.95 USD