Thursday, August 29, 2013


Wandering through new-to-me fields can sometimes yield such interesting and unexpected things. The world of Nara and Heian Japanese poetry is both familiar and alien, so different from medieval Japan and yet speaking to such perennial human yearnings.

Partly this is because of the very different social norms for romance, which occasioned poetic chronicling of so-familiar suffering and desire. Relationships between men and women were invariably intermediated by a series of poetic letters. Women lived in their father's house before and after marriage, and the conventions leading to marriage began with a matchmaker, who informed the man (or his family) of suitable prospects. He then wrote the woman a poetic letter (a tanka), to which she answered with a reply tanka letter. If her calligraphy and poetics were sufficiently adroit, he might continue the exchange of poems. The marriage itself began with the man sneaking into the woman's room at night (probably an open secret). After their first night together, the man sent his lover a morning-after letter (後朝の文 kinuginu no fumi), conventionally expressing such things as dismay at the rooster's crowing. The woman's family celebrates this letter, and she composes another reply. He "sneaks" into her room again on the second night, but upon sneaking in on the third night, the family presents sacred rice cakes to the couple. Following the acceptance of the rice cakes, the couple is married, and the man can go openly to visit the woman. Afterwards, there is a feast to celebrate the event, featuring purification rituals such as the threefold drinking of sake (which itself later became the focus of the marriage ritual, rather than the presentation of rice cakes).

Nara- and Heian-period sexual mores were a very different balance of restriction and openness from contemporary society. One poem in the Man'yōshū by the Emperor Jomei possibly references a spring ritual in which people would gather fresh greens before an orgy. Takahashi no Mushimaro similarly memorialized ascending Mount Tsukuba (now a major scientific research center and near where I used to live in Japan) on the day of a kagai, in which men and women exchange amorous poems before sex:

washi no sumu
Tsukuba no yama no
Mohakitsu no
sono tsu no ue ni
odome otoko no
kagau kagai ni
hitozuma ni
wa mo majirawan
wa ga tsuma ni
hito mo kototoe

On Mount Tsukuba
where eagles dwell,
By the founts
of Mohakitsu,
Maidens and men,
in troops assembling,
Hold a kagai, vying in poetry;
I will seek company
With others' wives,
Let others woo my own... (97)
It was an interesting period in which the synthesis of Chinese and indigenous Japanese elements of literary culture was still fresh. Plum blossoms, representing the scholar in Chinese literary tradition, had not yet been supplanted by the cherry blossom in the Man'yōshū poems of Ōtomo no Tabito:

yuki ni majieru
ume no hana
hayaku na chiri so
yuki wa kenu tomo

Plum blossoms
Lingering in the boughs
Amidst the snow—
Do not fall too quickly.
Even if the snow melts away. (135)
One of my favorites from the late Heian era, however, is Izumi Shikibu (970-1030 CE). Women writers were central in the early development of a distinctively Japanese literary tradition, because the social context required literary writing as a a basic means of courtly and romantic interaction. Aristocratic women may have been cloistered in tedium at home, restricted by courtly marriage politics, or made insecure by polygamy, but they were not yet so constrained by patriarchal norms: women could inherit and keep property and conceivably live independently. Shikibu's poetry, written at age 16 or 17, appeared first in the Shuuishuu (compiled about 1005 CE).
kuraki yori
kuraki michi no zo
haruka ni terase
yama no ha no tsuki

Coming from darkness
I shall enter on a path
Of greater darkness
Shine on me from the distance,
Moon at the edge of the mount. (288)
The moon is a common Buddhist metaphor for enlightenment. Japanese esoteric Buddhist monk Kūkai, for example, (quoting the Aspiration to Enlightenment attributed to Nāgārjuna) instructed “...each devotee [to] visualize in his inner mind the bright moon. By means of this practice each devotee will perceive his original Mind, which is serene and pure like the full moon whose rays pervade space without any discrimination” (Kūkai, 218-219).

Shikibu's poems often feature such Buddhist themes. For example, after she was forsaken by her lover Prince Atsumichi, she composed this "...about the same time, when I was thinking of becoming a nun" (collected in the Goshuuishuu of 1086 CE):
sutehaten to
omou sae koso
kimi ni narenishi
wa ga mi to omoeba

I feel so wretched
I am ready even to
Abandon the world—
When I think that I was once
Intimate with such a man! (297)
Perhaps most evocative is Shikibu's reflection on the transience of life and passion.
hito no mi mo
koi ni wa kaetsu
natsu mushi no
arawa ni moyu to
mienu bakari zo

For love I am ready
To change even my human shape;
All that distinguishes
Me from the summer insects
Is that my flame is hidden. (296-297)

All selections are from Keene unless otherwise noted.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993.

Kūkai. Kūkai: Major Works. Trans. Yoshito S. Hakeda. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. 1964. Middlesex, England: Peregine Books, 1985. 199-227.

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