Monday, April 5, 2021

Lyric Poetry Around the World (15): Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (Japan, c. 660–720)

On Passing the Ruined Capital of Omi
Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

translated by Ad Blankestijn

Since the glorious reign
of the Kashihara Sage-Ruler,
by Jewel-Sash Mount Unebi,
each and every of the gods,
appearing in one line like spruce trees,
has exerted power over the realm beneath the sky.

Yet the heavenly lord, divine sovereign,
(whatever his intent)
left Yamato so full of the azure,
crossed the Nara hills so rich in green,
to exert power over the realm beneath the sky
from a remote place beyond the far heaven,
in the Land of Omi of the Racing Rocks,
in the Palace of Otsu of the Lapping Waves.

Though we have heard here stood his mighty palace,
though it is said here rose his mighty halls,
now all is overgrown by spring grass,
and clouded by the haze of the vernal sun:
as we look at the site of his mighty palace,
we are filled with sorrow.


Cape Kara of Shiga of the Lapping Waves,
though you are unchanged,
in vain we wait for the courtiers’ boats.

Owada Port of Shiga of the Lapping Waves,
though your waters are still,
how could we meet the men of long ago?

tamadasuki Unebi no yama no
Kashihara no hijiri no miyo yu
aremashishi kami no kotogoto
tsuga no ki no iyatsugitsugi ni
ame no shita shirashimeshishi o
sora ni mitsu Yamato o okite
ao ni yoshi Narayama o koe
ikasama ni omohoshimese ka
amazakaru hina ni wa aredo
iwabashiru Omi no kuni ni
sasanami no Otsu no miya ni
ame no shita  shirashimeshikemu
sumeroki no kami no mikoto no
omiya wa koko to kikedomo
otono wa koko to iedomo
harukusa no shigeku oitaru
kasumi tachi haruhi no kireru
momoshiki no omiyadokoro
mireba kanashi mo


Sasanami no Shiga no Karasaki
sakiku aredo
omiyahito no fune machikanetsu

Sasanami no Shiga no owada
yodomu to mo
mukashi no hito ni mata awame ya mo

玉たすき 畝傍の山の
橿原の ひじりの御代ゆ
生れましし 神のことごと
栂の木の いや継ぎ継ぎに
天の下 知らしめししを
そらにみつ 大和を置きて
あをによし 奈良山を越え
いかさまに 思ほしめせか
天離る 鄙にはあれど
石走る 近江の国の
楽浪の 大津の宮に
天の下 知らしめしけむ
天皇の 神の命の
大宮は ここと聞けども
大殿は ここと言へども
春草の 茂く生ひたる
霞立つ 春日の霧れる
ももしきの 大宮ところ




[Memorial stone on the site of the Omi Palace]

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (660?-720?; fl ca 685-705) was a Japanese court poet serving Emperor Tenmu (r. 672-686), Empress Jito (r. 686-697) and Emperor Monmu (r 697-707). Hitomaro is by far the most representative Manyoshu poet and, with Saigyo and Basho, he has been called one of the three most esteemed poets in Japanese history. Many of his poems were of a public nature, praising the imperial house or containing solemn elegies about deceased members of the imperial family, but he also wrote work of a more personal type, such as an elegy on the death of his wife. Hitomaro incorporated elements of the national mythology in his poetry, and in his poems of praise splendidly sing about the natural scenery and divinity of the Japanese isles. Hitomaru fused refinement of expression with a feeling of majesty. For Hitomaro's poem included in the anthology "One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each" see my article on his poem on the copper pheasant.

[Fantasy portrait of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro]

The above poem, with as subject the ruined capital at Otsu, was written during the reign of Empress Jito. Contrary to the other long poems (choka) by Hitomaro, this is not a celebration of the glory of the dynasty, but a poem of grief for a vanished time. Emperor Tenji had moved the palace from Asuka (in the province of Yamato, where it had always been located until that time) to Otsu, on the shore of Lake Biwa, in what was in the past the province of Omi and now is Shiga prefecture. He and his son ruled from this Omi Palace from 667 to 672, so it was just a brief interlude, which moreover ended in war.

Emperor Tenji (r. 662-671) had named his brother Prince Oama as his successor, but just before his death, he changed his mind, and transferred the succession to his son, Prince Otomo. The ensuing Jinshin War was won by Prince Oama, who moved the capital back to Asuka and reigned as Emperor Tenmu. He was succeeded by his wife, Empress Jito, who was in fact Tenji's daughter (and his own cousin). For the court of Empress Jito, the Omi capital was a somewhat sensitive subject: her own father had moved the palace there, so the move could not really be criticized, but on the other hand the present court was the product of a war that had been waged on the Omi capital. For more about Empress Jito and also about the Three Mountains of Yamato, see Poem 2 in
my series "One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each".

Besides a lament for a bygone times and an elegy on a ruined city (as we often find in literature from all over the world), Hitomaro's poem may also well have been an attempt to ritually pacify the spirits of the dead courtiers of the Omi capital, as Haruo Shirane surmises.

[Lake Biwa seen from Uchidehama, Otsu]

  • The "Kashihara Sage-Ruler" is the mythical First Emperor Jinmu. Kashihara is where he first ascended the throne. This is celebrated in the Kashihara Jingu Shrine (presumably standing in that very spot) as well as the (purported, for mythical persons have no real graves) mausoleum of Emperor Jinmu. 
  • Mount Unebi is one of the three mountains of Yamato, which were in the vicinity of the Yamato capital. 
  • "Each and every of the gods": all emperors, descendants of Jinmu, are spoken of as gods.
  • "Jewel-Sash" is a "pillow word," a fixed epithet (the custom to use such epithets started with Hitomaro, and he coined quite a few that were still used in later poetry). "Tamatasuki" is an auspicious word, suitable for the start of a poem; it means "jewel-sash" or "cord of gems."
  • The "heavenly lord, divine sovereign" points at Emperor Tenji; "whatever may have been his intent" expresses the poet's puzzlement at the transfer of the capital.
  • "Full of the azure" is a pillow word for Yamato, and "rich in green" for the Nara hills.
  • "Beyond the far heaven" is a pillow word for a remote countryside.
  • "His mighty palace": the palace of Emperor Tenji.
  • "Of the Racing Rocks" is a pillow word for Omi, and "Of the Lapping Waves" (Sasanami) is a pillow word for Otsu (and itself also a place name). "Omi" is the old name for the area that is now Shiga Prefecture. "Omi" came from "awaumi", "fresh-water sea" and refers Lake Biwako, Japan's largest lake, which is located at the center of the province. The kanji of "Omi" (近江) means "an inlet near the capital". Otsu is the name of both the ancient capital and the modern prefectural capital.
  • "Though your waters are still" at the end of the second hanka poem: Flowing water is a metaphor for time passing, so still water has the connotation of "although time does not seem to pass" (according to Shirane).
  • The "envoys" bring out the ironic contrast between the permanence of the land and the now vanished court, as Cranston remarks. 
  • Close to the site where the palace once stood, now stands the Omi Jingu shrine, dedicated to Emperor Tenji. See Poem 1 in my "One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each" series for more on Emperor Tenji.

The above translation is my own, but borrows some ideas from both Shirane (p. 79-81) and Cranston (p. 190-192). Shirane is more literal, Cranston more gorgeous. I translate as usual as literal as possible.


A Waka Anthology, Volume One, the Gem-Glistening Cup, by Edwin A. Cranston (Stanford, 1993)
Love Songs from the Manyoshu, tr. Ian Hideo Levy, comment by Ooka Makoto (Kodansha International, 2000)
Traditional Japanese Literature, An Anthology Beginnings to 1600, ed. Haruo Shirane (Columbia, 2007)
The Manyoshu, the Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of 1,000 Poems (Columbia, 1965)
Online Japanese text in The Japanese Text Initiative.

Ian Hideo Levy, Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism, Princeton U.P., 1984

Omi Palace site:  Saigen Jiro, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hiromaro: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Lake Biwa:  YOSHIFUMI OGISO, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Lyric Poetry Around the World Index