Romance in Ancient Japan

I’ve always been something of a hopeless romantic-type, even as far back as the toddler-age (so says my mother). Like that one Michael Jackson song goes: I’m a lover, not a fighter. So I admit, I have enjoyed reading the Hyakunin Isshu poem anthology lately because of its frequent poems of secret love, betrayal, longing and heartache. This particular comic edition by Chibi Marukochan also contains side-stories and biographies about certain men and woman of the Hyakunin Isshu, their romances, etc.

With that said, romance, as has always been the case in Human History, was a big part of the literature of the Heian Court and its aristocracy. Indeed, almost half of the poems in the Hyakunin Isshu are love poems, but things are not always as they seem. Some of the best love poems in the anthology are in fact not expressions of genuine love, but rather entries to poetry competitions. Poetry competitions were all the rage in the Heian Court of Japan, and a really good poem could really make or break someone’s reputation, as eluded to in Lady Murasaki’s Diary. It was a sign of wit, culture and all the things that embodied the Court at the time. Even Buddhist monks of the era, those from well-to-do families, participated. In this poem, the priest Sosei pretends to be a jilted woman:

今来むと Ima kon to
いひしばかりに Iishi bakari ni
長月の Nagatsuki no
有明の月を Ariake no tsuki o
待ち出でつるかな Machi idetsuru kana

And translation by the good folks at the University of Virginia:

Just because she said,
“In a moment I will come,”
I’ve awaited her
Until the moon of daybreak,
In the long month, has appeared.

The Chibi Marukochan book explains that Sosei was actually trying to impersonate a woman in the poem, so the Univeristy of Virginia may have mistranslated the gender here, but I can’t complain either. :) The fact that a Buddhist priest is engaging such silly (albeit brilliant) poetry does make me question the state of affairs of the monastic institution at the time, but I already discussed the privatization and gentrification of the Buddhist establishment at the time in another post.

A good example of the high stakes involved in such love poetry are these two from the Hyakunin Isshu. These were both submitted for a poetry contest held by Emperor Murakami in the late 10th century, with the theme of “hidden love”. The first by Mibu no Tadami (壬生忠見):

[41] 恋すてふ Koisu cho
我が名はまだき Waga na wa madaki
立ちにけり Tachi ni keri
人しれずこそ Hito shirezu koso
思ひそめしか Omoi someshi ka

For which a translation by the U of Virginia is:

It is true I love,
But the rumor of my love
Had gone far and wide,
When people should not have known
That I had begun to love.

And another by opponent Taira no Kanemori (平兼盛):

[40] 忍ぶれど Shinoburedo
色に出でにけり Iro ni ide ni keri
わが恋は Waga koi wa
物や思ふと Mono ya omou to
人の問ふまで Hito no tou made

And translation:

Though I would hide it,
In my face it still appears–
My fond, secret love.
And now he questions me:
“Is something bothering you?”

According to history, Taira no Kanemori was the victor of that contest by virtue of skill, though Mibu no Tadami’s was deemed more pure in expression. Sadly, Mibu no Tadami was so distraught over his defeat that he died soon after.

The “40′s” section the Hyakunin Isshu (poems 40 through 49) are almost entirely of love poems. My favorite of the whole anthology is shortly after by Fujiwara no Asatada:

[43] 逢ふことの Au koto no
絶えてしなくは Taete shi nakuwa
中々に Nakanaka ni
人をも身をも Hito o mo mi o mo
恨みざらまし Urami zaramashi

Again with a translation like so:

If it should happen
That we never met again,
I would not complain;
And I doubt that she or I
Would feel that we were left alone.

That’s a pretty slick poem actaully. I may reserve that one for a Valentine’s Day or an Anniversary one of these days. :)

The famous female poets of the era such as Lady Murasaki, Lady Izumi and Sei Shonagon) all appear in the “50′s” section of the Hyakunin Isshu, but none of the poems collected are love poems. However Lady Izumi was famous throughout her life for her love trysts, and her heartbreaks too as she lost some of the men in her life at an early age, as well as her children. The life of Lady Izumi was definitely one of the more colorful ones back then, and her poetry among the best. One poem mentioned in the Chibi Marukochan book I read was a response she wrote back to Prince Atsumichi, her second love, who sent her a gift of flowers:

薫る香に kaoru ka ni
よそふるよりは yosouru yori wa
ほととぎす hototogisu
聞かばやおなじ kikabayashi onaji
声やしたると koe yashitaruto

I can’t find an English translation for this, but the book explains that she wants to confirm if he wants to meet face to face with her. Such a private meeting was pretty risky in those days, when men and women rarely saw each other except behind screens. In the poem, she uses the analogy of the voice of the Hototogisu bird and (I think) if another bird will answer the call. The other being Prince Atsumichi of course.

Good stuff. :)

About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Japan, Japanese, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Romance in Ancient Japan

  1. johnl says:

    Those poems are generally wrapped in several layers of meaning and ambiguity–very tough to translate, but their charm seems to be in some ineffable mood or feeling, maybe even more than the meaning. By the way, the Emperor (or maybe the Imperial Household Agency) sponsors an annual poetry contest open to the public. They announce a theme, and people submit poems. Shortly after the New Year holidays, the winners get to participate in a meeting where the official reader ‘intones’ their poems, and those of the Emperor and Empress, following the old custom of reading each one twice in succession. I think it is broadcast on NHK–don’t know if archives are available. But the custom is being preserved.

  2. Doug says:

    Charming indeed. :-) When I read the explanations in the Chibi Marukochan book, they often pointed out the double-meanings and stock phrases, or historical context behind a given poem. You are so right: these are terribly difficult to translate. I was impressed by Lady Izumi’s daughter’s poem in particular because it was off the cuff and yet technically astounding. :-)

    I had no idea the tradition still lives on though. I should look into that more. I lack the expert’s eye to appreciate such things but even a foreign amateur like myself can appreciate that ineffable mood you aptly mentioned. :-)

  3. johnl says:

    Yeah, I forgot to mention that in the poetry contest, the themes don’t seem to include secret love or any kind of love these days. Pretty much all nature related, like ‘the moon’ or ‘icicles.’

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