Thursday, May 22, 2014

Poetic Musings: First Yamato Uta (First Japanese Poem)

yakumo tatsu            here, where eight clouds rise1
Izumo yaegaki          in the land of Izumo
tsumagomi ni            I will house my beloved
yaegaki tsukuru       inside an eightfold fence
sono yaegaki wo      inside an eightfold fence

Translated Makoto Ueda ("Introduction," pp. x-xi)

Historically speaking, no Japanese text of any kind was written down before the early 5th century, when the Chinese writing system was introduced, and the earliest surviving texts of Japanese literature are from the early 8th century (Kamens, pp. 45-6). Surely, there was a culturally rich oral tradition prior to that, but our picture of it is “deeply colored by the fact that it was first preserved in writing carried out under the auspices of a central governing elite seeking to create its own self-justifying cultural ‘history,’ and doing so with a strong consciousness of how this had been done in China” (p. 46). According to a myth 2 recorded in Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters, which was completed in 712 A.D.), Japan’s oldest book, a brother of the sun goddess intoned the above-mentioned 31 syllables for celebrating his wedding and his new house (Ueda, pp. x-xi), which is considered to be the first Yamato uta, the first Japanese poem (Kamens, p. 46), “formally a perfect tanka in its 5-7-5-7-7 structure and thus not archaic in its present form” (Cranston, p.7)

The use of repetition with a strong rhythmical beat shows a sign of this poem that is rooted in an oral tradition. And in its juxtaposed images of rising clouds (that represent an eruptive force) and the land enclosed with fencing, the poem is “appreciate to its nuptial context, and gives Japanese poetry a start on its most ancient subject – the relations between men and women” (Cranston, p.7)


1 Ya (“eight," a lucky number) often refers to large quantities (Cranston, p.7)

2 Below is the myth mentioned above and excerpted from “YamatoGlossary/Characters: Susanowo
Susanowo, Amaterasu's brother, figures prominently in Book One of Kojiki. According to the myths in Kojiki, Susanowo and Amaterasu were both born when Izanagi bathed in a river to rid himself of the pollution of Yomi, land of darkness and the dead, after chasing after and then away from his sister/wife, Izanami. Susanowo was born from Izanagi's nose and is a complex deity originally sent by his father to rule the Sea Plain. He is also associated with storms, winds, and water.

In the myths, Susanowo does not take up his duties as god of the seas but rather weeps uncontrollably causing the trees to wither and the seas to dry up. When Izanagi asks his son why he weeps so, Susanowo says that he wishes to go visit his mother, Izanami, in the land of Yomi. This enrages Izanagi who expels his son. Before leaving the realm of the deities, however, Susanowo goes to say farewell to his sister, Amaterasu. Amaterasu, suspicious of her brother's intentions, prepares for a confrontation. The siblings engage in an odd competition to prove the sincerity of their intentions, and Susanowo claims victory. However, Susanowo proceeds to reek havoc in Amaterasu's domain; for example, he throws excrement in the sacred hall that Amaterasu uses to taste the new rice of the fields. Amaterasu tries to be conciliatory, but her brother continues his cruel acts, until out of fear she flees his terrors by hiding herself in a cave and throwing the world into darkness. After Amaterasu finally reemerges and restores light and order to the world, she and the other deities impose punishments on Susanowo and then expel him.

After being expelled from Amaterasu's realm, Susanowo descends to earth and settles in Izumo in western Japan (MAP). The stories of his feats there take up a good portion of Book One in Kojiki. The Izumo clan (uji) was a powerful clan that resisted and then finally submitted to the central rule of the Yamato clan and its imperial lineage. Susanowo becomes the hero and ancestral deity of this clan. He slays dragons, rescues maidens, and gradually becomes a much more likable character. According to the myths, he presents his sword to Amaterasu as a sign of his submission and the submission of the Izumo clan to Yamato rule. This sword becomes one of the imperial regalia and is the same sword Yamatohime, the Ise Priestess (see Ise Shrine), gives to her nephew Yamato Takeru before he sets out to subdue the eastern clans. Susanowo is also credited with composing the first Japanese poem, a simple poem composed in praise of his new palace at Izumo:

Eight clouds arise.
The eight-fold fence of Izumo
To dwell with my wife
I make an eight-fold fence;
Oh, that eight-fold fence.


Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology, Columbia University Press, 1996
Edward Kamens, Utamakura, Allusion, and Intertextuality in Traditional Japanese Poetry, Yale University Press, 1997
Edwin Cranston, A Waka Anthology: Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup,  Stanford University Press, 1998

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