- The Beginning of Literature -



The most popular lady

among the early Japanese poets



“With the moon the tide has risen;

Now let us embark!”



How do you like this line ?  What background do you imagine behind it ?  Who do you think the poet was :   a man or a woman,   ancient or modern?



Among the earliest Japanese poets represented in the Man’yo-shu is a remarkable woman, Nukada-no-Ookimi, who is supposed to have lived from about 638 to about 705 AD. She was prominent for her clear identity, was called a mother of Japanese literature, and has been incomparably popular with Japanese people to the present day.  She passed away 1300 years ago, but never dies in Japanese people’s mind.  Not a few authors and scholars lavished time and energy to describe her exquisite personality in their essays and novels; painters tried to put her figure on their canvases.  No portrait of the poet remains; however, many Japanese have little doubt that she was beautiful, as well as very intelligent.  None of the other female  poets  in  Man’yo-shu  has  ever  attracted  such  strong interest and admiration from her audience.  Ookimi means Princess. Since Nukada is considered not of the Imperial family nor became the queen to an Emperor, I will call her simply “Nukada” here, as some scholars do.



What are the components of the strong attractiveness of Nukada?  After thinking of and reading about Nukada and her poems day and night, I finally reached a conclusion why she has been alive as people’s contemporary for centuries.  One reason is that each of Nukada’s eight poems in Man’yo-shu is powerful enough to persuade their readers and listeners that the poet must have lived a full, honest life.  It is apparent from her poems that she chose the best words, the best sounds, and the best styles to express how she cherished each moment, and that she had the fullness of heart to convey her feelings.  Her fullness encourages the readers/listeners to share joy, sorrow, exultation, or coquetry with this honest lady; rather than with many other female poets who composed almost nothing, but love poems toward their husbands and lovers.



Even more interesting for me, however, was the fact that I felt I had somehow witnessed Nukada’s life by following all of her eight poems in Man’yo-shu, chronologically. Each of her poems is different; each has its own fascinating lustre. But put together, they form a high !  rainbow-like  ark ,  and   vividly   indicate   how sincerely a woman of the first millennium lived her life: how she loved, how she empowered herself, and how she realized the change of time, withdrew gracefully from the limelight in later years.  I thought I would rather call her life “complete” when I knew that Nukada, one day in that secluded life, expressed her quiet affection toward a young prince with much self-restraint.  It is said that a complete life knows its end.  When I felt I saw Nukada seeing the end of her days, I was convinced that her greatness, the true cause of her charm, lies in the completeness of her life, that people are allowed to experience vicariously when they trace her poems.


Now, I would like to introduce Nukada and five of her poems in the limited space available.  I hope they will provide some evidence of what I have mentioned above.



It is said that Nukada appeared to the Court as a teen-aged girl who served Empress Kogyoku (later Saimei).  Nukada’s first poem in the Man’yo-shu is a reminiscence that she composed with compassion toward the retired Empress (Kogyoku, who retired from the throne, but after almost 10 years resumed her reign as Empress Saimei) on the occasion of the Imperial procession to the palace at Yoshino, when the former Empress recalled with great fondness her trip to that region with her late husband, Emperor Jomei, in their youth.  Accoding to Nihon-shoki, the date of composition should be in the spring of the year 660, but some say it was certainly the spring of 648, when Nukada was still in her early teens:



Poem 1-7 (volume 1,  #7)


Aki no No no Mikusa Karifuki Yadorerishi Udji

no Miyako no Kariioshiso Omohoyu


I remember

Our temporary shelter

by Uji’s palace ground,

when we cut the splendid grass

on the autumn fields

and sojourned (dallied) under thatch.


(Translation by Ian Hideo Levi,

another suggestion by Ichikawa in the parentheses)


Hiroshi Ito, another Man’yo scholar, praises this poem as the first “poem of reminiscense” composed by a Japanese poet.  In it, Nukada has successfully drawn the Empress’s cherished past from its shadowy sheltered place into the bright but not merciless present.  The missing mood becomes stronger through the contrast.  Referring to a remembrance of lost happiness in public, was and is a prohibition in Japan.  Nukada was young enough to step over the prohibition and go straight to the lonesome heart of the Empress, but not sentimentally. The Empress enjoyed both Nukada’s compassion and wit, and kept her close to the throne ever after. Nukada was clearly a young, brilliant girl, who was proud of her being very close to the most highly aristocratic person.  Her next poem, the one which contains the line I quoted at the very beginning, tells that she even recited poems on behalf of the Empress:



Poem 1-8

Nigitazu ni Funanori Sento Tsuki Mateba Shio

mo Kayoinu Ima wa Kogiidena


While at Nigitazu we await the moon

To put our ships to sea,

With the moon the tide has risen;

Now let us embark!


(Translation by Nihon Gakujyutsu Shinkoukai = the Japanese Classics Translation Committee)


This poem is considered to have been composed by Nukada, on behalf of the Empress Saimei, assumedly on January 8, 661, the seventh year of Saimei’s reign, when the imperial craft was waiting for the full tide at Nigitazu, Io (now Matsuyama), to sail for the west, to Hakata, Kyushu.  The armed craft was supposed to sail all the way to Korea, in order to support Kudara that had been badly attacked by the rising power Shiragi. Japan had little chance of winning, because Kudara was already almost fatally weakened.  It was apparently necessary for the Empress to encourage and motivate the soldiers, who were no doubt reluctant to go leaving their beloved ones behind. This poem of Nukada is one of the masterpieces of the Man’yo-shu for its grand style and decisive attitude, and of course for its scenic beauty. When read aloud, the poem evokes an image of Nukada (or the Empress) standing upon the bow of the warship, gorgeously dressed. This poem suggests the rising power of  Nukada  at  court.    Her  words  not only  satisfied the Empress, but also moved the people around them. Here, the Empress and Nukada were not completely separated; they were somewhat identical. Some researchers even claim, that poem was by the Empress herself.  I think Nukada was quite capable of this level of empathy.



The reign of Empress Saimei terminated in the same year by her sudden death. Here is a fact I haven’t mentioned yet.  Nukada had given birth to a girl whose father was Oo-Ama-no-Ooji, the second son of Saimei, even before she accompanied the Empress to Yoshino.  It seems that becoming a mother didn’t disturb Nukada’s life as a professional poet. The imperial children had their own nurses;  Nukada was now the most special and powerful poet, who was able to control people by her words borrowing the Emperor’s thought, mind, and power.  It may rightly be said that Nukada was destined to live as the very first successful “career woman.”



The first son of Saimei, Nakano-Ooeno-Oji, succeeded to the throne.  His era, called Tenji, started in 663.  Nukada remained in the palace as the poet laureate, not as the advocate of the Emperor, but as the most talented female poet. Poetry composition began to be done for entertainment. One day the Emperor Tenji commanded Prime Minister Fujiwara-Kamatari to choose between the hills   in  spring   and  autumn.     It  is  said  that  Nukada composed the long poem below in a moment, perceiving Kamatari’s hesitation. Here, Nukada shows her pride in her wit and sensitivity, by her quickness and by using the word “Wa-re” (I, me) for the first time. She is no more the shadow of the Empress, but the poet Princess Nukada.



Poem 1-16 (Japanese phonogram omitted because of its length)



When, loosened from the winter’s bonds,

                       The spring appears,

The birds that were silent

Come and sing,

The flowers that were prison-ed

Come out and bloom;

But the hills are so rank with trees

We cannot seek the flowers,

And the flowers are so tangled with weeds

We cannot take them in our hands,

But when on the autumn hill-side

We see the foliage.

We prize the yellow leaves,

Taking them in our hands,

We sigh over the green ones,

Leaving them on the branches;

And that is my only regret-

For me, the autumn hills! (I would say the autumn is the best!)



(Translation by Nihon Gakujyutsu Shinkoukai = the Japanese Classics Translation Committee;  parenthesized alternative by Ichikawa)





The next poem, 1-20, is the most famous of all the Man’yo poems. This controversial poem is said to have been composed in the year of 668, the year Tenji moved to the new palace at Oomi.  The Emperor took all his important people to deer hunting on the nearby field of Gamou.  The Emperor took his women also because farmers there grow Murasaki plant to produce purple dye.  Nukada was now one of the Emperor’s mistresses. Her former husband, then the Crown Prince Ooama-no-Ooji, was also invited:



Poem 1-20


Akane Sasu Murasakino Yuki Shi Yuki

Nomoriha Mizuya Kimi ga Sodefuru


Going this way on the crimson

gleaming fields of murasaki grass,

going that way on the fields of imperial domain—

won’t the guardian of the fields

see you wave your sleeves at me? 



(Translation by Levi Hideo)



Kimi (you) is Prince Ooama, Nomori (the guardian) here is the Emperor. Prince Ooama’s envoy is also famous.  The two poems are bold enough to confess their everlasting love to each other, but only under the cover of playful atmosphere of the banquet.  The love poems caused some controversy but the controversy was probably also a bit playful itself: since Prince Ooama now had two wives (both of them Emperor Tenji’s daughters) and a few mistresses; while Nukada was one of the Emperor’s mistresses.



Later, Prince Ooama killed Emperor Tenji’s son, the husband of the daughter of himself and Nukada, and became the Emperor Tenmu.  In spite of her love to the new Emperor, Nukada disappeared from the court, probably because she saw too much. Besides, Emperor Tenmu favoured male poets, including the talented Kakinomoto- no-Hitomaro.



Poem 2 -113


Miyoshino no Tama-Matugae

wa Hashikikamo Kimiga

Mikotoshi Mochite Kayowaku


This last known poem of Nukada was sent to Prince Yuge (Son of Emperor Tenmu) as an envoy, when the prince sent her a poem with a moss-covered pine branch from Yoshino, after the Emperor’s death.  All the people Nukada once loved had passed away.  Here is the translation by Ian Levi Hideo:


Ah! I love the branch

from the jewel-like pine

in splendid Yoshino,

for it comes with words from you.



The young prince compassionately imagines Nukada’s longing for the splendid past as she did when she was very young.  Some interpret “Kimi” (you) to be the Emperor Tenji and try to reconfirm Nukada’s love toward her second husband.  That explains, they say, why the editor put the poems in the “love poem” group.  I don’t agree.  The cycle is completed.  Nukada is now ready to listen to the younger generations with the deep, quiet affection.  So, she exchanges love poems with the innocent young prince.  The arc of Nukada’s rainbow has traversed long enough and is about to fade.  But being a rainbow, it will come again repeatedly whenever people call for it.



Setsuko Ichikawa

Tokyo Jogakkan Daigaku


Three poems of Nukada in their original version, in Japanese:

Tres poemas de Nukada en su versión original, japonesa:




Nukada in Asuka field (Nukada en los prados de Asuka)

by / por : YASUDA Yukihiko, 1958






『西本願寺万葉集』 巻1-巻20 主婦の友社 東京  1993.

The Man’yo-shu One thousand Poems Selected and Translated from the Japanese,


Ian Hideo Levi, Man’yo-shu: a translation of Japan’s premier anthology of classical

  poetry, vol.1.  University of Princeton Press and University of Tokyo Press, 1982.

Wright, Harold, Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from Man’yo-shu.  New York: The Overlook Press, 1988.


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―――他 『日本の古典 萬葉集』 東京 集英社 1978.

大森千明ed. 『万葉がわかる』AERA MOOK増刊 東京 朝日新聞社 1998.

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菊池威雄 『額田王』東京 進典社 1989.

身崎 壽 『額田王』東京 塙書房 1998.

三村秀竹・阿部正路『万葉百歌』 東京 エポナ出版 1980.

中西 進『万葉の時代と風土』角川選書 東京 角川書店 1980.

―――  『万葉の歌人たち』東京 角川書店 1980.