Beginning of Literature -
“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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
no Miyako no Kariioshiso
by Uji’s palace ground,
when we cut the
on the autumn fields
(dallied) under thatch.
(Translation by Ian
by Ichikawa in
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:
While at Nigitazu we
await the moon
To put our ships to sea,
With the moon the tide has risen;
Now let us embark!
Nihon Gakujyutsu Shinkoukai
= the Japanese Classics Translation Committee)
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.
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.”
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 birds that were
Come and sing,
The flowers that
Come out and bloom;
But the hills are so
rank with trees
We cannot seek the
And the flowers are
so tangled with weeds
We cannot take them
in our hands,
But when on the
We see the foliage.
We prize the yellow
Taking them in our
We sigh over the
Leaving them on the
And that is my only
For me, the autumn
hills! (I would say the autumn is the best!)
Nihon Gakujyutsu Shinkoukai
= the Japanese Classics Translation Committee;
parenthesized alternative by Ichikawa)
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:
(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.
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-
Poem 2 -113
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
Ah! I love the
from the jewel-like
in splendid Yoshino,
for it comes with words
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.
Tokyo Jogakkan Daigaku
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
GAKUJYUTU SHINKOKAI. Tokyo: IWANAMISHOTEN, 1940.
Ian Hideo Levi, Man’yo-shu: a translation of Japan’s premier anthology of
poetry, vol.1. University of Princeton Press and University of Tokyo
Wright, Harold, Ten Thousand Leaves, Love Poems from Man’yo-shu. New York: The Overlook
伊藤 博 『万葉の歌人と作品』上 東京 塙書房 1978.
―――他 『日本の古典２ 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.
管野志隆光ed, 『萬王の歌人と作品第1巻 初期万葉の歌人たち』 東京 塙書房 1998.
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.