The Beginning of the Japanese Poetry

and the First Writers



Professor emeritus of Doshisha University, Kyoto, JAPAN.



I - Introduction


“The Man’yo-Shu is the oldest of the early Japanese anthologies, and by far the greatest, both in quantity and quality.  It consists of 20 books and contains more than 4.000 poems・・・The Anthology reflects Japanese life and civilization of the 7th and 8th centuries, and not only does it record the indigenous thoughts and beliefs, but also touches, even if only casually, upon Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism imported from the continent. The Man’yo-Shu is rich in the poems of the people as well as in those of the courtiers. ・・・It forms a happy contrast that many sovereigns and members of the imperial family are represented in the Anthology, together with a great number of excellent works by humble and nameless poets”, says Japanese Classics Translation Committee for the Introduction to 1000 Poems From the MANYOSHU, The Complete Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkoukai Translation (Dover Publications, INC. New York 2005).  So I would like to use the Anthology when I am talking of the beginning of the Japanese Poetry and the First Poets of Japan.


When we try to talk of the beginning of the Japanese poetry, we should know as a premise that most of the Japanese courtiers and warriors should be competent in making poems those days…  Making poems is a kind of the basic quality for the Japanese courtiers and warriors…  In this sense they were all poets in the broadest sense of the word… So it is difficult or impossible to define who the first poet in Japan was.  It had to take more years for the appearance of minstrels in Japan, while in ancient Greece minstrels were recognized persons, competent in singing and making songs, and they may be called the first poets of the day.


Probably the fact in Japan would have been like this… Emperor wanted first to compile good poems and then he might appointed some courtier who was well-known for his excellent poetic ability to compile good poems and edit an anthology.  It must have been greatest honour for the courtier to be nominated as the editor of the Emperor’s anthology.  He should have gained prestige to be a recognized or established poet in the court.   Gradually there came to be formed some groups of couriers who were good in making poems.  If a member of a group should have been appointed to be the editor of the Emperor’s anthology, the group would have jumped into the shinning stage; while if no one of that group would have been appointed to such a showy post, the group should have been off-stage.  This may have been the first picture of the appearance of the recognized poets in Japanese society.  Gradually we can see appearance of so-called court-poets, whose main job was to make poems for the Emperor or some courtly events. 




II - Kakinomoto-no Hitomaro


It may be interesting to find some “court poets” among the nobles and royal family.  They are officers in the court but their chief duty was to write poems.  A poet named Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro was one of them.  He had written many poems for the Royal family and the national events.


Following is the first poem by Hitomaro found in the anthology: (Bk. I  29~31)


(The original poem is to be read in Japanese at the end of the paper. Translation is mine.)


Written by Courtier Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro on passing the ruined palace at Ohmi


Born at Kashiwara near the Hill of Unebi, Emperors had been reigning over the world. Now the Majesty had unexpectedly left Yamato over the Narahills of shinning green for the countryside of Ohmi with shining ripples and ordered to build his palace at Ohtsu from where His Majesty liked to reign over His Majesty’s land.

Though  I  hear  this was the palace,  and that

was the hall, spring weeds and herbs cover all over there now.  Mist rises and the spring sun coming gloom.  How sad to see the ruin of once gorgeous palace.


Though Karasaki of Shiga is beautiful with shining ripples, there are no glittering courtiers waiting for their boats.


On the death of an Emperor, Japanese capital was usually removed to another place and new palace was built there.  Singing of the rise and fall of the capital at Ohmi, Hitomaro is praising the new capital at Nara.


Just at a glance of this poem, we could see the Japanese poems in the earlier days are very straight and frank in its expression.  Another example: by the same author: (.Bk. I  40).


(The original poem is to be read in Japanese at the end of the paper. Translation is mine.)


By the bay of Ago-no-Ura,

Maidens are playing with boat.

On the flow wet will be their skirts.


The more straight and the more naïve the expression is, the more sensitive and the more evocative the earlier Japanese poems are…  But we know the fact is that this poem was written by Hitomaro, who remained in Nara while his Emperor left Nara for Ise.  And so, Hitomaro did not see the scene with his naked eye but with his imagination. The description is not an actual but a visional scenery.  Now we should know their imagination would not transcend the actual world.



III Elegy by Hitomaro with his stance changing


One of the chief functions or duties of the court poet is to make Elegies on occasion of the Royal event, especially Royal funeral.   The elegy was usually read aloud at the funeral ceremony,   in front of the lines and rows of nobles. 

It was the honourable and showy occasion for the court poet to show his excellence in verbal expression.  The words should be rich and sonorous.  Alliteration may be the best rhyming technique in Japanese poems of the day.  But the elegy should never be expression of personal emotion. One example: (Bk. II - 167)



(The original poem is to be read in Japanese at the end of the paper. Translation is mine.)


Read at the funeral ceremony

for Prince Hinamishino-mikono-mikoto

by the Courtier Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro.


Alike at the beginning of the heaven and earth eight million and ten million gods meet together at the bank of the heavenly river, to celebrate the Prince rising up to the heaven out of the funeral palace opening the heavenly door leading to the heavenly throne.

With  the  glory  of the Prince spring flowers

and the moon in the sky were shining brighter.  Now that the Prince disappears far away, all men and women can do nothing but waiting for his heavenly boat coming back to this world, but in vain.


Now we saw only two or three works by Hitomaro and saw his straight and naïve but a little stereotyped expression there.  It may be safe to say that his style comes from his post as a court poet.  As a court poet he should be ever conscious of his function and role   He should  be  obedient  to his masters.    He should never be faithful to his own sentiment… Nothing is known concerning to his biography but it is said that he belongs to some lower order of courtiers.  This means that he could not have great success in his court life.  It may be natural for him to stick to being an obedient court poet.


When we see the social condition of his days we can see it was an uncertain time shifting from a primitive society to a modern constitutional society.   Japan was going through a hard trial to become a new nation following the development of China.  Buddhism and Confucianism are taking the role of the traditional Shinto-ism and a kind of Shamanism.   This means the fall of a certain privileged classes or nobles of high order and the rise of common people.  Hitomaro is said to become gradually a poet not only for the nobles but also for the common people. Thus it may be safe to say that Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro in this sense can be acknowledged as the first poet in Japan.


In his early time   Hitomaro sang elegies for the emperor and princes but in later days he sang elegies for common people.  We could guess that some rich common people would have requested Hitomaro to make Elegy for their lost relatives.  These elegies are more natural and less decorative.



Another example:  (Bk. III - 426)



(The original poem is to be read in Japanese at the end of the paper.  Translation is mine.)


-Seeing a corpse lying by Kaguyama Hill 


Whose husband is this lying on the pillow of grass?

                                                                while his family is waiting for him.


Another example:  (Bk. III – 428)


(The original is to be read in Japanese at the end of the paper. Translation is mine)



Read on the occasion

of attending a burning funeral of a maiden.


Cloud is drifting among the hills of Hatsuse,

Afraid if the soul of my girl is at a loss.


Another example: (Bk. III – 429)


(The original is to be read in Japanese at the end of the paper. Translation is mine)



In memory of a Drowned maiden

who burnt at Yosino.


The maiden in the hillside of Izumo may be an incarnation of a mist.

It is hanging around the hills of Yoshino.


The wording is natural and simple but strength of their sorrow is restrained with a certain stoic frame of mind.  One of his characteristics in making his poems, I think, is that they are always confined and staying within an earthly framework.   



IV - Yamabe-no Akahito


In contrast to Hitomaro, Yamabe-no-Akahito was excellent in strong personal expression.  He was also a court poet as well as Hitomaro.  But he seems to have been more faithful to his personal emotion than Hitomaro was.  He was better in natural poems rather than in ritual ones.  Here is a poem:  (Bk. III – 317)


(The original poem is to be read in Japanese at the end of the paper.  Translation is mine.)




Read on a distant view of Mount Fuji


Ever since heaven and earth were parted, it has soared lofty, noble, divine,   Mount Fuji in Suruga!  When we look up to the plains of heaven, the light of the sky-traversing sun is shaded, the gleam of the shining moon is not seen, white clouds dare not cross it, and for ever it snows.

We shall tell of it from mouth to mouth,

O the lofty Mountain of Fuji !



Walking out to the beach of Tago-no-Ura,

I see the white and bright Mount Fuji

Crowned with glittering snow, far and high.


Here we can see the Mount Fuji is sublimated into representation of God shining high.   Singing of Mount Fuji itself, Akahito, it can be said, has made a natural scenery a sublimated representation of something lofty and  awful  beyond  this  world.   The  first  two  lines are very much helpful to make us feel the natural figure of Mount Fuji unnatural.  In fact, we can hardly see the natural figure of the mountain here in the poem but feel the author’s sense of awfulness and worship to the Mount Fuji.  The figure of Mount Fuji is not a natural figure but changed into an inscape (inner-landscape) of his own mind.  Here we can see a definite difference between Akahito's world and that of Hitomaro’s which is always straight and simple however pathetic and evocative it might be.


Another difference of Akahito from Hitomaro is this: Akahito sings much on nature. while Hitomaro sings much of persons.  As a court poet Hitomaro made many elegies, though the character of the subject person has been changing from nobles to common people.  He seems to have ever been conscious of human being in general.  On the other hand Akahito seems to have ever been concentrated upon nature and its awful effect rather than upon human being itself.




V - A Tentative Conclusion: Two senses of Time


Thus I would like to appoint the two poets, Hitomaro and Akahito, as the first poets of Japan.  And I pointed out the difference found between the two.  Now I would like to add to it another point characteristic to them.


It is a difference found between their sense of time:  In the world of Hitomaro’s poems there streams Time as it does in our daily life.  There Time streams away from the eternal past to the eternal future.  Human being is like a bubble born out of the water, floating along with water, and vanishing away somewhere.  Time as a streaming water is called Time as khronos or kronos in Greek (time), while there is another Time which is not streaming away.  In the Bible they called the Time as kairos in Greek.  The Greek-English Lexicon of Oxford interprets the word as “the right point of time or critical time.”  Using these definitions of Time, we could distinguish the two poets: one is the poet of kronos, and the other is the poet of kairos.  Akahito’s Mount Fuji is not a mountain existing in the world dominated by kronos but in the world of kairos.


Now we are dominated by the Time as kronos, I think, forgetting the Time as kairos.  Isn’t this a Time feeling awfulness and loftiness of something great beyond human-being. as Akahito did?  As long as we are too much concerned with trivial existence of human-being, Peace will not come to us.  And the use of poet should be to show people the “inscape” of kairos  which could only poet see and feel.


Koichi Yakushigawa



(A panoramic view of Mount Fuji is to be seen in the Spanish version)




The quoted songs in original Japanese

from the Man’yo-Shu


Bk.I  2931



玉だすき 畝傍の山の 橿原の 日知の御代ゆ

生れましし 神のことごと つがの木の いやつぎつぎに 天の下 知らしめししを 天にみつ 大和をおきて あおによし 奈良山を越え いかさまに おもほしめせか 天ざかる 鄙にはあれど 石走る 淡海の国の ささなみの大津の宮に 天の下 知らしめけむ 天皇の 神の尊の 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 かすみたつ 春日の霧れる ももしきの 大宮処 見れば悲しも





Bk. I - 40






Bk II- 167


日並皇子尊のあらきのみやの時、柿本朝臣人麻呂の作れる歌一首並びに短歌   天地の 初の時 ひさかたの 天の河原に 八百萬 千萬神の 神集ひ 集ひいまして 神分ち 分ちし時に 天照らす ひるめの尊 天おば知らしめすと 葦原の 瑞穂の国を 天地の 依り合いの極 知らしめす 神の命と 天雲の  八重かき別きて 神下し いませまつりし 高照らす 日の皇子は 飛鳥の 浄の宮に 神ながら 太しきまして 天皇の 敷きます国と 天の原 岩戸を開き 神上り 上りいましぬ わが大王 皇子の命の 天の下 知らしめしせば        春花の        貴からむと      望月の    満はしけむと 


天の下 四方の人の 大船の 思いたのみて 天つ水 仰ぎて待つに いかさまに 思ほしめせか つれもなき 真弓の岡に 宮柱 太しきまし 御殿を 高知りまして 明言に 御言問はさず 日月の まねくなりぬれ そこ故に 皇子の宮人 行方知らずも



Bk. III-426






Bk-III 428






Bk III-429






Bk III-317



天地の 分れしときゆ 神さびて 高く貴き 駿河なる 富士の高嶺を 天の原 ふりさけ見れば 渡る日の 影も隠らひ 照る月の 光も見えず 白雲も い行きはばかり 時じくぞ 雪は降りける 語り継ぎ 言い継ぎ行かむ 富士の高嶺は