Hyakunin Isshu No. 14: Dyed and tangled/Trapped in secret love

By: Kawara no Sadaijin (822-895)               河原左大臣

Surrounded by this                                          みちのくの
Intricate print,                                                    しのぶもぢずり
Becoming                                                            誰故に
Dyed and tangled,                                           乱れそめにし
Trapped in secret love                                   我ならなくに

Kawara no Sadaijin was a title for Minamoto no Toru (源 融), a statesman and poet who was the grandson of Emperor Saga and a part of the Saga Genji clan.  Claimed by some to be the model for the protagonist of The Tale of Genji, the only other really notable claim for Minamoto is this tanka that he wrote, which is also included in the Kokin shu as No. 724.


Shinobu Mojizuri ferns | 宮代NOW

In my notes, it states that the poet saw an intricately print of ferns on cloth, which reminded him of the tangled and chaotic state of his own feelings towards the woman he loved.  Furthermore, Michinoku (the first line of the tanka) was renowned in Ancient Japan for printed cloth, and Shinobu (the start of the second line of the tanka) was an area within Michinoku, which emphasises how intricate and fine the poet’s emotions would have been.


Fukushima Prefecture | Must Love Japan

A quick Google search revealed that Michinoku is in fact, the ancient name for Fukushima-shi, in Fukushima prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan.  Although it gained fame (or infamy?) internationally as the site of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, during the Nara and Heian years, Michinoku was actually a frontier area, and famous for its shinobu mojizuri fabric (the second line of the tanka).

The translator also notes that the pronunciation for fern is the same as for remembrance or concealment, which therefore gives the poem the meaning of either concealment through the fabric or the ferns, or remembrance through seeing the cloth or ferns.

Another translation gives this meaning clearer:

Whose fault is it
that my feelings have begun to tangle
like the tangle-patterned prints
of Shinobu from the distant north?
Since it is not mine, it must be…
(Mostow 1996)

This alternative translation also shows how Minamoto addresses this poem, as though to entangle his love with him within the fabric.  Accompanying notes to this translation additionally shows that this poem has been interpreted as a defense by Minamoto of his faithfulness to his lover, which, due to the interesting choice in imagery to symbolise how upset he is at being doubted, could also be argued as a way of showing a secret love to another.

I mean, ‘whose fault is it’ could be both Minamoto reinforcing that it was not his fault that he fell in love with and is in love with his lover and that his feelings for her are as tangled as the prints of Shinobu, or that his heart has, against his will, begun to stir for another, tangling the feelings that he held for his current lover with his emotions for his new interest.  I personally like the argument that he is trying to sort through his emotions for another, because it gives the poem more layers, which suits the imagery that he chose with the fabrics and ‘tangle-patterned prints’.


Shinobu Mojizuri fabric | わかればいいのに I Wish I Knew

It is also amazing that so much meaning can be conveyed within thirty one syllables, and it makes me respect Japanese poetry so much more, because as much as I love poetry, sometimes the way Western poets write seems so excessive and clunky, but here?  It is so clean, and so sparse, but still containing so much meaning.

And the more I read these poems, the more I realise how lacking my copy of the Hyakunin Isshu is.  It is enough to get me started, but it doesn’t provide enough information for my liking, and its translation seems clumsy or lazy compared to alternative translations that I can find on the internet.  But maybe I just expect too much from my books.



Hyakunin Isshu No. 11: Tell the people

By: Ono no Takamura (802-852)                           参議篁

Rowing out                                                                    わたの原
Past Eighty Islands                                                     八十島かけて
And the plain of sea –                                                こぎ出でぬと
Tell the people                                                            人にわ告げよ
Of this heaven-tempting boat!                              あまのつり船

Ono no Takamura was known as a noted poet and a state counselor in the early Heian period.  After a quarrel with the envoy he was supposed to join to go to China, he feigned illness to avoid the mission, and thus received two years’ worth of banishment to an island in then-Oki province (now Oki district in Shimane prefecture).  His departure for his banishment inspired him to write this tanka as he set to depart to his temporary home.


Katsushika Hokusai’s impression of the banishment of Ono no Takamura  | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For this tanka, the Eighty Islands is representative of the islands of Japan.  And since the emperor is believed to have descended from the gods in Japanese mythology, the ‘heaven’ in the last line of the translation, I believe, is a symbol for the emperor, who Takamura had ‘tempted’ by defying his orders regarding the mission to China.  Furthermore, I think the ‘people’ in the second last line literally means more the ‘people of the sea’, or fishermen, since he would have seen many as his boat sailed away from the Japanese mainland.  However, the ‘people’ could also denote the Japanese population in general, which would make the last two lines mean for the ‘people of the water’ to tell the ‘people’ of his transgressions and his punishment of exile.


A typical Heian Japanese boat | Japan Times

This directive to spread the word of Takamura’s exile as he sails onto the ‘plains of the sea’ could be a call for the people not to forget his name, since he would have had no idea of how long his banishment was to last.  It could also be to serve a warning to others of the result of disobeying the emperor, or it could be a call of regret for his actions.  Personally, the tone of this tanka seemed more hopeful and assertive when I first read it, and so I think that it is a call for people to not forget him because he’ll be back.

Compared to the previous few poems, there are not very many deeper meanings to ‘Tell the People’, but that is good too.  I mean, it’s not like people only went around lamenting their fates and their feelings in thirty-one syllables (although it seems like it, with the amount of deep and meaningful tanka present in this representative anthology of a hundred such poems…).

Also, tangent.  But I really don’t like the new format for writing posts.  When I have to add pictures or add links, I have to keep scrolling back up to the top, and ain’t nobody got time for that.