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. 13: Male and Female Peaks

By: Retired Emperor Youzei (869-949)     陽成院

From Tsukuba’s                                               筑波嶺の
Male and female peaks                                 峰より落つる
The Minano River falls                                   みなの川
And gathers a pool                                         恋ぞつもりて
Of passion deep                                              淵となりぬる

Emperor Youzei was the 57th emperor of Japan, reigning from 876-884.  He ascended to the throne early in his life when his father Emperor Seiwa (清和天皇) ceded the throne to his son at eight years of age.  As he grew older, Youzei began to display violent tendencies, often executing prisoners himself, and when angered would chase after the offenders, sometimes with his sword drawn.  Eventually, his chief assistant Fujiwara no Mototsune realised that Youzei was not fit for rule, and organised a way to take Youzei from his palace and confronted Youzei about his behaviour and announced his dethronement.  He was succeeded by his father’s uncle, Emperor Koukou (光孝天皇), and had nine imperial sons after his abdication with seven consorts.


The twin peaks of Mt. Tsukuba | siawasedog

Mt. Tsukuba is located in Ibaraki Prefecture, and there is a private train line called the Tsukuba Express that goes from Akihabara in Tokyo to Tsukuba town.  The notes in my book remark that, as the source of the Minano River is Mt. Tsukuba’s twin peaks, which reminded people of a man and a woman, this led to the naming of the Minano river, written as 男女 in kanji and meaning man-woman.

Although the poem is describing the scenery at Mt. Tsukuba and Minano River, I feel like the purpose of this tanka is similar to No. 6, which described secret rendezvous between lovers in the night, and No. 10, which talked about meetings at the gate of Osaka.  Despite already leaving the palace, as a courtier, his interactions would still have been restricted, and the wording that Youzei uses leads me to think that he had addressed this to one of his consorts about the passion that he felt for her.


The sign marking the start of the Minano river | bunkatorekisi

Even though this was probably not intended by Youzei at all when he penned the tanka, I feel like the emotions that he describes in this poem reveals just how passionate the Japanese people can be.  Despite seeming calm, collected, polite, and reserved to strangers and even to their own partners and family members a lot of the time, underneath the smooth façade, the Japanese are just as emotionally charged, if not more so, than their outspoken Western counterparts.

This is definitely something that I have realised during my year in Japan as I got to know many more Japanese people, becoming close friends with some of them.  And I cannot wait to see more glimpses into these emotions in future tanka, because if they are considered suppressed now, the ancient Japanese would have been hiding their emotions even more strongly, only expressing their true feelings through their imagery and wordplay.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 12: I see a maiden’s form

By: Monk Henjou (816-890)                                           僧正遍照

Heavenly wind,                                                                  天つ風
The cloud’s commute,                                                    雲のかよひ路
Stop your blowing, please –                                          吹きとぢよ
I see a maiden’s form                                                       乙女のすがた
And want to stay awhile                                                   しばしとどめむ


Henjou was born Yoshimine no Munesada, the eighth son of Dainagon Yoshimine no Yasuyo, a son of the Emperor Kammu who was relegated to civilian life.  Henjou actually started as a courtier, and even became the Japanese equivalent of a chamberlain to Emperor Nimmyo.  However, after Emperor Nimmyo died, Henjou became a monk and priest of the Tendai school of Buddhism out of grief.  After he became a monk, he founded Gangyō-ji in southern Kyoto, stayed active in politics, and was later also given Unrin-in in northern Kyoto to manage.  He is rumoured to have had an affair with Ono no Komachi (poet of #9), and had a son who composed #21 of the HI.


Monk Henjou | One Thousand Summers

As a poet, he is listed as one of the six best waka poets in the Kokin Wakashu, and known as one of the thirty-six poetry immortals.  I feel like all the poets that have been featured so far in the Hyakunin Isshu have been one of these poetry immortals, but I have also noticed that if they have been included in the HI, then they will probably either also be featured in the Wakashu, or be regarded as a poetry immortal, or both.

For this particular tanka, my translation states that apparently Henjou wrote this after seeing young ladies dance at a festival, which he therefore referenced as Buddhist mythological maidens living in the sky.  An alternate translation changes the sentences’ structures around, so that it reads:

Let the winds of heaven
Blow through the paths among the clouds
And close their gates.
Then for a while I could detain
These messengers in maiden form.

Originally, I thought that Monk Henjou was asking the winds to help stop the clouds so that he could stay outdoors and observe the maiden that he had seen.  However, this other translation shows that he wanted the winds to close up the sky with clouds so that these maiden messengers would stay with him for longer.  This also makes the Buddhist mythological maiden remark from my translation make more sense, and to me, this tanka echoes a meaning that previous tanka had also displayed: the expression of the emotions of the present moment and the significance of the now (for example, #1, #3, #4, #5, #7, #8).  Henjou is capturing a moment that he finds beautiful, and he knows this moment will not last, but he wishes for this moment to last longer.


Henjou may have possibly been watching the Gosechi dances when he got inspired for this tanka | epidote | photobucket

This knowledge of the fleeting moment reflects the beauty of what Japanese call wabi-sabi, or the beauty of the imperfect, of the transient.  It is reflected in how sakura blossoms and the autumn colours are so loved due to their impermanence, in how nature is shaped within Japanese gardens to reflect the passing of time, and in how most Japanese traditional arts such as Noh and the tea ceremony calls for inhabiting a moment through ritual and stillness.  Although Monk Henjou probably wanted to just capture a moment, the way in which he has done so shows more depth into his culture than he probably intended.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into thirty-seven syllables.

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.


Hyakunin Isshu No. 10: Osaka’s Rendezvous Gate

By: Semimaru                                                               蝉丸

This is the place –                                                       これやこの
Of comings and goings                                            行くも帰るも
And partings of ways;                                               別れては
Of knowing and not knowing too:                       知るも知らぬも
Osaka’s rendezvous gate                                        逢坂の関

Semimaru | Wikipedia

Semimaru | Wikipedia

Semimaru is only known as a Japanese poet and musician from the early Heian period, with almost nothing concrete known of his life.  At some point, he became a hermit in a cave at Osaka’s gate, which inspired him to write the tanka above and consequently caused him to be known as the Seki no Akagami (lit. light god of the gate).  This particular tanka also appears in the Gosen Wakashu, and some of his other works appear in Shin Kokin Wakashu and Zoku Kokin Wakashu.

Also, a note before we get into the interpretation of the tanka: the Osaka (逢坂) that is stated here is not the quite the Osaka (大阪) that is in present day Japan.  This Osaka is always mentioned in conjunction with the ‘gate’, and can be read as both ‘oosaka’ or ‘ausaka’ (alt. kanji: 相坂関, 合坂関, 会坂関).  I presume that this is the name of a gate that existed in Heian Japan, on the borders of present day Kyoto and Shiga prefecture.

In comparison to the HI #9, the meaning for this tanka is very straightforward.  It seems to be a direct observation of the activities around the gate throughout the day, and probably a sight that Semimaru saw every day. From looking up ‘Ausaka no Seki’ though,
I found that ‘to cross the Osaka Gate’ is also a way of expressing a secret meeting between lovers.  If you take this meaning into account, then something that seemed to be an observation of daily life becomes an observation of the nature of romantic relationships.

Osaka no Seki | Asian Haiku Travelogue

Osaka no Seki | Asian Haiku Travelogue

People meet and people part, emotions surge and emotions ebb, some relationships continue, and some stall and go no where at all.  In addition, the emotional layer that this second interpretation gives fits more into the themes that have been running through the last ten tanka that I’ve looked at.  They all deal with something to do with deeper, more abstract topics than just simple observations, and so personally, I agree with this second interpretation more than the widely given, straightforward one.

Also, something that I noticed when I was thinking about this tanka was how much more I understood from reading the original Japanese text.  It’s been months since I’ve read the last one, and I guess my Japanese has improved enough for me to read more into the actual text without needing the translations.  Having said that, this particular tanka is very simple, so maybe that’s why I’m getting it so easy… Let’s see how it goes as I start reading these again.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 9: The vibrant flower’s face has faded

By: Ono no Komachi (825 – 900)                       小野小町

The vibrant flower’s                                                花の色は
Face has faded –                                                      うつりにけりな
While I gaze in vain                                                  いたずらに
As the world grows old                                          我が身世にふる
And the long rain falls                                            ながめせしまに

Ono no Komachi | deep kyoto

Ono no Komachi | deep kyoto

Ono no Komachi was a legendary beauty, famous for both her poetic prowess and her relationships and loves with different men.  She is a member of the Rokkasen (of which Monk Hisen is also a member) and counted within the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals.  Despite her renown, almost nothing certain is known about her apart from her poetry and within her poetry, the names of the men she was romantically linked with because they are immortalised within the poetry exchanges present in the Kokin Wakashu (or more commonly referred to as Kokinshu).  There are five categories of legends surrounding Komachi, including:

  1. Tales of beauty
  2. Tales of sensuality
  3. Tales of haughtiness
  4. Tales of poetry/poetic virtue
  5. Tales of downfall/aging

Within her works, almost all her waka are melancholic, layered with verbal complexity and imagery, and almost always are about anxiety, solitude or passionate love.  For this particular tanka, according to my translation, all three of these emotions are represented.

Fallen sakura petals | Frantisek Staud

Fallen sakura petals | Frantisek Staud

In the first line, the colour of the flower (usually assumed to be sakura) could be representing love or have romantic overtones.  In the third line, ‘vain’ can be translated also as ‘on the surface’, which could mean that the author has wasted her life, or if it is treated as a modifier for the next two lines, means that she (as the world) has grown old on the surface and lost her appeal, but inside she is still full of passion.  The fifth line means either ‘gazing’ or an abbreviation of ‘long rain’, and if we choose to read it as ‘long rain’, the world ‘old’ in the previous line would change to become ‘falling’, and the last two lines would now mean ‘falling long rain’. The many double meanings in this tanka therefore creates so many different readings.  We can take it at face value, which would mean a lady staring at a fading flower in the rain as autumn and winter ages the world, or a lady staring at herself and lamenting the gradual loss of her beauty as she ages, or a lady, still staring at herself, but recognising that whilst she is fading away outwardly, her passion is still burning strongly inside.

I personally rather like taking the meaning as the third one, because that is the reading that encompasses the three dominant emotions within Komachi’s works.  The anxiety of growing old and becoming lonely, the solitude as she contemplates her feelings and the raining world around her, and the passionate love that she knows she is still capable of, this is what I imagine someone of her status and renown would feel as they become older and their looks fade.  This is also the way I hope I age in the distant future, because you cannot help aging, but if you can own it and look past it and recognise that you are still capable of doing great things regardless of age, then you will always be free of the fetters of old age.

Komachi Rice | Singarea

Komachi Rice | Singarea

Besides, Komachi has been immortalised everywhere in Japan, including Noh plays, a brand of rice, a train line, and a regular play.  If I follow her example, maybe I too could at least have a shot at being remembered through rice. 

Hyakunin Isshu No. 6: On the Bridge that Magpies Cross

By: Counselor Otomo no Yakamochi (718 – 785)

On the bridge                                                      かささぎの
That magpies cross                                          渡せる橋に
The frosty white                                                 置く霜の
Is laid across                                                       白きのみれば
As night grows old                                            夜ぞふけにける

Finally! After two tanka without translation notes, this one does, and with two relatively lengthy paragraphs too wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee but first, introduction of the poet!

Counselor Otomo was active during the Nara period as a Japanese statesman and prominent waka poet.  Although he never quite made it to the level of becoming a god of poetry, his skills did qualify him as a member of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals (三十六歌仙), being proficient at not only writing poetry, but also transcribing, rewriting and refashioning ancient poems and folklore.  Otomo was the most prolific and prominent writer of his time, and as a result was one of the compilers of the Man’yōshū, the first Japanese poetry anthology created, and had a great influence on the Shika Wakashū, an imperial waka anthology.

Magpies | Warren Photographic

Magpies | Warren Photographic

So.  Moving on to the actual tanka

According to the notes, the bridge that the magpie crosses could be symbolic of the night sky, as the black-and-white colours of a magpie is reminiscent of the streamers of stars trailing across the night sky.  Another reference to the night sky could be the white frost, which could symbolise the swirls of star dust between the clusters of the stars.

Supposedly, another layer of meaning to the tanka is to view the magpies as representations for Japanese people secretly meeting their lovers on a lonely bridge during the night, white frost building up as the night grows old.  Since this mode of communication was apparently very very common in the Japanese aristocracy, Otomo probably wrote it with both meanings in mind.

And it could be true, since the legend for the tanabata festival is based on the meeting of two separated lovers, who can only meet once a year from their exile on opposite sides of the world, with the road between them a bridge of flying magpies.  That explains both the magpies as an arc in the sky and looking like the stars of the Milky Way, and as a symbol of the secret meetings between lovers during the deep hours of the night.  However, since tanabata is traditionally celebrated in July, which is summer in Japan, I wonder what inspired Otomo to reference this legend in the depths of winter, as snow heaped along the shores and across bridges…

Tanabata | overdoor | zerochan

Tanabata | overdoor | zerochan