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.
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.
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.