Japanese Poetry to 1800 Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The history of Japanese poetry begins indisputably with the eighth century anthology Manysh (mid-eighth century; The Collections of Ten Thousand Leaves; also as The Ten Thousand Leaves, pb. 1981, and as The Manyoshu, 1940) although the earlier historical chronicles Kojiki (c. 712 c.e.; Records of Ancient Matters, 1883) and Nihon shoki (c. 720; Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896), as well as a few stone inscriptions, also preserve scattered early poems and sacred songs. The significance of The Manyoshu is manifold. As the most literal translation of its title, “collection of myriad leaves,” suggests, it is a work of imposing bulk; containing more than 4,500 poems, it is by virtue of its age and size simply not to be ignored. Another interpretation of its title, “collection of (or for) myriad generations,” hints at the importance accorded poetry in eighth century Japan.

The Manyoshu

The Manyoshu was assembled at a stage of Japanese cultural development roughly comparable to that of northern and western Europe at the close of the Dark Ages. In both cases, literacy was confined to very small groups, elite islands of advanced culture in a sea of what was by comparison barbarism. In the European case, literacy was a legacy of the Roman conquests, held in trust by the Roman Catholic Church until an ebbing in the tide of barbarian invasion allowed it to infiltrate secular courts. Literacy was in a sense indigenous, a skill that, from the viewpoint of the early Middle Ages, had been known (although not widely practiced) from time immemorial. The written word came to Japan, however, as the central monument of a flourishing, contemporary foreign civilization, embodied in the energetic culture of the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) Dynasties. Chinese culture and the idea of literacy did not come with a conquering army but rather, it appears, by choice. The future imperial court, having consolidated its sway over competing tribal or regional groups, began in perhaps the fifth century to maintain what seems to have been fairly regular intercourse with China by way of the land route up the Korean peninsula. It was at this time, most agree, that written records began to be kept in Japan, but they were in Chinese, the work of Chinese and Korean scribes imported by the court.

The rich sophistication of Chinese culture in comparison with that of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam must have been almost absurdly evident to the first generations of Japanese who set themselves the task of learning Chinese and its complex writing system, through which medium the entirety of more than a thousand years of literary culture was suddenly visible in an undigested mass. In addition to the native Chinese classics, there was a huge body of Buddhist texts in Chinese to contemplate. By the end of the seventh century, however, the emerging Japanese state, headed by an aristocratic court, had accomplished much by way of assimilating the new culture. Governmental forms and court rites were modeled on Tang examples, and alongside the native animist religion, Shint, Chinese Buddhism was officially established and encouraged, for the power of Tang in China—where Buddhism was enjoying a short-lived ascendancy—was thought to rest in part on the magical efficacy of Buddhist ritual. Under such circumstances, where political power was legitimized by Chinese precedent and the spiritual realm was increasingly dominated by a complex Indian faith that the Japanese could approach only in Chinese, the dominance of Chinese in the field of letters is no surprise. The true cause for wonder is that The Manyoshu testifies to a vigorous parallel tradition of sophisticated literary activity in Japanese—a tradition that was a century and more old by the time the collection was compiled.

The poetry of The Manyoshu dates largely from the first half of the eighth century, but a significant portion of it was composed in the preceding century, and a small number of verses seem to be authentic survivals, if perhaps retouched by later hands, from even earlier. The poetry of The Manyoshu and the history of the Records of Ancient Matters are written with Chinese characters, but because the Chinese ideographs are used for their phonetic values, these texts may be read as pure Japanese. However absorbed they may have been, therefore, in making Chinese culture their own, the Japanese were occupied as well with the difficult task of adapting the new tool of writing to record in their own language what they most valued in the native tradition, at a very early time in comparison with other East Asian societies.

The Manyoshu and the Records of Ancient Matters thus may be viewed as evidence of a persistent Japanese determination to maintain a significant degree of independence from foreign cultural influence, but their existence also ironically underlines the power of Chinese example, for poetry and historiography occupied the vital center of the Chinese literary canon as it reached the Japanese. These works can thus also be thought of as part of a broader enterprise on the part of the Japanese aristocracy to...

(The entire section is 2181 words.)

Other early poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Poets of the generation immediately following Hitomaro’s wrote in an idiom even more clearly shaped by contact with Chinese poetry. Yamanoe Okura (c. 660-733), for example, is represented in The Manyoshu by a group of chka on such subjects as poverty, destitution, and old age that can be read almost as a translated pastiche of Chinese poetic statements on the same themes, although his masterly use of Japanese has made them an admired (if rarely emulated) part of the native canon. tomo Tabito (665-731), a close associate of Okura, left a series of tanka on the virtues of rice wine in which his adopted persona, that of the talented literary bureaucrat languishing in an enforced retirement, is as Chinese as anything by Okura, though Tabito’s poetry is in a Japanese quite free of Chinese linguistic influence and in a form quintessentially Japanese. Both men were members of what was probably one of the earliest generations thoroughly at home in the world of Chinese letters, and their poetry may be read both as an homage to Chinese verse and as an intelligent experiment with expanding the range of Japanese poetic expression. They represent an extreme, however, for few later poets went as far as they did toward a Sinification of Japanese poetry, perhaps because the pessimism and intellectuality of their verse was believed to be simply too Chinese, too much a violation of the sunnier precedents of Japanese poetry.

Tabito’s son, tomo Yakamochi (718-785), may safely be called the most important and influential of the final generation of Manyoshu poets, both because of the quality of his verse and because he appears to have taken the leading role in the compilation of the anthology itself. Yakamochi’s poetry marks him genuinely as a transitional figure. He is among the last masters of the chka, which seems to have fallen from fashion rather soon after The Manyoshu was put together; at the same time, his work foreshadows what would become the dominant traditions of Japanese poetry for centuries to come.

There is a strong element of nostalgia in Yakamochi’s poetry, most especially a longing for a glorious martial past, because the tomo were a warrior clan. Later poets would not focus on this particular past—too redolent of violence for courtly tastes—preferring a more generalized evocation of antique timelessness; still, the stance toward the present, which is somehow drab, pedestrian, and ephemeral, is much the same as Yakamochi’s, and quite different from Hitomaro’s pastoralism. In Yakamochi’s time, too, poetry moves indoors, or at least into the urban nobleman’s garden; gone are the grand vistas of mountain and plain, replaced by the singularities of garden plantings viewed close up over a balcony rail. Here Yakamochi was following one strand of Chinese verse, but he was also writing poetry germane to his time and place, since his was the first poetic generation to know the distinctive qualities of settled urban life; until 710, when a permanent capital city modeled on the Chinese metropolis was laid out on the site of modern Nara, the capital of Japan was wherever the emperor’s court happened to be, and the court was mobile, for in accordance with Shint belief, death rendered the sovereign’s palace irremediably unclean, unfit for the sacral duties of the throne.


The next great landmark in Japanese poetry after The Manyoshu is another anthology, the Kokinsh (905; Kokinshu: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern, 1984), which is dated to 905 by its introduction. The Kokinshu marks the maturation of a tradition that has become known in English as court poetry. It is significant that it is once again an anthology that Japanese literary historiography singles out as important rather than, say, the achievements of a single poet or innovative poetic school, and doubly significant that this collection should bear the title it does—together these facts attest a conception of poetry as a collective cultural endeavor to which tradition and precedent are as important as innovation. Important also is the fact that the Kokinshu was an imperially commissioned collection, the first in a series of twenty-one that would appear at irregular intervals until 1433, and thus an early symbolic declaration of how important a part of court life poetry was and would be thereafter.

The scope and variety of the poetry of the Kokinshu are much constricted in comparison with The Manyoshu. The collection is smaller—it contains only some eleven hundred poems—and the overwhelming majority of the verses in it are tanka. There is little doubt, moreover, that this was a highly selective anthology. The Kokinshu was not meant as a representative sampler of the best of Japanese poetry, but rather, it appears, as a normative guide to what its compilers thought poetry should be. Principal among the compilers was Ki no Tsurayuki (884-946), whose introduction to the collection, the earliest extant piece of literary criticism in Japanese, would stand for centuries as the definitive statement of the proper concerns of the poet. Tsurayuki’s most famous dictum is his metaphoric definition of Japanese poetry, which “takes as its seed the heart of man, and flourishes in the countless leaves of words.” Emotion and its direct expression, he is saying, are what poetry is all about; in short, lyricism is at the core of Japanese poetry, and from Tsurayuki forward it would not be displaced. The classical Japanese canon would simply never admit the more expansive and multidimensional allegories, ballads, epics, and poetical discourses on religion, philosophy, and even politics that constitute so much of the high classical tradition of Western verse.

The Kokinshu is for the most part arranged topically, grouping together in the first books of the collection, for example, poems with seasonal subjects, season by season. Within each of these books, the poems are arranged roughly according to the order in which their dominant natural images occur as the seasons progress, so that in the first spring book, the flowering plum precedes the cherry. Love poems are arranged in like manner, to echo in the aggregate the pattern of a love affair, from initial infatuation through tentative courtship and passion to the inevitable abandonment. Not all topics allow this kind of mimetic organization—the books of celebratory poems, poems on parting, and poems based on wordplay are instances—but nowhere do Tsurayuki and his colleagues seem to have in mind the usual literary-historical objectives of Western anthologizers, grouping poems by author or in some way chronologically, to show stylistic changes over time.

The Kokinshu, it appears, was assembled not as a work of scholarship or preservation, but rather for the use of practicing poets, to whose needs its finely tuned topical organization was ideally suited. Despite Tsurayuki’s insistence that poetry be an expression in “the leaves of words” of the movements of the heart, all the evidence—fiction, diaries, annotations to private and official anthologies—argues that poets in the age of the Kokinshu composed for specific occasions, not when seized by a lyric impulse. In this context, the Kokinshu and subsequent anthologies look very much like handbooks that were assembled as authoritative guides to the sort of poetry sanctioned by tradition and contemporary taste as appropriate to any number of clearly defined circumstances. As works such as the eleventh century novel Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933) illustrate so well, court poetry was a social art practiced either in full public view—at poetry contests, on flower-viewing expeditions, at banquets—or, if in private, as a form of communication between friends or lovers; any courtier or lady of the court with pretensions to social grace had to be ready to produce passable verse whenever called upon. The Kokinshu and other anthologies were organized to allow quick consultation for an appropriate model or for a poem that could be alluded to in one’s own composition.

Within the narrowed confines of the poetry of the Kokinshu, there is still much to be admired, for its special province, the human heart, is after all not an easily exhausted subject. Poetry of love and courtship is not surprisingly one of the long suits of the collection. Particularly engaging is the work of such ninth century poets as Ariwara no Narihira (825-880), a courtier who quickly became a model of the ideal courtly lover, and the court lady Ono no Komachi (834-880), whose passionate verse threatened to escape the bounds of seemly reserve that most other poets were at pains to observe. Narihira’s is a poetry of great wit and elegance, but it is colored also by a much-admired Buddhist awareness of the inconstancy of the temporal world and the deceptiveness of the emotions. Komachi, on the other hand, is a very subjective poet whose immersion in her own sometimes violent emotional states cost her admirers in a world that valued the pose, at least, of detachment more than direct cries from the heart. She and Narihira stand at the head of a long line of poets, male and female, whose Kokinshu verses established love poetry as one of the honored genres of court poetry.

By the time the Kokinshu was compiled, Buddhism had become a powerful force in shaping the Japanese poetic sensibility, which it entered indirectly through the influence of Chinese verse and directly as it became more and more a part of Japanese life. It did not, however, result in the development of an explicitly religious or devotional poetry. Rather, it provided a fundamental point of view for the poet in its insistence on a radical conception of phenomenal reality as a slippery, ever-changing flux given an illusory substance and stability by fallible human perception and rationalization. Impermanence and the unreliability of subjective observation are seldom spoken of explicitly in Kokinshu verse, which like all premodern Japanese poetry shies away from abstract nouns and overt philosophizing, but an acceptance of them as fundamental truths underlies much of the literature of the time.

There is a dark quality of resignation in the Buddhist conception of human experience that seems to be at odds with the more life-affirming, unreflective vision of humans and their world that characterizes Shint animism, but in fact court poetry frequently manages a resolution of the conflict by finding a paradoxical comfort in the wholly reliable way the natural world eternally reaffirms the truth of universal flux; nature continues to be invested with...

(The entire section is 4419 words.)

Haiku and renga

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

While the Shinkokinsh marks a high point in the classical poetic tradition, it by no means marks its end, which in a sense has come only in the past century with the decay of the custom of rote memorization of the poetic canon (or at least large parts of it)—a custom that was integral both to the appreciation and to the practice of court poetry. Indeed, until the first decades of the twentieth century, tanka in the court style, still subject to the ancient rules of diction and style, were a natural part of the repertoire of the literary-minded elite, and they are still far more a part of the popular conception of what poetry is than any specific poetic form of comparable age in the West.


(The entire section is 1230 words.)

Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The sixteenth century brought change and upheaval on a scale that had not been seen since the earliest years of imperial expansion and the importation of Chinese culture nearly a thousand years before. Civil war touched all corners of the country, its destructiveness magnified by the use of firearms, which were introduced by Portuguese traders when they reached Japan in the middle of the century. Except in this one respect, the West would not have a profound effect upon Japan for another three centuries, but until Japan was officially cut off almost completely from foreign contacts in the seventeenth century, a small but steady stream of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English missionaries and traders destroyed forever the...

(The entire section is 1810 words.)

Eighteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bash was followed by a legion of notable haikai (or haiku—the terms were for some time interchangeable) poets, among whom might be singled out Takarai (or Enomoto) Kikaku (1661-1707), who added the kaleidoscope of city life to the poet’s palette, restoring something of the earthiness that Bash’s otherworldliness had temporarily banished from haikai; Kikaku’s poetry was not, however, any less touched with meaning than that of Bash. Another poet deserving special note is Yosa Buson (1716-1783), whose verse is very elegant and at the same time sentimental. It is difficult to generalize about haiku. One of its chief virtues, fostered by Bash’s insistence on combining craftsmanship with authenticity of observation and emotional content, is that it allowed the expression of greater individuality than any poetic form that had preceded it, save perhaps the chka a thousand years earlier.

The revolution that the haiku brought to Japanese poetry by disencumbering it of the most stifling aspects of classicism is characteristic of the diverse, iconoclastic creativity of Edo-period culture—a culture that flourished in spite of its near-total isolation from the currents of social and economic change that were reshaping other traditional cultures elsewhere in the world. Some of the important innovations of Edo literary culture lie beyond the scope of this essay, but the eighteenth century was not lacking in significant developments. Even the tanka, so long the embodiment of traditionalism, began to change as haiku poets redefined the purposes of poetry; tanka admitted colloquial language and prosaic subject matter and generated its own lively comic derivative, the kyka (“mad verse”), which was wildly popular in the 1780’s among a slightly jaded coterie of avant-garde intellectuals in Edo. Nativist scholars such as Kamo Mabuchi (1697-1769) and Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) experimented with revivals of chka and tanka in the style of The Manyoshu with a decidedly chauvinistic, anti-Chinese coloration. At the same time, however, the intense involvement of many eighteenth century intellectuals in the study of Chinese literature also produced much verse written in Chinese, some of it of remarkable quality. Together, these trends foreshadowed the explosion of creativity in all fields of literature that would occur when Japan once more opened its doors to outside influence in the nineteenth century.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bownas, Geoffrey, and Anthony Thwaite, eds. and trans. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Books, 2009. A volume in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, Japanese series. A collection of Japanese verse from its beginnings through the Edo period. Introductions by the editor-translators, both of them distinguished scholars, noted for their expertise in Japanese culture.

Brower, Robert, and Earl Miner. Japanese Court Poetry. 1961. Reprint. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. Still the standard history of the development of the standard thirty-one-syllable waka, from its...

(The entire section is 541 words.)