What fun civilization is in its infancy! How bright and fresh the world looks at the dawn of consciousness! Listen:
“Your basket, with your pretty basket,/ Your trowel, with your little trowel,/ Maiden, picking herbs on this hillside,/ I would ask you: Where is your home?/ Will you not tell me your name?”
It was morning in Japan. Night — if night is a fitting metaphor for Neolithic prehistory — had been long, tens of thousands of years long. China, Egypt and Mesopotamia had thousands of years of civilization behind them; classical Greece had come and gone; classical Rome, long past its prime, was dying. Still, Japan slept on.
The preagricultural, preliterate, seemingly endless Jomon Period (circa 12,000 B.C. to circa 200 B.C.) evolved at last into the agricultural, still preliterate Yayoi Period (circa 200 B.C. to A.D. 250), without sparking a transformation dramatic enough to be called civilizing. Then, with startling abruptness, nudged by China via Korea, Japan awoke from its primeval slumbers.
The watershed event is the arrival, circa A.D. 405, of a Korean scholar named Wani. He brought to the imperial court the gift of letters — reading and writing. Chinese became the official language. Soon courtiers and nobles were steeped in Confucian and Buddhist learning. In 645, a palace revolution fused a multitude of independent clans into a quasi-Chinese-style state under the Emperor’s divine but tender sovereignty. Its tenderness we gather from the poem just quoted, for its author is the fifth-century Emperor Yuryaku — who proceeds, very tenderly indeed, to introduce himself to the maiden: “It is I who rule/ Over this wide land of Yamato (an ancient name for Japan);/ It is I who reign over all.”
Thus opens the glorious “Manyoshu,” Japan’s first, many say its best, poetry anthology. “Best” — meaning what? Beauty, shimmering beauty; and innocence, a rare innocence — rare because generally a culture that has risen to this level of linguistic mastery has already lost its innocence. Japan, having risen so very fast, hadn’t.
“Manyoshu” (“Collection of Myriad Leaves”) consists of 4,000-odd poems composed over three centuries, Yuryaku’s being among the earliest, the latest dating to roughly 750, the height of Japan’s first great era, the brilliant Nara Period (710-794).
Unlike later Japanese anthologies, the “Manyoshu” was not produced under imperial auspices. The editing process remains something of a mystery. Scholars speak of earlier poem collections that have not survived, so the “Manyoshu” may not have struck its contemporaries, as it does us, as genius bursting naked from a vacuum.
The poems are astonishing in their variety. There are short poems and long poems — a remarkable fact in itself, for the Japanese long poem, the choka, was soon afterwards to die out, leaving the short tanka to reign supreme. There are poems by emperors and courtiers, naturally, but also by ordinary people, the poor, the lowly (“Cold and bitter is the night!/ As for those poorer than myself …/ how do you struggle through life?”) — people whom later ages would scorn and ignore.
There are poems of joy and poems of grief, of travel and of domesticity, of love in all its myriad aspects and of nature — nature portrayed as only a newly awakened sensibility can portray her (“You boatmen that come rowing …/ Ply not too hard your oars …/ lest you startle into flight/ the birds beloved of my dear husband!”) — and we see here an impulse that over time came to seem inseparable from the Japanese consciousness, a reaching out to nature as the ultimate symbol of everything that makes life wonderful; or as the ultimate consolation when life turns sad past bearing (“The cloud drifting over the brows/ Of the hills of secluded Hatsuse —/ Can it, alas, be she?”)
The poems span the emotional spectrum — or rather, not quite: Where, one wonders, is anger? Was “Manyo man” never angry? That seems unlikely. A better hypothesis is that he (and she, for many of the poets are women) thought anger unworthy of poetry — as was war, for though conscripted frontier guards march gamely to their distant postings (“At the bidding of my great Sovereign/ I set out as defender of the isle”), they sing no paeans to martial glory, lamenting instead the wrenching pain of leaving home (“My mother picking up the hem of her skirt,/ Stroked me with it and caressed me …”)
A pity we have space only for snippets. Where to begin? “Today, taking my last sight of the mallards/ Crying on the pond of Iware,/ Must I vanish into the clouds!” “Composed in tears,” a marginal note laconically informs us, “when (a certain Prince Otsu) died by Imperial order on the bank of Iware Pond.”
“I gather shells and pebbles/ For my darling at home,” sings Fujiwara Kamatari, the guiding hand behind the revolution of 645 and founder of the prepotent Fujiwara clan, power behind the throne for centuries to come. And who was his “darling at home?” A palace attendant named Yasumiko. Hear Kamatari’s whoop of exultation when she consented to be his: “O, Yasumiko I have won!/ Mine is she whom all men,/ they say, have sought in vain./ Yasumiko I have won!”
Ranked among the greatest of the Manyoshu poets is Kakinomoto Hitomaro (late seventh, early eighth centuries): “Like the sea-tangle, swaying in the wave/ hither and thither, my wife would cling to me …” His wife died: “I journeyed to Karu and searched the market place/ where she was wont to go!/ … But no voice of her I heard …/ Alas, she is no more, whose soul/ was bent to mine like the bending seaweed!”
Grief makes happiness seem vain — or is it happiness that makes grief seem vain? “Instead of wasting thoughts on unavailing things,/ it would seem wiser/ to drink a cup of raw sake.” That’s the spirit! It’s one of the famous “Twelve poems in praise of sake” by Otomo Tabito (665-731). Have we room for one more? “Grotesque! When I look upon a man/ who drinks no sake, looking wise —/ how like an ape he is!”
Michael Hoffman’s new book, now out, is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.