One of the greatest episodes in Japanese history occurred so long ago it is in danger of being forgotten.
The earliest rumblings were in the fifth century. The climax — a palace revolt — came in 645. It marked a new era. The name given it is fitting: Taika, “great reform.” There have been few greater. Japan entered it in semi-barbaric infancy. Few foresaw — though some perhaps did — the splendors of the Nara Period (710-94) a mere half-century ahead.
Behind the reform lay 250 years of contact with China, mother of arts, sciences and modes of government whose reverberations are felt worldwide to this day. Japan then scarcely had a government, properly speaking. Its imperial clan’s supposed descent from the sun goddess was vaguely acknowledged by other clans — who persisted all the same in claiming their own dignity and going their own way. A “nation” in the modern — or ancient Chinese — sense hardly existed.
How long would this have gone on had China been a little father off? As it was, it had persisted for thousands of years. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations had come and gone. Japan slept on.
It stirred around 405. A Chinese Korean sage named Wani — more legendary than historical — is recorded as introducing the Japanese court to Chinese writing. Literacy opened the Chinese classics. Buddhism and Confucianism dazzled minds into full wakefulness.
It took time. There was resistance. The myriad native gods would be outraged, warned the traditionalist Nakatomi clan, overseers since remotest antiquity of ritual observance. Emperors vacillated. Some favored Buddhism, others the native Shinto, newly named to distinguish it from its first-ever rival. Tensions escalated. War broke out. The fighting was brief, the outcome momentous. Nakatomi lost. Buddhism, in effect, won.
The victorious Soga clan, champion of Buddhism and now ascendant, overplayed its hand. Under cover of loyal servitude to the throne, it seemed to be reaching for imperial honor and power. The eclipsed Nakatomi saw their chance. They rose in revolt. Their leader, Nakatomi no Kamatari, had spent his enforced retirement immersed in the Chinese classics. He’d seen the future — it was Chinese; he would mold Japan accordingly. He joined forces with a disaffected prince of the imperial house. Together they toppled the Soga, forced the reigning empress into retirement, installed a puppet and — it is no exaggeration to say — refashioned Japan, turning it, in effect, into a little China.
Very “little” indeed, a Chinese visitor might have scoffed — but Japan was launched. Nara was its first city. Its temples, pagodas, government buildings and university shaped and symbolized the new age, the age of the nation nascent. Ono no Oyu, a contemporary poet, was dazzled: “The Imperial City of fairest Nara / glows now at the height of beauty / like brilliant flowers in bloom!”
The most brilliant flower of all was the anthology in which the poem appears — the eighth-century “Manyoshu.”
It’s a literary miracle — 4,000-odd poems of such freshness, vividness and grace as almost to belie the plain fact of the matter: that this was an infant civilization barely awakened to literacy.
What joy it must have been to be alive then! “In the glorious age of the Emperor, a god / awesome beyond speech” … “Shall I ever weary of gazing / even for ten thousand ages / upon these imperial palace grounds / on the banks of the Yoshino rapids?” … “The coming of the New Year / all our trusted friends are gathered together: / my heart is light with gladness!” “Even a treasure priceless in the world — / how could it surpass / a cup of raw sake?” “Oh, how steadily I love you — / you who awe me / like the thunderous waves / that lash the sea-coast of Ise!”
Was it joy only? By no means. Pain and sorrow, always looming, sometimes striking, were very deeply felt. A man suddenly taken ill on a journey thinks in anguish of his parents counting the days to his return: “Lying by the roadside like a dog, / must I thus end my life?”
A bereaved poet “searched the market-place / where my wife was wont to go!” — in vain: “None passed by who even looked like my wife. / I could only call her name and wave my sleeve.”
Subsequent poetry anthologies were exclusively noble productions. Not the “Manyoshu.” Commoners were given a voice — raucous at times, but always penetrating: “The village headman comes, / with rod in hand, to our sleeping place / growling for his dues / must it be so hopeless — / the way of this world?”
It must, it seems: “Nothing but pain and shame in this world of men / but I cannot fly away / (lacking) the wings of a bird.”
Is love happiness, or torment? “As a water-bird its chick on Muko Bay … / O I shall die of yearning after you.” “Sleepless with longing for my love … / O the mandarin-ducks flying by — / Are they the couriers from my girl?” “Alas, she is no more, whose soul / was bent to mine like the bending seaweed!”
Nara Japan, like medieval Europe with its Feast of Fools, winked at times at sheer abandon, to the delight of one poet: “I will seek company with others’ wives / Let others woo my own.”
“The ‘Manyoshu’ is by no means primitive,” write the editors of “1000 Poems from the Manyoshu” (Dover Publications, 2005). But “it reflects a culture that retained its primitive freshness and vigor.” How different, in that regard, from the 11th-century masterpiece “The Tale of Genji,” written 300 years later and redolent of the weariness, pessimism and decay of more sophisticated times. In “Genji,” the world seems on the brink of ending. In the “Manyoshu,” it has just begun.
Few infant civilizations are as accessible to us as that to which the “Manyoshu” bids us welcome. It speaks to us. Sometimes, we understand. Sometimes, we think we understand but don’t. Sometimes, we’re frankly baffled.
“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?”
The poet is the Emperor Yuryaku (418-79): “Over the spacious Land of Yamato (Japan) / it is I who reign so wide and far …” And the maiden? Who would she be? How does she answer? Why aren’t we told?
Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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