Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 26, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each), Poem 6 (Otomo no Yakamochi)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 6

kasasagi no
wataseru hashi ni
oku shimo no
shiroki wo mireba
yo zo fukenikeru


When I see the whiteness
of the frost that lies
on Magpie's Bridge
then I know
night has deepened.

Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785)

[Shinshinden Palace, Gosho, Kyoto -
showing the "Magpie Bridge,"
the stairs leading up to the palace]

A fantasy on a cold winter night, while the poet waits in vain for his beloved in the palace.

Central to the poem is the phrase "kasasagi no wataseru hashi," "the bridge that magpies spread," of which two interpretations are possible. The first and most important one reads this in the light of the Tanabata legend of the Ox Herd and Weaver Maid, two constellations in the sky and also lovers, who could only meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when magpies would form a bridge across the River of Heaven with their wings so that they could cross. This is such a famous legend that most critics since Teika have read the poem as referring to this beautiful legend. The whole poem should then be interpreted as composed when the poet gazed at the stars in the winter sky which was filled with frost, which he then associated with a frost-covered magpie bridge in the heavens. The silent assumption is, that, like the Ox Herd, he was hoping for a rendez-vous with his beloved, but that the night deepened without her coming.

In waka, magpies are often associated with "frost" (shimo) - the reason being the white spots on their black breasts and wingtips.

The legend of the Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden had already come from China in the Nara period and was very popular in Yakamochi's time - one section in the Manyoshu contains 128 tanka and 5 choka dedicated to the legend. The Tanabata festival was made popular by Yamanoue no Okura, who had studied in China and wrote many Tanabata poems after his return to Japan. In Japan, the story was merged with the legend about a celestial weaver maiden, Tanabatahime.

An interesting point is that the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica) was unknown in Japan until it was brought from Korea in the 16th c. In China, where the legend originated, magpies were common birds, so the Japanese learned the name without knowing the bird (they probably thought the "kasasagi" was a kind of "sagi," a heron). In China the folk story about the Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden already occurs in a book written in the 2nd century.

[The Cow Herd and the Weaver Maiden 
by Tsukioka Hitoshi]

The other interpretation is based on the modern, scholarly evidence that in the Heian-period, the "Magpie's Bridge" referred to bridges or stairs leading up to palace buildings. In that case, the poet is waiting for his beloved inside the palace grounds and sees actual frost on the actual bridge or staircase while she keeps him waiting. It is however the question, whether this naming of palace staircases already existed in the Nara period when the poem was written, so this interpretation is less certain than the previous one.

And of course, we don't have to make a choice: it is quite possible to read this simultaneously in both interpretations, for while gazing at the staircase leading up to the palace, the name "Magpie's Bridge" will have reminded the poet of that other pair of lovers, Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden, who also had such trouble meeting... 

[Otomo no Yakamochi, statue in front of
Takaoka Station, Toyama Pref.]

Otomo no Yakamochi (718?-780) is famous as the compiler of the Manyoshu and the last major poet included, with the substantial number of 479 poems, making up 10% of the total Manyoshu volume as a sort of "poem diary." Yakamochi, the scion of an influential family, grew up as a fashionable young man in literary court circles and exchanged love poems with innumerable woman. At age 30 Yakamochi served as governor of Etchu (now Toyama Pref.) where he diverted himself with excursions to scenic spots and parties with other officials, catching everything in his unique poetry, known for its delicate depictions of nature. Unfortunately, after his return to the capital Nara in 751 he was so busy furthering his career and at the same time embroiled in political intrigue, that he wrote little or no poetry anymore. He is a member of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals. As Donald Keene says in Seeds in the Heart, his poetry lacks the grandeur of Hitomaro, but his voice is distinctive. "Anticipating the Kokinshu, his poetry is often melancholy rather than tragic, exquisitely phrased rather than explosively intense." Yakamochi wrote in almost every mode, from highly personal lyrics to public poems composed to a command from the court.

To commemorate Otomo no Yakamochi's sojourn in Toyama, the city of Takaoka has set up a museum dedicated to Yakamochi and the Manyoshu, the Takaoka-shi Manyo Rekishikan. There is even a "Yakamochi Theater" where the poet's life is introduced by way of computerized life-sized dolls, as well as a garden with 70 plants and flowers mentioned in the Manyoshu. See here for more information. 

[Same poem included in Shinkokinshu 620]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). Seeds in the Heart, Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century by Donald Keene (Henry Holt and Company, 1993).
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -