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

February 8, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each), Poem 7 (Abe no Nakamaro)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 7

ama no hara
Kasuga naru
Mikasa no yama ni
ideshi tsuki ka mo


When I gaze into the distance
across the plain of heaven,
I see the same moon
that came out from behind
Mt Mikasa in Kasuga!

Abe no Nakamaro (698-770)

[Wakakusayama seen from Nara Park]

An expression of longing for the poet's native land.

Mt Mikasa is presently called Wakakusayama, it is the hill that looms above Todaiji and the Kasuga Shrine in Nara. It is part of Nara Park. The 342 m. high hill is covered with turf and is known for the turf burning conducted every year on January 15. "In Kasuga" refers to the general area of the Kasuga Shrine. Just as Mt Mikasa / Wakakusayama now dominates central Nara, so it was in the Nara period, when the present poet saw it as a symbol of his hometown and country.

[Abe no Nakamaro at his farewell party in China
by Hokusai]

Abe no Nakamaro (698-770) was in 717 sent to study in China, with a Japanese embassy to the Tang court that also included Kibi no Makibi and the priest Genbo. He remained in the Chinese capital Changan where he took a Chinese name and accepted an official post, becoming a severe case of "going native" (although it must be admitted that there were only very few chances to return). He also established a literary reputation in Chinese and is said to have befriended such major Chinese poets as Li Bai and Wang Wei. In 753 he attempted to return to Japan with the embassy of Fujiwara no Kiyokawa, but was shipwrecked on the coast of Annam (showing how dangerous sea travel was at the time, the ships were often driven completely off course by typhoons). He then became governor-general of Vietnam (at that time under Chinese control) and finally died in Changan after 54 years of absence from home. We have only two poems by Abe no Nakamaro, but the present one is very famous and opens the "Travel" section in the Kokinshu.

[Abe no Nakamaro gazing at the moon 
by Toshioka Yoshitoshi]

In fact, the circumstances of composition of our poem have been documented, both in the Kokinshu and in the Tosa Diary by Ki no Tsurayuki (ca 935). That last document tells how Ki no Tsurayuki, by ship on his way back from Tosa (Kochi Pref.) to the capital Kyoto, saw the moon rise out of the sea, and not above the rim of the hills as in the capital. That fact reminded him of Abe no Nakamaro, who must have seen that same "moon rising from the sea" when he wrote his famous moon poem. At that time, as Ki no Tsurayuki tells, Abe no Nakamaro was about to board a ship back to Japan at the coast of China (placing this in the year 753, the year of Abe's failed attempt to return to Japan). Chinese officials gave him a farewell banquet in the evening (when an extraordinarily beautiful moon had risen) and they composed Chinese poems for each other. But Abe no Nakamaro was moved to write a poem in Japanese as well, as "in our country we have composed poems since the age of the gods." The Chinese were of course unable to understand it, but the poet explained the meaning in Chinese. After they had it thus interpreted for them, the Chinese were able to judge its feeling and appreciate it. "China and this country have different languages, but since the radiance of the moon is the same for both, men's feelings about it must surely be the same." (translation from Japanese Poetic Diaries by Earl Miner). 

By the way, as Mostow adds, envoys to China used to pray in Nara's Kasuga Shrine for a safe return. So Nakamaro compares the moon he sees in China to the particular moon that rose the night he prayed at the Kasuga Shrine before he left Japan - it is not a general comparison of Chinese and Japanese moons.

[Same poem included in Kokinshu 406]
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).
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 -