“The Passion of Japanese Poetry”

Tanka Presentation Illustration, Feb, 11


Life gives us such beauty and pain, sometimes in almost equal measures.  I find solace in reading selections from the great Man’yoshu, this document from 8th century Japan.  I have written here before about this great collection of over 4500 poems, but of course, not all of them appeal to our modern senses and tastes.  In particular the love poems from the Man’yoshu, written over a span of 130 years, are poems that liberate us, throw us into a free-floating dreamscape, where our sentiments connect within those lovers who lived 1500 years before us.

The passion of these poems cannot be denied.  They speak over the centuries to our own hearts, and in some lucky cases, to our own experience to each poem, but this not fully my own interpretation.  I am relying on commentary by Ooka Makoto and translations of Ian Hideo Levy, from “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu”.  This small, beautifully bound and illustrated book (by the late Miyata Masayuki) is published by Kodansha International in Tokyo.rience.  I will attempt to give some of the beauty and passion of these poems.

Lady Nyo


Going over the fields of murasaki grass

That shimmer crimson

Going over the fields marked as imperial domain

Will the guardian of the fields not see you

As you wave your sleeves at me?

–Princess Nukata


This is one of the most famous poems in the Man’yoshu, given prominence as it appears towards the beginning of the document.

It is answered by Prince Oama:


If I despised you, who are as beautiful

As the murasaki grass,

Would I be longing for you like this,

Though you are another man’s wife?


Those the poem seems to be of a love triangle, it is not actually so.  Princess Nukata is now married to the emperor Tenchi, and her heart is torn between Prince Oama, her former husband.  These poems have a gracious melody and a way to stir the emotions of modern readers.


In a single sprig of

Of these blossoms

Are concealed a hundred words;

Do not treat me lightly.

—–Fujiwara Hirotsugu


This is a courting poem.  The poet plucked off a branch of cherry blossoms, tied his poem to it, and sent it to a young girl.  This was a well-used method of presenting a poem.  A twig of blooming tree flowers, a blade of sawgrass, a branch of plum, wild plum or maple leaves in the fall.  The answering poem from the girl was touching, too. It says that the reason the sprig is bent is that it couldn’t support all the words it contains.

The heart longs to say yes. But language still hesitates.


Whose words are these

Spoken to the wife of another?

Whose words are these;

That bade me untie

The sash of my robe?



This is most likely a folk song, and these kind of poems figure in great amount in the Man’yoshu.  “the wife of another” was an object of male sexual desire; the poets of the Man’yoshu showed a special attachment to this theme of secret love.


The silk-treeflower that blooms in the day

Closes as it sleeps,

Yearning through the night.

Should only its lord look upon it?

You too, my vassal, enjoy the sight.

—–Lady Ki


Lady Ki  was the wife of Prince Aki, but he was sent into exile and she became familiar with the great poet, Otomo Yakamochi. There is a reversal of sexes here as Lady Ki writes as a man. This is not unusual for the period.  Actually, Otomo, the scion of the great Otomo house, was above her.  This is poetic license for the time.


Fearful as it would be

To speak it out in words,

So I endure a love

Like the morning glory

That never blooms conspicuously.



It is thought that a curse would be brought upon the speaker to speak the other’s name.  Hence, we read many poems like this one above in the Man’yoshu, not naming the two lovers.


As I turn my gaze upward

And see the crescent moon,

I am reminded

Of the trailing eyebrows

Of the woman I saw but once.

—-Otomo Yakamochi


One of my favorites and written when Otomo was only 16!  There is an expression that comes from the Chinese meaning ‘eyebrow moon”, i.e., the new moon, the crescent moon.  This poem refers to the painted trailing eyebrows of women in this ancient period.  But how precocious of Otomo at just 16!


Though I sleep

With but a single thin rush mat

For my bedding,

I am not cold at all

When I sleep with you, my lord.



A lovely, poignant poem, though it seems the woman, with her single thin rush mat is of the lower class.  However, beautiful enough to be included in the Man’yoshu.  And about that: The Man’yoshu was the first and probably the last collection of poems that included such a range of people in ancient Japanese society:  fishermen’s songs, weaver’s songs, priest’s poems, prostitute’s laments besides the imperial court and upper classes.  It would never be seen again.


O for a heavenly fire!

I would reel in

The distant road you travel,

Fold it up,

And burn it to ashes.

—–The Daughter of Sano Otogami


One of the most famous love poems in the Man’yoshu.  She was a female official who served in the Bureau of Rites, whose precincts were forbidden to men. She had a secret affair with a minister named Nakatomi Yakamori.  Their affair was discovered and he was sent into exile as punishment. They exchanged around sixty-five poems expressing their concern for each other’s safety and pledging that their love would not be changed by exile. The distant road is the long road he must travel to exile.


Brave man like the catalpa bow

That, once drawn,

Does not slacken-

Can it be that he is unable to bear

The vicissitudes of love?



This is another of my favorite poems of the Man’yoshu.  I used it as a heading in an episode of the  published “Song of the Nightingale”, where Lord Nyo frets as to his resolve and manhood. He finds himself, as the figure in the original poem, bewildered that he, ‘a strong man’ could find himself powerless to resist the invisible passion of love.  He is more used to war and weapons, something tangible, not the chimera of love.  He describes himself as ‘an ugly, old warrior”.

These love poems churn the mind and enflame the passions, along with the  winds.  One would have to have a heart of stone not to be swayed by such passionate beauty in verse.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2017

“Song of the Nightingale” was published at Amazon.com, 2015.

Song Book cover





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10 Responses to ““The Passion of Japanese Poetry””

  1. Maureen Sudlow Says:

    love this poetry


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Maureen! It’s superb verse. She is only matched by Izumi Shikibu. But Komachi is remarkable in any way. She was proclaimed as one of the 5 great poets 1000 years ago.

    Thank you for reading and your comment, Maureen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maureen Sudlow Says:

    …and still one of the greats


  4. Frank J. Tassone Says:

    Reblogged this on Frank J. Tassone and commented:
    #Haiku Happenings #6: Jane Kohut-Bartels shares here favorite #waka from the man’yoshu!


  5. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Frank! Sad that so many poets haven’t read or even heard of the great Man’yoshu; It’s an education between two covers!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ladynyo Says:

    I agree, Maureen!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Frank J. Tassone Says:

    I first read wake from the man’yoshu in College. Your selections just inspired me to request a copy from my library! 😀


  8. ladynyo Says:

    Frank, nothing could delight me more than to hear that! The Man’yoshu is a marvelous trip through so many ‘classes’ of the Japanese. I would also suggest “Love Songs from the Man’yoshu”, a marvelous, erotic, exotic, gorgeous small book printed in Japan, with a startling selection of poems and illustrations. My favorite book to give friends….gorgeous production from Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The Sound of Sense – Poetry, Short Prose and Walking Says:

    […] view of sense is taking me into two different directions. After reading Jane Kohut-Bartel’s “Song of the Nightingale”, I want to understand better the 8th century Japanese collection, the Man’yōshū. After […]


  10. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Frank! The wonderful thing about poetry, from any era or culture….we are ‘deepened’ in a sense of beauty, pathos, commiseration. What astounds me is the Great Man’yoshu (a title it deserves…) attends to all of these in its poetry. Of course, there are 4,500 poems or so in this 8th century document, and some are just exhortations to emperors, etc. but the beauty is we see human nature, 1500 years ago, and they are very much us. LOL!

    I am so glad you liked “Song of the Nightingale”. Once I got going, some of the scenes, were from dreams, and there is a very dreamy, other-world-ness about “Song”.



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