Binary Rivals of the Man’yōshū

The work of poets Kakinomoto no Hitomaro and Yamanoue no Okura, while categorically similar, serve quite opposing purposes. In fact, nearly every aspect of both poets’ verses stand in stark contrast to one another. A side by side comparison of their Man’yoshu poetry reveals an appropriate sense of tsuiku, as if their opposing elements were meant to push and pull each other in a refined poetic dance as binary rivals. The extreme polarities in each poet’s style, imagery, and theme are evident in the smallest of details, from the colors of Hitomaro’s vast and vibrant heavens to the touch of Okura’s destitute, tattered earth

Both Hitomaro and Okura were born to low courtly status. Due to this commonality, it might be expected that their poetic goals and core values would align, yet in fact their ideologies clearly diverge from the start. This initial contrast stems from their individual roles as poets in a time of political transition. In an effort to establish a lasting hierarchical structure in Japan, the court set out to construct a permanent Chinese-style capital, and Hitomaro’s “public” poetry played an integral role in the codification of new state rituals. He was tasked with the poetic deification of Japan’s ruling elite, and thus his oeuvre exudes an air of mythology which served then to legitimize the emperor’s reign.

Okura’s time as an influential poet came after Hitomaro’s state system had been well-established, and it was no longer essential to reinforce the legitimacy of the throne through courtly praise poems. Okura instead chose as his subjects the struggling poor, the common aging man, and even his own family. Rather than attempting to buttress the favorable image of the aristocracy, he sought to press upon it a new and poignant social awareness, and to bridge the overwhelming disparity of wealth throughout the nation.

Upon initial comparison, the most obvious point of polarity between Hitomaro and Okura lies in the complexities of each poet’s use of language. For example, Hitomaro’s work is flush with imaginative pillow words; spring (haru) is not directly mentioned, but is alluded to with the phrase “emerging from winter” (fuyugomori.) The sun (hi), represented by “heaven sent” (ametsutau), is made awe-inspiring, and the concept of departing is gently conveyed with the melancholy image, “like the dew and the frost” (tsuyushimo no.) Hitomaro’s use of pillow words thus instills his poetry with a fable-like wonder, effectively distancing his audience from both reality and from his high-born subjects.

Okura’s language, on the other hand, is quite straightforward, and avoids the use of veiling metaphorical flourishes. Even his color palate is helplessly non-existent. With the simplicity of his words, Okura pulls the atmosphere from the vastness of the vibrant visual field into the more intimate plane of tactile sensory perception. He bluntly refers to the bitter cold, the bristliness of a beard, the feel of straw bedding strewn on bare earth. These intimate perceptions imbue each verse with a detailed and thoughtful atmosphere, and act to minimize the reader’s field of focus. The effect is one of attachment to reality in contrast to Hitomaro’s separation from it.

Colors play an integral role in Hitomaro’s poetic imagery, just as the absence of it effects Okura’s. His verse is saturated in vibrant hues—striking reds, fine whites, thick yellows. In sound, too, Hitomaro is bold and fearless, while Okura’s choka drown in quiet whimpering. With booming force of color and sound, Hitomaro thus brings great strength to his subjects of praise and lament, and further distances them from commonality.

Additionally polarizing are the poet’s chosen motifs and subsequent styles of expression. Themes of Hitomaro’s choka soar into the sphere of everlasting mythology. Players in his poems are powerful princes and elegant ladies, and thus he speaks of destiny and immortality, divinity, and the vastness of things with consistent grandiosity and direct connection to the celestial bodies. His poems of praise begin high in the heavens in order to document the divine blood line as it passes down from the heavens to the realm of temporal beings.

In contrast to this imposing style, images in Okura’s poems are wispy, repressed, dangling, or simply not there at all. Throughout his verse run themes of old age, love for one’s children, pain, and poverty. His style is brief, personal, and much less flamboyant than Hitomaro’s extravagant verbosity, a device which affords his choka pointed restraint and humility. Each word dithers in the pain of smallness and commonality, and, unlike the princely subjects of Hitomaro’s verse, he paints the heavens as being utterly out of reach.

Heaven and earth are said to be vast,
but for me
have they constricted so?
The sun and moon
are said to be so bright,
but for me
do they fail to shine? (TJL, 96)

Through this lament on the unattainability of the heavens, Okura makes an appeal to those who, as Hitomaro conveys, rule over them. The poem, entitled Dialogue with the Impoverished, portrays a helpless man and his destitute family, and their fight to merely survive. His story aims to raise concern for the impoverished, and in doing so, ease the burdens of the exploited lower class.

Images of nature continue to delineate the poets as stylistic rivals. Hitomaro uses natural elements in order to raise his subjects above the mortal realm. Mountains “command” heights, surging water brings strength to glorious palaces, and eternally flowing rivers offer their obeisance to the Emperor. In Hitomaro’s account of an imperial hunting expedition at Aki fields, he depicts nature as beneath the great men of divine right. In the poem, Prince Karu the high shining sun prince, traverses the land with complete effortlessness, brushing aside both trees and stones. In another, in praise of the Empress Jito, the forces of earth bow to the imperial powers just as they would bow to the gods themselves.

Our great lord who reigns in peace,
being divine, act divinely,
and by the rapids of Yoshino River
raises high the high halls,
and when she climbs up to look on the land,
from the green and manifold mountains
the mountain gods present their offerings,
bringing her blossoms in the spring
and yellow leaves when autumn comes,
and the running river gods too
make their offerings for the sacred meal (TJL, 73)

Quite the opposite can be said of nature in Okura’s poverty-stricken world. The elements merely make harder the lives of the poor, who, with scraps of clothing and flameless stoves cannot bear through the coldness of night. Here, nature is not vast, but its inevitability continues to restrict and oppress. Hitomaro’s sources of far-reaching natural powers are thus, in Okura’s verse, merely unavoidable obstacles and bringers of ceaseless suffering.

It should be noted, however, that in Hitomaro’s “private” poems, in which the subjects are not of divine blood, nature is also untamable and all-consuming, yet his grand style is still prevalent in the vastness of nature. He begs to no avail that the hills move aside that he may glimpse his wife in a far-of land, and thus illustrates that mortals must reside within the cyclical boundaries of the terrestrial realm, over which the divine ruler has complete control. In the following excerpt from a poem on longing for his wife, Hitomaro features transitional imagery as a device with which to hint at the inevitability of fleeting mortality. The tone continues in swirling uncertainty with great flare, as if all consciousness is lost in the depths of a chattering sea and in the shadows of a veiled moon.

I retreated, but as I longed for her,
like the sky-crossing sun sets in the evening,
like the light of the moon is obscured by the clouds,
my girl, who like the deep seaweed had slept beside me,
had passed away like the autumn leaves (TJL, 84)

Whether Hitomaro’s subjects are those of his own rank or of high birth, his use of grandiose language and vibrant imagery clearly reveals the intention of his poetry—to distance the ruling elite from the masses, to demarcate class barriers, and to establish a strong tradition of divine right. Okura, on the other hand, through his use of quiet language, humble atmosphere, and motif of the struggling poor, aimed to appeal to the ruling elite in hopes that they might be moved to mend this great hierarchical gap. Although it is clear that each poet sought to inspire change in the social systems of Japan, their poems contrast on every stylistic plane. With rich language, grandiose images of nature, and brilliantly bold colors and sound, Hitomaro’s poetry soars to mythological heights, while Okura’s work is firmly rooted to the earth through simplicity and smallness.

Works Cited

“The Ancient Period.” Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Ed. Haruo Shirane. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. Print.

© 2015 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.


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