Love Songs from Man’yoshu

Translated by Ian Hideo Levy, Paper Cut-Out Illustrations by Miyata Masayuki,
Introduction by Donald Keene and Commentary by Ooka Makoto
165 Pages
Kodansha International

I was rummaging in the depths of my shelves when I came upon this book. I must tell you I was truly surprised. For the life of me I can’t remember ever owning a book like this. A beautifully designed jacket cover with airbrushed limbo blue background and the title written in Katakana in bold blood red strokes ripping down from the top right edge and an English title in a banner across the seductively fine cut-out illustration of a reclining Japanese lady from the renowned artist, Miyata Masayuki. I can’t remember which Japanese friend had given me this book –– I’m almost certain it must have been a gift ––but right there and then I was gone. Ooka Makoto’s words, in the opening of his brief introduction to the book, described precisely how I felt about this book, which turned out to be a collection of love poems culled from a collection of 4.500 love poems in the Man’yoshu, The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, the first and considered the world’s greatest anthology of lyrical poems from around 7 or 8 A.D in the Nara period of Japan . This is what Makoto, the renowned expert of Japanese ancient poetry, has to say about this book, “For some reason we expend a portion of the time allotted us in life in the reading of books. These include a certain number of books that we read as a kind of necessity. But the truly great reading experiences come from our discovery of books that we indeed don’t have to read, books that liberate us, release us into a state like a free-floating dream.” Free-floating dream, that was the kind of state I was in, reading these poems.

The Man’yoshu apparently consists of public and private poems. Public poems are poems written during that period in praise of the Emperor or poems written for special stately occasions. The poems selected for this book are mostly private poems, personal expressions or exchanges. They were written mostly in ancient lyrical form of short tanka form of thirty-one syllables, in the five-line 57-57-7 format. Tanka, of course, is the precursor to the latter development of the haiku, the terse three-line 5-7-5 format of the modern Japanese verse. Don’t bother though to count the syllables or the lyrical feet in this collection, because the translator Ian Hideo Levy somehow didn’t conform to the precise format of the tanka, nor the standard lyrical feet in the Japanese tradition, which I find rather perplexing given the importance of the economy of words which are in fact governed by lyrical feet to achieve the most concise expressions, which is the essence of the Japanese verses.

These so-called private poems were written in a period of cultural bloom in Japan: the Nara period in 7 or 8 A.D. From what I’ve read in the introduction, it certainly seemed to me a most progressive period. How else would you describe a period in the history of a country in which a man could freely write love poems to another man’s wife? As it turns out, there’s an explanation to this care-free lifestyle. “Men and women in Man’yoshu period did not live together even after marriage. Their relationship took the form of “wife-visitation marriage,” in which the man would commute to his wife’s abode. Since there were no ceremonies at all, no weddings or banquets, the distinction between the pre and post-nuptial state was not as clear as it is now. Marriage was a matter decided on the basis of the partners’ consciousness; action was the sole proof of love. Lacking the censures of monogamy, love often found its objects in the wives of other men. ‘I shall keep company with the wife of another; let others make their proposal to my wife’: thus was the propriety of extra-marital love generously sung, without the slightest hint of guilt. Far from being guilty, the man would become obsessed with a woman because ‘she was another man’s wife,’ and the woman, wondering who it was who told her ‘to undo my waistcloth,’ made no attempt to conceal her voluptuous emotions: thus were the recitations of love by mature men and women sonorously repeated. Their straightforward, astonishingly carefree confessions contain not the slightest suggestion of obscenity. If anything, we read them with an agreeable sense of bemusement.” This really is mind-blowing stuff. Looking at it from modern perspective, we are in fact regressing! Think of all the wasted emotions such as jealousy, possessiveness and violence in the families, all of which are products of modern human ties and loves!

Man’yoshu poems are especially unique because they can be poems that consist of two stanzas, making up the exchanges of two lovers, in which case it is called Sedoka or in the form of Katauta, the question and answer forms, or the first stanza started by a poet to be completed by a different poet. Or surrogate poems, poems written on behalf of the other.

This is an example of the Sedoka, considered the greatest love poem in the Man’yoshu.

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 (Volume 1, 20)

This was responded by Prince Oama, who was pining for the Princess, who was his former wife.

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?

A breathlessly piquant exchange that is both eloquent and yet so purely succinct. Here’s one surrogate poem written by Lady Otonomo Sakanoue on behalf of an inexperienced young girl.

Painful is the love
that remains unknown to the beloved,
like the star lily that has bloomed
in the thick foliage
of the summer field.

Lady Otonomo Sakanoue (Volume 8, 1500)

Most of these poems are expressions of hidden loves, longing for the return of the loved ones, or laments for the loss of the loved ones. Among these I find most fascinating is the fact that it was considered a curse for the woman when the object of one’s yearning was made known. Hidden love, while costing pains in the one who’s pining, is considered the highest form of self-sacrifice for the loved one. The following is a poem by Princess Shikishi.

Fearful it would be
to speak it out in words,
so I endure a love
like the morning glory
that never blooms conspicuously.

In a different version by an Anonymous:

I may toss and turn,
but even should I die from the longing
I shall not make it visible, reveal it in clear colors
like the blossoms of the morning glory.

All these poems make great use of nature as metaphors for hidden emotions or expressions of love. All of which are beautifully captured by Miyata Masayuki’s gorgeous paper cut-out illustrations. In 1995, in the United Nations’ bi-centennial anniversary, Miyata Masayuki was named the UN’s official artist, the first time a Japanese artist has been so honored. Miyata Masayuki has also produced illustrations for three other books, The Tale of Genji, The Narrow Road to Oku and The Tale of Bamboo Woodcutter. This new addition will surely become yet another of his masterpieces as his other works.

In the age of text messages and instant email dispatched from the many ubiquitous Wi-Fi cafes, such eloquence and understated emotions expressed through the poems in Love Songs from the Man’yoshu seem ancient and impractical, but reading them make me wonder, with the advent of digital technology, if we haven’t just lost another important art form: the art of writing love letters. With that, the ceremony of the exchange of love letters (a love poem penned on a card attached with a cherry blossom in Man’yoshu time). And with that, every subtlety of saying, “I Love You.” One can’t help look back into the past with a great sense of loss for the sublimity of culture.

Published on Now Jakarta! 2009

4 thoughts on “Love Songs from Man’yoshu

  1. Walter Tonetto

    A sensitive appraisal of the Man’yoshu, Richard! And what you say is true — that there is a diminution of our sensibility by the byte-sized ductus we have moved into, which cares about succintness, but it is rarely the concision of the distillate, but rather the binary twinklings of unmindful, shallow living which has inchoate templates undergirding it, rather than pointing to sublime structures above the expressive domains.

    Great poetry needs careful exegesis, so that a bridge between disparate sensibilities can be forged, — just as we benefit from a Sidney Lumet or a Donald Davie explaining the mise-en-scène in a Kurosawa classic, so that we might find new possibilities of seeing.

    I had two copies of the long-time out-of-print behemoths of Japanese culture, the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, and if you can ever put your hands on one, it is well worth it (I last saw it listed for around 500$); there are so many nuances to the Japanese sensibility that is worth recovering, if only to sharpen one’s own sense of possibilities.

  2. Shane Apfel

    Love songs can be found in the histories and cultures of most societies, though their ubiquity is a modern phenomenon. A highly controversial and startling explanation of the genesis of love songs can be found in Denis de Rougemont’s “Love in the Western World”. De Rougemont’s thesis is that love songs grew out of the courtly love songs of the troubadours, and that those songs represented a rejection of the historical Christian notion of love. :;’-

    I’ll see you in a bit

  3. Ninibeth

    Thanks for the larger imegas — they really show off the man’s talents.I stumbled across a Japanese-only anthology of this man’s work in a used bookstore a while back, and bought it immediately upon opening it and seeing what was inside. Before that I’d seen his design work in a book of Akutagawa’s short stories translated into English (under the rather hoary title “Exotic Japanese Stories”).I’ll be making a post to my own blog about this and will link back here shortly.

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