As promised in the earlier “Agenda” post, I will be working on classical Japanese poetry this semester. So, I’m kicking it off with a song from the Kojiki. This song is attributed to Yamato-takeru. Continue reading for the full analysis.

The brief story is as follows:  Yamato-takeru went into the land of Izumo to kill Izumo-takeru (or the champion/hero/warrior, etc., of Izumo). Y-T made a fake sword from the ichii tree (which is in Latin Quercus gilva), and befriended I-T. They went swimming. Y-T got out of the water and took I-T sword, suggesting that they exchange swords. Then Y-T suggested that they cross swords, and killed the hapless I-T. He then sang the song:

Here it is in the original (from section LXXI of the Basil Hall Chamberlain 1919 edition):

やつめさす 出雲建が 佩ける太刀 黒葛多巻き さ身しにあ


yatsumesasu     i(d)zumo takeru ga        hakeru tachi      tsu(d)zura sawa maki    sa mi nashi ni aware

Rough translation:

epithet             Izumo warrior               sword [he] wore           wrapped in many vines  prefix-had no blade-interjection


Ah! Sword that girded the champion of Izumo-enwrapped in coils of vine, but had no blade!

The breakdown:

やつめさす 出雲建が 佩ける太刀 黒葛多巻き さ身しにあはれ

Pillow word (枕詞 – makura-kotoba): やつめさす — yatsumesasu — this is a kind of epithet that is a poetic convention in Japan and does not hold much meaning per se. This one particularly is used with Izumo (出雲), which is an area in eastern Japan. It might have underwent a sound change to yakumosasu or yakumotatsu, which both refer to the land of Izumo. Literally, it has something to do with “many clouds rising,” but is thought of as just something that is conventionally used with Izumo. Those who are familiar with kanji will notice the relationship: 雲 is the character for “cloud.” And, since this is a coastal area, it does apparently get very cloudy there. The interesting thing is, it can also function as a kind of pivot-word (掛詞). This means that there is an overlap, so the sentence could be read in two ways :

The many-clouded land of  Izuno champion ‘s girded sword.

建: takeru – In ancient times this referred to a valiant man. So, it means something along the lines of “champion, hero, brave, warrior, etc.” Thus, Yamato-takeru is the champion of Yamato, while Izumo-takeru is the champion of Izumo.

佩け: hake – this is the izenkei (已然形), or perfective form, of the yodan-doshi (四段動詞) verb haku (はく). It means “to wear (around the hips),” as in sword, or some decoration. I.e. “to gird.”

る: ru is the rentaikei (連体形), or attributive form, of the past auxiliary verb ki (き), and modifies the following noun: 太刀.

太刀: tachi – general term for a sword in ancient times.

黒葛: tu(d)zura – this is the kudzu vine, often used in Japanese wickerwork. [NOTE: It is related to the wisteria tree, or fuji, which was related to the Fujiwara clan (藤原), whether or not there is that symbolism here, I am not sure] In this context it might be related to the ichii tree mentioned above, and might’ve looked like this:

多: sawa – is an adverb meaning “many.”

巻き: maki – is the renyoukei (連用形), or continuative form, of maku (まく) “to wrap.”

さ: sa – this sa is very interesting because it is a prefix that is used exclusively for its sound/rhythm. It has no real meaning. The only thing one can say about it is: it makes the following clause sound better poetically-speaking.

身: mi – refers to toushin (刀身), “sword blade.”

しに: nashini – is a combination of the negative adjective naku (なく) in mizenkei(未然形), or imperfective form, and the rentaikei (連体形) of the perfective ki (き). The modified noun is implied, resulting in a nominalizing effect. I.e., なかったことに, or “the there not being”/ “absence of.”

あはれ: aware – is another interesting part. It is an interjection which means something like “ah!”


Ah! Sword that girded the champion of Izumo-enwrapped in coils of vine, but had no blade!