Manyoshu (万葉集) is the earliest extant Japanese poetry collection, dating to the 8th century, although the poems themselves vary chronologically from the 4th to the 7th centuries. It is divided into 20 books, but I will be focusing on a collection of banka (挽歌), or elegies, from Book 2. Poems 147- 155 are believed to have been composed during the period of Emperor Tenji’s (r. 662-671) illness and death by women who were intimate with him.

Read the rest of the post for analysis.

Without further ado, #147:

The headnote reads:


Poem offered by the Empress at the time of the Emperor’s illness.

And the poem itself:

天(あま)の原(はら) 振(ふ)り放(さ)け見れば 大(おほ)君(きみ)の 御(み)寿(いのち)は長く 天(あま)足(た)らしたり

When I gaze upon the vast celestial plains

My great lord’s life extends to fill the heavens.

Let’s break it down:

First the headnote.

聖(せい)躬(きう) — this is the word used to refer to Emperors’ physical bodies.

不(ふ)予(よ) — this is the word used to refer to Emperors’ illnesses.

太(だい)后(ごう) — this means something like “Empress.” Since the だい is also used, its probably the main (first) wife.

奉(たてまつ)りし – this is the renyoukei of humble yodan verb たてまつる + Nara-period honorific す. たてまつる means “to offer (from an inferior to a superior)” and has the rough modern Japanese equivalent in  さしあげる.

Now the poem:

天(あま)の原(はら) — literally the “fields or plains of heaven.”

振(ふ)り放(さ)け見れば – this is the izenkei of the kamiichidan [マ上一段] verb meaning “to look up far into the distance” + ば. This izenkei+ba combination implies a temporal connection, i.e. “when/because.”

御(み)寿(いのち) — this is enough to give me pause. Why is いのち written using this kanji. In modern Japanese it is 命, which in classical is usually read as みこと, and appellation for kami, and other extraordinary personages like emperors, or Yamato-takeru. At any rate, perhaps 寿 implies “longevity,” but may just mean something like 寿命(じゅみょう) “life span.”

天(あま)足(た)らしたり – mizenkei of たる + renyoukei of honorific す+ shuushikei of resultative/continuative たり. 足(た)る means “to satisfy, be sufficient, enough,” and  たりimplies something like an “-ing” ending in English, or more accurately ている/てある of modern Japanese.

One also has to wonder if there’s an attempt at a pun with 天(あま)足(た) and 数多(あまた) “many, myriad.”

And that’s all she wrote. Well, not really. But what does it all mean? I am familiar with two interpretations. The first is fairly literal. Empress looks out and sees the sun (which is associated with the Emperor, descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu), and is thereby inspired to observe that Tenji’s life fills the heavens. The second, makes a similar, but looser, association with the sky. There might also have been some ritual significance to this poem. That is, a kind of positive statement meant to ensure that the said will be accomplished. By saying that Tenji’s life goes on forever, this poem functions as a kind of prayer that his life will go on forever.

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve stopped using romaji in the poem transcriptions. This is because I realized that those interested in this stuff can probably handle hiragana just fine.

Stay tuned for #148!