Moving right along the elegies for Emperor Tenji in the Manyoshu (MYS). We looked at #147 and #148 in previous posts. Today, #149 and #150. Continue reading for the full translation and analysis.




A poem composed by Empress Yamato at the time of the Emperor’s decease.

人者縦            念息登母                    玉蘰                影尓所見乍


ひとはよし    おもひやむとも        たまかづら    かげにみえつつ


Even if others

stop thinking of you,

seeing your image in the jewel wreath

I cannot forget!


よし here is the equivalent of modern たとい – “even if/although”

たまかづら is an interesting bit. Apparently it was some kind of ritual implement, literally “jewel wreath.” It may have been a kind of frame that housed some reference to the deceased, much like currently photographs are used in Japanese funerary practices. This is also the name of a character in the Tale of Genji.

かげ is also a little mysterious. It means something like a “trace image, vision, form, shape.” But why does the particle にfollow and not the direct object marker を? I am not entirely clear on this, because it seems to say “seeing/looking in your image,” which makes little sense.

As a final note: why is わすらえぬ rendered as the potential? Shouldn’t it be something like えわすらぬ? Here is where a bit of Nara-period-specific grammar comes in. Shirane devotes chapter 20 of his grammar to this period. わすらえぬ is the mizenkei of わする(to forget) + mizenkei of Nara-period potential ゆ + rentaikei of negative ず. Therefore, “cannot forget.”


[題詞]天皇崩時婦人作歌一首 [姓氏未詳]


A poem composed by a concubine at the time of the Emperor’s death. [Family name as yet unclear.]

空蝉師 神尓不勝者 離居而 朝嘆君 放居而 吾戀君 玉有者 手尓巻持而 衣有者 脱時毛無 吾戀 君曽伎賊乃夜 夢所見鶴

うつせみし  かみにあへねば    はなれゐて  あさなげくきみ    さかりゐて  あがこふるきみ    たまならば    てにまきもちて    きぬならば  ぬくときもなく    あがこふる  きみぞきぞのよ    いめにみえつる

Because mere mortals do not defy the gods

You are distant from me

Lord I long for in the morning

Were you a jewel

I’d wear you wrapped round my wrist

Were you a robe

I’d wear you evermore

Oh my beloved Lord, last night

I saw you in a dream!

うつせみし is written as 空蝉師, which literally means cicada’s cast-off shell. However, in the MYS it is taken to mean “human beings” (現身-うつせみ). My dictionary tells me that in the MYS, despite being written as 空蝉, what it really means is現身. This makes sense in the framework of Buddhist discourse, in which a human life is considered to be as fleeting as a cicada’s. Indeed, the cicada is an often used metaphor for ephemeral nature of existence, along with the ubiquitous cherry blossom. Does this poem consciously use Buddhist language? Did Buddhist vocabulary infuse court language as early as a century after its arrival in Japan?

かみにあへねば presents another riddle. It is often taken to mean something like “to resist, endure, bear, stand, etc.” But I’ve also seen it read as “to meet.” This also makes perfect sense, maybe more sense, since then the line reads something like: Since mortals do not keep company with gods you are apart from me.

あさなげくきみ I translate this as “lord I long for in the morning” in order to capture the dual meaning of なげく, which means both 1) to mourn, 2) to long for.

The really striking thing about this poem, is the kind of visceral immediacy it conveys (wrapping the beloved around the wrist and wearing over one’s own body). This directness, in addition to the author being an anonymous concubine, leads scholars to believe that this was a low-ranked lady. Maybe a robust country-girl-cum-court lady.