Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism

Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism

by Ian Hideo Levy


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Professor Levy explores the ritual origins of Japanese verse, the impact of Chinese and Korean literary influence on the seventh-century Court, and the rhetorical deification of the imperial family as the condition under which Hitomaro would begin his career as a Court poet.

Originally published in 1984.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691612737
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #734
Pages: 186
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism

By Ian Hideo Levy


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06581-6



In the world before poetry, in the myths that constitute Japan's earliest extant literature, we find various examples of magical thought. The archaic Japanese vision of the world reveals a profound indifference to the distinction between spirit and matter that is so important to Western thought, an indifference whose philosophical import has been discussed by Ernst Cassirer. What Cassirer described as a "totality" without "dissociation" of subject and object is a consistent characteristic of the archaic Japanese texts. It is found in the creation myths, in Shinto ceremony, and in kotodama, the "spirit of words" — the archaic belief in the magical efficacy of language itself. These are examples of magical adherence in which the identity of a spiritual quality and its physical medium are absolute.

These strains of magical thought crystallize in the account of the demigod Yamato Takeru, perhaps the most dramatically realized of the Japanese myths. Yamato Takeru is a ritual hero par excellence, and in the account of his exploits and his death we find the origins of verbal art as a collective task of ritual affirmation. This is the task that would be fulfilled in the repeated evocations of imperial divinity lying at the heart of the early poems in the Man'yoshu.

Magical Metamorphosis: The Japanese Creation

The process by which the world comes into being in the Kojiki, that melange of history and myth which is Japan's oldest book, strikes the modern reader as one of indiscriminate metamorphosis. A god and an island are born of the same divine parentage. A god dies and another is born from his blood. A god flings his staff to the ground and another springs from it. One thing emerges from another with complete ease in what the compiler, Ono no Yasumaro, borrowing from a phrase in the I Ching, calls a "congealing of the primeval chaos" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "kongen sude ni korite"). There is no first agent creating and ordering existence. No one says, "Let there be light." There is no sharp delineation of one substance from another in the metamorphoses by which the Japanese pantheon of gods and islands is generated. In the archaic vision, things are not "made", but become, "come into being":

When heaven and earth first
Ametsuchi hajimete
opened up, the name of the hirakeshi toki,
god that came into being on Takama no hara ni
the fields of High Heaven was nareru kami no na wa
Amenominaka-nushi no Kami
Amenominaka-nushi no Kami.

And the brine that dripped
Sono hoko no saki
down from the tip of the yori shitadariotsuru
spear [held up by the gods shio, kasanari tsumorite
Izanagi and Izanami] piled shima to nariki.
up in layers and became came
into being as
] an island.

"Naru ("to become") is the ubiquitous verb of the Kojiki. It expresses metamorphosis within a system of thought that knows no logical distinction of substances, of the "spiritual" and the "material," of the god and the land. "Naru" is not an idea, but the expression of an action that is both immediately "real" and magically "ideal." Generation of being is accounted for not in a concept but in a sound, the "koworo koworo" of the brine as it is stirred and congeals on the tip of the spear.

Thus in primitive origination a substance simply congeals into a different manifestation of the same substance, and the process is perceived as identical whether the new manifestation is what logical thought would insist on distinguishing as "spiritual" or "material." The "divinity of the land," a theme that would appear among the earliest poems in the Man'yoshu, is simply a matter of common lineage, an identically perceived mode of coming-into-being, and was not originally an abstract conception, despite the political exploitation of the theme by a later age.

Behind this characteristic of primitive metamorphosis is what Ernst Cassirer, in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, calls "a true indifference, both in thought and practice, between the whole and its parts" in nonlogical, noncausal ideation, an indifference to those substantive distinctions the logical mind would seek to draw between the brine and the products of its congealing. Primitive reality is "a totality in which there has been no 'dissociation' of separate factors, particularly of the factors of objective perception and subjective feeling."

This reality seems close to the realm that Western Romanticism ultimately quested for, the naive integration of "Stoff" and "Form" that Schiller claimed for classical literature, the nostalgic "dictionary of the soul" that Herder, in his particularly modern nostalgia, postulated in "barbarian" song. But Cassirer's analysis of primitive ideation is an anthropological revolution away from Romantic nostalgia. One example, drawn from historical reality, that he gives in Language and Myth is the injunction, handed down from ancient Greek belief to the Pythagoreans in the sixth century B.C., "to smooth the bed soon after arising so that the imprint of the body, left upon the mattress, could not be used to the owner's detriment." In what Cassirer calls "mythic 'metaphor,'" spirit and its material form are not "yoked" together, as in a conscious metaphorical relationship. They are not perceived as separate fields of being linked together. Material form does not "represent" spirit, the body's imprint does not "represent" the soul. Rather, "the concept in question is not one of mere analogy, but of a real identification."

In logical thought a single perception is broadened as it is brought into relationship with other perceptions. In Cassirer's image this act of ideation gives off a "diffuse light." It may be imagined as the light of a beacon illuminating several objects as it sweeps across the night sky. By contrast, under the animistic principle of the mythic or magical metaphor, the world is concentrated into the scope of a single perception. In animistic thought all of human experience is perceived as identical to the single perception that (analytically) is but one part of that experience. The boundary between "part and whole" is not distinguished, just as a spot of light on a dark wall draws all imagined light into it and the entire wall is perceived as condensed into that single point. Thus in prelogical Greek thought the man who has arisen from his bed senses that he has left his very existence in his imprint on the sheet.

The magical metaphor is not a "metaphor" in the technical sense of a device in language, but a mode of ideation in which spirit and its imprint, the whole and its singular part, have yet to be logically distinguished. It is different from the Western Romantic metaphor that strives to break out of the boundaries of the logical world view — in which spirit and matter, the whole and the part, have been analytically severed — through a conscious attempt to "yoke" them. In arguing against any comparison between early Japanese poetry and Western Romanticism, the Japanese literary historian Konishi Jin'ichi has written that, for the archaic Japanese, "there was no mutual separation between man as spirit and nature as matter; from the very beginning they were interlocked and fused." In the early Japanese view of the world there are "almost no examples of the attitude that would seek to observe nature objectively. In short, spirit and nature were from the very beginning not [conceived as] existences in opposition to one another."

In contrast, as a Romantic view of history, the Western quest becomes an attempt to "return" to the realm of identity (and only, Konishi reminds us, from "around the time of Goethe"). The quest fails because the severance of spirit and matter is its very point of departure, and a conscious yoking of what has been dualized cannot restore the original unmediated reality in which they had been one. And the relationship between a conscious poetry and its archaic origins takes on different implications when, as in the case of Japan, the end of the primitive period did not bring on a new world view in which logic was emphasized (in which, as in the ultimate development of logic in the West, spirit and matter are not merely distinguished, but distinguished as opposite poles of reality). The result is that when in seventh-century Japanese literature myth yields to poetry but poetry consciously retains a mythic element, the distinction between the identity of spirit and matter on the one hand and the conscious quest for that identity on the other becomes a subtle one indeed.

Magical Adherence: Katashiro and Kotodama

Among the anthropological examples Cassirer gives of the identity of soul and its imprint is one taken from Shinto ritual, the katashiro: "Here a man desiring to be relieved of guilt receives from the priest a sheet of white paper cut in the form of a human garment, called katashiro, representative of the human form. On it he writes the year and month of his birth and his family name; then he rubs it over his body and breathes on it, whereupon his sins are transferred to the katashiro. At the end of the purification ceremony these scapegoats are thrown into a river or sea, in order that the four gods of purification may guide them into the underworld, where they will disappear without a trace."

The katashiro ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is not an abstract representation, but "a real, physical transference" of spiritual elements to a paper imprint. The transference of soul into its imprint is possible only because the spiritual and the physical exist in the same realm, "all phenomena ... situated on a single plane." "Shiro," to which the character [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("substitution"), had been assigned by the late seventh century when the Kojiki had begun to be compiled, is not a conscious representative substitution, but as Donald Philippi defines it with reference to the god Yaekotoshironushi no Kami," as in iya-ziro, tama-siro — a sign, representation, or symbol of something, or an article to which something is expected to adhere." "Representative adherence" perhaps comes closest to the meaning of "shiro," a magical adherence in which an aspect of spirit is expected to adhere to a particular object.

Thus a physical image is one "imprint" to which spiritual power adheres in a relationship not of "mere analogy," but "identity." Another is language. The god referred to in Philippi's definition of "shiro" is the "multilayered lord of word representation." This god is given the role in the Kojiki of standing with the "hundred and eighty deities," the children of the patriarchal god Okuni-nushi, and serving as their rear guard. "If he so serves them," proclaims his father Okuni-nushi, "no gods will disobey." The exact nature of Yaekotoshiro-nushi is unclear, but etymological speculation from his name suggests "an appelation for a deity of words, of speech, of the verbal expression of the divine will in oracular form," oracular form being the substitutive transference of a divine spirituality into the physical imprint of speech. Etymological speculation thus suggests a vision of this god standing on guard behind the other gods, with the magical power of language as his weapon. This god's name and his role are in turn an implicit expression of kotodama, the "spirit of words" — the spiritual power of language itself.

As contrasted to the concept of kotodama that takes a central place in the nostalgic view of history propounded in the eighteenth century by the "national scholar" Motoori Norinaga, the actual reality of kotodama was simply the primitive principle of identity by which language itself is a physical entity to which a spiritual power adheres. Far from being unique to Japan, the belief in the magical efficacy of language is a common theme among archaic cultures. For Cassirer, "the basic pre-supposition is that the word and name do not merely have a function of describing or portraying but contain within them the object and its real power. Word and name do not designate and signify, they are and act." This is especially true of proper names and of god names: "The name of a god above all constitutes a real part of his essence and efficacy. It designates the sphere of energies within which each deity is and acts." In the Kojiki, the birth of a god is typically announced, "the name of the god that came into being from X is ?" ("X ni nareru kami no na wa Y"). Kotodama is an expression of the relationship of identity between spirit and its particular imprint in language. The relationship is an example of magical adherence in a physical medium of particular power, but it operates under the same principle as magical adherence in other physical media, in the visual image of katashiro as well as the sound images of language.

The Magical Hero: Yamato Takeru

Perhaps the most dramatically realized myth incorporating these aspects of magical thought in the Kojiki is the account of Yamato Takeru. This son of the Emperor Keiko is, from the very beginning, given extreme attributes of legendary fierceness. Ordered by the Emperor to "admonish" his brother for failing to appear at the imperial table, he reports: "I waited for him when he went to the toilet at dawn, and when he came out I grabbed him and smashed him. I tore his limbs off and, wrapping them in a straw mat, I threw them away." The Emperor is awed by his son's "brave and fierce heart"; Yamato Takeru's is a legendary disposition, befitting a type rather than an individual. He is a mythic embodiment of the quality takeki, a warrior's braveness. Similarly, the battles against various enemies of the Yamato Court that he is subsequently ordered to undertake are not merely fictional reflections of the historical events by which the Yamato Court extended its sway, but a mythic transposition of the historical process, mythic in that one warrior, the singular "part," is identified with the destiny of the clan, the "whole."

At the beginning of the account Yamato Takeru's appelation is the individual name, Prince Ousu (Ousu no Mikoto). It is only after the first demonstration of his prowess against the two Kumaso Takeru, the "brave men of Kumaso" whose names are purely types, that Prince Ousu is given his type-name. The younger Kumaso Takeru says to Prince Ousu as he is about to die impaled on Ousu's sword: "In the west there are no warriors brave and strong [takeku tsuyoki] other than the two of us. But in the land of Yamato there is a man braver than us [ware futari ni masarite takeki wo]. Thus I will present you with a name. From now on you shall be called Yamato Takeru no Miko." Thus the individual prince becomes a typical hero: "Prince Brave Man of Yamato." In the name is magically imprinted the destiny of the entire clan, the "whole" and the "part" are united, and the man takes on the qualities of a god.

On his return from Kumaso he "subdued and pacified all of the mountain deities, river deities, and deities of the sea-straits." The verbs that Philippi translates as "subdued and pacified" are "kotomuke yawasu." "Kotomuke" is "to direct words at," an expression of kotodama in action.

After this Yamato Takeru goes to Izumo and slays the Izumo Takeru. Upon his return to Yamato he is again ordered off to battle, this time to

direct words at and pacify himukashi no kata
the raging gods and the towomarifuta michi no
disobedient people in the araburu kami, mata
twelve lands of the east matsurowanu hitodomo
wo kotomuke yawase

A variant on this usage in a later passage splits the verbal construct in two:

When he was on his way back
Kotogoto ni araburu
to the capital after
Emishidomo wo kotomuke,
having directed words at mata yamagawa no
all the raging Emishi and araburu kamidomo wo
pacified the raging gods of yawashite, kaerinoboriidemasu
the mountains and rivers toki


Excerpted from Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism by Ian Hideo Levy. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • Map of Yamato and Environs, pg. 1
  • INDEX OF POEMS, pg. 169
  • GENERAL INDEX, pg. 171

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