Yamanoue no Okura
Yamanoue no Okura (ca. 660-ca. 733)
Korean-born Japanese poet and aphorist During Japan's Nara era, the experimental writer Yamanoue no Okura pictured in humanistic poems the lives of poor peasants and grief-stricken mortals. According to scraps of fact, he was born in Korea to an intellectual father and emigrated at age three from Paekche to Japan following the Sino-Korean victory over the Japanese army at Hakusukinoe. A loyalist aristocrat and family man, he settled at the royal compound in the Yamato province, which his verse exalts as a long-term imperial enclave since the reign of the mythic Emperor Kami as well as a seat of literature. The poet advanced at court through a series of appointments, but, as stated in “Upon Excusing Himself from a Banquet” (ca. 733), he valued husbandly and paternal responsibilities over displays of court courtesy.
As a scribe, at age 41, Okura received the honor of accompanying a Japanese embassy to the Tang court at China's capital at Chang-an (today's Xian). He traveled with some 5,000 men in a four-ship convoy and spent possibly six years absorbing Chinese culture, a sojourn that appears to have shaped his life and canon. One of his cryptic poems, “Soaring Like a Bird” (ca. 701), appears to compare the bird to the ghost of the eldest son of Emperor Kotoku, the rebel prince Arima, a traitor strangled by an executioner in 658 for plotting against the Empress Saimei. By 716, Okura had advanced to the rank of governor of Hoku. Five years later, Emperor Mommic hired the poet to teach the crown prince Shomu. Among Okura's court duties was the writing of occasional verse, for example, “Wishing Godspeed to the Ambassador to China” (ca. 733), a farewell to a courtier on a major imperial mission.
Okura broadened his nation's body of literature by applying imagination and pure emotion to poems. His canon showcases sardonic humor, earnest emotion, subtle detail, but plainspoken, often inelegant diction in both Chinese and Japanese. As a student of Sui and Tang texts, he centered his social criticism on the moral philosophy of the ANALECTS of Confucius (ca. 210 B.c.) and softened didacticism with a graceful Buddhist acceptance of destiny and belief in an afterlife. Although Okura's Ruiju Karin (Forest of classical poetry, ca. 721) did not survive intact, Otomo Yakamochi, an admirer, collected 78 of Okura's choka (long official verse) in MANYQSHN (Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), Japan's oldest anthology. In his last years, Okura governed Chikuzen Province in northern Kyushu under his dicta of caring for the aged and valuing peasant culture as the glue of the empire. At age 73, he wrote a brief stanza thanking the ambassador to China for visiting the ailing author at home.
In an early form of existentialism, Okura surveyed the constant shift in human fate to disappointment and loss. In “What We Must Accept” (ca. 733), he follows the young warriors, who “girded at their waists sharp swords, keen-bladed weapons, into tottery old age” (quoted in Carter 1991, 45). His most famous choku, “Hinkyu mondo” (Dialogue on poverty, ca. 733), is a startling venture from staid court ritual featuring nobles. The conversation
between two speakers discloses the alienation of the underclass because of hunger, cold, tattered clothing, and social injustice. He dramatizes the dilemma of the male householder surrounded by relatives “complaining and groaning” at slow starvation (47). The speaker wails, “Must it be like this, / so utterly without hope” (48). On a personal level, “What Value to Me the Seven Kinds of Treasures” (ca. 733) mourns the death in childhood of Okura's son Furuhi. The father tries to ease the passage into the afterlife by bribing death to “carry him on your back / messenger from the netherworld” (50). Another plaint, “Thinking of Children” (ca. 733), names chestnuts and melon as reminders of his children, whose deaths keep the poet awake at night. In “Seventh of the Seventh Month, 729” (ca. 729), he expressed a longing to reunite with his dead wife in heaven.
Carter, Steven D. Traditional Japanese Poetry. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Shirane, Haruo, and Sonja Amtzen. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.