Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (ca. A.D. 660-710)

Japanese poet

A revered bard of Japan's developing unification, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro wrote of a homogeneous folk culture unmarred by outside influences. A native of Nara in south-central Honshu, he married twice, the second time to the poet Yosami no Otome; traveled as an ambassador on state business; and died at his retirement home in Ihami south of Nara, a coastal city overlooking the sheltered bay he often described for its beauty. During his service as court poet and verse laureate to the emperors Temmu (673-80) and Mommu (697-707) and to Empress Jito (690-97), Hitomaro established himself as the nation's first major writer. As Confucianism and Buddhism altered the familiar foundations of Japanese society, later poets and scholars reflected on Hitomaro as a spokesman for a less confusing time.

Hitomaro crammed details into his odes and lyrics marking ceremonies, entombments, and royal hunts and processions. His verse found favor with Otomo Yakamochi, the poet and compiler of the M.ANYOSHU (Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), an anthology of Japan's earliest lines, completed during the Nara Period (710-94). Among the 100 stanzas of Hitomaro's work collected in the text are tender love lyrics, memories of sibling love for his sister, and state poems, including the opening of a new palace at Yoshino southwest of Nara and a lament at the death of Prince Takechi, a fellow poet who died at age 42. In “On the Enshrinement of Takechi no Miko” (ca. 700), Hitomaro speaks in first person of his awe at the prince's wisdom, skill at bow and sword, and aptitude for reducing bellicose tribes into peaceful royalists, a talent Takechi shared with the Hebrew warrior-king David and Arjuna, hero of the BHAGAVAD GITA (ca. 200 B.C.). Another example of Hitomaro's writings for officialdom, “On the Sovereign's Visit to the Palace in Yoshinu” (ca. 700), contrasts a mansion in the royal compound with the wonders of flowing rivers and tall peaks surrounding Nara. The setting suggests the poet's preference for the eternal grandeur of nature over the temporal pomposity of state architecture.

In addition to inventive, soulful tankas (five- line verses with a set syllable count) on love, solitude, and death, Hitomaro wrote chokas (long narratives) encouraging patriotism. He honored his homeland by praising the natural beauties of a craggy country surrounded by shores and scattered islets. His reverence for Japan's past and for the integrity of peasant life permeates his most sophisticated works, which he composed to legitimate and dignify the position of Emperor Temmu, who seized power when Hitomaro was entering his teens. In “Prince Karu's Retreat to Remember His Father” (ca. 700), a wilderness idyll relieves the stress of court functions to allow the prince a private period. The poet respects the right of Karu (later to become Emperor Mommu) to normal expressions of sorrow by withdrawing to the Aki moors to grieve for his deceased parent, Crown Prince Kusakabe, who died in 689 when the boy was six years old. A tension between Hitomaro's public recitations and his personal existentialism invigorates “On Passing the Ruined Capital at Omi” (ca. 700), a pensive glimpse of the ruined halls of the legendary Emperor Jimmu, who ruled until 585 B.c. Like Homeric Troy at Hissarlik on the northwestern coast of Turkey and Tintagel, King Arthur's reputed birthplace in Cornwall, England, the Otsu Palace crumbled within sight of the pounding surf, an archeological monument to what the poet termed “this transitory world.”

See also PRAYER.


Levy, Ian Hideo. Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

The Ten Thousand Leaves. Translated by Ian Hideo Levy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.