Little is known about Hitomaro’s life or personal circumstances – we are not even certain when he was born or died – and the only clues we have are his poems. He has 19 nagauta (‘long poems’) in the Man’yôshû and 75 or so tanka (‘short poems’). There is also the Hitomaro Kashû (‘Hitomaro Collection’) containing a few hundred poems attributed to him, some of which at least are believed to be spurious.
Nevertheless, the surviving poems allow us to say a few things about his life: Hitomaro was a middle-ranking courtier in Yamato and served as court poet to at least three sovereigns: Emperor Temmu (r. 673-686), Empress Jitô (690-697) and Emperor Mommu (697-707). Many of his poems were written for public occasions, his Lament for Prince Takechi perhaps being the best example.
Other poems were written on occasions in his life when he was particularly moved: parting from his wife, or seeing a corpse. But even these more ‘private’ works are ‘public’ in the sense that they are accessible to the outside reader and present a world-view in which all share a common humanity. Hitomaro is never merely an observer of a scene, but a participant in it and through his participation draws in the reader to the events described in his poems.
In terms of technique, he is a master of the makura kotoba (‘pillow word’), using them to bring a sense of majesty to elements described in his poems, while his complex use of parallelism integrates his long poems into unified wholes.
All of these features serve to make him one of Japan’s greatest, and most appealing, poets, whose work still has a resonance for us today, though Hitomaro the man has been lost in the mists of the distant past.
In the Japan 2001 Waka, the following poems are by Hitomaro:
|MYS XIV: 3417
SIS IX: 566
SIS IX: 628