Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

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 I: 29
MYS I: 30
MYS I: 31
MYS II: 131
MYS II: 132
MYS II: 133
MYS II: 134
MYS II: 135
MYS II: 136
MYS II: 137
MYS II: 199
MYS II: 200
MYS II: 201
MYS II: 202
MYS II: 217
MYS II: 218
MYS II: 219
MYS II: 220
MYS II: 221
MYS II: 222
MYS II: 223
MYS III: 250
MYS III: 251
MYS III: 252
MYS III: 253
MYS III: 254
MYS III: 255
MYS III: 256
MYS III: 264
MYS III: 266
MYS III: 426
MYS III: 428
MYS IV: 496
MYS IV: 497
MYS IV: 498
MYS IV: 499
MYS IV : 501
MYS IV : 502
MYS IV: 503
MYS VII: 1068
MYS X: 1814
MYS X: 1895
MYS XI: 2417
MYS XIV: 3417
SIS IX: 566
SIS IX: 628

'Simply moving and elegant'