Dissertation Part 4: Waka as State Building


(It goes without saying that this work is my own. It is copyrighted both to myself and to SOAS University; any personal use of this material must be authorised by myself first. Thanks.)


Waka as State-Building

If a harmonious cosmos was the measure of righteous rule, then a state seeking recognition from their continental cultural superiors required it. Aristocrats of classical Japan could reflect and create a harmonious environment through literature and the arts, and primarily through waka (‘harmony’, and‘song’ = Japanese poetry). Waka allowed courtiers to express their personal proximity to the Emperor (and thus high position in the socio-political hierarchy) and demonstrate their literary prowess, thus becoming a means of identity formation. With the important aim of creating a harmonious state, waka aesthetics were under strict regulation. Whilst elegance and sensibility (aware) became the acceptable courtly rhetoric,1 anything compromising the ideal was omitted: the textual creation of the centre was also under ideological fabrication.

Similar to the fudoki and other state literatures, early waka anthologies such as the Man’yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, 759) and the Kokinwakashu (A Collection of Poetry Ancient and New, ca. 905) made frequent use of the landscape to depict the breadth of empirical reach. The inclusion of kegai territory within this political rhetoric was a method of claiming it,2 and a poetic lexicon of place-names soon developed. At first, place-names represented lands ‘belonging’ to Japan; throughout the Nara and early Heian periods, they developed an explicitly heteroglot signification which referenced not only geographic place, and also the coded narratives which were being allotted to them through wordplay. With many homonyms existing in spoken Japanese, and with place-names being written with Chinese ideographs (kanji) which carried their own meanings, poets were offered many opportunities for allusion through the semantic and phonetic qualities of place-names. This lexicon was frequently developed and enlarged as poets built upon the works of their forebears, applying new associations to past allusions and creating an intertextual poetic device 歌枕utamakura. The kanji for ‘song’ and ‘pillow’ make up the word ‘utamakura’, and it signifies words upon which readers can rest their heads in comfort. Having such a rich intertextual history of reuse, utamakura were like codewords: by the Heian period, place-names had come to refer more to emotions, themes or topics than they did to physical places. Over time, utamakura became increasingly disparate from their geo-spatial significations. One Heian poet writes that

It is of no practical value to remember which provinces these places are in … though I do not attempt to memorize such things, I have come to know that Yoshino is in Yamato province.3

To the extent which utamakura were disassociated from the physical landscape is best demonstrated in Mark Morris’ investigation of Sei Shonagon’s Makura no Zoshi (The Pillow Book, ca. 1002). Accompanying Sei’s account of her life in Empress Teishi’s service (977 – 1000) are many dan: cataloguing lists of various topics. Many include utamakura. In the style of utamakura zoshi (mid-Heian handbooks for poets, showing how best to employ utamakura), Sei’s lists are seemingly free of narrative. Dan 10 is simply titled ‘mountains’: “Mount Kase … Mount Konokure. Mount Iritachi. Mount Wasurezu. Sue no Matsu Mountain … Mount Itsuhata. Mount Kaeru”.4 The locations of these mountains vary greatly: Sue no Matsu Mountain is in Michinoku; Mount Kaeru is located in Tsuruga, Fukui – but Morris suggests that Sei’s ordering of these mountains is related to the grammar of utamakura, not geography. Translating their names shows us how. Mount Konokure translates to ‘the dark of the trees’; Mount Wasurezu is ‘Not Forgetting Mountain’; ‘itsu fata’ from Mount Itsuhata asks ‘When, when?’; Mount Kaeru is a mountain which ‘returns’: here Morris reads a conversation between lovers who ask in the darkness of uncertainty, whilst promising not to forget one another, when their lover will return.5 Other such catalogues follow as Sei reworks repositions and even invents6 geomantic elements of the landscape for the sake of coded literary narrative. As Sei writes her Makura no zoshi in the late Heian period, we can see how the courtly imagination was removing place from place-names: utamakura was but another poetic device with which Japanese poets could endorse and create their harmonious state, and their individual places within it.

Michinoku in Waka

We have seen how early Japanese histories depicted Michinoku as a barbaric wilderness as “part of a declaratory apparatus for the constituting of territory”;7 given the inelegant nature of a frontier, the court’s appropriation of Michinoku in a poetic rhetoric which aimed to omit inelegance is difficult to understand. An analysis of Michinoku utamakura in waka reveals a medley of contradictory textual representations of colonial realities and courtly ideologies.

‘Michinoku’ appears in a number of Man’yoshu poems grouped together as ‘Eastern Songs’. Meiji literary scholars searching for evidence of a ‘poetry of the people’ (kokumin-shi) read these azuma uta (Eastern Songs) as representing the true voice of the countryside: proof that poetry was an intrinsically ‘Japanese’ trait unhampered by unlearning or distinctions of class, but something that was in the blood (a more recent state-building ideology). However, as modern scholar Yoshikazu Shinada points out, the majority of these azuma uta “employ a poetic form identical to that used by aristocrats … [and] exhibit too great a formal regularity to have been orally composed by illiterate commoners”.8 Even so, in Japan today there still lingers an association of the anthology with a national poetic spirit. By analysing azuma uta against the context of state-formation, however, I argue that these poems were likely to have been written in the provinces, but not by people from them.

Poem no. 3807 in Book 16 of the Man’yoshu features a mountain in Michinoku:

Asakayama                The love I bear you
kage sae miyuru        is not like the shallow pool
yama no i no              mountain spring water
asaki kokoro wo        holding the mirrored image
oga omoha naku ni 
of Asaka Mountain itself.9

Asakayama sits in present-day Fukushima prefecture near ancient Michinoku’s southern border. As the Man’yoshu was compiled during the Nara period, it follows that we analyse the state’s involvement with Asakayama during this time to understand why this Michinoku location features in the anthology. The Asakayama border underwent many bouts of re-placement in the Nara period. The hitachi fudoki details that in 718 the districts of Iwashiro and Ihawi (modern Fukushima districts Iwashiro and Iwaki) were moved out of Michinoku and into neighbouring Hitachi,10 only to be switched back again in 721.11 Asakayama was thus in a position of almost-annexation into the Japanese state proper, demonstrating its relative familiarity to the court. True to aesthetic regulations, the poem mentions no inelegant militaristic expansionism, but uses the utamakura ‘Asaka’ to imply the verb asaku (asai in modern Japanese): to be shallow / superficial. A love narrative is thus attached to a place-name which is unrelated to its geomantic object in the poem. Meanwhile, a modern utamakura zoshi12 shows that place-names from particular regions in the north were used more frequently in early poetry than others. Compared to the numerous appearances of ‘Michinoku’ or ‘Mutsu’ are those rarer uses of north-western ‘Dewa’. Dewa province was only ‘officially’ distinguished from its eastern neighbour of Mutsu in 712. Dewa’s relatively late creation by the state tallies with its earlier literary absence, showing that the relationship between state action in the Michinoku region tallies with the court’s appropriation of its place-names within poetry:13 wherever members of the Japanese state were moving in Michinoku, so those places became part of their poetic lexicon.

Michinoku’s colonial realities are evident in the Shoku Nihongi (791), which states that in 702, “Tsukushi and Echigo were made to select female attendants and bodyguards and to send them to the palace. But Mutsu not to do so [my emphasis added]”.14 The Nara court found the kegai provinces of Tsukushi and Echigo quite troublesome in their assimilation process, and encouraged their subjugation through tributary ‘trades’. Although we do see the court receive presents from Mutsu in 697,15 their peace negotiations had evidently not reached the extent to that of other kegai regions. Through this evidence, I believe it unlikely that Michinoku communities were contributing poetry to the state’s anthology. Rather, that the contents of azuma uta are often aligned with the state’s militaristic movement of the period and have a suspiciously similar structural make-up to the rest of the anothology, they were surely written by colonisers as a tool of colonialism rather than by the kegai peoples being colonised.

Moving forward a few centuries, and the romanticism of ancient sakimori (barrier guards) and governors writing far from home was instigating an association of kegai provinces with the themes of distance, separation and grief in the Heian period. The Kokinwakashu’s travel section features many poets who employ ‘far-off’ place-names to tell of their separation from loved ones (and of course, from the emperor). This becomes contradictory, however, when the state army is dissolved at the end of the Nara period in 792. The Man’yoshu poets were men who really were in the distant provinces they were colonising; the lack of a state army after this, however, throws into question how Heian poets could be writing from the same experience.

Following the state campaigns against emishi in 801 and 810, it was pronounced that Michinoku was officially pacified. Give that state subjects were demonstrating their fatigue at the high taxes which funded these campaigns, the announcement of emishi pacification – “notwithstanding the still-substantial autonomy of surrendered barbarians”16 – was more likely a financial rather than militaristic choice;17 further campaigns in 878 and 879 and the many rebellions of emishi and fushu chieftains which where conducted throughout the Heian period contradict the court’s claim. Even so, the state began replacing sakimori and the conscripted state army with provincial governors ‘promoted’ to rule the countryside in their stead.18 There was no longer any reason to send high-ranking courtiers – our Kokinwakashu poets – to the northern frontier,19 and yet Heian literary representations of ‘Michinoku’ in poetry far exceed those of their predecessors.

Michinoku and her poesy became the lexicon of choice in expressing topics of distance, travel and grief in the Kokinwakashu. All poets featured in the travel section were supposedly “either exiled [officials] or serving his sovereign away from court”,20 and their longing to return to the capital reflects the new aesthetic associations of travel: courtiers only left the capital with the intention to return.21 This reiterated the harmonious superiority of the emperor’s domain, fulfilling the requirements of waka aesthetics whilst the poet expressed their own rightful place being in it. They employed Michinoku place-names within an aristocratic cultural context which was thoroughly removed from the geographic realities of those places: Miyagi prefecture’s 名取川 Natorigawa (literal translation: Name-taking River) became interwoven with the grief of losing a good name in aristocratic society for having a secret love affair discovered; Fukushima prefecture’s 阿武隈川 Abukumagawa (Let-us-be-together River) is appealed to for its assistance in concealing such an affair; Miyagi’s 末の松山 Sue no Matsuyama (Pining / Waiting Mountain at Sue) is too tall and too reliant as a waiting lover for ocean waves to crest it. Through utamakura, Heian poets transformed Michinoku into ‘Michinoku’: an imagined space rather than place.

Michinoku is thus represented as opposite to the capital in the Kokinwakashu; it appears only in the last section, and therefore in structural opposition to the opening topic of ‘spring’: a seasonal motif which expressed the everlasting reign of a new emperor. This positioning mirrors the centralised map of the state, and demonstrates the court’s political intention for the Kokinwakashu to reflect – and claim – the realm. This treatment of Michinoku was consistent, even up to modern times: Fujiwara no Teika’s layout of painted screens (fusuma) depicting meisho (famous places) at Retired Emperor Gotoba’s Saishoshitennoin monastery in 120722 designates the northernmost rooms to display Michinoku fusuma. He struggles over the layout, deliberating that

the mysterious Michinoku sites … would have to be handled with care. Their exotic flavours … [should] be hidden away in rooms … in which their “strange” forces might be released without deleterious effect to the inhabitants23

Modern utamakura zoshi editors also follow the pre-modern tradition of positioning capital-related lexicons first, kinai lexicons next and kegai lexicons last.24 It seems the ideological removal of Michinoku from the emperor’s divinity persists.

白河のShirakawa no seki (Shirakawa Barrier) is the most prolific Michinoku utamakura which explicitly portrays the region as a binary opposite to the capital. The utamakura nayose (1971), a modern utamakura zoshi, includes no other place-name which is twinned so frequently with  miyako (the capital).25 The Shirakawa Barrier was a gateway to the realm constructed under order of Kotoku to guard the capital against ‘eastern barbarians’, and it sits today along the ancient Michinoku border in Tochigi Prefecture. As an utamakura, it appears in the verses of the most celebrated pre-modern poets, including Taira no Kanemori in Shuiwakashu (Collection of Gleanings, 1005), monk-poet Noin Hoshi (Goshuiwakashu: Later Collections of Gleanings, ca. 1075), Fujiwara no Suemichi (Senzaishu, 1188) and Saigyo Hoshi (Sankashu, before 1190). In its earliest appearances, 白河の shirakawa no seki is twinned withmiyako for the purpose of contrast:

tayoriaraba                          If only I had a messenger,
ikade miyako ni
                   I certainly would send word to the capital
                  To let them know that today
shirakawa no seki wa I have crossed
koenu to
                        The Shirakawa Barrier26
– Kanemori

miyako wo ba                 I left the capital
yuki totomo ni
             along with the spring haze
tachi shikado                  
but now the autumn wind
aki kaze zo fuku             
is blowing across
shirakawa no seki         The Shirakawa Barrier27
– Noin

Whether figuratively or in reality, these poets claim to have crossed the boundary between culturally transformed lands and a conceptual wilderness, and their recalling the capital implies that the contrast of place has inspired their nostalgic mourning for home. Emphasising the importance of this boundary in the Heian imagination, Kanemori uses the verb suffix ‘koenu’, turning “to cross” (“koeru”) the barrier into a definitive, undoable action. The rest of his verse is full of apprehension, as hypotheticals (“araba; tsukenaramu”) and questions (“ikade”) frequently appear; whilst he is unsure as to what lies beyond the realm, he knows it will be different. Noin demonstrates his nostalgia by employing seasonal motifs, contrasting autumn winds to the capital’s spring in communicating the spatial, temporal and cultural distance he has travelled. Repeating Kanemori’s pairing of geographic locators helps establish them as binary opposites. By the time late-Heian poets were writing however, this binary pair was so familiar that including them both had become unnecessary:

mite suguru                since no-one passes
hito shi nakereba
      without looking
unohana no ha
           at the shrub fence
sakeru kaki ya           
blossoming with white deutzia
shirakawa no seki
     it must be the Shirakawa Barrier.28
– Suemichi

Upon his pilgrimage to Michinoku on a moonlit night, Saigyo stopped at the Shirakawa Barrier, and remembered the priest Noin’s verse:

shirakawa no            Shirakawa Barrier house
wo tsuki no    guarded by the moon –
moru kage wa           
its light leaking in
hito no kokoro wo
     holds captive
tomuru narikeri
.       The human heart.29

– Saigyo

Suemichi contests the earlier Heian tradition in his poem with unohana, a flower which blooms in the 4th month (May) and contradicts Noin’s autumnal imagery. He also semantically contrasts with Kanemori by filling his verse with certainties and concrete clauses (“hito nashi; kakine ya”). Saigyo pairs the barrier with a past poet rather than its utamakura associations, choosing to ground the place in historical rather than allusive narrative. That his moon is the barrier’s only guardsman highlights the absence of sakimori, and expresses the time passed since the barrier’s erection which, no longer manned, is no longer a frontier. From the imagery these later poets employ, it is evident that earlier boundaries of centre/ periphery, kinai / kegai were changing. An analysis of our two uta monogatari will show the Michinoku-as-other ideology shift even further until the turbulent end of the Heian period, when established aristocratic identities begin to collapse.


1Shirane, Seasons, p. 14

2Gustav Heldt, 2008. The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan. USA: Cornell University East Asia Program, p. 43

3Shirane, Seasons, p. 68

4Meredith McKinney (trans.), 2006. The Pillow Book. England: Penguin Classics, p. 16

5Mark Morris, 1980. ‘Sei Shonagon’s Poetic Catalogues.’ In Harvard University of Asiatic Studies 40 (1 Jun), p. 16

6Morris,Catalogues’, p. 18

7Jonathan Bardo, 2002. ‘Picture and Witness at the Site of the Wilderness.’ In Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002), p. 309

8Yoshikazu Shinada, 2000. ‘Man’yoshu: The Invention of a National Poetry Anthology’, trans. Collins, Kevin. In Inventing the Classics, ed. Shirane and Suzuki, pp. 31-50

9 Helen Craig McCullough, 1985. Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. USA: Stanford University Press, p. 9

10Inoue Tatsuo, 2006. ‘The Hitachi Fudoki and the Fujiwara’, interpreted by Michiko Aoki. In Capital and Countryside, ed. Piggott, Joan R., p. 105

11Inoue, ‘Fudoki’, p. 115

12 謌枕名 / 吉田幸一, 神作光一, 橘りつ 」、古典文庫 , 東京 : 古典文庫, 昭和 49-51 ,  [1974-1976]

13 Aston, Nihongi, p. 89- 90

16Friday, Pale, p. 1

17Friday, Pale p.22

18Friday, Pale, p. 23

19 Karl Friday, 1988. ‘Teeth and Claws: Provincial Warriors and the Heian Court’. In Monumenta Nipponica 43 (2 Summer), p. 115

20 Heldt, Harmony, p. 164

21 Heldt, Harmony, p. 165

22Kamens, Utamakura, p. 218

23Kamens, Utamakura, p. 179

24謌枕名, p. 129


26Kamens, Utamakura, p. 154

27Kamens, Utamakura, p. 155

28Haruo Shirane, 1998. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho. California: Standford University Press, p. 330

29H. H. Honda, 1971. The Sankashu (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press), p. 203


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