21 July 2018

Hyakunin Isshu: poem 17 (Ariwara no Narihira・chihayaburu)

Impassionate gods have never seen crimson that lies in the Tatsuta River.
ちはやぶる chihayaburu
神代も聞かず kamiyo mo kikazu
竜田川 tatsutagawa
からくれなゐに karakurenai ni
水くぐるとは mizu kuguru to wa


If you asked me, I would say Ariwara no Narihira 有原業平 (825—880) is quite a legend. Maybe it is just an image I have but surely, he is someone worth telling about.

Narihira lived in the early Heian period (平安時代 794—1192). So early that he lived before the compilation of Kokinshū 古今集 (Kokin wakashū 古今和歌集; „Collection of Early and Modern Japanese Poetry”; 905) and before the Ise monogatari 伊勢物語 (Tales of Ise). Both of those pieces of literature surely are among the most representative of Heian period and classical Japanese literature in general. And so because Narihira lived before those pieces of literature were created, he ended up making his mark in both Kokinshū and Ise monogatari. But who was the man, you might ask?

Narihira was a descendant of the imperial family, with Emperor Heizei (平城天皇Heizei tennō ;773—824) as his paternal grandfather and Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇Kanmu tennō; 735—806) as his maternal grandfather. The last name Ariwara 有原 indicated him being not a son of an emperor but still being of imperial descent and having further family ties to the emperor*. In Narihira’s case, both his father, Prince Abo (阿保親王 Abo shinnō; 792–842), and his mother, Princess Ito (伊都内親王 Ito naishinnō; died 861), were respectively son of Emperor Heizei and daughter of Emperor Kanmu. Ariwara no Yukihira 有原行平 (818—893; poem 16) was Narihira's half-brother, whose father was also Prince Abo.  

* Another similar case is the last name of Taira . The last name of Minamoto  or Genji 源氏, however, was given to sons of the emperor.

Nevertheless, despite Narihira being a descendant of the imperial family, his political career was far from spectacular. Actually, it was so bad that most history books don’t even mention it. Narihira only held Junior Fourth Rank, Upper Grade (従四位上 ju shii no jō).  But he „enjoyed great esteem as a poet and a reputation as an erotic adept” (Shirane 2007, 164, note 113), which could precisely be what puts him in the spotlight of literary history of early Heian period.

Narihira was nothing short of an exceptional poet. Eighty seven of his poems can be found in imperial poetry anthologies and Narihira is included in both Ki no Tsurayuki's 紀貫之 (866?–945?; poem 35) list of Six Poetic Immortals 六歌仙 (Rokkasen) and in Fujiwara no Kintō's 藤原公任 (966—1041; poem 55) Thirty-six Poetic Immortals 三十六歌仙 (Sanjūrokkasen). Even if you have no idea who the compilers of those lists are or who else is in those lists, the titles imply Narihira must have been a pretty good poet.

And yet, when one reads the Kana (Japanese) preface (仮名序 kanajo) to Kokinshū, Tsurayuki’s description is seemingly beyond pleasing. Regarding Narihira, he said:
„The poetry of Ariwara Narihira tires to express too much content in too few words. It resembles faded flower with a lingering fragrance.” (translated by Helen Craig McCullough, in McCullough 1985, 7)
But if one looks closer, they might see a compliment in it and feel the scent of Narihira’s poetry revealed in those lines — for some, the poetry of Narihira might [have] be[en] overly emotional. As Leonard Grzanka notes, Narihira’s poetry is of highly subjective nature, with the frequent use of subjective, emotional diction and verb aspects; the most common themes being those of unrequited love and the ephemerality of life (Rodd, Henkenius 2004, 383, note 24). 

Such nature of Narihira’s poetry, combined with his „extensive use of parallelism and rhythm — and his fame as a lover” (Shirane 2007, 185), might have led to him becoming the implicit protagonist of Ise monogatari — a piece of literature that deserves an article of its own (hopefully in the future!), as it stands right beside creations such as already-mentioned Kokinshū, as well as Genji monogatari 源氏物語 (The Tale of Genji), Ogura Hyakunin Isshu 小倉百人一首 and many others. 

Ise monogatari is what makes Narihira a legend in a sense. As is noted in Shirane’s Traditional Japanese Literature, the original core of Ise monogatari was likely „an early version of Narihira’s personal collection of waka” (ibid.) and later versions expanded it by adding Kokinshū poems ascribed to Narihira (ibid.). Ise monogatari itself, however, never explicitly mentions Narihira as the protagonist — the closest call can be found in Chapter 63, where „Ariwara middle captain”, a position that Narihira held at the end of his career, is mentioned (ibid., 194). 

And yet, despite no explicit mentions, Narihira’s name has largely become associated with Ise monogatari.  The association is so strong, in fact, that some scholars have even considered Narihira to be the author of Ise monogatari; such a claim is no longer accepted (McMillan 2008, 135) but the associations between Narihira and Ise monogatari remain strong. 

Those associations mostly stem from Narihira’s poems included in Ise monogatari but in reality they also shape the image of Narihira. For example, the narrative about the affair between Narihira and Fujiwara no Takaiko 藤原高子 (842—910; also known as Fujiwara no Kōshi or  Empress from the Second Ward (二条の后 Nijō no kisaki))  who went on to become junior consort (nyōgo 女御) of Emperor Seiwa (清和天皇 Seiwa tennō; 850—880) and bore Emperor Yōzei (陽成天皇 Yōzei tennō; 868—949), can be found in the 6th chapter of Ise monogatari. This, and many other stories from Ise monogatari, create an image of Narihira that can even be seen in the popular culture. 

For anyone interested in the Ise monogatari narrative about Narihira and Takaiko, I am including the last paragraph of Helen Craig McCullough’s translation of Chapter 6. The full version can be found in any translation of Ise monogatari. For the one I am citing here, please see the references section.
„It is said that while the future Empress from the Second Ward was in attendance upon her cousin, the imperial consort, someone was fascinated by her beauty and carried her off on his back. Her brothers, Mototsune and Kunitsune, who were minor officials then, happened to be on their way to the imperial palace. They heard someone wailing, halted the abductor, and took the lady back. <…> The lady was still very young and had not yet ceased to be a commoner.” (translated by Helen Craig McCullough, in McCullough 1968, 73)

...and his poem of a secret love 

Scholars would probably say that interpreting the chihayaburu ちはやぶるpoem as one about love is an exaggeration or an overstatement. So how do they interpret the poem?

Originally, the poem was included in Kokinshū. It was poem number 294, included in the second book of autumn poems, which also implies it was read as an autumn poem in Tsurayuki’s time. The poem has been read as an autumn poem ever since, although I believe some have heard about the love poem interpretation from Sugita Kei's Chouyaku Hyakuninisshu: Uta Koi.

The poem begins with a pillow word or makura kotoba, which is an epithet or a fixed expression. Meanings of pillow words have largely been lost but Haruo Shirane explains chihayaburu ちはやぶる[千早ぶる] as „to exhibit (furu) power (chihaya)” (Shirane 2005, 365). In this poem chihayaburu modifies kamiyo 神代/神世, which means „age of the gods”. That action that chihayaburu kamiyo does is „also not hear” — mo kikazu も聞かず/もきかず. Hence the first part of the poem, or kami no ku 上の句 (remember the first Chihayafuru live action movie?), could be rendered into something like the mighty age of gods has also not heard.  

Before we move on to the second part of the poem, let’s look at Tatsuta gawa たつたがわ part. To a modern reader seeing たつたがわ means reading it as Tatsuta gawa. However, it might as well have been pronounced as Tatta gawa たったがわ, because the old Japanese language did not make a distinction between written large tsu and small tsu , hence you might see translations that render Tatsuta as Tatta. The river itself still flows in what today is Nara Prefectural Tatsuta Park in Nara prefecture.

The second part of this poem, or shimo no ku 下の句, is the part that shows how the poem has been interpreted in different ways because it has been read differently.This is also where the interpretation of the poem as a love poem comes from. 

In Kokinshū the poem is preceded by a headnote, which is translated by McCullough as:
„Composed when the Nijō Empress [Kōshi] was still called the Mother of the Crown Prince. Topic set: a folding-screen picture of autumn leaves floating on the Tatsuta River.” (McCullough 1985, 72)
Here I must add that the Nijō Empress [Kōshi] is the same Fujiwara no Takaiko, and Kōshi is another reading of her name. The Crown Prince here is the same person who later goes on to become Emperor Yōzei (poem 13).

The poem is also included in Ise monogatari (Chapter 106), but with a very different headnote: 
„A certain man, off on an exclusion with some imperial princes, once composed this poem on a bank of the Tatsuta River” (translated by Helen Craig McCullough, in McCullough 1968, 106).
This headnote reminds of an Edo period (江戸時代 1603—1867) print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1798—1861), which you can see on the right side. I believe this exact print is the one from theBritish Museum collection. Please refer to the link here.[Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Ariwara no Narihira Ason (no. 17). One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets.] 

While the headnotes differ, they imply the view of scenery and it would seem that in both cases the poem is read as:
Chihayaburu / kamiyo mo kikazu / tatsutagawa / karakurenai ni / mizu kukuru to wa
While you can find different transcriptions of kanji, mizu kukuru to wa 水くくるとは is always the same. This is the agreed reading of Kokinshū and the one believed to be Narihira’s original. But look at the poem at the beginning of this post. Written there is mizu kuguru to wa 水くぐるとは. Such an occurrence is possible because the old Japanese did not have a differentiation of written ku  and gu  — both were written as a modern ku . Because the historical kana writing is also preserved on the karuta cards, if you look below to the karuta part, you will see kukuru to wa くくるとは, but in theory it could be pronounced as kuguru to wa.

The reading and writing differences that were historically present allowed Teika to read the last part of the poem, or the last line, if we divide it into lines (it was originally not divided and this division is a modern thing), as mizu kuguru to wa. We know that Teika read it as mizu kuguru to wa from his 1212 commentary of Kokinshū called Kenchū mikkan 顕註密勘 (Mostow 1996, 45). Effectively, this changes the meaning of the poem from Kokinshū’s „the water tie-dyed” (kukuru to wa) to „the water flowing under” (kuguru to wa). And the correct translation at the beginning of this post would then go as: 
Impassionate gods have never seen such Tatsuta River, crimson that flows above, the water below. 
If one takes into account the story from Ise monogatari, that I have cited at the end of the first part, the headnote to the poem from Kokinshūand finally, Teika's reading, the poem can be interpreted as a love poem - as Narihira saying to Takaiko, that while his love is hidden, it is still there, hiding like „the water flowing under” the leaves.

As you may have already understood, karakurenai からくれなゐ means crimson. And before someone bashes me for writing it incorrectly in kana, I have to note that the historical kana also includes signs such as wi , which is read as i and hence written today as . Hence karakurenai からくれなゐ is just the historical writing.

Could this poem have been understood as a love poem? I believe it could have been. After all, a context and knowing the person, who is writing or reciting the words, can give it a whole new meaning. But to most people, this is a poem about the iconic autumn scenery. So iconic, in fact, that the combination of water and red leaves immediately suggests Tatsuta River. 

Could have Narihira hidden a message of undying love in this poem? It might have been but we have no Narihira to ask.

Chihayaburu poem in prints

Famous ukiyo-e artist Hokusai 北斎 has also interpreted the Hyakunin Isshu poems in a very liberal way, creating a series of prints called One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (百人一首姥がゑときHyakunin isshu uba ga etoki). The series was left unfinished, however the print for Narihira’s poem exists. Hokusai's print can be seen on the website of Honolulu Museum of Art, please take a look here. Another print, one by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, is already mentioned above, please see there.


In karuta ちはやぶる poem is one of the three poems that start with . It is recognised by the first two syllables chiha ちは. Also note how the transciption of mizu in the first line is みづ instead of みず. This is due to historical use of kana.

ちはやぶる Chihayaburu
かみよもきかず Kamiyo mo kikazu
たつたがわ Tatsuta-gawa
からくれなゐに Kara kurenai ni
みづくくるとは Mizu kukuru to wa