Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Poetry and Power in Ancient Japan

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In the late seventh century, the ancient Japanese state of Yamato, inspired by the written accounts of the great Chinese dynasties, reinvented itself as the center of a small empire, or "Realm beneath Heaven." The "Realm beneath Heaven" was a Chinese concept that referred to the entire world under the influence of the Chinese Court. It encompassed not only the territories that were governed directly by the Chinese Emperor, but also states that paid tribute to the Chinese Court and acknowledged it as the center of the political and cultural order. Prior to the seventh century, Japan itself had been one of these barbarian states that had tributary relations with China. From as early as the fifth century, there are signs that while maintaining tributary relations with the Song Dynasty in China, within the Japanese archipelago, the rulers of Yamato (Japan) were portraying themselves as exemplary centers of order and referring to the lands that they ruled over as the "Realm beneath Heaven." However, this vision was only realized at the end of the seventh century after a succession dispute known as the Jinshin War (672). It was the victor of this war, the ruler who we know as Emperor Tenmu (reigned 673-686), and his wife and successor Jitō (r. 686-697), who were the first rulers to adopt the title of "Heavenly Sovereign" (sometimes translated as "Emperor"), who compiled and promulgated the first Chinese-style penal and administrative codes (ritsuryō), and who planned and completed the first permanent capital of Fujiwara according to Chinese principles of cosmology and geomancy. In addition to developing the legal and infrastructural aspects of this new Japanese state, both the Tenmu and Jitō courts were also preoccupied with representing their state as the center of a new world order. One of their concerns was to create foundational myths and histories. Central to this project, which we can think of as "the production of the past," was the completion of the Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki) in 712, and The Chronicles of Japan (Nihon shoki) in 720. An equally important concern was the need to represent the present political order, a project we can think of as "the production of the present." This was done in various ways. First and foremost was the building of monumental symbols of the sovereign's power. These included lavish Buddhist temples around the capital and, most importantly, the capital city itself, which was the largest that had ever been built in the Japanese archipelago. The new capital was in turn the stage for various new rituals and regulations. One of these was the ceremony of announcing the first day of the month, a ritual of Chinese origin. This consisted of the sovereign's announcing the first day of the month in the first month of each quarter, and requiring the aristocrats in the home provinces around the capital and the governors of the various distant provinces to come to court to hear the announcement and pay their respects. Another way to represent the present political order was by means of spectacles of power, such as religious festivals and official journeys to the provinces. And last but not least, yet another way was by creating a court culture: a culture that would befit the courtiers and rulers of this new exemplary capital city.

An important part of this culture was poetry. In China, which was the model for this new Japanese state, the practice and knowledge of poetry was traditionally thought of as being essential for the art of proper government. Chinese poetry, i.e., poetry written according to the linguistic, prosodic, and thematic principles of the Chinese poetic tradition, as exemplified by the poetry of the Book of Songs (Shi jing) and the Selections of Refined Literature (Wen xuan), was composed in the late seventh century Japanese state; but at the same time, a different tradition of poetry was created, one that arose from Japanese songs and poems. Poetry and songs had of course been practiced and composed by the Japanese court for a long time, but at some point in the seventh century-exactly when is not clear-the prosody (the meter and number of syllables per measure) and thematics of "Japanese poetry" were regularized. A loose prosodic pattern consisting simply of alternating short and long units was transformed into a fixed pattern of alternating measures of 5- and 7-syllable lines.

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