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It was the first golden age of Japanese civilization. Suddenly, in the eighth century, there appeared the great metropolis of Nara, its broad avenues lined with magnificent temples. Culture rushed in from Korea, from China, and, over the Silk Road, from as far away as Persia. And in this age Japanese literature found its first voice, a clear and powerful one, in the Man'yoshu. Literally "The Collection of the Thousand Leaves," this sweeping anthology, its poets ranging from emperors to beggars, is often considered the pinnacle of Japanese verse.
In the Man'yoshu are found some of the most beautiful love poems in ancient world literature. Here are revealed the most private emotions of the men and women who thrived, and desired, and yearned thirteen hundred years ago. Here are the words, at times startlingly frank, at times exquisitely sophisticated, with which the lovers addressed each other as they moved through a world in which nature seemed animistically alive.
Each enthrallment, each sorrow is delivered in a language that is fresh and immediate, filled with astonishingly rich natural imagery. The visual clarity is such that thirteen centuries seem to melt away, as if these poems had been written yesterday.
Alongside each poem is an illustration by Miyata Masayuki, the renowned artist discovered by the great modern novelist Tanizaki. Powerfully and exquisitely erotic, the illustrations themselves constitute a major work of art.
The result is a unique book in which the passions of eighth-century Japan are translated both into a vibrant contemporary English and a dazzling visual art.
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Cut-out illustrator. Born in Tokyo in 1926. He was discovered by the distinguished writer Tanizaki Jun'ichiro and went on to create his own distinct realm in kiri-e (cut-out illustrations). In 1995, Miyata was selected from among contemporary artists worldwide to be the UN's official artist. Miyata's representative works include illustrations for The Narrow Road to Oku, The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
Poet and literary critic. Born in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1931. His Kioku to genzai (1956, Memory and the Present) is a volume of poems rich in intellectual lyricism. Among his other writings are Toji no kakei (1969, Lineage of a Profligate); Ki no Tsurayuki (1971), a study of the poet who compiled the Kokinshu poetic anthology; and Nihon shiika kiko (1978, Travels through Japanese Poetry).
IAN HIDEO LEVY
Novelist and scholar of Japanese literature. Born in California in 1950 and educated in Taiwan, America and Japan. He received the American Book Award in 1982 for his translation of the classic Japanese poetry anthology, the Man'yoshu. He won the coveted Noma Prize for New Writers for his novel, written in Japanese, Seijoki no kikoenai heya (1992, The Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard).
U.S. scholar and translator of Japanese literature. Born in New York City in 1922. His scholarly publications, ranging from a study of the Kojiki to discussions of contemporary literature, have established the foundations for the appreciation of Japanese literature in the West. He has been awarded the Kikuchi Kan Prize (1962), the Order of the Rising Sun (1974), the Japan Foundation Award (1984), and the Asahi Prize (1998).
I stay here waiting for him
in the autumn wind, my sash untied,
wondering, is he coming now,
is he coming now?
And the moon is low in the sky.
[Volume 20, 4311]
This is recorded as a poem by Yakamochi, a male poet, but in it a woman is waiting for her lover. What is going on here? In fact, this is one of eight poems by Yakamochi "as he sat alone gazing up at the Milky Way," and is a Tanabata poem. In the ancient lunar calendar, autumn began after the seventh month. For this reason Tanabatagreeting the start of the fall seasonbecame the most popular festival in Japan. And the fact that the herd boy star and the weaver girl star were only allowed to meet once a year enormously stimulated the romantic imagination of the ancients.
Thus, here Yakamochi assumed the emotions of the weaver girl and composed a poem about her "long wait." Ancient lovers, upon parting after an encounter, would tie together the sashes of their underrobes, and pledge not to untie them until they met again. Here the woman, unable to wait any longer, herself untied the sashes, her yearning so intense, but still...
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