Early Japanese Poetry


A review of Uta Mokkan: a History of Early Japanese Poetry through Inscription, by Joshua Frydman.

Joshua Frydman’s dissertation, Uta Mokkan: a History of Early Japanese Poetry through Inscription, discusses the forty uta mokkan (poem tablets) excavated on the Japanese archipelago up to 2008. While hundreds of thousands of mokkan (wooden tablets) have been uncovered, only a small number bear recognizably poetic writing, and Frydman raises the most salient of these in a call to rethink the nature, scenes, and practice of poetry in seventh- and eighth-century Japan.

The dissertation consists of an introduction and five chapters, as well as fifty images, figures, and charts of mokkan and associated information. The first chapter discusses the Akihagino mokkan, discovered in 2008 and bearing a fragment of poetry potentially associated with poem X:2205 of the Man’yōshū. The chapter also introduces the basic methodology that will be applied to all of the physical objects discussed in the dissertation: an analysis of the physical qualities of the object and any inscriptions, followed by treatment of the object’s site of discovery.  For the Akihagino mokkan, this means combining the following: an inscription resembling the beginning of MYS X:2205, an inscription on the reverse identifying the governor of Etchū province, an inscription on the reverse that appears to be writing practice, and identification of the site as part of a Buddhist temple complex. Frydman concludes that the object reflects the use of poetry among private circles of elites, provides an additional hypothesis for the transmission of Man’yōshū poetry, and suggests linking poetic practice to Buddhist ritual.

The importance of these conclusions cannot be understated. Concerning Buddhism, only one of over 4,500 poems in the Man’yōshū refers to Buddhism, and prior to this object’s discovery, there was no compelling reason to connect early waka practice with Buddhist ceremonies. However, having been excavated from a temple complex site, the object suggests that secular and religious ceremony were intertwined from a very early time. The inscription on the face matches MYS X:2205, which is  anonymous, but the inscription on the reverse may indicate a connection between the poem and a governor of Etchū, a position held most notably by Ōtomo no Yakamochi, one of the Man’yōshū’s compilers. Frydman carefully discusses the possibilities this raises, most tantalizingly, that Yakamochi was involved with 2205’s reading or composition. At any rate, the object suggests the use of mokkan as visual tools for poetry readings and implies possibilities for performance and circulation that would be unthinkable using the Man’yōshū alone.

In contrast to Chapter 1, which focuses on a discrete object, Chapter 2 examines a single poem, the Naniwazu poem, which appears on numerous mokkan as well as other surfaces. The poem is well-known as the “father of poetry,” an appellation given to it in Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokin wakashū, and until the boom of archeological activity in the postwar period, the poem had long been assumed to be from the early Heian period. Frydman begins by discussing the poem’s traditional provenance as claimed by Tsurayuki but then turns to a materially-centered approach with in-depth analysis of four sites where Naniwazu mokkan have been discovered, as well as its inscription on a pagoda ceiling, roof tiles, and numerous pottery sherds. Frydman synthesizes these objects to conclude that the Naniwazu poem was originally connected to Emperor Kōtoku and the ritsuryō state in a ritualistic function, but, after spreading among the elite, became a common song and educational tool.

There are numerous theories about the Naniwazu poem’s role in early Japan that suggest the poem was widely used at poetic performances (Sakaehara Towao), held a unique ritual status (Inukai Takashi), or was used primarily for writing practice (Ueno Makoto). Frydman discusses the grounds for each of these as well as their shortcomings, leading to a restrained acceptance of only the most well-supported components of each. However, the dissertation’s true novelty lies in Frydman’s incorporation of Naniwa as a topos into a theory of the Naniwazu poem’s role based on the image of Naniwa in Man’yōshū poetry and the author’s personal inspection of the site ruins. If Naniwa were connected to Kōtoku and the spread of the ritsuryō state, the preponderance of artifacts bearing the poem, which Frydman reads as celebrating that authority, could be explained as indicative of performances that reiterated state legitimacy.

Chapter 3 discusses seven artifacts that do not bear the Naniwazu poem and which, at the textual level, appear to have little in common. In the face of this incongruity, Frydman seeks to connect the objects at the physical, geographical and technological levels to suggest how mokkan can speak to the use and spread of poetry in early Japan. The most important of the commonalities are the objects’ orthography and excavation sites. Regarding orthography, Frydman identifies a general reduction in the range of characters used to represent the sounds of Japanese, linking mokkan to the development of the kana syllabaries. Regarding the sites where these objects were excavated, Frydman notes that they all come from palace sites of government offices in a wide geographical area. This suggests that the transmission and recording of poetry were intimately tied to the early bureaucracy.

The primary significance of mokkan orthography is obviously in assessing the development of writing in Japan, and Frydman devotes significant analysis to tracing this lineage, noting that the wide range of characters used suggests a pragmatic, utilitarian component to these objects. However, the dissertation also notes how uta mokkan relate to Nara-period texts in that the contrast with mokkan more lucidly demonstrates the selective use of characters in these texts in the pursuit of clarity, wordplay, or visual appeal.

Chapter 4 builds on this possibility by examining the Asakayama mokkan, the only uta mokkan that can be directly compared to a dated, attributed Man’yōshū poem. The story of the poem’s discovery on a previously excavated object in 2008 is itself fascinating. This mokkan has the Asakayama poem on one side and the Naniwazu poem discussed in Chapter 2 on the other, echoing Ki no Tsurayuki’s identification of these two poems as the first to be learned in the study of poetic composition. Frydman combines evidence gleaned from the mokkan with the poem as it appears in the Man’yōshū and Tsurayuki’s preface to suggest that an early attribution to Tachibana no Moroe led to the poem being widely known and then used as a training tool, explaining its appearance in the Kokinshū preface.

Discovery of the Asakayama mokkan also has major implications for understanding the compilation of the Man’yōshū, an ongoing and contentious scholarly enterprise that goes back to the first mentions of Man’yōshū authorship in the Heian period. The standard assumption of most post-war scholarship on the issue is that the source material for poems in the anthology drew on manuscript sources of similar content. Frydman suggests that uta mokkan provide an alternative source for compilation in that mokkan originally used as performance aids could later serve as records of poetry after performance but before compilation into a more permanent source. This also shows that poetic circulation in the Nara period was not restricted to manuscripts and performances, but extended to various media of which mokkan were a major component.

The final chapter takes a step back to address the more general and more elusive questions of why poetry was written on disposable objects, why this phenomenon appears to be limited to waka (as opposed to Chinese poetry), and why this poetry was later anthologized. Frydman proposes a vibrant oral, vernacular poetry culture among the elite in the seventh and eighth centuries that valued short-term performative use over permanence and exact reproduction. These performances were tied to ritual, demonstrated by the Buddhist and state-associated sites where mokkan have been excavated, and these rituals emphasized the vernacular as opposed to the high art of Chinese poetry. However, as Frydman notes, the Man’yōshū does not contain much liturgical or ritual material, and the dissertation suggests that the anthology was modeled on continental sources. Also of note in this chapter is the discussion of Korean mokkwan, two of which may bear poetic inscription.  However, Frydman refrains from making concrete connections between these and Japanese objects barring the discovery of more artifacts on the peninsula.

The dissertation concludes by reinforcing the connection between uta mokkan, Man’yōshū, and poetry in practice in ancient Japan. Previous research on ancient Japanese poetics has always taken the Man’yōshū to be representative out of necessity, but Frydman opens the door to a new understanding in which Man’yōshū is only one of many examples of poetic culture that includes palace construction rituals, Buddhist ceremonies, and writing practice. This opening up of the ancient period, with myriad possibilities now imaginable based on physical evidence, is the dissertation’s greatest virtue and shows that a rethinking of poetry in seventh- and eighth-century Japan is long overdue. When published, the work will undoubtedly serve both as the foundation for uta mokkan scholarship in English, as well as more broadly a new basis for studies of the Man’yōshū and poetry in early Japan.

Matthieu Felt
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Columbia University

Primary Sources
Akihagino Mokkan
Asanagini Mokkan
Asakayama Mokkan
Harukusano Mokkan


Dissertation Information
Yale University. 2014. 230 pp + vii. Primary Advisor: Edward Kamens.

Image: Photograph by Author of the Tokushima Prefectural Buried Cultural Properties Research Center in Tokushima, Japan; the object is a reproduction of an inscribed wooden tablet dating from the 670’s.  The inscription is the first two lines of a poem.

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