Kansai Scene Magazine


Emperor of poetry

The Emperor Meiji presided over a period of rapid Change, modernization and internationalization in Japan, but he recorded the times minutely in traditional tanka verse.

Emperor of poetry

The late 19th century of Japanese history is a tumultuous affair of both civil and international conflicts and major cultural and industrial changes. The 1860s alone saw the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan for 250 years and the death of the then Emperor Komei, with rumours rife that he had been poisoned. The events that followed would leave the country alien and indistinguishable to past generations as major modernization and empire building took hold with fervor. In the centre of this cultural revolution was a new Emperor, Meiji, who came to the throne as a boy in his mid teens. Revered by his nation as a god, this young man was set to become one of the most influential figures in Japanese history.

Like emperors past, Meiji had been educated in the arts and from an early age he had composed poetry under the guidance of his father. Throughout the course of his life Emperor Meiji’s poems reflected the times of a changing country almost like a diary and it has been said that altogether he wrote over 90,000 of these works.

On February 19th 1869, the emperor attended his very first utagokai (poetry gathering) of his reign and under the topic ‘Spring Breezes Cross over the Sea’ he composed the following tanka poem:

chiyo o yorozu
kawaranu haru no
shirushi tote
umibe o tsutau
kaze zo nodokoki

An indication,
Of spring, unchanging a thousand,
Ten thousand ages,
How gentle are the breezes,
Blowing along the sea coast.

In the same year the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria, visited Japan. Knowing of the emperor’s poetical prowess he requested that Meiji write a poem that he could give to his mother as a gift upon his return. Meiji nobly obliged with the following advisory tanka:

yo o same
hito o megumaba
amatsuchi no
tomo ni hisashiku

If one governs the land,
And benefits the people,
Heaven and the earth,
Will surely last together,
For all eternity.

It was not long before the emperor’s residencewas transferred from Kyoto to Tokyo (no official announce-ment has ever been given of a change of location of the Japanese capital and many proud Kyoto-ites still claim Kyoto to be the real capital city). Not only was Meiji the first emperor to cross the mountains to eastern Japan but he set about traveling further and seeing more of his kingdom and his people. About to depart Tokyo in 1877 for a return visit to the Kyoto and Nara areas the emperor composed the following tanka, which showed his apprehension at traveling by sea to Kansai having previously endured treacherous waters returning from a trip to Hokkaido:

hageshiku mo
fukikuru kaze no
oto su nari
ao unabara ni
nami ya tatsuran

I can hear the roar,
Of the wind blowing this way,
With violent force,
How the waves will be rising,
In the blue expanse of sea.

Upon reaching Kobe by sea the next stage of his journey was undertaken by train to Kyoto. Emperor Meiji held great affection for Kyoto throughout his life and this is evident from the next tanka written at Gosho after being greeted by joyous crowds who lined the streets from Higashi Hongan-ji to the Imperial home.

hana no miyako no
hatsuyuki o
kotoshi wa min to
omou tanishisa

How delightful to think,
That this year I shall see,
The first fall of snow,
In the flowery capital,
Where I lived so many years.

Emperor Meiji was known for his calm pacifistic demeanor and this was exemplified during the Satsuma uprising of 1877. Whilst civil war was again on the boil for Japan, Meiji was still enjoying his return to Kyoto and though kept abreast of the daily events of the rebellion upon visiting Uji River in Kyoto he took time to watch the fishermen casting their nets and wrote on the subject:

mononofu no
yaso Uji kawa ni
suma tsuki no
hikari ni miyuru
asahi yama kana

Morning sun mountain,
Visible in the light,
Of the moon that dwells,
In the Uji river known,
To soldiers of many clans.

The 1880s saw a huge push to bring Japan’s modern-ization up to date with the West. In 1881 there was not a single mile of private company owned rail track in the country and only 76 miles of government owned track. By 1885 those figures had increased to 130 miles of private track and 220 miles of government track. Meiji expressed his desire for Japan to be a leader for progression in Asia with the following tanka:

yo ni okurenaba
kai araji
fumi no hayashi ni
waketsukusu tomo

It will do no good,
If we fall behind a world,
That is progressing,
Even if we penetrate,
The depths of literature.

Meiji continued to use his poetry as an outlet for his thoughts on the daily happenings of both routine duties and the major news and events. 1894 saw the outbreak of a war that had been spoiling for some time with China. The reasons behind this conflict are a story to themselves but what was decisive in the outcome was that whereas Japan had modernized, China still saw itself as the imperial power of Asia whilst keeping a firm hold of its traditional ways of living. Japan’s superior modern warfare arsenal, especially at sea, routed the Chinese with ease. Although Meiji was unhappy at the war he was elated that Japan was victorious and after hearing that Japanese troops had taken the heavily fortified Chinese stronghold Port Arthur he composed the tanka:

kazu shirazu
ada no kizukishi
toride o mo
isamite semuru
tsutsu yumi no oto
yo ni takaku
hibikikeru kana
kachidoki no koe

The sounds of gunfire,
As our soldiers boldly charge,
Against the countless,
Fortified positions,
Constructed by the enemy.
How loudly they sound,
Echoing through the heavens,
The shouts of triumph,
Our men have taken by storm,
The fort at Pine Tree Mountain.

One of Meiji’s best-known tanka poems reiterated his peaceful nature. It is a poem written at the end of the Japanese–Russian war that was even admired by the US President Theodore Roosevelt.

yomo no umi
mina harakara to
omou yo ni
nado namikaze no

In this world of ours,
Where all within the four seas,
Should be as brothers,
Why is it that waves and wind,
Should rise and cause such tumult?

Shortly after midnight on the morning of July 30th, 1912, Emperor Meiji died leaving not only a historical legacy but also a literary one. Meiji’s final resting place is as simple yet monumental as his tanka. Just a short 15-minute train journey south by JR Nara line from Kyoto station the tomb of Meiji Tenno is a short walk from Fushimi Momoyama station. Frequented by few tourists, the tomb sits next to Momoyama castle and atop a wide and high set of stone steps. On a calm day a better place could not be found for peaceful thought and contemplation with a little tanka writing to pass the time.

Text & photos: Phillip Jackson

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