Pillow Words in the Hyakunin Isshu

Reading classical Japanese is hard enough as it is, but what makes the Hyakunin Isshu interesting, among other things, is the colorful, archaic phrases sometimes used. These phrases are strictly literary, and tend to have a dramatic sound to them, but when translating to English, they may be left untranslated. These words are called makura kotoba (枕詞) or “pillow words”. The term “pillow” here has no romantic connotations whatsoever, but is simply a reference to poetry. Presumably, people in the old days sat in their rooms, leaning on a pillow, composing poetry in their idle time, I guess.

Anyway, pillow words can be thought of as “filler” phrases, because they don’t have much meaning themselves, but they dress up the poems a lot more. For example in this poem, number 17:

千早ぶる Chihayaburu
神代もきかず kamiyo mo kikazu
龍田川 Tatsutagawa
からくれないに karakurenai ni
水くくるとは mizu kukuru to wa

The pillow words “Chihayaburu” (千早ぶる) can mean something like “1,000 swift [swords]” or something, but really just dresses up the proceeding word, 神 (kami, “a god”). So in modern English, it’s not just a god, but an awesome, awe-inspiring god. Likewise, in poem 2 we see another shining example.

春過ぎて Haru sugite
夏来にけらし natsu ki ni kerashi
白妙の shirotae no
衣ほすてふ koromo hosu chō
天の香具山 Ama no Kaguyama

Here again the pillow word shirotae no (白妙の) means something like gleaming white. The sheets being dried on Kaguyama mountain are not just white, but gleaming white, and a lovely contrast to the sunny, summer day in which they are being dried.

Such pillow-words don’t really exist in English, but they are very easy to find in classical Greek literature, especially the writings of Homer. Consider these epithets frequently used in the Iliad:

  • Agamemnon, son of Atreus: Ἀτρείδης (Atreídēs)
  • Swift-footed Achilleus: πόδας ὠκύς (podas ōkús)
  • Rosy-fingered Dawn: ῥοδο-δάκτυλος Ἠώς (rhodo-dáktylos Ēṓs)
  • Goddess of the white arms, Hera: θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη (thea leukōlenos Hērē)

Whenever I read the Iliad, I always find these epithets to really bring out the drama in the text.

Peter Paul Rubens – Achilles slays Hector

In the same way, the pillow-words in the Hyakunin Isshu function like the epithets in Homer. And like the epithets in the Iliad they are frequently used in certain common combinations:

  • As stated above, 千早ぶる (chihayaburu) is used to describe the Shinto divinities or Kami (神).
  • As stated above, 白妙の (shirotae no) is used to describe something white like sheets or frost.
  • Mountains (山, “yama”) are sometimes prepended with あしびきの (ashibiki no) meaning something like “foot-drawn”.
  • Things like the sky (空, “sora”), moon (月, “tsuki”), rain (雨, “amé”), clouds (雲, “kumo”), light (光, “hikari”), night (夜, “yoru”), and the capitol (都, “miyako”) can all be described with ひさかたの (hisakata no) meaning something like peaceful, shining, and especially everlasting).
  • For darkness, the phrase ubatama no meaning “jet-black” is often used. This is found in the Kokinshu anthology, poem 647, but not in the Hyakunin Isshu.
  • Finally, even places can be described with pillow words. The old capitol of Nara is often described with the praising epithet あをによし (aoniyoshi).

So, that’s a look at pillow words in the Hyakunin Isshu. Believe it or not, these stock phrases are still very much in use in Waka poetry today.

Good poetry, and good technique can withstand the ages. 🙂

2 responses to “Pillow Words in the Hyakunin Isshu”

  1. Omg, thank you for this article. Comparing makurakotoba to Homer’s poetry makes it so much easier to understand.
    I knew about 枕詞 today, struggling to translate school’s newsletter where it was mentioned.
    My first idea was that its like symbolism in European literature. When some words stand for some other words and definitions and really mean something ( like some religious or politic connotations). But now I see it as just something to brighten up a poem.

    1. Hi Kate, and welcome. I am very glad you found this message useful. It’s certainly obscure information in English, and probably in Japanese as well. I hope that my comment about comparing makura-kotoba with Homeric epithets is accurate, but it felt to me the best analogy I could come up with.

      Good luck on translating your school’s newsletter and good luck in your endeavors.

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