Public Scrutiny: Poem Number 18

Photo by Kindel Media on

This was something many aristocrats in the old Heian court days probably faced:

住の江のSumi no e noMust you so avoid others’ eyes
岸による波Kishi ni yoru namithat not even at night,
よるさへやYoru sae yaalong the road of dreams,
夢の通ひ路Yume no kayoi jiwill you draw nigh like the waves
人目よくらむHito me yoku ranto the shore of Sumi-no-e Bay?
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

This poem was composed by Fujiwara no Toshiyuki Ason (? – 901) who was one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry, and was an active participant of poetry contests in his day. Coupled with his long life-span, he has a great presence in poetry and calligraphy during his era.

In fact, this poem is part of a poetry contest held in 953, presumably under the theme of forbidden or another similar topic. The poem uses a clever pun for yoru. The first yoru in the poem refers to the waves visiting (寄る in modern day Japanese) the shore of Sumi-no-e Bay (modern day Osaka Bay, specifically Sumiyoshi).

The second yoru means night (夜). The author’s submission to the poetry contents laments that public scrutiny in the small, tightly-knit aristocracy of the Heian Period was so intense that his lover couldn’t even visit him even in his dreams. Professor Mostow points out that the poem can also be interpreted that he could not visit his lover in his dreams, as well.

Because it was such a closed and stratified society, gossip was rampant, and an embarrassing situation could destroy one’s career and family reputation. Forbidden love was something many in the Heian Court faced, and no doubt Toshiyuki’s poem resonated with such people.

2 responses to “Public Scrutiny: Poem Number 18”

  1. In some cases, the scrutiny reminds one of the attention paid to celebrities in our own time. This color commentary is from The Tale of the Heike:

    “Ashikaga no Matataro is attired in a coral damask undersuit, a suit of armor with dark-red lacing, and a high-horned helmet. At his waist, he is wearing a sword with gilt bronze fittings; on his back, is a quiver containing arrows fledged with black-banded white eagle feathers. He is holding a rattan-wrapped bow and riding a white-dappled reddish horse, whose saddle is edged in gold and decorated with a golden owl in an oak tree.”

    1. Hello and welcome!

      Yeah, I think of the Hyakunin Isshu speaks to people’s lives now even though it’s a different time or place. People haven’t changed a whole lot.

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