The World Moves On: Poem 93

Grand stairway at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in Kamakura, Japan – the scene of Sanetomo’s assassination. No machine-readable author provided. Abrahami assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

I was reminded of this poem recently and felt like sharing it with readers. It is one of the most poignant in the anthology, I think:

世の中はYo no naka waIf only this world
つねにもがもなTsune ni mo ga mo nacould always remain the same!
なぎさこぐNagisa koguThe sight of them towing
あまの小舟のAma no obune nothe small boats of the fishermen who row in the tide
綱手かなしもTsuna de kanashi mois touching indeed!
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

This poem was composed by Minamoto no Sanetomo (1192-1219), who was the third shogun of the new Kamamura Shogunate, the same military government opposed by Emperor Gotoba (poem 99) and Emperor Juntoku (poem 100).

Sanetomo was a gentler ruler than some of his predecessors, and even studied poetry under Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97), the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu anthology and contributed to other Imperial anthologies as well.

Sanetomo lived at a time when the old Heian court (which included most of the authors in this anthology) had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The power had shifted away from the Imperial Court to the eastern city of Kamakura, and the country was still rebuilding itself after war. Sadly, the new center of power was unstable, and as the third Shogun, he was surrounded by ambitious family members and allies who either plotted to replace him with their chosen candidate, or ruled “on his behalf”. Sanetomo was a tragic, powerless figure who was given to drink and poetry because he had little else to look forward to.

After escaping other assassination attempts, Sanetomo was killed at age 28 by his own nephew at the place shown above: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine (English site here). His nephew, Kugyo, was hiding behind a ginkgo tree (left of the stairs in the photo above). As Sanetomo descended the stairs after attending a service, Kugyo leapt out and cut him down with a sword. The ginkgo tree was still standing, 800+ years later, but finally fell over in March of 2010 due to age disease. Efforts to resuscitate the tree are underway.

This poem reflects his melancholy as he views the shores of Kamakura, and wishing this peaceful scene would always remain, in contrast to the turbulent life he lived.

Politics and power are a dangerous thing.

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