Fisherwomen’s Sleeves: Poem Number 90

Matsushima Miyagi Japan, photo by Chensiyuan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This poem is a clever variation on the “sleeves wet with tears” poems we often see in the Hyakunin Isshu:

見せばやなMisebaya naHow I’d like to show him!
雄島のあまのOjima no ama noThe sleeves of the fishermen
袖だにもSode dani moof Male Island
ぬれにぞぬれしNure ni zo nureshiwhen it comes to wet, are wet indeed,
色はかはらずIro wa kawarazubut their color doesn’t change!
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The author of this poem is Inpumon In no Taiyu (1131 ~ 1200 ?) who served Princess Ryōshi, the daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Princess Ryōshi was also known as Inpumon-in (殷富門院) hence the name here. Taiyu was an accomplished poet and another member of the elite “Garden in the Poetic Forest” group (see poem 85).

The poem here, according to Mostow, is a 200-year old rebuttal of an earlier poem that celebrates the “wet sleeves” of the fisherman of Matsushima, but saying “if you think their sleeves are wet, mine are even more wet and stained with blood-red tears!” We’ve seen other “sleeves wet with tears” poems in the Hyakunin Isshu, namely poem 65, poem 72, and my favorite poem 42. But Taiyu takes this one to a new level, I think. 🙂

Regarding the location, “Male Island” (雄島, Oshima in Japanese) is one of 200+ tiny islands in a famous island chain called Matsushima (松島) in modern-day Miyagi Prefecture. The islands are all pretty small, and very scenic, and each has their own unique name. However, in the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake, the area was badly devastated and still recovering.

In any case, poets from antiquity and centuries later used Matsushima in their poetry and it’s easy to see why.

One other point worth mentioning is that this poem, and poem 89 use a clever trick in Japanese poetry called kugire (句切れ). The idea is to add a single syllable in there, usually on the first line, in order to add impact, but also as a filler to help maintain the standard 5-7-5-7-7 lines in Waka poetry. In this poem the kugire is on the first line, at the end: 見せばや (mi-se-ba-ya-na), while in poem 89 it is 玉の緒 (ta-ma-no-o-yo).

You can see this technique centuries later in Japanese haiku, such as in the famous poem by Basho in the year 1686:

古池Furu ike yaAn ancient pond!
蛙飛びこむKawazu tobikomuA frog jumps in;
水の音Mizu no otothe splash of water…
My amateur translation…

This haiku was composed 500+ years after the poems of the Hyakunin Isshu, but it’s interesting how some poetic-devices never quite get old. 😉

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