Brooding: Poem Number 99

Photo of Victor Hugo Brooding
Another patron of the arts, Victor Hugo, brooding in this photograph from 1853. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Since I touched upon the end of the Court-era in Japanese history, I thought it would be fitting to post this poem:

人も惜し Hito mo oshi
人も恨めし Hito mo urameshi
あぢきなく Ajiki naku
世を思ふゆゑに Yo wo omou yue ni
もの思ふ身は Mono omou mi wa

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

People seem dear and
people also seem hateful
when vainly
I brood about the world—
this self who broods about things.

The author of this poem was Emperor Go-toba (後鳥羽天皇 1180 – 1239), one of the most noteworthy Emperors in medieval Japanese history. Gotoba was responsible for a revival in Waka poetry. He commissioned Fujiwara Teika (poem 97), who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu, among others to make a new official anthology after the Kokin Wakashū centuries before, and this new edition became the Shin Kokinshū which is still an important part of Japanese literature.

Gotoba was a bold character, and sought to restore power which had recently been wrested from the Imperial family by the new Samurai class based in Kamakura, Japan. So, he and his son (Emperor Juntoku, poem 100), organized a rebellion in 1221 called the Jōkyū Disturbance where he called all samurai back to his banner. Unfortuantely, most didn’t want to lose their recent gains, and sided with the Kamakura government instead. The Jokyu Disturbance was a disaster and the Emperor’s forces were quickly destroyed. The young firebrand of an Emperor was then exiled to the Oki Islands (more photos here) and lived their for another 18 years.

This poem though, predates the rebellion and exile. According to Professor Mostow, it was composed as part of a series in 1212, which included Fujiwara no Teika, with the topic of “personal grievance”.

As to “who” he was referring to in the poem, that’s tricky. The word hito means “person or persons”, so it’s pretty generic. Mostow suggestions some traditional interpretations, such as those who oppose the Kamakura government, and those who uphold it (whom he detests), or another traditional interpretation was the common folk vs. those who opposed the rebellion (whom he obviously didn’t like).

We will never really know. But certainly after his exile, we can be sure he was a little bitter toward the victors.


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