Kakinomoto Hitomaro

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Death is a part of life. For as long as someone can live, they can die just as quickly. Many mediums have portrayed the reality of death: from movies to television shows, but poetry seems to address this issue more than others. One poet: Kakinomoto Hitomaro wrote about the life and death of his wife with frightening emotion. Hitomaro lived in Japan during the 8th century and “his elegy on his first wife is among the most touching poems in any language” (Barnstone 461). Although Hitomaro’s poem is important in it’s own right, it is vital to understand the cultural context in which it took place. Thus, to further understand one of “the most touching poems in any language,” it is vital to explore the ancient Japanese view of death in relation…show more content…
After the death of his wife, Hitomaro enters the place where his wife had often been: the Karu Market. After realizing his wife wasn’t returning, Hitomaro reflects “I could do nothing / but call my wife’s name / and wave my sleeves” (Barnstone 463). Hitomaro publicly displays both his sadness and his desperation. This public display is in contrast with the modern western death ritual. Furthermore, the inclusion of sadness and desperation does not fit with the 8th century Japanese death ritual cited earlier. Hitomaro has, in three lines, refuted both a modern ritual and his own cultural ritual. In America, a public display of mourning is not common and could even be seen as uncomfortable. Furthermore, an 8th century Japanese citizen was expected to dance and sing around the coffin, not run into a street and call for the deceased loved one (cited in Akima 488). Thus, Hitomaro does not follow parts of his own cultural model of…show more content…
Before Hitomaro waves his sleeves around and screams for his wife, Hitomaro notices something. As he enters the market, Hitomaro “listened / but could not even hear / the voices of the birds / that cry” (Barnstone 463). Although this passage may seem simple, Akima describes a cultural significance: “we have sufficient reason to believe that the ancient Japanese often took a bird for an incarnation of a dead person's spirit” (494). Thus, the fact that Hitomaro could not hear the voices of the birds means he could not hear the voice of his wife anymore. Furthermore, the use of personification here for the birds is notable as the birds are given “voices.” Thus, Hitomaro has lost the spiritual connection and no matter how he tried to listen, he could not hear her. This deep cultural belief brings his reasoning full circle: he notices the lost spiritual connection with his wife in public and thus, he mourns. Although the ancient Japanese practiced celebration in light of a loved one’s death, losing the spiritual connection with that loved one throws a whole new wrinkle in to the fold. Thus, Hitomaro seems to be mourning not to purposefully subvert the cultural practice of his time, but because he has lost his wife, body and

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