Manyōshū 2240 – Oh, ask me not who I am

Just to show that I’m still alive…

This poem is number 2240 from the Manyōshū (万葉集), a poetry anthology compiled in the 8th century, and also Japan’s oldest poetry anthology. I came across it while reading about the anime film Kimi no Na wa.

万葉集 2240
誰彼 我莫問 九月 露沾乍 君待吾
誰(た)ぞかれと 我れをな問ひそ 九月(ながつき)の 露に濡れつつ 君待つ我れを

Manyōshū no. 2240
Oh, ask me not who I am——
Drenched in the September dew, I am the one awaiting you!

Tazokare to ware wo na toi so
Nagatsuki no tsuyu ni nuretsutsu kimi matsu ware wo

The poem expresses the painful longing of a person waiting for his/her lover. Dew, in Japanese poetry, is a common signifier for tears, and in this case probably suggests the speaker’s. Even when read literally, the image of a person waiting outside all night until he/she is wet through with dew is a pathetic one.

In the Japanese text I use, the poem is written twice: first with Chinese characters, which was the style of the Manyōshū (this is the first line of the text), and then again as the Japanese transcription of the Chinese characters, which is the one people commonly read (this is the second line of the text).

Interestingly, this poem’s opening phrase, tazokare (誰ぞ彼 / “who is that?”) is the word root for the modern Japanese word tasogare (黄昏 / “twilight”), presumably because twilight was a time when a person, on seeing someone from afar but not being able to make out his/her features, would ask this question. Kimi no Na wa. brings up this topic to explain its twilight motif, and its very title of “(What is) Your Name?” appears to be based on the question of tazokare—”Who is that?” or, better put, “Who are you?”

For Japanese nerds (how many of them are there, out of the bare handful of people who read this blog??), several “versions” of this poem can actually be found on the Internet. They differ in small ways like transcribing the first phrase as 誰そ彼 or the last as 君待つ我そ (although they don’t affect the meaning much). The reason there are multiple versions is because the poem was originally written in its Chinese form and didn’t include particles: the ぞ/そ and を/そ of contention are things that later readers (ie. ancient Japanese literati) had to add in to make it readable as a poem.

The author also appears to be unknown. Sources on the Internet list as the poem’s origin the 柿本人麻呂歌集, a poetry collection attributed to legendary Nara-period poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. Problem is, not every poem in there was actually composed by him: as such, we aren’t sure who wrote this poem.

A disclaimer: this is an amateur translation. When translating poems this old one should really do tons of research into its background and editions and criticism and whatnot. I have not.

One thought on “Manyōshū 2240 – Oh, ask me not who I am

  1. Pingback: The Gender-Neutral Third-Person Pronoun Kare in Classical Japanese | Japanography

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