伊勢物語 Ise Monogatari
‘The Ise stories’ or ‘Tales of Ise’ is a collection of anecdotes about one man’s romantic and poetic exploits in early Heian Japan. ‘The man’ of these episodes was Ariwara no Narihira (825-880), a grandson of Emperor Heizei and son of Imperial Prince Abo. When others close to Retired Emperor Heizei attempted to restore his rule, the principals were executed or committed suicide, but Prince Abo was exiled and demoted to commoner status. Abo was later pardoned, but remained a commoner, and his son Narihira was a commoner too, if a pedigreed one.
Each of the Ise collection’s episodes features the vernacular 31-syllable uta ‘song; lyric’ prominently, as a conventionalized but privileged, courtly way of communicating, whose qualities were taken as a fair index of the composer’s mettle—as a lover (potential or actual), a son, a mate, a friend, a subject. Proficiency in the uta, particularly in response to the occasion at hand, is the mark of a person to be reckoned with. Poems by ‘the man’ are shown being devised and delivered, for example, at certain turns in a journey or a relationship, on occasions whose value is made manifest by the poem(s), or—most often—addressed to someone in romantic pursuit. Indeed, the anecdotes that comprise the Ise collection show just how quick, rhetorically adept and emotionally nuanced one man’s responses to life’s challenges and opportunities could be.
Scholars agree that the Ise stories are neither the work of a single author, nor of a single author’s lifetime. There is a long tradition of commentaries on the Ise stories, some of which propose allegorical readings, while others see but a biography of Narihira, and still others are variously philological and/or exegetical. Many of ‘the man’s’ poems in Ise are included in imperial anthologies of poetry, from Kokinshū (the first, ca. 905) to Shinkokinshū (the eighth, ca. 1205) and beyond, where they are attributed to Ariwara no Narihira.
In the words of Joshua Mostow and Royall Tyler in their The Ise Stories (Hawaii, 2010: 1), “The Ise has been essential reading for every educated Japanese, male or female, for most of Japan’s history.” The vignettes we’ve selected for study here are from Ise’s famous Azuma kudari ‘Journey to the East’ sequence, which contains some of the best known poems in the collection. So what are you waiting for? Let’s get educated!