Hotsuma-Tsutae The Book of Man (Chapters 40) [Contents] [Japanese] [French]

Yamatotake and the Elegy of the White Bird

It was springtime in the 41st year of Woshirowake’s reign.
The Prince Yamatotake at last overcame the hazards of the Kiso Road and arrived at the palace of the Headman of Owari, where the Princess Miyazu awaited him as his wife. He had already passed a month there, spending an overdue time of relaxation in the palace.

Miyazu explained that she had decided to proceed from the Yamato court and await him at her family home, having received word that Yamatotake was on his way home. For she had been vexed daily by the growing delay in his return. When he finally arrived, however, it so happened that the Princess had entered her menstrual period. So overjoyed was she on hearing news of his arrival that she rushed out to meet the Prince in her nightclothes. Seeing a spot of menstrual blood on the hem of her garment, he composed a poem with which to forewarn her:
Hisakata no ama no Kaguyama
togamo yori sawatari kuru hi
hosotahaya kahina wo makan
to ha suredo sanen to areba
omoedomo na ga kikeru so no
tsuki tachi ni keri

(“On the day of my return from afar, across heavenly Mount Kagu of old, I wish to embrace your slender, graceful arms and I desire to sleep with you, but the moon has arisen on the hem of your garment.”)
The Princess immediately composed her reply:
Taka hikaru ama no hi no miko
yasumi seshi waga ohokimi no
aratama no toshi ga kifureba
uena uena kimi machi gata ni
waga kikeru osuhi no suso ni
tsuki tatanan yo

(“O radiant heavenly prince, give me your pardon! As the years of our great lord have passed by, I have waited so impatiently for you that the moon should surely have risen on the hem of my cloak!”)
During his sojourn, Yamatotake declared:
“The Palace of Sakaori, seat of Ohotomo Takehi, is the Haramiya Palace from the days of the heavenly grandson Ninikine, and its majestic appearance still presents a splendid sight. I wish to remove the palace to this present location, and live here in contentment with my wife.”
The Headman of Owari replied right away: “I will first go there and draw a picture of it.” The Prince was gladdened to hear this.
The Headman immediately set off for Sakaori in the foothills of Mount Fuji, and returned with a detailed drawing of the palace.

Hearing word of a turbulent deity on Mount Ifuki, meanwhile, Yamatotake immediately set out to subdue it, driven by his relentless vigour. So impatient was he, in fact, that he left his sword behind and went out unarmed. This was the sword formerly known as Murakumo, which his ancestor Sosanowo had removed from the tail of the eight-forked serpent in Izumo. The name had since been changed to ‘Kusanagi’ (‘Grass-Mower’), for Yamatotake had used it to cut down grass set alight by the Yemishi during his eastern expedition.
But now Yamatotake made light of the turbulent deity and set off to meet it without even preparing nigite, ritual paper strips for sacred protection. As Yamatotake passed along the road towards the mountain, the deity Ifuki appeared there in the guise of a great serpent that blocked his route. Quite unaware of the transformation, Yamatotake addressed the serpent, saying: “You are merely the servant of a deity. It would serve no purpose for me to take you.” And with that, he stepped over the serpent and continued walking. So then Ifuki caused icicles to fall from the sky ahead, again blocking his way. The mountain was bereft of sunlight and cloaked in darkness. No sooner had Yamatotake boldly forced his way through this obstacle than he started to feel dizzy and was suddenly attacked by a raging fever. He cooled himself at a nearby spring, which was thereafter called Samegayi (‘Cooling Well’).
This was when Yamatotake began to feel pain in his legs. He started back for the Owari Palace where Miyazu awaited him, but the pain in his legs made them feel heavy, every step causing him such agony that it seemed his life would end. He now decided not to tarry at Owari but to continue along the road to the sacred shrine at Ise.

At length he came to a single pine tree in Ozu, and remembered that he had stopped to eat under this tree on the way to his eastern expedition. He had removed his sword and placed it at the foot of the tree, but on setting off again, had inadvertently left it there. Now the sword still remained where he had left it. In his sense of gratitude for the loyalty of the pine tree, Yamatotake composed a poem:
Owasuredo tada ni mukaeru
hitotsu matsu aware hito matsu*
hito ni seba kinu kisemajio
tachi hakemajio

(“Though I forgot you, you greet me loyally, you single pine; how compassionately you wait for me. If you were a man, I would give you clothes to wear and I would gird you with a sword.” * hitomatsu: a pun meaning both ‘single pine’ and ‘to await someone’)
After this momentary diversion, he managed to go on a little further, but the pain in his legs was so severe that they felt as if bent into three. For that reason, the area he now passed through was called Mie (“Three Bends”). He took a walking stick and crossed the Hill of Tsuyetsuki, arriving at last at the Moor of Nobo. Now he could barely carry himself any further, and realized at last that he was gravely ill.
At this point Yamatotake released five Yemishi captives and sent them on to Uji (Ise), accompanied by Ohomikashima, High Priest of the Ise Grand Shrine.
Kibi Takehiko would be sent on ahead to the sovereign court, where he would deliver an urgent missive addressed to Yamatotake’s father, the ruling sovereign Woshirowake. Yamatotake wrote:
“Lord sovereign, these are the words of your son Hanahiko. Under command from my sovereign father, I set out to pacify the Land of Hotsuma, where I successfully subjugated the Yemishi thanks to the favour of the heavens and the mighty protection of your authority. Now there are none who oppose your rule, all are loyal to your court and the eastern lands are once more at peace. Having accomplished this, I then started on my return to your court, but now, just like the setting sun at dusk, my life will soon be ended. I wish that I could return to you see you again one day. With heavy regret will I lie down on this moor, and here will I end my life with none to share the thoughts in my heart. It afflicts me so to think that I will never see you again, but such is the natural rule of the heavens.”
Yamatotake interrupted his writing, saying:
“No sooner have I felt joy at pacifying west and east than my own body has met destruction. To be sure, I have not given my men a single day of rest.” So saying, he commanded Nanatsukahagi to share out all the hanafuri stipends with his men. Then he composed a poem, saying “Let me now become the Atsuta deity”. He first bathed himself, then changed into fresh clothes, before facing southwards and declaring, “These are the final words of one who faces death:
Atsuta nori
Inamu toki kitsu no shikaji to
tarachine ni tsukae mitenedo
Sakokushiro kami no yate yori
michi ukete umare tanoshiku
kaesa ni mo izanahi chidoru
kakehashi wo nobori kasumi no
tanoshimi wo kumoyi ni matsu to
hito ni kotaen

(“The Rule of Atsuta: As I await my death, neither my role as protector of east and west nor my duty to my parents is fulfilled, but having received the Way from the eight hands of the Sakokushiro deities, I have spent a full life. And when I am beckoned back into the heavens, I will skip up the heavenly bridge, and seeking the far-off bliss beyond the mist, I will await among the clouds. Let this be my answer to the people.”)
As Yamatotake repeatedly recited this Rule of Atsuta, he finally closed his eyes and passed away.
With nothing more to do, those in attendance immediately started their preparations for the funeral rites. The poem was taken to Princess Miyazu in Owari, while Kibi Takehiko took the Prince’s final testament to the court. There, the sovereign Woshirowake became so aggrieved that he was unable to fulfil his duties of government. His food no longer held any flavour and he lamented night and day, saying:
“In days of old, when the Kumaso rebelled, my son Hanahiko, though yet a youth with hair twisted in a topknot, vanquished the foe with great valour. He then assisted me as a deputy on both sides, but with none other who could pacify the Land of Hotsuma, I reluctantly sent my own son once more among the foe. And while I was yet waiting day and night for his safe return, what calamity has now befallen me. With no time even to warm the bond between father and son, he has suddenly been called back to the heavens. To whom can I now pass the reins of my rule?”

The sovereign then commanded his ministers to conduct the highest funeral rites for his son. And as the funeral was still in progress, the body of Prince Yamatotake became transformed into a white bird that flew gracefully up into the sky. Thinking this strange, the attendants examined his coffin inside the tomb, and there found only his head-dress, mace and garments. The body had already disappeared, having been transformed into a white bird and flown away. They all followed the white bird to the Plain of Kotohiki in the Land of Yamato, where it left four branches of its tail feathers, then on to Furuichi in Kawachi, where it left another four feathers. Funereal mounds were raised up in both of these places, whereupon the white bird flew up into the heavens and became concealed among the clouds. The tail feathers of the white bird became scattered broadly like yohakishi paper flowers from the Age of the Gods, like shide paper symbols that cleansed and purified the ills of the world.

Perhaps it was some kind of heavenly providence that the Prince should die such a death after so nobly pacifying both east and west.
When Yamatotake went out to Mount Ifuki (having left the Kusanagi sword in the palace of Princess Miyazu), contracted a painful affliction of the legs and turned towards Ise, he composed a tsuzu uta (nineteen-beat poem) to express his concern for his family:
Hashikiyashi wakibe no kata yu kumoitachi kumo

(“From the direction of my beloved home, clouds are departing”)
This poem in the ‘yakata’ style, one of the final utterances of Yamatotake, is an expression of affection for the other members of his family, and shows the deeply compassionate nature of the Prince. He asks that his departure be compared to that of a traveller on a journey, in order to dispel any remaining regret.

Just before Yamatake passed away on the Moor of Nobo, he uttered his final poem to his Princess Miyazu:
Aichida no otome ga toko ni
waga okoishi Ise no tsurugi no
tachi wakaru yawa

(“Next to the maiden’s sleeping place in Aichida I left the sword from Ise, but we are not apart”)
This poem was seen as a divine oracle implying that the way of matrimony remained unbroken, and that even if one can become parted from one’s sword, the scabbard belt cannot so easily be separated.
On receiving this poem, Miyazu was deeply moved. In her extreme grief she gasped for breath as she wept in anguish, such that she was almost at death’s door herself.

Her father, the Headman of Owari, went up to the Yamato court bearing his picture of Haramiya Palace, and related the erstwhile wish of the Prince. With the permission of the sovereign Woshirowake, he then had a palace resembling Haramiya built at Aichida.
In a prayer for its completion, the sovereign issued a decree:
“Ohotataneko shall serve as Master of Rites and the Headman of Owari as the Chief Priest, and the other princes shall make preparations for an august procession.”
The ritual of Yamatotake’s deification proceeded in all solemnity. The four tail feathers of the white bird that had fallen at Kotohiki were brought together with the four that had fallen at Furuichi. The head-dress, mace and clothing found at the Plain of Nobo were placed inside a chest to house the deity’s spirit and these together were put inside the shiramikoshi shrine.

It was the 11th day in the third month of the 44th year of Woshirowake’s reign.
The rites of Yamatotake’s deification started at dusk with a procession that departed from the Plain of Nobo eastwards, towards the Palace at Aichida. A host of court officials raised aloft burning torches, and the procession proceeded in grave solemnity under the flickering light of their flames. Finally, on the sixth night, they arrived at the newly appointed Haramiya Palace, where the shrine was at last laid to rest in the Ohoma Great Hall.
The Princess Miyazu served the late Prince just as she would have done when he was still alive, striking fire to prepare rice gruel for the ritual meal, which she piled up on a flat dish held on high. With this she led the procession into the Ohoma Great Hall, and when all had entered after her, presented the hallowed meal to the deity, saying,
“This was the meal I intended to serve to you as I awaited your return from Ifuki. On that day, when I cooked the rice myself and awaited you, why did you not return to me but instead pass on so far away? I regret that most bitterly. And now you at last return to me in the form of a deity. Please accept this food that I have prepared – my hirumeshi (both ‘midday meal’ and ‘food of the spirit of the sun’) to you as I await you in Aichida, just as when you were in the real world.” The Princess recited these words thrice.
The night sky was filled with bright light from the full moon, when a white bird flew down from nowhere and ate the ritual food, then flew away again beyond the white clouds and vanished. Whereupon a divine voice intoned a nineteen-beat poem:
Aritsu yo no haramitsu hoshiki
chiri o hiru meshi

(“To satisfy hunger in the real world, sacred food for the spirit world”)
In the 8th month of the 53rd year, Woshirowake issued a decree.
“On reflection, our grief has not relented for a single day. Let us now conduct a tour of the lands pacified by our son Kousu.”
The procession first visited Ise, then turned towards Tsushima in Owari. There, the Headman of Owari came out to meet them, and the sovereign was as overjoyed as if reunited with his own lamented son. Together they entered the Ohoma Great Hall at Aichida (today known as the Atsuta Grand Shrine), where Woshirowake fashioned sacred paper strips with his own hand, saying:
“Lacking the good fortune to have spent more time with you, I still cannot forget you, my son, and so have come to meet you and offer these sacred strips to you.” And he remained there a long time grieving.
That night, as the sovereign slept at Tsushima-mori, he had a dream in which Yamatotake appeared to him in the form of a white bird, which said: “The great Amateru said to Sosanowo, ‘Your ambition is to seize this land’, then gave his brother a discourse on the Rule of Heaven and recited these words:
Ame ga shita yawashite meguru
hitsuki koso harete akaruki
tami no tara nari

("We are the very parents of the people, shining down brightly just as the sun and moon that cross the heavens and rule all below.")
“By this he meant that the sovereign of the land should be seen as a parent and held in affection as such. But Sosanowo paid no heed to his teaching, was ultimately banished from the court for his misdeeds, and was reduced to the status of a common peasant. After eight years of futile wandering, he was taken in by his nephew Ifuki, and was later granted the laudatory title of ‘Hikawa-kami’ (the Hikawa deity) for his feat of vanquishing the eight-forked serpent. He was thereupon permitted to return to the court and was reinstated as the Yaegaki (Protector of Izumo).
“Later, the heavenly grandchild Ninikine, having brought affluence and peace to the land in the spirit of the great Amateru, received the Land of Hotsuma and the title of Amakimi (heavenly sovereign).
“Sosanowo, in awe of Ninikine’s great sagacity and wishing to play a part in further developing the country with wisdom and courage, transformed himself into the parent-child pair of the sovereign and his crown prince, and in this guise returned to the world of the living.
“Having returned to my father’s side after subduing the Yemishi and Kumaso in east and west, my heart was at rest. Here at Tsushima-mori I can see my lord again, and now even the fever that once tormented me has been miraculously cured like a ripened melon that at last falls from its stem. How the love of a parent is deep and everlasting!”
Then Yamatotake composed a poem:
Waga hikaru Harami tsu nishiki
Atsuta kami moto Tsushima ha ni
oreru ka Hikawa

(“In truth, I (Sosanowo) am housed in a deity (Yamatotake) who is adorned with dazzling Harami brocade, but I only wanted to have simple cloth woven to befit the lowly status of an exile in Hikawa”)
After reciting this request thrice, the deity was transformed into a person of humble birth and became concealed by clouds.
When the sovereign awoke from this dream, he said:
“This is a divine message. It means that my son was an embodiment of the ignoble Sosanowo, and that having fulfilled his wish, he would now leave for his erstwhile home of Hikawa, whereupon he would give thanks for the bond of father and child and depart. This is a divine portent to show that he knows the turbulence in my heart. My son Hanahiko once said:
Hito ha kami kami ha hito nari
na mo homare michi tatsu nori no
kami ha hito hito sunaho nite
hotsuma yuku makoto kami nari
‘Our deities were originally human, and humans are inherently divine. Those who do great deeds, earn notoriety and teach a way of life that inspires others become worshipped as deities. Humans who, with a pure and honest spirit, follow the Way of Hotsuma – the path of excellence and truth – will of themselves become divine’.”

In accordance with the portent in the dream, the sovereign bestowed the name of Atsuta-kami (the Atsuta deity) on the deity worshipped in the Ohoma Great Hall at the Palace of Aichida.

(Seiji Takabatake, from the 40th aya of the Hotsuma-Tsutae)

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Hotsuma-Tsutae (National Archives, Tokyo)
Hotsuma-Tsutae (period translation by Waniko Yasutoshi, ca. 1779)

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