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The aim of instruction was to
prepare men for official posts rather than to impart general culture
or to encourage scientific research. Students were therefore selected
from the aristocrats or the official classes only. There were no
printed books; everything had to be laboriously copied by hand, and
thus the difficulties of learning were much enhanced. To be able to
adapt the Chinese ideographs skilfully to the purposes of written
Japanese was a feat achieved by comparatively few. What the task
involved has been roughly described in the opening chapter of this
volume, and with what measure of success it was achieved may be
estimated from the preface to the Records (Kojiki), written by Ono
Yasumaro, from the Chronicles (Nihon Shoki) and from the Daiho
Ritsu-ryo, which three works may be called the sole surviving prose
essays of the epoch.

Much richer, however, is the realm of poetry. It was during the Nara
epoch that the first Japanese anthology, the Manyo-shu (Collection of
a Myriad Leaves), was compiled. It remains to this day a revered
classic and "a whole mountain of commentary has been devoted to the
elucidation of its obscurities." [Chamberlain.] In the Myriad Leaves
are to be found poems dating nominally from the reigns of Yuryaku and
Nintoku, as well as from the days of Shotoku Taishi, but much more
numerous are those of Jomei's era (629-641) and especially those of
the Nara epoch. The compiler's name is not known certainly; he is
believed to have been either Tachibana no Moroe or Otomo no
Yakamochi. Old manuscripts and popular memory were the sources, and
the verselets total 4496, in twenty volumes. Some make love their
theme; some deal with sorrow; some are allegorical; some draw their
inspiration from nature's beauties, and some have miscellaneous
motives. Hitomaru, who flourished during the reign of the Empress
Jito (690-697), and several of whose verses are to be found in the
Myriad Leaves, has been counted by all generations the greatest of
Japanese poets. Not far below him in fame is Akahito, who wrote in
the days of Shomu (724-749). To the same century--the eighth--as the
Manyo-shu, belongs the Kiraifu-so, & volume containing 120 poems in
Chinese style, composed by sixty-four poets during the reigns of
Temmu, Jito, and Mommu, that is to say, between 673 and 707. Here
again the compiler's name is unknown, but the date of compilation is
clear, November, 751.

From the fact that, while bequeathing to posterity only two national
histories and a few provincial records (the Fudo-ki), the Nara epoch
has left two anthologies, it will be inferred readily that the
writing of poetry was a favourite pursuit in that age. Such, indeed,
was the case. The taste developed almost into a mania. Guests bidden
to a banquet were furnished with writing materials and invited to
spend hours composing versicles on themes set by their hosts. But
skill in writing verse was not merely a social gift; it came near to
being a test of fitness for office.

"In their poetry above everything the Japanese have remained
impervious to alien influences. It owes this conservation to its
prosody. Without rhyme, without variety of metre, without elasticity
of dimensions, it is also without known counterpart. To alter it in
any way would be to deprive it of all distinguishing characteristics.
At some remote date a Japanese maker of songs seems to have
discovered that a peculiar and very fascinating rhythm is produced by
lines containing 5 syllables and 7 syllables alternately. That is
Japanese poetry (uta or tanka). There are generally five lines: the
first and third consisting of 5 syllables, the second, fourth and
fifth of 7, making a total of 31 in all. The number of lines is not
compulsory: sometimes they may reach to thirty, forty or even more,
but the alternation of 5 and 7 syllables is compulsory. The most
attenuated form of all is the hokku (or haikai) which consists of
only three lines, namely, 17 syllables. Necessarily the ideas
embodied in such a narrow vehicle must be fragmentary. Thus it
results that Japanese poems are, for the most part, impressionist;
they suggest a great deal more than they actually express. Here is an
example:

Momiji-ha wo
Kaze ni makasete
Miru yori mo
Hakanaki mono wa
Inochi nari keri

This may be translated:

More fleeting than the glint of withered leaf wind-blown, the thing
called life."*

*See Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, article "Japan."

The sketchy nature of Japanese poetry, especially in this five-line
stanza, may be illustrated further by two poems quoted by Prof. B. H.
Chamberlain in his "Things Japanese" (pp. 375-376),

The first:

Hototogisu
Nakitsuru kata wo
Nagamureba--
Tada ari-ake no
Tsuki zo nokoreru

is literally translated by Professor Chamberlain as follows:

"When I gaze towards the place where the cuckoo has been singing,
nought remains but the moon in the early dawn."

And the conventional and pictorial character of the literary form is
illustrated again in the lines:

Shira-kumo ni
Hane uchi-kawashi
Tobu kari no
Kazu sae miyuru
Aki no yo no tsuki!

which the same eminent scholar translates: "The moon on an autumn
night making visible the very number of the wild-geese that fly past
with wings intercrossed in the white clouds." It is to be noted that
this last is, to Occidental notions, a mere poetic phrase and not a
unit.

Of course, the very exigencies of the case make the three-line stanza
(or hokku), containing only 17 syllables, even more sketchy--hardly
more indeed than a tour de force composed of a limited number of
brush strokes! The Western critic, with his totally different
literary conventions, has difficulty in bringing himself to regard
Japanese verse as a literary form or in thinking of it otherwise than
as an exercise in ingenuity, an Oriental puzzle; and this notion is
heightened by the prevalence of the couplet-composing contests, which
did much to heighten the artificiality of the genre.

RELATIONS BETWEEN THE SEXES

There was probably no more shocking sexual vice or irregularity in
the Nara epoch than there had been before nor than there was
afterwards. The only evidence adduced to prove that there was
anything of the sort is the fact that laws were promulgated looking
to the restraint of illicit intercourse. These laws seem to have
accomplished little or nothing and the existence of the laws argues
rather a growing sense of the seriousness of the evil than any sudden
increase in the prevalence of the evil itself. There can be no
question, however, of the wide diffusion of concubinage in this
period. Not morals nor repute nor public opinion, but the wealth and
wishes of each man limited him in his amours of this sort. The
essential of a virtuous woman was that she be faithful to her husband
or lover; no such faithfulness was expected of him. And neither in
the case of man nor woman did the conventions of the period depend at
all on the nature of the relationship between the two. Wives no
longer lived in their fathers' homes after marriage, but the
newly-wedded husband built new rooms for his wife's especial use, so
that, by a fiction such as the Oriental delights in and Occidental
law is not entirely ignorant of, her home was still not his. Before
betrothal, girls were not allowed to call themselves by a family
name. At the betrothal her affianced first bound up in a fillet the
hair that she had formerly worn loose around her face. Even more
symbolical was the custom upon lovers' parting of tying to the
woman's undergarment a string from the man's; this knot was to be
unloosed only when they met again.

THE SHOSO-IN

At Nara, in Yamato province, near the temple of Todai-ji, a store
house built of wood and called the Shoso-in was constructed in the
Nara epoch, and it still stands housing a remarkable collection of
furniture and ornaments from the Imperial palace. There is some
question whether this collection is truly typical of the period, or
even of the palace of the period; but the presence of many utensils
from China, some from India (often with traces of Greek influence),
and a few from Persia certainly shows the degree of cosmopolitan
culture and elegance there was in the palace at Nara. At the present
day, strangers may visit the collection only by special permission
and only on two days each year; and the museum has always had a
mingled imperial and sacred character. When the power of the
shogunate was at its height, the Shoso-in was never opened except by
orders of the Emperor. Among the contents of this museum are:
polished mirrors with repousse backs, kept in cases lined with
brocaded silk; bronze vases; bronze censers; hicense-boxes made of
Paulownia wood or of Chinese ware; two-edged swords, which were tied
to the girdle, instead of being thrust through it; narrow leather
belts with silver or jade decoration; bamboo flutes; lacquer
writing-cases, etc.

ENGRAVING: OUTLINE SKETCH OF THE SHOSO-IN AT NARA

REFORM OF LOCAL ADMINISTRATIONS

To the Emperor Konin belongs the credit of correcting some flagrant
abuses in provincial administration. There was an inconvenient
outcome of the religious mania which pervaded the upper classes
during the reigns of Shomu and Koken. To meet the expense of building
temples and casting images, men of substance in the provinces were
urged to make contributions of money, cereals, or land, and in return
for this liberality they were granted official posts. It resulted
that no less than thirty-one supernumerary provincial governors were
borne on the roll at one time, and since all these regarded office as
a means of recouping the cost of nomination, taxpayers and persons
liable to the corvée fared ill. In 774, Koken issued an edict that
provincial governors who had held office for five years or upwards
should be dismissed at once, those of shorter terms being allowed to
complete five years and then removed.

Another evil, inaugurated during the reign of Shomu, when faith in
the potency of supernatural influences obsessed men's minds, was
severely dealt with by Konin.



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