A Poem from the Manyoshu (Book 14 – poem 3460) Shedding Light on the the NIINAMESAI – ancient predecessor of Labor Thanksgiving Day

By Avi Landau

Reading through almost any selection of poems from the Manyoshu, the oldest anthology of classical Japanese poetry (and the greatest – in terms of both number of works and quality of the works), one gets the feeling that the Japanese poets of yore had a one track mind. It’s as if everything around them, natural or man-made, reminded them of love – spiritual, emotional and very often physical. Take for example Mt. Tsukuba (which we Tsukubans enjoying seeing every hazeless day). It is mentioned in the anthology 25 times! And not because of its grandeur or beauty (which in both it is quite lacking!), but because of its twin peaks, which have long been seen as representing the Male and Female Forces. In other words, for the Manyo Poets, the mountain was a symbol of interaction between the sexes – and that is why it pops up so often in the poems

So with the anthology in hand, just  about everything becomes risque – and not just the usual birds, flowers, rivers and fruits… in the Manyoshu even Labor Thanksgiving Day can have sexual connotations! Really? But how, you might ask, can a work compiled in the 8th century be connected in any way with a holiday established in 1948? Well, before being given a new name and image by the GHQ (in the years of American Occupation), November 23rd had been a holiday with strong connections to the Imperial family: the Niiname-Sai (新嘗祭), involving a ceremony in which the Emperor would offer part of the new harvest to the Gods (apparently , before the end of the war, commoners would not eat their new rice until the Niiname-Sai had been completed). And this ceremony appears to be very ancient  – since it is mentioned in the 8th century Nihon Shoki AND in the Manyoshu (in seven different poems) as well!

Once again, you have to understand the aspect of the ceremony which, like MT. Tsukuba’s twin-peaks, made it symbolically interesting for the poet (in this case, anonymous). The thing to know, is that the Niiname-sai ceremony was attended by MEN only, while wives were left at home to hold the fort – making it a perfect opportunity for a “backdoor” lover to pay a call.

Here is poem 3460 from Book 14 of the Manyoshu – which is so sublime (in my eyes) because of how very differently it can be interpreted:

誰そこの 屋の戸おそぶる にふなみに 我が背を遣りて 斉ふこの戸を


First let me make a word for word translation:

Who is there, tapping on my door, after I’ve sent my husband off to the Niiname-sai, and wait here all alone.

Now interestingly, in a pre-war English version published by a committee of Japanese scholars, the poem is presented as a proclamation of ideal Japanese wifely virtue

“Away, you who rattle at my door on this sacred night of new rice-offerings, when I`ve sent my man out, and worship in the house alone!”

Note how the translators push forward their own interpretation by adding the word AWAY!

(and how can we be surprised by this rendering during a time when so many conscripts and officers were living apart from their wives) :

But if you show this same poem, in its original, to Japanese women of today ( which I have frequently done), you will most likely find that they interpret the woman-in-the-poem’s feelings quite differently – as either excited to meet a lover or secret admirer, or filled with wonder and mystery – with perhaps a slight sense of guilt.

So perhaps we can capture that feeling in English with this (not very poetic) translation of the poem:

Oh my! Who`s that at the door? My husband won’t be back for a while – I’ve seen him off to harvest rites – and I`ve got the whole house to myself!

Happy Labor Thanksgiving Day!

One thought on “A Poem from the Manyoshu (Book 14 – poem 3460) Shedding Light on the the NIINAMESAI – ancient predecessor of Labor Thanksgiving Day

  1. Here is another poem from the Manyoshu – one that refers to the autumn rice harvest.Once again, the focus is on romantic relations, and not on the quality or size of the crop:

    秋の田の 穂田の刈りばか か寄りあはば そこもか人の 我を事なさむ


    Book 4 Poem 512 (Kusa no Otome)

    The expression used here KARIBAKA here is a combination of the words KARU, to cut and harvest the rice, and HAKADORU (捗る)which means TO MAKE PROGRESS, and thus refers to laborers working to complete harvesting their assigned section of the fields.

    So let me offer a translation focusing on poems meaning (without, unfortunately, recreating its aesthetic appeal).

    Even while working hard out here in the autumn fields trying to fill our reaping quotas people would start to talk if I got to close to you


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