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Endless Love in Ancient Japan

Popularity of Poetry in Nara Period 

The Nara era (710-794), in ancient Japan, was often characterized by glorious literary achievements. Japan witnessed a culmination of Chinese influence, fostered by international trade. This led to the import of Chinese characters, known as Kanji, and the development of the first structured Japanese writing system, known as Man'yōgana, using only their phonetic value, rather than the character's meaning. Man'yōgana eventually led to the invention of the modern Japanese writing system in the Heian period (794-1185), which combines Kanji characters with two syllabaries called Kana: Hiragana and Katakana. Thus, Man'yōgana was an integral part of the Japanese writing system, allowing the expressions of delicate ideas and emotions in poetry of Nara period (Aiura, 2017). Man'yōgana first appeared in Man'yōshū, the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry which contains over 4,500 poems with a total of 20 volumes. Although the official year of publication is not determined, it is believed to have been compiled by Ōtomo no Yakamochi (718-785), a Japanese statesman and influential poet in the Nara period (Truscott, 2022). Flourishing during the Nara period, poetry served as a means of artistic expression for all individuals from different social classes (Aiura, 2017). Notably, members of the imperial family, including the emperors, engaged in composing poetry, utilizing verse to represent their daily observations of the world (Dusenbury, 2015). In addition, nobles and aristocrats at the imperial court also enjoyed poetic activities in their free time.

Figure 1: Uta-awase (the Tales of Ise from Volume 2, n.d.).

Figure 2: Noble ladies (the Tales of Ise from Volume 2, n.d.).

During the Nara period, people developed their writing skills by organizing poetry contests, known as Uta-Awase [Figure1], where two participants showcased their creativity by composing poems on a given subject (Ito, 1982). Judges in the Uta-Awase poetry contest were called Hanja. They would provide a subject for the contest and assess poems based on various criteria such as literary techniques, thematic depth, and overall impact. Besides the Hanja, the Uta-awase contests involved the Omoibito, viewers who simply came for viewring the contest and cheering the participants. Such a literacy battle fostered a competitive spirit among the Japanese people, and eventually led to the great popularity of poetry in ancient Japan (Ito, 1982). While there were more male poets, the Nara era witnessed several notable female writers who made significant contributions to the poetic development of the time [Figure 2] (Truscott, 2022). During the Nara period female poets often expressed various emotions in their verses, including love, longing, sorrow, and joy (Brower & Miner, 1957) [Figure 3]. Love poems composed by women explored the themes of their romantic feelings towards their husbands, the pain of separation, the great grief of loss, or even the complicated situation of extra marital affairs, such as infidelity (Brower & Miner, 1957). Among several ancient poetry collections including Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry) (905), and Gosen Wakashu (Later Collection of Japanese Poetry) (951), Man'yōshū is the most celebrated collection of poetry containing the works of the greatest female writers expressing their pure love (Ichikawa, 1939).

Confession of Love through Poems: Utagaki 

Ōtomo no Sakanoue (700-750), a Japanese noblewoman, was most known for her contributions in the form of love poems in Man'yōshū. Out of the 48 poems ascribed to Ōtomo no Sakanoue, throughout the entire collection in Man'yōshū, 37 of them are recorded in the fourth volume of the Man’yōshū, called sōmon poetry. Translated as “love poetry” or “private exchanges,” sōmon poems describe feelings of longing, or love, between men and women (Truscott, 2022). Both Sakanoue’s poems and other famous female writers' works in Man’yōshū are classified under this category of sōmon poetry. Sakanoue’s first appearance in the fourth volume is an exchange with Fujiwara no Maro (695–737), the son of Fujiwara no Fuhito (659–720), who was a powerful member of the imperial court of Japan during the Nara period (Truscott, 2022). Although their relationship lasted only a short period of time, Man'yōshū tells that Sakanoue and Maro exchanged and confessed their love to each other through poems (Nakanishi, 1978). During the Nara period, there was a practice of confession, called Utagaki, in which a group of men and women gathered at a specific place to eat and drink together while exchanging a love poem with whom he or she was in love with. The Utagaki can be considered as a root of modern-day Kokuhaku culture in Japan, that is the act of confessing romantic feelings to someone with the hope of beginning a romantic relationship. The first half of the fourth volume in Man’yōshū presented the love exchange between Sakanoue and Maro; 

Here are three poems by Fujiwara no Maro addressing Ōtomo no Sakanoue:

Like beautiful combs in my maiden’s treasured box turn into antiques, I must have grown old as well, since not having met my love.
It is said that there are people who can endure waiting even one year, but my longing became unbearable before I noticed. 
Though I lie under soft, warm bedding made from Ramie plant fibers, because I am not with my love, even my skin is cold (759, Volume 4, Man'yōshū) [Translated by Danica Marie Truscott, 2022].

And these are four poems in response by Ōtomo no Sakanoue:

The nights when my lord comes on a bead-black horse, stepping over small stones to cross the Saho River— can it be every night?
Like the small ripples in the shoals of Saho River where the plovers cry, there will never be a time when my longing for you stops. Though there are times where you say you’ll come but you don’t.
I will not wait for you to come when you say you won’t, because you said you won’t come.
Because the shoals are wide in the Saho River where the plovers cry, I would lay down a wooden bridge if I thought you were coming (759, Volume 4, Man'yōshū) [Translated by Danica Marie Truscott, 2022].

These poems beautifully represent the passion and longing between the two young adults. Maro expressed his affection to Sakanoue by confessing his unbearable feeling that he could no longer endure the pain of not being able to see her. Through the poems, he described his desire to be together with Sakanoue. In response to Maro’s songs, Sakanoue also revealed her love to him, saying that she wished him to come over every night. At the same time, she also mentioned that she did not want to wait for him to come because if he did not show up in the end, she would have been disappointed. Indirectly, Sakanoue portrayed her longing for Maro, confessing her unstoppable affection to him. According to Ono Hiroshi (1975), Sankanoue was a widow of Prince Hozumi (672-715), who was the fifth son of Emperor Tenmu (631-686). Ono argues that when Maro first met Sakanoue, she already had two other men, who offered a marriage proposal to her. Unfortunately, although there are not many records of who exactly proposed to Sakanoue, the poetry exchange between Sakanoue and Maro in Man'yōshū suggests that they fell in love with each other. Maro’s beautiful and romantic poems might have successfully caught Sakanoue’s attention and eventually allowed him to stand out among the other male rivals who already approached her.

Empress Kōmyō and Her Expression of Love

Another female poet who greatly contributed to the work of Man’yōshū is Empress Kōmyō (701–760), known as the first lady of non-imperial lineage, to marry an emperor in Japanese history [Figure 5]. In 718, Empress Kōmyō married Emperor Shōmu (701-756), the 45th emperor who ruled Japan with Buddhist teachings as a state religion for the first time. Empress Kōmyō was known for her literary activities, particularly her talents in composing poetry. Just like Sakanoue expressed her great longing to Maro in her poems, the Empress also explored the themes of love, longing, and devotion to her husband, Emperor Shōmu. In Man'yōshū, she composed three poems, one of them, contained in the eighth volume, in particular expressed her pure love for him. Although the exact date of when she composed it remains unclear, her poem expressed the great loneliness during a period of temporary separation with the Emperor, who had to escape from a rebellion by Fujiwara no Hirotsugu (715-740), a cousin of Empress Kōmyō (Matsuda, 2020). The poem beautifully portrayed the Empress thinking of him for hours while gazing blankly at falling snow:

How gladdening would be this falling snow, could I but watch with you, my husband (759, Volume 8-1658, Man'yōshū) [Translated by Nihon Gakujutsu Shinkokai, 1969, p. 84].

Figure 3: Female poet (Anonymous, n.d.).

Figure 4: 東大寺大仏縁起絵巻 (Anonymous, n.d.).

The appearance of snow can be a metaphor for her tears, that are falling heavily. In addition, the winter scenery adds a cold air that can represent the Empress' heart, frozen by the fact that her husband was miles away. The readers can imagine how lonely she felt, waiting for her husband's return. While poems were the fundamental ways to express love during the Nara period, Empress Kōmyō further demonstrated her dedication to the Emperor Shōmu and revealed her affection at a larger scale. She built the Shōsōin [Figure 6], a treasure house dedicated to preserve the Emperor’s personal belongings, to keep his soul alive even after his death in 756. On June 21,756, a Buddhist ceremony was held to mark 49 days since his passing at Todaiji, a temple originally founded by the Emperor in 738 [Figure 4] (Itakura, 2019). The 49-day ritual was very important as it is believed in Buddhist tradition that after death the soul of the deceased undergoes a journey before reaching its next destination. At this ceremony, Empress Kōmyō offered around 650 of Emperor Shōmu’s beloved treasures to the Great Buddha of Todaiji (Dusenbury, 2015). She prayed for her husband to be swiftly delivered to a peaceful afterlife in the Buddhist Pure Land, which, in Buddhist teaching, is the best possible place to be reborn. The catalog of treasures, called Record of Imperial Bequest to Todaiji Temple [Figure 7], dated June 21, 757, the date of the memorial service, contained a prefatory note written by the Empress Kōmyō with the following words; 

I beg to donate to the Todaiji Temple all the national treasures for which the ex-Emperor had a passion, from his own personal belongings to many other things: ivory-made Shakus, bows and arrows, swords, scrolls of penmanship and musical instruments. [...] I entreat them that the departed soul of our great Emperor will never fail to profit mysterious blessing from partaking in the celestial ritual; turning forever the wheels of law, enjoying precious hours in the flowery realm, he will always hear divine music at paradise's holy banquet, and divide joys with other worthy spirits. And then the millions of people in the earthly world shall feel enriched with his mercy and the whole world be covered with his virtue (Record of Imperial Bequest to Todaiji Temple by Empress Kōmyō, 769).

Figure 5: Empress Kōmyō (Kanzan Shimomura, 1897).

Empress Kōmyō's decision to build a treasure repository at Todaiji for her husband reflected her commitment to honoring his legacy. By establishing this dedicated repository, she ensured to honor Emperor Shōmu's memory and continued his spiritual legacy for the next generations.

Another Form of Love by Empress Kōmyō: Shōsōin Treasures

The Shōsōin is situated to the northwest of the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple in the Nara prefecture. The construction of the Todaiji itself was founded by Emperor Shōmu (701-756) in 739. During the Tempyo period (729 to 749), a specific era in the Nara era when Emperor Shōmu reigned, Japan faced severe natural disasters as well as epidemics. In response to social instability and upheavals, Emperor Shōmu founded the Todaiji as a central national temple, hoping Buddhist teachings would ultimately bring peace over the country. The North Hall of Shōsōin housed the belongings of the Emperor donated by the Empress, while the other two halls were used for accommodating the ritual items and materials belonging to the Todaiji (Itakura, 2019). Each room was strictly preserved under the imperial family and the Todaiji over time. The number of treasures preserved until today is approximately 9,000, and the great majority are now protected as national treasures. The treasures range widely, from religious items including manuscripts, sutras, Buddhist altar fittings, ritual costumes, and incense, to everyday products such as clothing, screens, curtains, calligraphy tools, and musical instruments (Dusenbury, 2015). Additionally, they housed imported treasures brought from China through the Silk Road, an ancient caravan route that connected Xian in central China to the East Mediterranean (Dusenbury, 2015).

Figure 6: Shōsōin (Todaiji, 738).

Figure 7: Record of Imperial Bequest to Todaiji Temple (Empress Kōmyō, 769).

Among the many treasures that she donated, a small cushion, called長斑錦御軾 (Chouhankinno-Okushoku) [Figure 8] must be noted. It is a small cushion beautifully adorned by Chinese patterns, and it is believed to have been used by Emperor Shōmu to rest his arm [Figure 9]. As it was one of the items that he used every day, the cushion was slightly skewed to one side, where the Emperor might have leaned against. Such distortion of product must have visually reminded Empress Kōmyō of her husband, who was no longer present in this world. The physical remark of Emperor Shōmu in cushion deepened her sorrow and longing for her lost husband (Tsujimoto, 2021). Another notable piece of Emperor Shōmu's treasure is his bed. It is believed to be the oldest bed from ancient Japan still preserved today. Its size was almost equivalent to a modern-day, semi-double bed with a height of 39 cm, length of 233 cm, and width of 118 cm (Fujuoka, 1992). The Empress donated two beds, one from Emperor Shōmu, and the other from the Empress herself. According to Kawashima (1992), these 2 bed units were placed parallelly, so it can be imagined that they slept next to each other. The two beds were the final items mentioned in the treasure list. 

Figure 8: 長斑錦御軾 (Shōsōin, n.d.).

Figure 9: 長斑錦御軾 with the Emperor (China Cultural Foundation, n.d.).

Although the Shōsōin contained various treasures from ritual items to imported crafts such as Chinese ceramics, the biggest collection comprised Emperor Shōmu’s personal belongings (Itakura, 2019). However, why did Empress Kōmyō decide to give away all the important mementos of her loving husband? Why did she not keep the Emperor's relic by herself if all the items were part of her beautiful memories with him? Although the foundation of Shōsōin reflected her willingness to commemorate the Emperor’s legacy, it was also encouraged by the love that Empress Kōmyō aimed to express. Her response was clearly mentioned in the last part of the catalog [Figure 7]. Her donation of the Emperor’s items was described in the word “追感疇昔 触目崩摧”, meaning that every time she saw any items of Emperor, it reminded her of the happy memories she shared with her love, sharpening the pain within her body. Described as akin to being cut with a knife. The Emperor’s personal and everyday items were surely a remembrance of the Emperor himself, but this fact worsened her great sorrow, loneliness, and longing for her loved one. Having them in her possession could have also brought back great memories: the days when Emperor Shōmu was healthy, the lovely times they shared together, and the nights when they tightly slept together. However, the grief was so painful for Empress Kōmyō that she could not bear it anymore. Overwhelmed by such great sorrow, her heart crumbled. Therefore, instead of keeping the personal belongings of the Emperor, she decided to dedicate everything to the Great Buddha and pray for the eternal peace of Emperor Shōmu's soul. Empress Kōmyō's decision to donate the treasures was driven by unbearable grief and great love for her husband. It must be noted that the treasures of the Shōsōin repository were not mere culturally valuable items, but rather the form of endless love that one lady expressed to her dearest husband.


During the Nara period, women expressed their love in many ways. Since the poetry culture was rapidly developed thanks to the import of Man'yōgana, the first Japanese writing system, many women described longing, affection, sorrow, and other emotional depths to their loved ones by composing poetry. In particular, Man'yōshū included the poetry of several notable romantic exchanges between men and women at that time. Among several influential works, Sakanoue was one of the most celebrated female poets during the Nara period who beautifully explored the theme of love and presented her pure love to the man whom she was in love with. However, poetry was not the only way for women to manifest their feelings. For example, Empress Kōmyō demonstrated her enormous devotion to her husband by preserving his items as national treasures in a dedicated repository, the Shōsōin. Empress Kōmyō built the Shōsōin not only to worship her deceased husband’s legacy but also to overcome her sorrow that was caused by looking at his relic. She preferred not to see the remains of the Emperor rather than keeping the items that could remind her of personal memories with him. Therefore, the Nara period witnessed various forms of love expressed by women, and their attempts to showcase their emotional depths to their lovers. Undoubtedly, it was one of the most romantic eras in the history of Japan.

Confessing love, Kokuhaku, is still considered as an important cultural practice in Japanese society today. It is often described as a significant turning point in romantic relationships, marking a transition from friendship to a romantic partnership. It allows both individuals to be aware of each other's emotions and intentions, enabling them to navigate the relationship more effectively. From ancient times, Japanese people always valued the expression of romantic feelings, preferring the direct communication of love. However, the act of confessing, Kokuhaku has gradually changed due to rapid digitalization. As more and more people easily communicate online, the value of confessing love in person is nowadays less valued. Although in Japanese culture, Kokuhaku is still as valuable as in the Nara period, the way of expressing love has become more digitalized. The cultural history of the Nara period does remind the Japanese people today of the beauty of expressing love which was traditionally rooted in their culture. How Sakanoue confessed her love through the poems to her lover, and how Empress Kōmyō explained in the catalog her feelings to her husband, are beautiful examples of how the women in ancient Japan highly valued expressing their feelings to their loved ones in a direct way. Perhaps modern Japan should revisit their romantic culture which was appreciated over 1,300 years ago in order to enforce a positive change in society.

Bibliographical References

Brower, R. H., & Miner, E. R. (1957). Formative elements in the Japanese poetic tradition. The Journal of Asian Studies, 16(4), 503-527.

Dusenbury, M. M. (2015). Color at the Japanese Court in the Asuka and Nara Periods. Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia, 123-134.

Fujioka, H. (1992). 住居様式からみた寝具と衣装の歴史 (I). 日本インテリア学会 研究発表 梗概集, 4, 74-75.

Harada, Y. (1939). The Interchange of Eastern and Western Cultures as evidenced in the Shosoin treasures. Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko (The Oriental Library), 11, 55-78.

Ichikawa, S. (1939). On the new English version of the “Manyoshu”. Studies in English Literature, 19(4), 585-599.

Itakura, M. (2019). The Imperial Treasures of the Shōsōin and the Collections of the Tang Emperors. East Asian Art History in a Transnational Context, 32-51.

Ito, S. (1982). The Muse in Competition: Uta-awase Through the Ages. Monumenta Nipponica, 37(2), 201-222.

Kawashima, H. (1992). 日本文化の伝統的な住生活について: 住宅とかかわる生活行為の歴史的変遷と他国との比較による考察 (その 1).

Matsuda, S. (2020). 万葉集巻六と天平十六年: 末四巻を視野に. 岡山大学国語研究, 34, 1-15.

Mizuo, H. (1970). TREASURES IN THE SHOSO-IN. Japan Quarterly, 17(4), 408.

Nihon Gakujutsu Shinkokai. (1969). The Manyoshu: The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai Translation of One Thousand Poems. Columbia Univerity Press.

Ono, H. (1975). 大伴坂上郎女伝私考その一. 収録刊行物. 学習院女子短期大学紀要. 学習院女子短期大学紀要 (13), 1-24.

Tusjimoto, N. (2021). 正倉院宝物の中で最も重要な 3 つの 『至宝の紙々』~『国家珍宝帳』, 聖武天皇宸筆 『雑集』, 光明皇后親筆 『楽毅論』. 紙パ技協誌, 75(4), 362-369.

Truscott, D. M. (2022). Assembling the Man’yō Woman: Paratext and Persona in the Poetry of Ōtomo no Sakanoue. University of California, Los Angeles.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Anonymous, Uta-Awase. (n.d). The Tales of Ise from Volume 2 of a 3 volume set. Chester Beatty Library.

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Figure 2: Anonymous, Noble ladies in Nara period. (n.d).

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Figure 3: Anonymous, Female poet. (n.d).

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Figure 4: Anonymous, 東大寺大仏縁起絵巻. (n.d). Nara National Museum.

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Figure 5: Kanzan Shimomura, Empress Kōmyō. (1897). The Museums of the imperial collection, Sannomaru Shozokan.

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Figure 6: Emperor Shomu, Shōsōin. (738).Todaiji, Nara.

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Figure 7: Empress Kōmyō, Record of Imperial Bequest to Todaiji Temple. (756).  Shōsōin, Todaiji, Nara. Retrieved from

Figure 8: Anoymous, 長斑錦御軾. (n.d). China Cultural Foundaion.

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Figure 9: Anonoymous, 長斑錦御軾 with the Emperor Shōmu. (n.d). China Cultural Foundation.

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