Hotsuma-Tsutae The Book of Heaven (Chapters 5) [Contents] [Japanese] [French]

Isanagi and Isanami
and the Hidden Meanings of Waka Songs

One day, all the nobles gathered at court for a grand convocation.
The talks came to a successful conclusion without particular setback, and the lords were starting to wind down. Then Ohonamuchi, the "Ohomononushi" (Great Lord of Things), asked them a question.
"Since you're all gathered here, there's something I'd like to know", he started. "I've always been puzzled by the makura kotoba hidden meanings in songs. Can anyone explain their origin?"
At first, none could answer. But as the commotion died down, Achihiko, husband of Amateru's sister Wakahime, took up the challenge.
"To be sure, the meanings are to be found in the Book of Purification", he declared. The other nobles now, as one, pressed Achihiko to explain what he meant.
"Tell us", they demanded. "We all want to know." Achihiko, whose formal name was Omohikane, bowed deeply before starting his tale.

"This story comes from the time when the deities Isanagi and Isanami were gathering power over the land from their Palace of Okitsubo in the land now known as Awaumi.
"Using the Palace as their base, they toured the length and breadth of the land, spreading the ways of agriculture and bringing weal to the people. They established laws and created public order, and in this way managed to reconstruct a peaceful and plentiful nation. But no sooner had they started to rest from their labours than they remembered an important responsibility that remained unfulfilled. Namely, their duty in unifying the various dialects so that the people could share their tidings of joy. During the reign of Omotaru and Kashikone, the 5th generation of heavenly rulers, the nation had not been blessed with an heir and the sovereign line had all but disappeared. The nation descended into lawlessness, and there was no unity any more. A sign of this was the fragmentation of the language. People had to be taught correct speech, and in this way learn the Way of Man (the Way of Heaven). After thinking the matter over carefully, Isanagi and Isanami devised the Song of A and Wa for this purpose. The song was so called because it began with A and ended with Wa, and its five-seven metre made it very easy to learn. It went:
A ka ha na ma, I ki hi ni mi u ku, Hu nu mu e ke, he ne me o ko ho no
Mo to ro so yo, Wo te re se ye tu ru, Su yu n ti ri, Si yi ta ra sa ya wa.
"Isanagi would sing the 'upper' or first twenty-four sounds, then Isanami the 'lower' twenty-four. As they did, they would strike a melody on the kadakaki instrument (the origin of the biwa lute), and in this way taught their song to the people.
"By singing the Song of A and Wa, the voice became clearer and speech was improved. The corrupted language corrected itself, order returned to the land, and peace reigned once more. To commemorate this, the region formerly known as Naka (the Centre, today's Kinki region) was divided up, and the area from which Isanagi and Isanami had set out to rebuild the nation was called the Land of Awa.
"Isanagi and Isanami later set out on a tour of Tsukushi (Kyushu). There, they planted tachibana orange trees in front of their palace to symbolize the ideal land of Kunitokotachi (their ancestor who had first established the nation). From here, they taught the Song of A and Wa to the local people to correct their speech. And here, too, the Way of Man was upheld and the land became affluent.
"Even after they left, the local lords of the 32 shires of Tsukushi faithfully carried on their good works and ruled their people in peace. They named the palace in Tsukushi the Ototachibana-no-Awaki Palace, to laud the greatness of Isanagi's spirit. Here, the third son Mochikine was born. Isanagi then made a procession to Soasa (Shikoku) and passed on the Song of A and Wa to Sakunagi's son Iyotsuhiko, who ruled this province. When the people here were taught to sing the song, their speech too was corrected and their land could be ruled in peace.
"The palace where Iyotsuhiko taught and spread the Song of A and Wa was named Awamiya. He was granted the second name of Awatsuhiko, with which he ruled over both the lands of Awa and Iyo.

"Isanagi next proceeded to Sosa (now southern Kii), where he built a palace and lived peacefully. To commemorate this, he renamed the region the Land of Kishii. Here, too, he planted the tachibana orange tree and recreated the ideal homeland of Tokoyo in memory of his ancestor Kunitokotachi.

"Amateru's older sister Hiruko, who had been removed from the family to purge it from defilement, was now reunited here with her parents Isanagi and Isanami, and they lived in happiness together for a while. Hiruko had grown into a beautiful young woman. She was renamed Wakahirume, and was completely free of all blemish.
"One spring, Wakahirume sat under the open blossoms of the cherry tree and was learning waka songs from her mother. Just then, Isanami gave birth to her fourth child, named Hanakine in allusion to the flowers. But in spite of his flowery name, Hanakine was wont to torment his mother with constant screaming and shrieking. One time, he double-planted rice seeds and ruined the sacred rice-fields used for the Nihiname harvest festival. He released horses into the paddy fields and let them trample down the ridges. With his malicious acts he tormented the people and caused calamity all around.
"His mother Isanami searched her soul for a means of handling her son Hanakine. This was the conclusion she reached:
'We abandoned our first daughter Hiruko as an infant, by floating her down the river to purge ourselves of defilement. She has now returned as the beautiful Wakahirume. But there is no way of purging the defilement of Hanakine, who is almost fully-grown. There is only one path left. I must take upon myself the responsibility for all his ill deeds that have caused so much vexation, and, in doing so, shall compensate the people for the damage done to them.'

"In this heartfelt wish for the safety of the people, she then built the three shrines of Kumano, where she continually prayed that no further calamity should befall the world. She also sent out official notices far and wide to make good all the harm that had been visited upon the people.
"The central shrine was called the Kumano Shrine, alluding to its purpose in protecting the people from calamity (kuma) caused by her son.
"But Hanakine, ignorant of his mother's distress, started a fire in the three mountains of Kumano and caused a calamitous forest fire. His mischievous prank resulted in the death of his mother - a mother who had spoilt her last-born out of motherly indulgence of him.
"For as Isanami prayed in the central shrine in an attempt to quench the raging fire, she gave birth to Kagutsuchi, the fire deity. She was enveloped in flames and burned to death. Before she died, she also gave birth to the earth deity, Haniyasu, and the water deity, Mizuhame. Kagutsuchi and Haniyasu joined together to form the deity Wakamusubi. Silkworms and mulberry trees grew from this deity's head, and rice seedlings from its navel. Later, the deity would be venerated under the name Ukemitama, as the deity of sericulture and rice.
"Isanami, who had tried so earnestly to protect the people, was buried in Arima (in present-day Kumano City) before a huge throng of people. In affectionate memory of Isanami's sincerity of heart, people still worship her with flowers in the spring and the first rice in autumn.

"At Isanami's funeral, Isanagi's elder sister Kokorihime gathered the clan retainers and instructed them thus:
'Isanagi must not see the body of the deceased.'
"And as if to reinforce the point, she also pressed Isanagi with a strict admonition:
'You must not see the body.'
"But Isanagi would have none of it. 'I have lost my only beloved wife and am at my wits' end with grief', he explained. 'Whatever you may say, I cannot remain without seeing her one more time.'

"Outside, all was cloaked in the darkness of night. The cave in which Isanami's body had been laid to rest was truly as dark as the caverns of hell. Isanagi took one of the boxwood combs from his hair, and after performing a ritual of purification, set fire to it and held it up as a torch. And there, in the light of the torch, he saw the horrible truth. Maggots were squirming and crawling over the rotting flesh of the corpse.
'Alas, that I have seen such a ghastly sight!' he cried, and ran back out of the ghoulish cave.

"Later that night, unable to contain his longing for the wife with whom he'd shared so much joy and sorrow, Isanagi's spirit went once more to see Isanami.
"Isanami appeared before him and rebuked him bitterly, saying:
'You could not accept the reality of my death, and looked upon my dead body when instructed not to. From now on, to save me from further shame, I will command the eight ghoulish hags who protect my corpse to set off in pursuit of you.'
"Isanagi fled for his life, brandishing his sword at the eight ghastly women. On the way, he plucked some grapes and threw them at his pursuers. They scrambled to eat the grapes, and Isanagi could gain some respite. But soon they started the chase again. This time, he threw his bamboo comb at them, and they started to eat that. Again, they came chasing, so he hid himself by a nearby peach tree and threw the fruit of the tree at them.
"With that, remarkably, they gave up their terrifying pursuit and themselves turned and fled. Then Isanagi said:
'When chased by devils, it seems that throwing grapes can win some time, while a boxwood comb is better than a bamboo comb for warding them off. But it was the peaches that finally drove them away and saved me from this nightmare. For this, I shall bestow on them the divine name Ohokanzumi (Great Divine Fruit).'

"Isanami had returned to this world to curtail her husband's yearning for her. Now Isanagi arrived at a place called the Flat Pass of Yomo, and was wandering around the mountain looking for Isanami. When she knew this, Isanami took a massive boulder that could only be moved by a thousand men, and placed it in the middle of the pass to block the way between them. Now she faced him and made plain her vow of rejection.
'My beloved husband. If you still refuse to accept my death, I will strangle a thousand members of your clan every day.'
"To which Isanagi replied:
'My beloved wife. If you do so, I will give cause fifteen hundred to be born each day, and thus revive the nation. Let us vow that we shall never commit the same error again.'

"This Flat Pass of Yomo, where they made their vows of life and death, love and separation, is a boundary marker that cuts off the realm of the spirits at the moment a person breathes his last.
"Isanagi named the stone Chikaeshi no Ohokami (the Deity of Returned Oaths). And so, reluctantly, he returned to the Mototsumiya Palace in Kumano.
"After returning, he purified himself in the Otonashigawa River to cleanse his muddied mind and body. Then he proceeded to create more deities.

"First, he created the 80 Deities of Pure Daylight (Yaso-Makatsuhi). Then, in his wish to make his defiled mind clean, he created the deities Kannaohi and Ohonaohi (Divine Remedy Sun and Great Remedy Sun), and in this way kept his mind and body pure.
"After this, Isanagi made a progress to the Awaki Palace in Tsukushi and purified himself in the Nakagawa River, where some beautiful water lilies were in blossom. As he did, he created the deities Sokozutsuwo, followed by Nakazutsuwo, followed by Uwazutsuwo to represent the lower, middle, and upper waters respectively, and assigned Kanasaki (otherwise known as Sumiyoshi) to worship them.
"Then he proceeded to Munakata and purified himself in the Azukawa River, creating the deities Sokowatatsumi, Nakawatatsumi, and Kamiwatatsumi (deities of the low, mid, and high waters), assigning Munakata to worship them. After this he proceeded to the shore at Shigaumi, and, as he purified himself, created the deities Shimatsuhiko, Okitsuhiko, and Shiganokami, entrusting their worship to Azumi.

"Soon after returning at last to his Palace of Awamiya, Isanagi received a message from his father-in-law, Toyoke.
Michibiki no uta.
Awakimi yo! Wakare oshiku to
tsuma okuru outo wa ikazu.
Ikeba haji shikome ni owasu.
Yoshiashi wo shireba ashi hiku.
Yomotsusaka kotodachi sakuru
utsuwa ari.

"A song of guidance. O, Lord of Awa! A husband should not go after his dead wife in grief at her passing. If he does, there will be shame, and he will be chased by the eight ghastly hags. If he knows what is good and bad, he will refrain. There is dignity in separation at the Pass of Yomo."
"Having washed away the defilement from his mind and body through purification, the people's lives improved and peace was revived in the nation. Speech became uniform throughout the eight isles of the land, and the doctrine of To, conveying the true Way of Man since the age of Kunitokotachi, became even more widespread. The nation flourished. As autumn came upon the fifteen hundred reedless rice-fields, the cheerful sounds of harvest festivals could be heard in the villages. In thanks for the land in which the doctrine of To was truly established (- or, in short, "Yamato"), they lit bonfires in front of their shrines, offered up rituals to the Land of Awa, struck sacred hand-bells, and prayed for abundant harvests and tranquillity throughout the Land of Yamato.

"These 'reedless rice-fields' and the 'refrain' in Toyoke's song both use the phrase ashi wo hiku. In the song, it means to withdraw from a place. But it also means to pull reeds out of rice fields and thus improve the yield of rice. These two meanings are united by a deeper meaning of 'improving the national welfare', the result of both of them. This is the essence of makura kotoba hidden meanings.

"In this way, makura kotoba came to be used in the form of songs. They would help the people of later generations to remember the labours of Isanagi and Isanami in reconstructing the nation, starting from the time when people all spoke different dialects, when the true Way of To was not yet fully established, and disorder reigned.
"Ashi hiki no signifies a mountain or a peak, honobono (dimly or faintly) the dawning of the day, and nubatama (pitch black) the darkness of night. Shimatsu tori (island bird) signifies a cormorant, and okitsu tori (sea bird) both a duck and a boat. The origin of this is that, in ancient times, the six people who made the first boats were called Funatama (Boat Spirit) deities. The first of them was the deity Shimatsuhiko. He sat on a fallen tree on the Azumi River in the Land of Awa, and when he saw the cormorants coming down the river he made a raft. Then he learnt how to insert a pole, and in this way created the origin of all boats. The second was his son Okitsuhiko. When he saw ducks floating on the water's surface, he made the first oars. The boat he made was called the kamobune (duck boat).

"As with nubatama (the pitch black of night), if the effort exerted to correct disorder in the darkness of the world is used as a pillow on which to pass the night, eventually a rich and orderly dawn will arrive and the meaning of the word will change.
"The Way of the Waka Song is to reveal the true heart of things.
"The Way of Purification is to cleanse the body, and the Way of Yamato, purifying mind and body in this way, is truly very great."

(from the 5th aya of the Hotsuma-Tsutae, contemporary Japanese translation by Seiji Takabatake)

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

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