The Japan 2001 Waka Website is “a site devoted to the many types of classical Japanese poetry.”

During the course of the Japan 2001 Festival we built up a collection of 2001 poems here, covering approximately the first thousand years of poetry in Japan. The poems appear in the original Japanese, transcribed into the Roman alphabet (Romanised) and translated into English. They are accompanied by commentary and background material to fill in the blanks on the world the Old Japanese poets lived in, their beliefs and society.

I love this sort of thing, and look forward to seeing much more of it as the internet expands.
Here’s the first poem, from the Kojiki, “‘The Records of Ancient Matters’, a volume composed at some point in the late seventh century which recounts Japan’s mythological beginnings and the history of the Imperial line” (I’m omitting the characters):

yatipokö nö
kamï nö mikötö pa
Tuma makikanete
kosi nö kuni ni
sakasime wo
ari tö kikasite
kupasime wo
ari tö kikosite
sayobapi ni
yobapi ni
tati ga wo mö
imada tökazute
ösupi wo mö
imada tökaneba
wotöme nö
nasu ya itato wo
wa ka tatasereba
wa ka tatasereba
awoyama ni
nuye pa nakinu
sa no tu töri
kigisi pa töyömu
nipa tu töri
kake pa naku
uretaku mö
nakunaru töri ka
könö töri mö
isitapu ya
kötö nö
katarigötö mö
kö wo ba
Eight Thousand Spears,
The mighty god,
In the Eightfold Island land
Could not take a wife.
Afar, afar
In the land of Koshi
A clever maiden
Lived, he heard;
A most singular maiden
Lived there, he heard.
Did he go.
Back and forth.
His sword belt
Not undone,
His cloak, too,
Not unfastened,
At the maiden’s
Door, wherein she slept,
He hammers,
‘While I’ve stood here
Knocking over and over,
While I’ve stood here,
In the mountains green,
The ground thrush has sung;
The birds of the fields,
The pheasants are calling;
The bird of the garden,
The cockerel, crows.
Sad it might be but,
You calling birds
You birds you,
I wish you’d stop,
You rowdy
Messengers of the skies!’
The words,
The spoken words
Are like this.
Kojiki 2

The end links to a pop-up box that says: “The final three lines betray the song’s oral origins, most likely being a formula spoken/sung by the reciter to assert that this was the form in which the song had been handed down to them.”
(Via wood s lot.)


  1. Michael Farris says:

    “ari tö kikasite”
    Japanese uses umlauts? Cool!

  2. Those should be macrons but umlauts are sometimes used when macrons aren’t available.

  3. No, they’re supposed to be umlauts. This isn’t modern Japanese, it’s Old Japanese:
    “The most widely accepted phonemic theory is that Old Japanese had eight post-consonantal vocalic distinctions (i.e., vowels), as opposed to Classical Japanese and Modern Japanese, which have only five. This is argued on the basis that phonetic writing in Old Japanese distinguishes two different forms of some syllables, including the vowels /i/, /e/, and /o/, and does so consistently. In modern romanized transcription, the three additional vowels are usually indicated /ï/, /ë/, and /ö/, but this should not be taken to mean that these vowels were necessarily fronted or centralized.
    “The transcriptions of Old Japanese words given in the Kojiki differ from those found in the Nihonshoki and Man’yōshū in that they discriminate between the syllables /mo/ and /mö/ whereas the latter two do not. This has been correlated with the historical record of the Kojiki being compiled earlier than the Nihonshoki, and thus probably indicates the loss of /ö/ after /m/ and its conversion to /o/ by the late 6th century.”

  4. This is one of those times when I really miss isfogailsi; if it were still around, I’d ask Kristina to do a post on Old Japanese. Kristina, if you can hear me, please show up and leave a comment!

  5. Silly me, I thought they were tréma accent marks.

  6. They should use one of those nice Scandinavian alphabets.

  7. There’s a great discussion of the literature (as of 1990, when the book was published) on Old Japanese vowels in Masayoshi SHIBATANI’s “The Languages of Japan” (ISBN 0-521-36918-5). Shibatani calls it “one of the most controversial issues in the historical study of Japanese”, and lists a few different competing 4- and 5-vowel systems + rules which people have proposed instead of a full 8-vowel one.
    “The general tendency in recent years seems to be to cast doubt on the validity of the popularly held eight-vowel system. Especially strong is the interpretation of the A/B distinctions of the front vowels [in this page's transcription, umlaut signifies Bness -me] in terms of palatalization of the preceding consonants or in terms of the presence or absence of a phonemic /j/ or similar glide, as in Matsumoto’s and Hattori’s treatments. This tendency notwithstanding, the entire issue is far from resolved…”
    I wonder if the issue has been more fully resolved now or if Dr Tranter is glossing over the particulars of all the arguments because it’s a general-interest webpage. If only isfogailsi were still posting and could address this issue! Hint, hint!

  8. If you want a messy discussion, get into archaic / ancient Chinese phonetics. I have three dictionaries specializing in these questions,total cost close to $300, which list about five different systems. I also have Wang Li’s book (not a dictionary) which I’ve never read, making six. To say nothing of two or three dictionaries of later Chinese at various stages.
    And what do I know? Little or nothing. There’s no consensus. I just use Karlgren (the earliest of them all) and simplify his notation.

  9. It’s not quite my field (even when I was in linguistics, I was focusing on Indo-European historical linguistics, and now that I’m poring over Japanese texts, I’m focusing on the late Heian and Kamakura periods), but I’ll pass along what I’ve learned, as best I can without access from my notes from ages ago.
    I read bits of Shibutani’s book when I was an undergrad–I remember the glide (and the diphthong also, which I think he covers?) theories being mentioned in the short seminar I took. But, well, that was 1997 and ages ago.
    Graphically, however, I was taught that you can explain it fairly uncontraversionally as an 8 vowel system. Effectively, certain kanji are used for certain a, e and o syllables (which are then divided into a1, a2, e1, e2, o1 and o2 syllables accordingly), and (almost) never do the twain meet. The difficulty is that as far as a written stage goes, Old Japanese (as opposed to Classical Japanese) dies out very quickly. There’s the Kojiki, and I believe that there is at least a carving of a Buddhist text that’s well attested…. I notice that my edition of the Man’yoshu does not make a note on the language in the introduction, but I believe there may even be some examples in there. That of course depends on the sources used, since the Man’yoshu is believed to have relied at least in part on some earlier written documents.
    It’s when one works to explain what this graphic distinction really meant that it gets contraversial. I think some people have argued that the grapheme distinction had no meaning at all, as well. In addition the system–whatever it was, on the ground–is generally thought (or so I seem to recall) to be breaking down during this period. (It’s similar, in this respect, to the Old Irish situation, where there are few “canonical” Old Irish texts, and many more “transitional” early Middle Irish sources.)
    It is said, however, that there are some remnants of these vowels that can be found in the modern language today–it’s “ame” for rain, but “amagaeru” and “amagi” for “tree frog” and “rain clothing” respectively. This is one reason why there is the glide explanation for the 2-series vowels–one theory is that the glide was basically omitted in compounds do to syllable construction constraints. I don’t remember all that was supposed to have happened to the o-syllables, unfortunately, but e->i and a->e alternations are said to be remnants of the Old Japanese vowel system.
    I do have to wonder, idly, what the Okinawan languages (or dialects, depending on your view) have to show about these vowels, since I believe that historical linguistics show Okinawan splitting off at about the Old Japanese stage. And, also since I honestly haven’t spent much time looking into this issue recently. In addition, since (1) during the survey seminar I was focusing on the pitch-accent issue, comparatively between Korean and Japanese (which I remember virtually nothing about, due to collapsing through overwork that summer) and (2) the other times I’ve run across the topic it’s mostly been from a orthography standpoint, I’m not really up to date on the latest theories.
    I notice that the site is pretty much using a standard orthography for the Classical Japanese sections (in kanji and kana), as opposed to the original man’yogana or the name for the particular form of writing that the Kojiki used. (I have heard the style used for writing the “Chinese” passages of the Kojiki referred to as “hen-tai kanbun” although that technically refers to developments in kanbun style that developed after the Heian Period–I don’t know if the poems are written mostly in what we today call man’yogana.) Personally, I find the way poems were written in the Man’yoshu rather interesting, with some of the kanji standing for meaning and native sound, and some just for sound… and I’d wager there might be a few loan-words in there as well, even if I can’t pick out any right off the bat. (Of course, there might not be any, too. I’m not sure when Buddhist terminology starts creeping in to the official poetry collections, and in what forms that it does.)
    The use of the standard orthography is, of course, useful, but it’s a little disappointing in that you do not also get to see some of the variety of transcription styles used over those early collections. And, of course, even Unicode fails to include many of the somewhat-standardized kana which were used in manuscripts during this time. Of course there, even the variations in a single scribe’s style, let alone the short cuts some of them take with kanji, makes it a very complicated story. (If I still had a blog, and if I had time, I might go over some of the paleography I have been learning this half-year. It’s beautiful and maddening, both.)
    The question of the “p” in Kojiki romanizations as well…. Well, it seems to be fairly uncontraversially linguistically that once (what we romanize as) the h was a p in Japanese, but I’ve heard people have arguments over whether it had already shifted to the bilabial fricative by this period or not. While this is in the romanization, it’s absolutely not reflected in the standardized Classical Japanese transcription. There are specialized transcription styles used in historical linguistics papers written in Japanese, but they would most likely be less readable to the non-specialist. (It seems that the Japanese is more generalized, and the romanization more linguistically specialized on this site. Which is a perfectly fair distinction to make, but not what I would have necessarily expected.)

  10. I’ve read before that Japanese once had vowel harmony (like most agglutinating languages). Is it at all possible that the “ame” / “amagaeru” / “amagi” thing could be related to that? I’ve never been able to find much about Japanese vowel harmony that I was able to grok.

  11. Yay, the isfogailsi-signal worked! Thanks for coming by, kristina, and I do hope you start blogging again — you’re someone I’d actually pay to blog (if I had an income myself, that is). You may feel your information is out of date, but it’s more current than any of the rest of us have access to, apparently.
    It’s strange how little information is available on Old Japanese. Chapters on Japanese in books like The World’s Major Languages don’t even mention it.

  12. i dont get it what time of japanese poem is this … not hiuku?

  13. [url=][/url] [url][/url] 57DB6D79E16DCAE493A53712A8085FB05A804D03

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