Ancient Japanese Rap Battling

With all the time I have to kill while in quarantine in the den, I have been cleaning up my old blog on the Hyakunin Isshu poetry anthology. It’s been great rediscovering things, including poem 60 of the anthology, a poem composed by Lady Izumi‘s daughter, Ko-Shikibu no Naishi (小式部内侍, d. 1025).

Lady Izumi by this time had quite a reputation as a master poet, and her daughter probably had to live in her shadow. While her mother was away in the province of Tango, Ko-Shikibu no Naishi was participating in a poetry contest, a major social event among the aristocrats of capitol. These contests were serious business. The host would choose a topic, and pit poets against one another, and the right poem could really make or break one’s reputation.

As part of the contest, Middle Counselor Sadayori started trash-talking Ko-Shikibu no Naishi saying:

What will you do about the poems? Have you sent someone off to Tango [to ask your mother for help]? Hasn’t the messenger come back? My, you must be worried.

So, Ko-Shikibu comes with some poetic freestyling:

大江山OeyamaŌe Mountain and
いく野の道のIkuno no michi nothe road that goes to Ikumo
とほければTo kerebaare far away, and so
まだふみも見ずMada fumi mo mizunot yet have I trod there, nor letter seen,
天の橋立Ama no Hashidatefrom Ama-no-Hashidate
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

The poem doesn’t translate easily into English, but according to Dr Mostow, the poem is a masterpiece because it recites three places in Tango Province in geographic order, has the following puns:

  • iku in Ikuno also means to go 行く, and
  • fumi means both a letter 文 and to step 踏み, and
  • the bridge mentioned, Ama-no-Hashidate, is associated with “stepping” too.

… and she did all this off the cuff.

The comeback was so good, that Sadayori reportedly fled.

Picture this, but it’s 1,100 years ago, in Japan, and Eminem is a lady.

Pretty amazing comeback by Ko-Shikibu no Naishi, and a sign that talent runs in the family. Sadly, her life was snuffed out at a young age due to illness, and Lady Izumi never quite recovered with loss…

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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