From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Makurakotoba (枕詞) — literally "pillow words" in English — are figures of speech used in Japanese waka poetry in which epithets are used in association with certain words. Their usage is akin to "grey-eyed Athena" and other epithets in the Ancient Greek epics of Homer. The set phrase can be thought of as a “pillow” for the noun or verb it describes, although the actual etymology is not fully known.

History and usage[edit]

Makurakotoba are most familiar to modern readers in the Man'yōshū, and when they are included in later poetry, it is to make allusions to poems in the Man'yōshū. The exact origin of makurakotoba remains contested to this day. Japanese poets use makurakotoba to refer to earlier poems and show their knowledge of poetry and the imperial poetry collections.

In terms of usage, makurakotoba are often used at the beginning of a poem. The jokotoba is a similar figure of speech used in Man'yōshū poetry, used to introduce a poem. In fact, the 17th century Buddhist priest and scholar Keichū wrote that "if one says jokotoba, one speaks of long makurakotoba" (序(詞)ト云モ枕詞ノ長キヲ云ヘリ) in his Man'yō-taishōki. Japanese scholar Shinobu Orikuchi also echoes this statement, claiming that makurakotoba are jokotoba that have been compressed.[1]

While some makurakotoba still have meanings that add to the meaning of the following word, many others have lost their meanings. As the makurakotoba became standardized and used as a way to follow Japanese poetic traditions, many were used only as decorative phrases in poems and not for their meanings. Many translators of waka poems have a difficult time with the makurakotoba because although the makurakotoba makes up the first line, many makurakotoba have no substantial meaning, and it is impossible to discard the whole first line of a waka.


There are many instances of makurakotoba found in the Man'yōshū. The very first poem demonstrates how this was used:

ko mo yo mi-ko mochi
fukushi mo yo mi-bukushi mochi
kono oka ni na tsumasu ko
ie kikana na norasane
sora mitsu Yamato-no-kuni wa
oshinabete ware koso ore
shikinabete ware koso imase
ware koso wa norame
ie o mo na o mo

Girl with your basket, your pretty basket,
With your shovel, with your pretty shovel,
Gathering shoots on the hillside here,
I want to ask your home. Tell me your name!
The land of Yamato, seen by the gods on high
It is all my realm in all of it I reign supreme.
I will tell you my home and my name.[2]

In this poem, sora mitsu (literally “sky-seen” or “sky-spreading”) modifies the place name Yamato.

Some historical makurakotoba have developed into the usual words for their meaning in modern Japanese, replacing the terms they originally alluded to. For example, niwa tsu tori (庭つ鳥, bird of the garden) was in classical Japanese a makura kotoba for kake (, chicken). In modern Japanese, niwatori has displaced the latter word outright and become the everyday word for "chicken" (dropping the case marker tsu along the way).

Some more makurakotoba are listed below:

Makurakotoba Meaning Modifies
青丹よし (aoni yoshi) “good blue-black clay” place name 奈良 (Nara)
茜さす (akane sasu) “shining madder red” (hi, “sun”), (hiru, “daytime”), (kimi, “lord”)
秋山の (akiyama no) “autumn mountain” したふ (shitau, “for leaves to turn red”), なつかし (iro natsukashi, “emotionally moving colors”)
葦が散る (ashi ga chiru) “scattered reeds” place name 難波 (Naniwa)
麻裳よし (asamo yoshi) “good hemp” place name (Ki)
足引きの (ashi-hiki no) uncertain, possibly “foot-dragging” (yama, “mountain”), words beginning with yama, etc.
梓弓 (azusa yumi) birchwood bow”, erroneously “catalpa bow” 引く (hiku, “to pull”), (moto, “base”), (ya, “arrow”), etc.
鯨取り (isana tori) “whale hunting” (umi, “sea”), (nada, “open sea”), (hama, “beach”), etc.
石綱の (iwatsuna no) “ivy-colored rocks” 復ち返る (ochikaeru, “to get younger”)
石走る (iwa-bashiru) “rock-running” (taki, “waterfall”), place name 近江 (Ōmi), etc.
打ち靡く (uchinabiku) “fluttering, streaming” (haru, “spring”), place name 草香 (Kusaka)
打ち寄する (uchiyosuru) “rush toward” place name 駿河 (Suruga)
神風の (kamikaze no) divine wind place name 伊勢 (Ise), 五十鈴 (Isuzu)
草枕 (kusamakura) “grass pillow” (tabi, “journey”), 結ぶ (musubu, “to tie”), (tsuyu, “dew”)
言喧く (koto saeku) “twittered words” (Kara, Korea), 百済 (Kudara, “Baekje”)
高麗剣 (Koma tsurugi) “Korean sword” place name 和射見 (Wazami)
隠りくの (komoriku no) “hidden land” place name 初瀬 (Hatsuse)
そらみつ (sora mitsu) uncertain, possibly “sky-seen” or “sky-spreading” place name 大和 (Yamato)
玉藻よし (tamamo yoshi) “good jeweled seaweed” place name 讃岐 (Sanuki)
栲縄の (takunawa no) “hemp rope” 長し (nagashi, “long”), 千尋 (chihiro, “extremely long”)
玉衣の (tamaginu no) “jeweled clothes” 騒騒 (saisai, “rustling”)
魂極る (tama kiwaru) “soul ending” (inochi, “life”), (yo, “world”)
玉襷 (tamadasuki) “jeweled cord” place name 畝傍 (Unebi), 懸く (kaku, “attach”), (kumo, “clouds”)
千早振る (chihayaburu) “powerful, mighty”, erroneously “thousand-rock smashing” place name 宇治 (Uji), (kami, “gods”), etc.
時つ風 (toki tsu kaze) “seasonal/timely wind” place name 吹飯 (Fukei)
灯火の (tomoshibi no) “lamplight” place name 明石 (Akashi)
鶏が鳴く (tori ga naku) “bird-calling” (azuma, “eastland”)
妻籠もる (tsuma-gomoru) “spouse-hiding” (ya, “home, roof”), (ya, “arrow”)
春霞 (haru-gasumi) “spring mist/haze” place name 春日 (Kasuga), 立つ (tatsu, “rise”)
日の本の (hi no moto no) “source of the sun” place name 大和 (Yamato)
蜷の腸 (mina no wata) “marsh(-black) snail guts” か黒し (kaguroshi, “completely black”)
百敷の (momoshiki no) “many-stoned” 大宮 (ōmiya, “great palace”)

Foreign equivalences[edit]

Makurakotoba can be found in other languages under the category of “epithet”. There are different types of epithets, some as a standard epithet, some as a common epithet or a stock epithet. Most are not bound by a syllable-count.

In Persian texts, there are several epithets commonly used. Sraosha, the protector of ritual piece, possesses the common known epithet: “Sraoshaverez.” However, “darshi.dru-” meaning “of the strong (Ahuric) mace” is also used. The name Sraosha itself means fury, wrath, or rage. Aeshma, the demon of wrath, possesses the standard epithet “xrvi.dru-”, meaning “of the bloody mace.” Aeshma has other standard epithets that include “ill-fated,” “malignant,” and “possessing falsehood”. A stock epithet, “ashya,” is used to mean “companion of recompense” or “companion of Ashi”. When referring to a king, Persians would write the epithet “adh,” which in the sense of eternity meant “father of eternity”.

People today also use epithets without knowing. The phrases: rosy-fingered dawn, undying fame, everlasting glory, wine-red sea, heartfelt thanks, Miss Know-It-All, blood red sky, stone-cold heart, and names such as Richard the Lionheart, Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, and Ivan the Terrible are only several examples of the many epithets used. The first four of these are taken directly from Homeric epic.

In Greek, the Homeric epithets are most commonly recognized. The article “L’Épithète Traditionnelle dans Homère and les Formules et la Métrique d’Homère” by Milman Parry argues for Homer's use of formulaic epithets in the Greek epics. These epithets are arguably used formulaically much like the makurakotoba. Examples of Homeric epithets: swift-footed Achilles, crafty Aegisthus, wily Odysseus (or Odysseus of many wiles).

Another common epithet in the Greco-Roman epic is "pius Aeneas", used by the Roman poet Vergil in the Aeneid.

Unlike epithet in epic of the Western antiquity, makurakotoba rarely modify a personal name.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Orikuchi Shinobu Complete Works (折口信夫全集) Volume 1.
  2. ^ Levy, Ian Hideo (2014). Hitomaro and the Birth of Japanese Lyricism. Volume 734 of Princeton Legacy Library. Princeton University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9781400855834.

Additional Sources[edit]

  • Duthie, Torquil (2007), "Man'yōshū (Collection of Myriad Leaves, CA.785): Introduction", in Shirane, Haruo; Arntzen, Sonja (eds.), Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 60–63
  • McAuley, Thomas, "Makura Kotoba", 2001 Waka for Japan, retrieved 4 October 2013 CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Larsson, Kris, The Man'yoshu, archived from the original on 10 May 2008, retrieved 5 October 2013 CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Keene, Donald (May 1964), "Problems of Translating Decorative Language", The Journal-Newsletter of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, 2 (1/2): 4–12, JSTOR 488700
  • Machacek, Gregory (Autumn 1994), "The Occasional Contextual Appropriateness of Formulaic Diction in the Homeric Poems", The American Journal of Philology, 115 (3): 321–335, JSTOR 295361
  • Lowenstam, Steven (June 1981), "Irus' 'Queenly' Mother and the Problem of the Irrational Use of Homeric Epithets", Pacific Coast Philology, 16 (1): 39–47, JSTOR 1316696
  • Botterweck, G. Johannes; Ringgren, Helmer (1974), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, pp. 255–257, retrieved 5 October 2013 CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Dickens, Frederick Victor (1906), Primitive and Mediaeval Japanese Texts, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 257–278

External links[edit]