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Makurakotoba (枕詞), literally pillow words, are figures of speech used in Japanese waka poetry, where 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 . One of the very first poems in the collection demonstrates how the makurakotoba was used:

komo yo mikomochi
fukushimo yo mibukushimochi
kono oka ni na tsumasu ko
ie norase na norasane
soramitsu* Yamato no kuni wa
oshinabete ware koso ore
shikinabete ware koso imase
ware kosoba norame
ie o mo na o mo

Your basket, with your lovely basket
Your trowel, with your lovely trowel
girl, you who pick herbs on this hill,
speak of your house. Speak of your name.
In the Land of Yamato, seen from the sky*,
It is I who conquer and reign
It is I who conquer and rule.
Let it be me who speaks
of my house and my name.[2]

  • Soramitsu is used to modify the place “Yamato,” and means that it is seen from the sky.

Some historical makura kotoba 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).

There are several more examples available online. Some are listed below.

Makurakotoba Meaning Modifies
Akane sasu Shining madder red Hi ‘sun,’ hiru ‘daytime,’ kimi ‘lord’
Awoniyoshi Good blue-black clay Place name 'Nara'
Asa mo yoshi Good hemp Place name ‘Ki’
Ashibiki no Heavy foot Yama, 'Mountain'
Kakojimo no A fawn Hitori ko ‘single/only child’
Kamikaze no Divine wind Place names such as ‘Ise,’ 'Ise Shrine',‘Isuzu River
Komori ku no Hidden Land Place name ‘Hatsuse’
Koto saheku Twittered words Foreign place names such as China ‘kara,’ Korea ‘Kudara’
Komo tsurugi Korean sword Place name ‘Wazami’
Kusa makura Grass pillow Tabi ‘journey,’ musubu ‘tie,’ tsuyu ‘dew’
Mina no wata Marsh (black) snail guts Kaguroshi ‘completely black’
Momoshiki no Many stoned Oomiya ‘great palace'
Harugasumi Spring mist/haze Kasuga, tatsu ‘rise’
Hi no moto no Source of sun Place name ‘Yamato’
Sora mitsu Sky seen Place name ‘Yamato’
Tamamo yoshi Good jeweled seaweed Province ‘Sanuki’
Takunawa no A rope of hemp Naga ‘long,’ chihiro ‘extremely long’
Tamaginu no Jeweled clothes Sawisawi ‘rustling’
Tama kiwaru Soul ending Inochi ‘life,’ yo ‘world’
Tama tasuki Jeweled cord Place name ‘Unebi,’ kakaru ‘attach’
Chihayaburu Powerful/mighty Place name ‘Uji,’ kami ‘gods’
Toki tsu kaze Seasonal/timely wind Place name ‘Fukehi’
Tomoshibi no Lamplight Place name ‘Akashi’
Tori ga naku Bird calling Azuma ‘the Eastland’
Tsumagomoru Spouse hiding Ya ‘home/roof,’ ya ‘arrow’
Uchiyosuru Rush toward Place name ‘Suruga’


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.



  1. ^ Orikuchi Shinobu Complete Works (折口信夫全集) Volume 1.
  2. ^ Traditional Japanese Literature Translation from the Asian Classics. Man’yōshū (Collection of Myriad Leaves, CA.785) Introduction Duthie, Torquil. Ed Shirane, Haruo. Columbia University Press: New York 2007. 60-63

Additional Sources[edit]

  • Duthie, Torquil (2007), "Man'yōshū (Collection of Myriad Leaves, CA.785): Introduction", in Shirane, Haruo; Arntzen, Sonja, 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
  • Larsson, Kris, The Man'yoshu, archived from the original on 10 May 2008, retrieved 5 October 2013
  • 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

Further reading[edit]

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