Sōmon (poetry)

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Sōmon (相聞, "mutual exchanges of love poetry"), or sōmon-ka (相聞歌),[1] is, along with zōka (miscellaneous poems) and banka (elegies), one of the three main categories (三大部立 sandai butate) of poems included in the Man'yōshū, an eighth-century Japanese waka anthology.[2]


The word 相聞 (modern Mandarin pronunciation xiāngwén) appears in Chinese works,[3] and its original meaning is "communication of feelings to each other".[3] Unlike zōka and banka, the term sōmon does not originate in the categorization used by the compiler of the Wen Xuan, and was simply a word used to describe everyday communication.[1]


In books 11 and 12 of the Man'yōshū, these poems are also called sōmon-ōrai-ka (相聞往来歌),[3]. It is a general term for poems that express personal feelings experienced in everyday human interactions.[3] The majority of these are love poems exchanged between men and women,[2] but they are not all love poems,[3] and the term also covers poems exchanged between friends,[1] parents and children,[3] and siblings.[3] One example of the latter group is the following poem (MYS II : 103) by Princess Ōku about her younger brother Prince Ōtsu:[3]

Man'yōgana[4] Modern Japanese text[5] Reconstructed Old Japanese[6] Modern Japanese[7] English translation[7]
wa ga sekwo wo
yamato pye yaru to
saywo pukete
akatokituyu ni
ware tati-nure-si
Wa ga seko o
Yamato e yaru to
Sayo fukete
Akatokitsuyu ni
Wa ga tachinureshi
Night had worn away,
My brother, when I sent you off
On the road to Yamato;
Dawn began to streak the sky,
And I stood there drenched with dew.

The term can also refer to love poetry in general.[3]

Usage in the Man'yōshū[edit]

Books 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 of the Man'yōshū include sōmon sections,[3] and the total number of sōmon poems in the collection comes to 1,750, or more than a third of the 4,516 poems in the collection.[2] (Non-romantic sōmon poems account for only around 80 of the poems in the collection.[1]) Poems exchanged between lovers are the majority, but the term also covers solo compositions and traditional songs that exhibit folk-tale characteristics.[1] These are further subcategorized, based on their method of expression, into groups such as seijutsu-shinsho-ka (正述心緒歌, also shōjutsu-shinsho-ka), kibutsu-chinshi-ka (寄物陳思歌), and hiyu-ka (譬喩歌).[2] These poems expressing private emotions provide a broad basis for poetic composition, and gave rise to much lyrical poetry.[3]

Zōka were primarily "public" poems composed for official ceremonies and occasions, while sōmon-ka were more personal in their communication of romantic sentiments, and so are generally placed after zōka in the ordering of poems in each book.[1] However, sōmon-ka on the four seasons were mixed in with zōka on the seasons in books 8 and 10.[1] The sōmon categorization does not appear in court anthologies or personal collections,[1] which grouped romantic exchanges in with their love poems, so the poems expressing the feelings between friends and blood relatives began to be classified in the miscellaneous poems.[1]


Cited works[edit]

  • Frellesvig, Bjarke; Horn, Stephen Wright; Russell, Kerri L.; Sells, Peter (2017). "The Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese". Oxford University Faculty of Oriental Studies website. Oxford University. Retrieved 2017-10-28.
  • Cranston, Edwin A. (1998). The Gem-Glistening Cup. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-804-73157-7.
  • Kojima, Noriyuki; Kinoshita, Masatoshi; Satake, Akahiro (1971). Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshū Vol. 2; Man'yōshū Vol. 1 日本古典文学全集2 萬葉集一 (in Japanese). Tokyo: Shogakukan. ISBN 4-09-657002-8.
  • Kōnoshi, Takamitsu (1994). "Sōmon". Encyclopedia Nipponica (in Japanese). Shogakukan. Retrieved 2017-10-29. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  • Nozawa, Takuo (2002). "Sōmon / Sōmon-ka". In Nishizawa, Masashi (ed.). Koten Bungaku o Yomu Tame no Yōgo Jiten (in Japanese). Tokyo: Tōkyō-dō Shuppan. pp. 148–149. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  • Tsuru, Hisashi; Moriyama, Takashi (2012). Man'yōshū 萬葉集 (in Japanese). Tokyo: Ōfū. OCLC 976793715.