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  • Traversing the Frontier: The Man’yōshū Account of a Japanese Mission to Silla in 736–737 by H. Mack Horton
  • Torquil Duthie
Traversing the Frontier: The Man’yōshū Account of a Japanese Mission to Silla in 736–737. By H. Mack Horton. Harvard University Asia Center, 2012. 550pages. Hardcover $55.00/£40.95/€49.50.

In the summer of 736, envoys from the Japanese court sailed to the Korean kingdom of Silla. The journey was not a success; according to the account in the Shoku Nihongi, the envoys returned to Japan six months later to report that they had been rebuffed by the Silla court and that the Japanese ambassador had died at Tsushima on the way home. The topic of Mack Horton’s Traversing the Frontier is a sequence of 145 poems about this journey collected in volume XV of the Man’yōshū. What appears to be a double meaning in the book’s title is actually a threefold one: the first sense of “traversing” refers to the actual journey to the foreign kingdom of Silla, the second to the poetic journey represented in the Man’yōshū, and the third to the movement across the boundary between historical events and imaginative writing—the “frontier” where, to quote from the book’s epigraph, “the imagination presses back against the pressure of reality” (p. vi).

The Silla envoy poems form the longest sequence in the Man’yōshū and constitute a miniature anthology in themselves, as they contain most of the poetic forms (tanka, chōka, sedōka) and poetic categories (sōmon, banka, zōka) included in the Man’yōshū. About thirty of the poems are attributed to fourteen named envoys; the rest are unattributed. The sequence begins with a series of parting exchanges between the envoys and their spouses, who are to remain in the capital, Nara. This is followed by a series describing the time shortly before and immediately after the departure. Once the voyage has begun, there is a sequence of old poems (including several attributed to Kakinomoto no Hitomaro) that are presented as models of poetic composition in general and travel poetry in particular. The journey proceeds with poems composed at key points along the Inland Sea, and then along the coast of northern Tsukushi. It takes most of the sequence (110 poems) to arrive at this point. The climax is the voyage across the straits, which is represented by thirty poems set in Yuki no Shima and Tsushima. There are no poems composed in Silla, and the sequence concludes with five poems that describe only the very end of the return voyage as the envoys reach the province of Harima on their way back to the capital. None of the poems, moreover, describe the actual voyage or refer to any specifics concerning the embassy’s [End Page 281] purpose or to what transpired at its destination. Rather, the entire sequence is an “organized narrative of lyrical longing for home” (pp. 49–50), in which the themes are separation from one’s spouse and longing for the Yamato capital.

Because the Silla sequence was written for an insider audience familiar with the tradition it was drawing upon, reading it requires considerable familiarity with a rich and well-established language of poetic associations, as well as knowledge of many older poems on travel collected in earlier volumes of the Man’yōshū. To render the material accessible to readers who do not possess such knowledge from the outset, Horton has organized the book in an unconventional but effective way. He begins with a short introduction describing the overall themes and structure of the book, after which he presents a translation of the entire Silla sequence, accompanied by the original kanji and romanized readings. This is followed by five chapters, the first of which, entitled “Traversing the Frontier,” summarizes both the Silla poetic sequence and the Shoku Nihongi’s account of the Silla embassy. Each of the remaining chapters frames the Silla poems in a different “context,” the sum of which makes up what Horton refers to as a “thick description” (p. 2).

In chapter 2, “Internal Contexts,” Horton reads the...


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