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  • Traversing the Frontier: The Man’yōshū Account of a Japanese Mission to Silla in 736–737 by H. Mack Horton
  • Gustav Heldt
Traversing the Frontier: The Man’yōshū Account of a Japanese Mission to Silla in 736–737 by H. Mack Horton. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012. Pp. xvii + 628. $55.00.

So great is both the size and diversity of Japan’s earliest extant poetry anthology that, despite its monumental importance to the later literary tradition, there has been no extended book-length study in English of it prior to this one. H. Mack Horton’s masterstroke is to approach his subject through the judicious selection of a single poem sequence recounting the journey of a diplomatic mission to Silla. What distinguishes this “Silla set” from other such sequences in the anthology is its unprecedented length, its structural complexity, and its historical significance as an early iteration of the extended episodic form of poetic travel narrative that would become a pillar of the later literary tradition. Moreover, its inclusion of all the major forms of poetry (tanka, chōka, sedōka, sōmon, banka, and zōka) makes it “a Man’yōshu in miniature” (p. 1), as the author aptly puts it, allowing him to pursue a close reading of the Silla set while simultaneously discussing the anthology as a whole. The result is an unprecedentedly wide-ranging account in English of the forms and functions of early Japanese poetry.

The book under review traverses numerous frontiers, all of which prove to be ambiguous and amorphous transitional zones rather than clear-cut borders. Perhaps the nearest we come to the latter are the political and religious boundaries of Japan marked by Tsushima, which is not only the final port of call in a physical sense but also in the sense that poetry could no longer address native deities past this island. Another frontier is the developmental one Horton posits for eighth-century poets, whom he depicts as being poised between an anonymous archaic tradition and a contemporaneous form of individualism inspired by literary Chinese. The primary frontier organizing Traversing the Frontier, however, is the one between historical experience and its literary re-creation. This space is a particularly complicated one to navigate in the case of the Silla set because the diplomatic mission it refers to took place in a not-so-distant past that both its poets and initial readers would have been familiar with to varying degrees. The [End Page 130] people who shaped the Silla set both benefited from and were constrained by these commonly known events in creating a poetic narrative that was historically plausible. Our contemporary understanding of this work’s navigation between fact and fiction thus demands a densely detailed understanding of the contexts that informed it, something this book achieves with impressively lavish detail.

Chapter 1 offers an overview of the Silla set that begins by outlining its geographical itinerary and the brief mentions of the mission made in the Shoku Nihongi (797) prior to and after the actual voyage. Horton then details the tripartite structure that the set’s prose provides. In Part 1—which charts an extended leave-taking up to the initial departure and ends with a large group of “old poems”—the headnotes and endnotes omit place-names or the number of days passed at particular locales, thereby creating a space ambiguously placed between history and fiction. Topography is subsequently supplied in the head-notes for the body of the sequence in Part 2, as the party sails westward to Tsushima, where it concludes with the largest subsection within the sequence as a whole. The entire set then abruptly closes in Part 3 with a five-poem coda composed at Ieshima (Home Island) near the end of the return journey.

Chapter 2 identifies thematic unities that bind together the subsets within the Silla sequence. First, in “The Parting Poems” Horton shows how the eleven verses exchanged by mission members and their wives at the start of the Silla set not only establish the importance of women left behind in the thoughts of the travelers, but also introduce words that are woven into...


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pp. 130-137
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