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  • Traversing the Frontier: The Man’yōshū Account of a Japanese Mission to Silla in 736–737 by H. Mack Horton
  • Bruce L. Batten (bio)
Traversing the Frontier: The Man’yōshū Account of a Japanese Mission to Silla in 736–737. By H. Mack Horton. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2012. xvii, 628 pages. $59.95.

Traversing the Frontier is not quite what I expected when I agreed to review it based on the title. As a student of premodern Japanese frontiers and foreign relations, I was eager to read an entire book about Japanese envoys to the Korean kingdom of Silla. As I soon discovered, however, Traversing the Frontier is not about diplomacy. Diplomats do make an appearance, but Horton’s book is really about poetry, specifically the sequence of verses in Book 15 of Man’yōshū that commemorate Japan’s 736–37 embassy to Silla. And the frontier in question is not the geopolitical one I had imagined but what Horton, following Seamus Heaney, calls the “frontier of writing” (p. 2): the line between our daily lives and literature, between what happened and how it is represented in the written word. It turns out that the “frontier of writing,” like some geopolitical frontiers, is multivalent, contested, and ultimately elusive. Not even the painstaking “literary archaeology” (p. 9) employed by Horton in Traversing the Frontier can fully excavate the relationship between the 736–37 mission and its representation in Man’yōshū.

Following a refreshingly brief and cogent introduction, the author presents a full translation of the 145 poems and accompanying notes that constitute the sequence. The verses appear in three versions: in man’yōgana, in romanized Old Japanese, and in Horton’s English translation. This format makes it easy to compare the translations with the originals, a touch that readers are likely to appreciate. The translations appear to be spot on, and what is more, they are surprisingly graceful—quite an accomplishment in view of the vast differences between Old Japanese and modern English. Even phrases containing virtually untranslatable makurakotoba are rendered [End Page 379] more or less naturally, for example, “Awa, that well-met island” for myimu to omopyisi apasima.

At first I read the translation as a historian, enjoying the poems and admiring the skill of the translator, but mostly trying to learn what I could about the embassy. The results were disappointing. The authors of some poems are identified by name or title, so (assuming the attributions are based in fact) we get a sense of the embassy’s composition. Place names abound, allowing us to reconstruct the route of its outward journey (again, assuming the veracity of the material). On the other hand, the sequence tells us nothing about the purpose of the mission, and to make matters worse, it comes to an abrupt stop when the envoys arrive at Tsushima. There is no hint as to what happened in Silla, and only five verses depict the return trip. So for the purposes of diplomatic history, this sequence is at best frustrating. What I did not immediately realize, but learned from Horton’s subsequent analysis, is that it tells us quite a bit about literary history.

The body of Traversing the Frontier consists of five chapters; the first, somewhat repetitively called “Traversing the Frontier,” lays out the basic facts. Horton begins with a summary of the “plot” of the Silla sequence. This is followed by a description of what we know of the mission from entries in Shoku Nihongi, which provide historical context missing from Man’yōshū. Next, Horton introduces the structure of the sequence, which is “an organized narrative of lyrical longing for home, depicted against a background of seasonal and scenic change” (pp. 49–50) that “foreshadows the dominant strain of Japanese vernacular travel literature for the next ten centuries” (p. 50).

Chapter 2, “Internal Contexts,” explores the sequence’s “internal operations and how its meaning is generated in part through its own internal structure” (p. 2). Horton’s analysis focuses on the recurring themes of longing for spouse and home and for an autumn return to Nara. “In the Silla sequence,” he argues, “the...


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