The Story of Abe no Nakamaro

There have been a number of historical figures throughout Japan’s existence who contributed different and essential things to their culture. There are fighters, leaders, and even cooks who have made it to the history books because of the things they were able to impart to their people. Given this long list of personalities, it isn’t likely that any of them have a story like the story of one of Japan’s most famous writers. His name is Abe Nakamaro.

By Kikuchi Yosai(菊池容斎) (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Biography of Abe No Nakamaro

Abe No Nakamaro is actually a descendant of a well-known family in Japan. He is the first son of Abe No Funamori who also happens to be a descendant of Prince Hikofutsuoshi Makoto. If you didn’t know, that prince was the son of Emperor Kogen. In his youth, he was looked up upon by many people because of his excellence in the academics.

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Because of this, he naturally ended up in a Japanese mission that would take him to China in the year of 717. Nakamaro went on this Japanese mission to China with two other well-known Japanese scholars who were namely Kibi no Makibi and Genbo. At the end of the allotted time for their mission, Kibi no Makibi and Genbo along with all the other scholars who participated in that trip went back to Japan. Nakamaro, however, would go his own route as he decided to stay in China.

His decision brought his success because he eventually passed the civil-service examination in China which practically opened the path for his rise in the Chinese political ladder. In the year of 725, he was able to attain an administrative position and a couple of years after that, he was quickly promoted in Luoyang. These blessings followed him until the year of 734 which was when he would get his first chance to go back to Japan in over 13 years. Sadly, his first attempt at a homecoming was thrashed by the sinking of their ship not long after the journey started.

This failure kept him in China until the year of 752 when he would attempt another homecoming by going home with another Japanese mission from China which was led by Fujiwara no Kiyokawa. Strangely though, the ship that Nakamaro was boarding sank once again, this time leaving him stranded off the coast of Vietnam. It would take him 3 years because he would be able to get back to China which was in the year of 755.

The end of that year marked the start of the An Lushan Rebellion which was one that stood against the Tang Dynasty. It specifically started on the 16th of December in the year of 755 and it made it all the more impossible for Abe No Nakamaro to return to Japan because the rebellion had made it very unsafe to do so. In a way, this made him abandon his hopes to go back to his homeland for the meantime.

This part of his life is also the part where he showed resolve. People who feel like they have lost a chance to make their dreams come true sometimes fall into a slump. They get distracted and start to feel lost about where they are in their lives. In the case of Nakamaro, after abandoning his hope of a homecoming, he ended up serving the Chinese government even more. He worked under several government offices and eventually gained a title called Governor-General of Annam between the years of 761 and 767. After these years of service, the circumstances made it seem possible for him to bring life back to his dream but unfortunately, death came upon him because he could try one more time. He died in the year of 770.

The Art of Waka Poetry and Abe No Nakamaro’s Signature Poems

By purportedly Mibu no Tadamine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from being an astounding scholar and an efficient administrator, Abe No Nakamaro was also known for his poems from being a waka poet during the Nara era. The art of waka poetry is far from the likes of etoki writing but it is popularly familiar to people because it is very much like the haiku writing that Japan is also known for. A haiku, to put it simply, is a 3-line observation of nature. Aside from being strictly made up of only 3 lines, these lines must have a number of syllables equal to 5, 7, and 5, respectively.  A waka, on the other hand, is also made up an exact number of syllables in a line but is not limited to 3 lines nor is it limited to the topic of nature.

You can look at waka poetry as the larger umbrella to the haiku writing. There are different forms of waka. There is the tanka, choka, katauta, and sedoka. The tanka is described to be a short poem that is made up of 5 lines which consist of 5, 7,5,7,7 syllable series, respectively. This is the most common type of waka. The choka is known as the long poem because this type of waka can go on forever as long as it follows the pattern of have interchanging lines that consist of 5 and 7 syllables and is ended by two consequence lines made up for 7 syllables. For example, a choka that is made up of 7 lines will have syllables per line amounting to 5, 7, 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7, respectively. As for the katauta and the sedoka, these two types actually go hand in hand. A katauta is considered to be half a sedoka because a sedoka is also known to be a dialogue poem or a conversation between lovers. One katauta should consist of 3 lines with a syllable count of 5, 7, and 7, respectively. With this being said, a completely sedoka would only be 6 lines long.

It seems simple but to make a profound statement under these restrictions may not come as simple as it sounds. With this said, you can now understand better why a great waka poem is given great value. Abe No Nakamaro was able to create such a masterpiece because of his longing for his homeland. He wrote about how he saw the night’s sky and pondered upon himself if it was the same moon he would see at the Kasuga Shrine behind Mt. Mikasa from his youth. Considering his history, it comes as no surprise that his people and the world could relate to his feeling when he wrote this tanka. In a stanza, he was able to convey what his heart genuinely yearned for and this talent is what made him famous as a waka poet.

The Legacy of Abe No Nakamaro

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Knowing the history and works of Abe No Nakamaro should be enough to open your eyes to the reasons why he is looked up upon like he is in the Japanese culture. If those things weren’t enough to convince you, someone could easily refer you to articles explaining how he was great or even Hokusai’s Hyakunin Isshua or One Hundred Poets series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Seeing this would surely remove your doubts about Nakamaro’s significance to the Japanese culture because that particular work of art is considered to be one of Japan’s most important masterpieces.

These are all titles he got from his talent and his work so not all may be convinced about how great of a man this guy really was. If you are one of those non-believers, you should definitely try to look closer to the details of his life. This guy was literally shipped to China in his teenage years and he spent it learning all he could. After that, he decided to walk the path that isn’t for everybody as he decided to try it out on his own in China. This brought him great success but his continuous and genuine work did not stop because of attaining any of these recognitions and success. This showed that he was a man that was really doing what he loved, even if it was for a country or metropolitan that was not his own.

Some may say that he turned his back on his country because of the devotion he showed in his working for another country. It is far from the truth, because he never stopped trying to get back home despite the success of his life in China. The reason why he was able to write his masterpiece was his true longing to go back to Japan so saying that he betrayed Japan in any way is surely not likely.

Considering all that has been said, Abe No Nakamaro is definitely a man worth idolizing, not just for his work but also because of his character and attitude. He lived the majority of his life outside Japan and even died in a foreign land but somehow, he still ended up being recognized as one of the important artists in Japanese history. If you wish to learn more about his works and his life, feel free to read up on him through your library archive or through the Wikipedium or even through the museums and galleries that showcase his work.