© Thomas McAuley
to our Webmaster
Makura kotoba or 'pillow words' were one of the primary poetic resources for poets of the Man'yô period and earlier. Single words or phrases, usually of five syllables, associated in poems with certain other fixed words or phrases, makura kotoba formed links in terms of meaning, association or sound and provided a means by which a poet could add depth to his/her poems or heighten the tone of his rhetorical style.
While makura kotoba do appear in the early songs in the Kojiki and Nihongi, their use was primarily established by Hitomaro in the Man'yô period. It is estimated that he coined approximately half of the makura kotoba he used, handing down an important resource to future generations of poets. Over time, the true meanings of many makura kotoba became lost, and their use became mere convention, but they continued to be coined and used by Japanese poets well into the twentieth century.
The list below is by no means complete, but should give an indication of the types of expressions used as makura kotoba and the words to which they were applied.
- 'Shining madder red'. Used to modify pi 'sun', piru 'daytime', kimi 'lord', etc..
- 'Autumn mountains'. Used to modify sitapi 'turning red (of leaves)', irö natukasi '(emotionally) moving colours'.
Asa mo yösi
- 'Good hemp'. Used to modify the place name ki 'Ki' as the province produced good quality hemp.
- 'Reed fenced'. As fences made of reeds would fall swiftly into disrepair, used to modify puru 'old/former', poka 'other', midaru 'in disarray', yosino 'Yoshino'.
Asi ga tiru
- 'Scattered reeds'. Used to modify the place name nanipa 'Naniwa'.
- 'leg paining'?. Used to modify yama 'mountain', wo 'peak', etc. Of unclear derivation, theories range from 'leg paining/wearying' to 'trees like reeds'.
- 'Catalpa bow'. Used to modify piku 'pull', iru 'shoot', moto 'base', suwe 'end/tip', turu 'bowstring', yoru 'draw near', ya 'arrow', oto 'sound', kaperu 'return', etc. There is, in fact, some disagreement among the commentators as to whether adusa is catalpa or not.
- 'Heaven distant'. Used to modify mukapu 'turn toward', pina 'countryside', etc.
- 'Heaven spanning'. Used to modify pi 'sun' and iripi 'sunset', etc.
- 'Coarse woven cloth'. Used to modify pudi 'wisteria'.
- 'New jewel'. Used to modify tosi 'year', tuki 'moon/month', pi 'day', paru 'spring' etc. Aratama nö tosi meant 'new year'.
- 'Good blue-black clay'. Used to modify Nara 'Nara', kunuti 'within the land'. It appears from the Man'yôshû that Nara produced awoni clay used as a pigment, but whether this was really the case or simply a tradition is unknown.
- 'Whale hunting'. Used to modify umi 'sea', pama 'beach', nada 'open sea', etc.
- 'Ivy covered rocks'?. Used to modify wotikaperu 'get younger'.
- 'Rock running'. Used to modify taki 'waterfall', apumi 'Ômi', etc. From the idea of water gushing over rocks.
- 'Flutter/Stream'. Used to modify kurokami 'black hair', kusa 'grass', paru 'spring', etc. From the way that hair or blades of grass flutter in the breeze.
- 'Full sunshine'?. Used to modify miya 'palace', miyako 'capital', etc. Though to derive from utupi ga sasi'iru '(where) the sun shines fully on' or utusi pi 'the manifest sun'. Also found as utipi satu.
- As above, only referring to place names containing miya 'palace'.
- 'Rush toward'. Used to modify the place name suruga 'Suruga' from the idea of waves rushing toward the coastline.
- 'Cicada shell'. Used to modify mi 'body/self' inoti 'life', yo 'world', pito 'person', imo 'darling', etc.
- 'Drawn hemp thread'. Used to modify naga 'long', the place name nagara 'Nagara', etc.
Oki tu töri
- 'Birds offshore'. Used to modify kamo '(wild) duck', adi 'Baikal teal', etc.
- 'Bright shining'. Used to modify nanipa 'Naniwa'. Also found as ositeru ya.
- 'Great boat'. Used to modify tanomu 'ask', tu 'landing/harbour', tayutapu 'rocking (of boats)', yuta 'priest', watari 'crossing', etc.
- 'A fawn'. Used to modify pitori ko 'Single/Only child' as deer bear a only a single fawn once a year.
- 'Divine wind'. Used to modify place names such as ise 'Ise', isuzu kapa 'Isuzu River', yasaka 'Yasaka', etc. Also found as kamukaze nö
- 'Grass pillow'. Used to modify tabi 'journey', musubu 'tie', yupu 'bind', kari 'temporary', tuyu 'dew', etc. From the custom of twisting grass to make a pillow to ward off misfortune when on a journey.
- 'Unpicking clothes'. Used to modify töki 'time' from the custom of unpicking (toku) worn-out clothing.
- 'Twittered words'. Used to modify foreign place names such as kara 'China', kudara 'Korea', etc. as foreign speech sounded like birds twittering.
- 'Korean sword'. Used to modify the place name wazami 'Wazami', as swords had a wa 'finger-guard' and the first person pronoun na 'I' as na was also an ancient word for 'sword'.
Komori ku nö
- 'Hidden land'. Used to modify the place name patuse 'Hatsuse'. From the fact that Hatuse was surrounded by mountains.
- 'Folded mulberry-bark cloth'. Used to modify koromo 'clothes', tamoto 'sleeve', sode 'sleeve', toko 'bed(clothes)', makura 'pillow', ipe 'home/house', etc.
- A type of waterfowl. Used to modify the place name wina 'Ina' from the way that the male and female wi narabu 'line up'; and the place name apa 'Awa',from the sound of its cry when diving. Exactly what type of bird a sinagatöri was is unclear: theories range from the little grebe, or dabchick, to the pin-tailed duck, while still a further theory suggests the long-tailed cock.
- Meaning unknown, possibly 'pure white'. Used to modify yupu 'mulberry cloth', mo 'skirt', etc.
- 'White mulberry cloth'. Used to modify koromo 'clothes', tamoto 'sleeve', sode 'sleeve', pimo 'belt', pire 'scarf', obi 'sash/belt', tasuki 'cord', kumo 'cloud', yuki 'snow', etc.
Suzu ga ne nö
- 'The sound of little bells'. Used to modify payumaumaya 'fast horse horse barn' from the harness bells official couriers wore on their tack.
- 'Sky counting'. Used to modify opo- 'great/large', opotu 'Ôtsu'. Possibly from the idea of things being only roughly counted.
Sora ni mitu
- 'Sky seen'. Used to modify the place name yamato Yamato'.
- 'A rope of hemp'. Used to modify sira/siro 'white', siragi 'Silla (an ancient Korean kingdom)'.
- 'A rope of hemp'. Used to modify naga 'long', tipiro 'extremely long'.
- 'Jewelled clothes'. Used to modify sawisawi 'rustling'
- 'Jewelled vines'. Used to modify hapu 'stretch/spread over', nagasi 'long', tayu 'come to an end', etc. as vines stretch out over long distances.
- 'Soul ending'. Used to modify inoti 'life', yo 'world', etc.
- 'Jewelled cord'. Used to modify the place name unebi 'unebi', kakaru 'attach'.
- Meaning unknown. Used to modify the place name muko 'Muko' for reasons which are also unknown.
- 'Jewelled spear'. Used to modify miti 'road/path', sato 'home/village'. Possibly from the custom of placing phallic rocks on roads and at the entrances of villages to ward off misfortune.
- 'Good jewelled seaweed'. Used to modify the province sanuki 'Sanuki'.
- Meaning unknown. Used to modify papa 'mother', oya 'parent'. Possibly meaning 'overflowing with affection' although an alternative explanation, based on the characters often used to write it is 'breasts overflowing with milk'.
Titi nö mi nö
- 'Fruit of the tree'. Used to modify titi 'father'. From the fact that the homophonous titi were alternative names for the mulberry and (Japanese) horse chestnut trees.
- 'powerful/mighty'. Used to modify the place name udi 'Uji', and kamï 'gods'.
Tuga nö kï nö
- 'Hemlock tree'. Used to modify iya tugitugi ni 'ever lasting/continuing'.
- 'Vine/creeper covered'. Used to modify ipa 'rock', ipami 'Iwami' etc.
- 'Spouse hiding'. Used to modify ya 'home/roof', ya 'arrow', etc.
- 'Sharp, well-honed sword'. Used to modify mi 'body', togu 'whet', na 'name', etc.
Toga nö kï nö
- 'Hemlock tree'. Used to modify iya tugitugi ni 'ever lasting/continuing'.
Toki tu kaze
- 'A seasonal/timely wind'. Used to modify the place name pukepi 'Fukehi'.
- 'Lamplight'. Used to modify the place name akasi 'Akashi'.
Töri ga naku
- 'Bird calling'. Used to modify aduma 'the Eastland'. Eastern dialect sounded like the twittering of birds to people from the capital region.
- 'Summer grass'. Used to modify pukaku mo 'deeply', karisome ni 'briefly', sigeki omopi 'think a great deal', etc.
- 'Pulling summer hemp'. Used to modify una 'of the sea', una 'nape (of the neck)', and place names such as unakami 'Unakami', etc., from the fact that hemp was harvested in summer and spun, umu. Also used to modify inoti 'life' as hemp was spun into thread, ito.
- Meaning unknown. Used to modify the place name kapi 'Kai'.
- 'Pliable bamboo'. Used to modify towo 'saddle/col (of a mountain pass)', okipusi 'waking and sleeping', yo 'night', yo 'world', pusi 'knot/joint', etc.
- 'Lily-seed'. Used to modify kuro 'black', yo 'night', yupu 'evening', tuki 'moon', kuraki 'dark', koyopi 'this evening/tonight', ime 'dream', ne 'sleep', etc. Also found as mubatama nö.
- 'Oak leaf'. Used to modify papa 'mother'.
- 'Spring mist/haze'. Used to modify kasuga 'Kasuga', tatu 'rise', etc.
Paru töri nö
- 'Spring birds'. Used to modify ne wo naku 'make a (bird) call', samayopu 'moan/groan'.
- Meaning unknown. Used to modify ame/ama 'heaven', sora 'sky' and things connected with them such as: tuki 'moon', pi 'sun', piru 'daytime', ame 'rain', yuki 'snow', kasumi 'haze', posi 'star', pikari 'light' and yo 'night. Also for katura 'Katsura (tree)', miyako 'capital', kagami 'mirror'. One theory is that it derives from pi sasu kata 'the direction from which the sun shines', while the characters used to write it suggest the eternal and/or far-reaching nature of the heavens.
Pi nö motö nö
- 'Source of the sun'. Used to modify the place name yamato 'Yamato'.
- 'Like long haired codium (a type of seaweed)'. Used to modify pukamu 'be deep', miru 'see', etc.
- 'Buried in winter'. Used to modify paru 'spring', paru 'stick/attach', etc.
- 'Strong vigorous man/courtier'. Used to modify the place name tayupi 'Tayui' as courtiers used a tayupi cord to bind up their sleeves.
Mina nö wata
- 'Marsh (black) snail guts'. Used to modify kagurosi 'completely black'
- 'A flock of birds'. Used to modify mure 'crowd/group', tatu 'rise/depart'.
- 'Warrior'. Used to modify place names such as yaso 'Yaso', udigapa 'Uji River', etc. Also yuge 'fletcher'.
- 'Many stoned'. Used to modify opomiya 'great palace', etc.
- 'Ruling the eight corners'. Used to modify wa ga opokimi/wa go opokimi 'my great lord/emperor'
- 'Young/fresh grass'. Used to modify tuma 'spouse/wife', nipi 'new'. Also occasionally wakasi 'young', omopituku 'realise', etc.