Utamakura (歌枕, "poem pillow") is a rhetorical concept in Japanese poetry.


Utamakura is a category of poetic words, often involving place names, that allow for greater allusions and intertextuality across Japanese poems.

Utamakura includes locations familiar to the court of ancient Japan, such as

  • particularly sacred Shinto and Buddhist sites,
  • places where historic events occurred, and
  • places that trigger a separate mental association through a pun.

Aesthetic function

Utamakura serve as a significant tool to achieve yugen (mystery and depth) in Japanese poetry by adding profundity and indirect beauty in poems. It can be used as a source for identifying significant figures and places in ancient Japan. Utamakura enables poets to express ideas and themes concisely — thus allowing them to stay in the confines of strict waka structures.

Some scholars see the use of geographical allusion as the evidence for a restricted scope of poetry writing. Although the poets' "true" meaning was true because the essence was initially pre-established, the poems were written within fixed topics (dai). The poet could inhabit a subjective position or persona and write about the topic but not necessarily about his/her personal feelings. Utamakura could have suppressed poets' individuality or creativity.


The history of utamakura is found in documents on the study of poetry such as the Utamakura of Noin, by the poet and monk of the late Heian period, and lists of places in the Utamakura Nayose (Utamakura reference book).

Utamakura were first used by traveling priests. They collected stories from the towns they traveled to. Since they saw many places, it was easier to remember the details of a story by using a single, consistent reference point for each recurring event in their tales. Over time, the people across the Japan came to identify utamakura place names by the psychological feelings associated with the references made by the wandering priests.

After utamakura place names and people had become well established, eager waka poets went sightseeing to the sites of utamakura. Beyond becoming familiar with the scenery of the poems, entering the locale of a poem or story deepened one's understanding of it.

Utamakura was also used in renga, a form of Japanese collaborative poetry that is the ancestor of renku and haiku poetry.


There are numerous instances of utamakura in Japanese literature, one of which is the Kokinshū. The source of this particular utamakura example is poem #3 in the "Spring" section.[1]

tateru ya izuko
Miyoshino no
Yoshino no yama ni
yuki wa furitsutsu

Where are the promised
mists of spring?
In Yoshino, fair hills
of Yoshino, snow
falling still

—Anonymous —Translated by Lewis Cook

In the poem above, Yoshino refers to a place in the Yamato region in the vicinity of the capital. Yoshino is known for having both heavy snowfall and an abundance of cherry blossoms.

Poem #1 in "Spring 1" of Shin Kokin Wakashū also uses Yoshino for depicting the beginning of spring.[2][3]

Miyoshino wa
yama mo kasumite
shirayuki no
furinishi sato ni
haru wa kinikeri

Fair Yoshino, mountains
now wrapped in mist:
to the village where snow
was falling
spring has come.

—The Regent Prime Minister
(Kujō Yoshitsune)
—Translated by Lewis Cook

Another instance of poetic place name comes from Tales of Ise, a piece titled "In the Provinces" (#15).[4][5]

shinobite kayou
michi mogana
hito no kokoro no
oku no miru beku

I long to find a path
to the depths of Mount Shinobu
that I might fathom
the secrets
of another's heart.

—Translated by Jamie Newhard
and Lewis Cook

Mount Shinobu is a pun on the verb shinobu, meaning "to conceal," "endure," "long for," and "remember."

Contemporary examples

In Japan there are many examples of utamakura in everyday readings. Often, menu items will be named after their visual appearance with a reference to a well-known Japanese scenic area.

For example, the Tatsuta River is famous for its red autumn maples. Therefore, a menu that includes tatsuta age will have crispy fish or chicken that was marinated in soy sauce before it was dredged in cornstarch and deep fried. The cornstarch coating absorbs some of the soy, so that when it is fried it takes on a burnished, russet color.[6]

Parallels in other cultures

Utamakura can be described as "descriptive epithets" or "circumlocutions designating geographical sites" in poetry of other languages that conjure a memory, thought, image or association with the place referred to.

In Dante's Inferno (Canto VII, line 106) there is a poetic place name in reference to the river Styx.

A lake is form'd, (the Stygian named of old)
  By this sad stream, when downward it hath run
  Neath the grey rocks that hem the baleful hold.

The adjective Stygian means "of or relating to the River Styx". In Ancient Greek literature, the River Styx forms the boundary between Earth and Hades, the Underworld.

In contemporary Western cultures, parallels to the Japanese utamakura can be found in many popular songs. Musicians use place names in their lyrics to invoke certain conformed thoughts.

California is a common reference for artists in that it invokes thoughts of excess, splendor, wealth, and a sense of fakeness in body and spirit. Weezer references the excessiveness of Beverly Hills in their hit song "Beverly Hills", while the Red Hot Chili Peppers refer to the sense of things not being "real" in their song "Californication" by including lyrics about plastic surgery and the use of Hollywood sets in government conspiracy.


  1. "Spring. No. 3". Kokin Wakashū. Japanese Text Initiative. University of Virginia Library. 2004. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
  2. "Shinkokinshu". Japanese Text Initiative. University of Virginia Library. 1 August 1999. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
  3. Carter, Steven D. (1993). Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-8047-2212-4.
  4. "Ise Monogatari". Japanese Text Initiative. University of Virginia Library. 11 November 1998. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
  5. McCullough, Helen Craig (1968). Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth - Century Japan. Stanford University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-8047-0653-7.
  6. Andoh, Elizabeth (8 November 1997). "Japanese Menu Names". Daily Yomiuri. Retrieved 28 July 2013.


  • Kamens, Edward. Utamakura, Allusion, and Intertextuality in Traditional Japanese Poetry. Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-300-06808-5
  • Raud, Rein. “The Lover’s Subject: Its Construction and Relativization in the Waka Poetry of the Heian Period”. In Proceedings of the Midwest Association for Japanese Literary Studies, vol. 5, summer 1999, pp. 65–79.
  • Shirane, Haruo (editor). Traditional Japanese Literature. Columbia University Press: New York, 2007.
  • Wright, Ichabod C (Translator). The Inferno of Dante. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman: London, 1833.
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.