The Story of Lady Nukata

Poems of a love triangle

Her witty poetry enlivens a gathering of Asuka nobility

A fateful triangle—two brothers and Lady Nukata

Both Emperor Tenchi and his younger brother Prince Oama (later to be Emperor Tenmu) were children of Emperor Jomei and Empress Kogyoku. The Nihon Shoki chronicles state that Lady Nukata and Oama had a daughter, Princess Tochi. It’s thought that Tenchi later became enamored of Nukata, but there’s no clear evidence for this theory. The poems on the previous page were daring for the time and suggestive of a possible love triangle. Some have proposed that it was a battle for Nukata’s affections that set off the Jinshin War. But today the love triangle theory has lost favor. Most now believe that the poems were intended merely as entertainment at a banquet. More than the two brothers, it may be the modern reader who is more fascinated by the talent and allure of Lady Nukata.

Poem Commentary:
Going over the fields of murasaki grass / That shimmer crimson, / Going over the fields marked as imperial domain, / Will the guardian of the fields not see you / As you wave your sleeves at me?* (Book 1, Poem 20)

Here, “imperial domain” refers to the emperor’s hunting grounds—roped-off fields that common folk weren’t allowed to enter. This poem by Lady Nukata hints at a secret romance. Prince Oama responds to it by revealing his affection: If he didn’t truly love her, he wouldn’t dare to reveal his love when he knows she’s already married. If these two poems truly reflected Nukata and Oama’s feelings, the banquet would have descended into a riot. But here’s the thing: the poems are not listed as love poems (somonka) in the Man’yoshu. Rather, they’re categorized as zoka (miscellaneous poems), like most poems that were composed for banquets and other official occasions. That’s why we can view these poems as examples of playful romantic banter between two mature adults.

*Translation by Ian Hideo Levy

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