Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Nakoso Barrier: A Place of Fear and Intrigue in Ancient Japan

"Minamoto Yoshiie at the Nakoso Barrier" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).(
In Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, there stands an ancient marker at the Nakoso Barrier Literature and History Museum that says "Enemies of the Emperor, do not come here!". At first glance this marker is an innocuous-looking sign from centuries ago, but at one time this marker used to mark the spot where civilization ended and the unknown began.

The Nakoso (meaning “勿来”, or "Do not come here!") Barrier and the Kikuta barrier gate (depicted in the print above) which stood at the site of the marker were built in the 5th century AD during the Yamato period to protect "civilized Japan" from the "barbarian" Emishi tribes of the north. The message on the marker was directed at the Emishi, or Michinoku ("people of the north" in Japanese) as they are also called.

The lands north of the Nakoso Barrier were a place that most ancient Japanese feared. However, it was also a place of curiosity and even romance. This made the Nakoso Barrier an 'uta-makura', or a place that inspired a number of poets and writers. Many poems were written about lovers who were separated by the barrier, or of the climate being different between north and south.

One person who is most associated with the Nakoso Barrier is Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106), who was a samurai of the Minamoto clan and commander-in-chief of the defense of the North. Yoshiie was skilled in the arts of war, as well as a poet. His most famous poem is one he composed while passing through the barrier, which goes:

"How I wish to forbid the blowing wind,
At the Barrier of Nakoso, the 'forbidding' gate.
But the mountain cherry blossoms are falling,
Filling the rord, to narrow down the pass."

(taken from The Founding of the Nation, page one)

He was so touched by the falling cherry blossom petals that it made the trek through the fearsome Kikuta Gate much more pleasant! This poem also forms the basis for Kuniyoshi's ukiyo-e print above.

Yoshiie subsequently fought two bloody campaigns north of the Nakoso Barrier against the Abe clan during the Zenkunen War, or Early Nine Years' War, as well as the Kiyowara clan during the Gosannen, or Later Three Years' War. His poetic renga, or "linked poem" exchange with Abe warrior Abe Sadato in 1049 about plum blossoms is particularly famous in Japanese history and literature.

Nowadays the Nakoso Barrier is no more, but its place in Japanese history and literature will no doubt live on forever!

For more about the Nakoso Barrier, see the links below:
- Homepage of the Iwaki City Nakoso Barrier Literature and History Museum (in Japanese)
-,_Fukushima (Wikipedia history of Iwaki city)
- (Wikipedia entry on Minamoto no Yoshiie)
-;id=104462;type=101 (Another ukiyo-e print by Edo-era artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicting the exchange between Yoshiie and Abe Sadato at the Nakoso barrier.)


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