New Blog Page

January 30, 2014


I’ve been making small updates to the blog apart from the poems themselves. The main change is that I’ve added a new “page” that talks about the history of Imperial poetry anthologies. Poetry collections were very popular in the “classical age” of Japanese history, when Court nobles cultivated the finer arts and wrote lots and lots of poetry for social reasons, as well as for career advancement.

The Hyakunin Isshu is an example of a “private” collection in that it was not commissioned by the government. Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97) compiled the Hyakunin Isshu in the later years of his life after his lord, Emperor Gotoba (poem 99), was exiled and the samurai government in Kamakura had won the civil war.

However, many of the poets in the Hyakunin Isshu were also contributors to official anthologies or helped compile them. So, I finally got around to explaining what these anthologies were and why the’re important to this blog.

Also, resources permitting, I may want to try and post poetry from some of those anthologies, starting with the Kokin Wakashū.



Waning Moon

Another Autumn moon poem, but with an interesting twist:

なげけとて Nageke tote
月やは物を Tsuki ya wa mono wo
思はする Omowasuru
かこちがほなる Kakochi gao naru
わがなみだかな Waga nami dakana

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

“Lament!” does it say?
Is it the moon that makes me
dwell on things? —No, and yet,
look at the tears flowing down
my reproachful face!

This poem was composed by the Dharma Master Saigyō (1118-1190) a famous Buddhist monk and poet from the era. Saigyo’s story is interesting in of itself. In his youth, his name was Sato no Norikiyo and he was a promising young man in the Heian Court, and caught the attention of Emperor Toba, Emperor Sutoku (poem 77) and also Taira no Kiyomori, the most powerful man at the time and who later became a villain in the famous Tales of the Heike and a recent drama on Japanese TV.

However, Norikiyo grew disillusioned with the nasty politics and infighting in the Court, and abruptly decided to throw it all away. He left behind his career, his wife and children1 and became a wandering mendicant. He took on the Buddhist name Saigyo (西行) and stayed at the famous mountain-monastery of Koyasan for monastic training. Later, he returned to the capitol to find everything had changed. The Hogen Rebellion had destroyed much of the capitol, Emperor Sutoku was exiled (having lost), and Kiyomori ruled as a warlord. A few years later, Kiyomori and the entire Heike clan were utterly destroyed in the famous Genpei War which also spelled the Heian Court and the Heian Period. What might have happened had Norikiyo had stayed and followed his career, rather than leave the capitol?

In any case, with the new samurai government at Kamakura (the Kamakura Period), things settled down in Japan and Saigyo traveled around, devoting his life to writing poetry to lament the loss of his former patrons, beautiful nature in Japan, and about life in general. He finally settled down in the outskirts of Osaka, and passed away at the age of 73. It was said that when he passed away, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and that he died on the same day that Shakyamuni Buddha died (February 15th according to solar calendar).

He was also friends with Shunzei (poem 83), according to Professor Mostow.

Anyhow, this poem is, according to Professor Mostow, possibly inspired by a poem by famous Chinese poet Bo Juyi and is supposed the express the feelings of a resentful lover. Is the moon making him/her tearful? Maybe, maybe not, but gazing up at the moon brings them such sadness anyway.

Saigyo’s talent with poetry and his interesting life story have certainly helped him earn a place in the Hyakunin Isshu, but also inspired many later poets such as Basho and others. Basho the Haiku master, in his travels, went to visit places frequented by Saigyo among others.

Emperor Sanjo as depicted in Hyakunin Isshu “cards”.

This poem is something that touches on an important theme here on the blog, but first, let’s take a look:

心にも Kokoro ni mo
あらで浮世に Arade ukiyo ni
ながらへば Nagaraeba
恋しかるべき Koishikaru beki
夜半の月かな Yowa no tsuki kana

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Though it is not what’s in my heart,
if in this world of pain
I should linger, then
no doubt I shall remember fondly
the bright moon of this dark night!

This poem was composed by Emperor Sanjo (976-1017) who only reigned briefly for 5 years until his regent, Fujiwara no Michinaga, forced him to abdicate so that his own grandson could become Emperor (Emperor Goichijo). Fujiwara no Michinaga will be remembered as the main character of Lady Murasaki’s Diary, plus he employed a number of the female authors in the Hyakunin Isshu to be ladies in waiting for his daughter.

To make matters worse, Emperor Sanjo was frequently ill, and this added further pressure for him to abdicate.

The poem above, according to Mostow, is thought to have been composed toward the end of his reign when he was ill and considering abdication. Was he concerned that night about his illness, or about the prospect of losing the throne? What made him savor that moon so?

As mentioned in this post, the later poems of the Hyakunin Isshu reflect a more somber era when political scheming and such replaced the earlier enthusiasm of previous generations. By this time, the Emperors had lost much of their power to ministers (mainly from the Fujiwara family) and were increasingly isolated.

The Heian Period which spans the Hyakunin Isshu would end about 100 years later.

As you may have started to notice, the Hyakunin Isshu anthology provides a subtle historical overview of the classical period in Japanese history. This may have been intention on the part of Fujiwara no Teika, or just reflects the sentiment of his time. Either way, it’s an interesting tour of Japan from the 8th to 12th centuries.

The anthology begins with poems in the Nara Period, when Japanese culture, flush with cultural imports from China (e.g. Confucian ethics, Buddhism, technology, administration, poetry, etc). It was an exciting time in Japanese history. And if you look at the poems from this era, you can see that they tend to feature benevolent rulers (poem 1), bright and happy natural scenes (poems 2 and poem 4), or just often dealt with frivolous issues of love (poem 3 and poem 12) or just life in general around the capitol (poem 10).

Even when the poems were more melancholy (poem 9, poem 11) they still reflected a more genteel time, and were probably included by Fujiwara no Teika to demonstrate the range of poetic skills of the nobility during that bygone time.

However, the Nara Period eventually gave way to the Heian Period, which was a 400-year flowering of Japanese culture that is still revered today. The transition was slow, and much remained the same generations later, but eventually things started to change:

  • Japan’s contact with China and the Asian mainland eventually stopped, and Japanese culture turned more and more inward for several centuries. Poetry and culture at this time reflected more “native” styles by and by.
  • Politically, the northern-branch of the Fujiwara clan gradually monopolized power around the Emperor through political marriages. In the early period, the nobility included several families who supported the family, but by the 11th century, the Fujiwara controlled every major position in government and most emperors were related to them in one way or another. This is what led in part to Sugawara no Michizan’e exile for example. You’ll notice too how many of the poets have the surname “Fujiwara” in the anthology as well, including Fujiwara no Teika the compiler himself.
  • Toward the end, conflict began to arise again and again, culminating in the famous Genpei War. The new samurai class (originally bodyguards to the noble families) clashed with one another for control of Japan and ultimately swept aside the nobility.

As such, if you look at poems toward the very end of the Hyakunin Isshu, they tend to be more dismal in tone. Often they speak of longing for the past (poem 100), complaints about life (poem 83, poem 99) or just expressions of people suffering (poem 95).

Indeed, by this time the flowering culture that started in the Nara Period and flourished in the Heian Period had declined, and war and politics had taken their toll on society. The final few poems begin in the militaristic Kamakura Period, and reflect both nostalgia and unease by people of that era. Small wonder that Fujiwara no Teika, who took tonsure after Emperor Go-Daigo was exiled, decided to compile the Hyakunin Isshu the way he did.

Shinto gohei

Hi folks, after a long break due to work obligations, I am back and happy to post this excellent poem by my favorite author in the Hyakunin Isshu:

このたびは Kono tabi wa
幣もとりあへず Nusa motori aezu
手向山 Tamuke yama
紅葉のにしき Momiji no nishiki
神のまにまに Kami no mani mani

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

This time around
I couldn’t even bring the sacred streamers
—Offering Hill—
but if this brocade of leaves
is to the gods’ liking….

The poem is signed as Kanke (菅家), which is the Sinified (Chinese) way to read the Sugawara Family name (lit. “House of Sugawara”). You see similar names used for the Taira Clan (e.g. Heike 平家) and Minamono Clan (e.g. Genji 源氏) in later times. Anyhow, the author is none other than the famous poet/scholar Sugawara no Michizane who in later generations was deified as a sort of god of learning after he was wrongfully exiled through political intrigue.

The poem was composed by Michizane after going on an excursion with his patron, Emperor Uda, and because he had little time to prepare, he couldn’t make a propering offering to the gods for a safe trip. The term nusa (幣) means a special staff used in Shinto ceremonies. But Michizane, admiring the beautiful autumn scene on Mount Tamuke, hopes that this will make a suitable offering instead. Sadly Michizane would be disgraced and exiled only a short time later.

My interest in Sugawara no Michizane mostly comes because I admire him as a fellow scholar. I visited one of his shrines in Tokyo a couple times over the years, and usually try to pay respects. The real life Michizane was no god of learning, but his real-life contributions to poetry and Chinese literature in Japan helped the culture flourish at that time, and earned his place as a trusted adviser to the Emperor, despite his more humble background. This also helped explain his status centuries later as a god of learning. Every year in Japan in April, students pay respects hoping that they can pass entrance exams, and it’s nice to see his legacy carry on so many years later.