Toropygina M.V. The Legends of Traditional Japanese Poetry (Part I)

The Legends of Traditional Japanese Poetry: Rokujō Poetry School in the 12th Century (Part I)

Toropygina M.V.

The history of Japanese poetry in the 12th century is associated with a confrontation between two poetical schools: Rokujō and Mikohidari. Three generations of Rokujō poets (the founder of the school Akisue, his son Akisuke, and grandchildren Kiyosuke and Kenshō) are the main characters of the article. Legends connected with these poets circulated in Japanese poetic society for centuries. The main sources of the legends are karon texts by poets of the 13th-15th cc. and Kokonchomonjū and Jikkinshō - two setsuwa collections of the 13th c. Some poems of Rokujō poets are cited in the publication. Illustrations by Ooishi Matora are taken from the book Hyakunin isshu hitoyogatari first published in 1833.

Key words: Japanese poetry, 12th century, poetic school, imperial anthology, poetry contest, setsuwa, legend, Kokonchomonjū, Jikkinshō.

At the beginning of the 10th century, Japan saw its first anthology of waka poetry that was compiled under the imperial decree - Kokinshū (古今集) - and that was the starting point in the history of poetry whose milestones are imperial anthologies (chokusenshu). Their authority in the society was so big that they became the criterion of poetic success, only those whose poems were included in the imperial anthology could be considered real poets. The biggest achievement for a poet was to become a compiler of the anthology. Compilation of each imperial anthology (they are 21 in total) is a fascinating story where poetry closely intertwines with political intrigues and personal ambitions.

Poetic life of medieval Japan was characterized by fierce competition. Poetry contests, which were quite common, are always a competition, a comparison and recognition of superiority. Japanese literature has lots of stories and legends about poets, and very often those stories were the ones about rivalry. If the 11th century was the time of individual rivalry, the 12th century saw the emergency of "poetry schools" which fought for superiority.

At the beginning of the 12th century the first poetry family (or "school"), known in the history of poetry as Rokujō was established (also known as Rokujöke 六条藤家, Rokujö Fujiwara family). The concept of a poetry school is not 100 percent the same as the one of a branch of a certain keen. Of course, poetry school features first of all members of this or that family but is not limited to them. Those who are considered representatives of a poetry school are primarily poets having an extensive knowledge of a subject which allowed them to be mentors of their fellow poets.

The glory of Rokujō poetry family comprise the three generations of poets, the most prominent of them is the founder of the family Fujiwara no Akisue (1055-1123), his son Fujiwara no Akisuke (1090-1155) and his grandsons - Fujiwara no Kiyosuke (1104-1177) and Kenshō (1130-1209) (the adopted son of Akisuke). Other representatives of this family were famous poets as well: the brothers of Kyōsuke Kiyosuke - Shigeie (1128-1180) and Suetsune (1131-1221); children of Shigeie: Tsuneie (1149-1209), Akiie (1153-1223) and Ariie (1155-1216).

Then the poetry school of Mikohidari (御子左家) emerged. Its founder was Fujiwara-no no Toshinari (Shunzei, 1114-1204), the glory of this school comprised the group of remarkable poets among whom there was Toshinary Fujiwara Sadaie (Teika, 1162-1241), Jakuren (1139-1202), Takanobu (1142-1205), Ietaka (1158-1237) and many others. Poetic rivalry between Rokujō and Mikohidari has in many respects defined the history of Japanese poetry in the 12th century.

The history of Japanese poetry is full of legends which are often based on historical facts, but sometimes are pure fiction. The sources of this legendary history of poetry are texts of different genres. Among them are karon (poetic diaries), texts which were written by poets; stories from setsuwa collections; stories of uta-monogatari genre; prefaces to poems, diaries, etc.

There are many ways to understand whom contemporaries considered the best poet at a certain time. The top poet was the one who compiled the next imperial anthology; the most authoritative poets were invited to judge prestigious poetry contests; in their works poets often named those whom they regarded the best (a kind of assessment by the "expert community"); since the time of the preface to Kokinshū anthology there was a tradition of selecting the best six poets (rokkasen or six poetic immortals), and starting from the poet Fujiwara Kintōo (966-1041) - tradition to choose the thirty six poetic immortals (sanjūrokkasen); Teika compiled the Hyakunin Isshu collection comprising 100 best poems by 100 best poets.

The main sources used in this article are karon texts by poets Kamo no Chōmei (1155-1216), Teika, Tonna (1289-1372), Shōtetsu (1381-1459), and also setsuwa collections of the 13th century: Kokonchomonjū(古今著聞集) and Jikkinshō(Jikkinshô 十訓抄).

The article is illustrated with works by the artist Oishi Mastatora (1792-1833) taken from the book Hyakunin isshu hitoyo gatari (百人一首一夕話) published in 1833. This book authored by Ozaki Masayoshi (1755-1827) introduced the public to both poems comprising the Hyakunin isshu collection as well as the history of poetry, and legends which circulated in poetic circles for centuries and during the Edo period became the legacy of all readers. The work has been republished in 1914 in Yuhodo bunko series edited by Tsukamoto Tetsuzō (1881-1953)[1] , illustrations have been taken from this edition.

Fujiwara no Akisue is considered the founder of Rokujō poetry family.

Akisue was born in 1055, to Fujiwara no Takatsune (years unknown), and Fujiwara no Sanesue (1021-1093). His mother was the nurse of future Emperor Shirakawa (1053-1129, circa 1073-1087) therefore the poet was close to him, which, certainly, played an important role in his life. As a young man he had quite a career, was the manager of a number of provinces (Sanuki, Tamba, Owari), in 1083 was promoted to the Fourth Rank, and in 1104 - to the Third. Since 1094 Akisue was the head of the Bureau of Palace Repairs (shuri no daibu), and used this position as part of his name, his verses are often signed: Sarumaru no Daibu Akisue.

The poetic career of Akisue began in 1078 when he participated in Joryaku ninen dairi utaawase (承暦二年内裏歌合) poetry contest. Akisue participated in many events, including prestigious poetry contest, in 1093 - Ikuhômon-in neawa (郁芳門院根合) tournament, Horikawa-in tsuyakotobaawase (堀河院艶書合) in 1102, Toba-dono hokumen utaawase (鳥羽殿北面歌合) in 1116.

Being part of Horikawa-in hyakushu, (堀河百首, full name - Horikawa-in hyakushu waka 堀河院御時百首和歌) collection, ordered by Emperor Horikawa (1079-1107, circa 1087-1107) from sixteen leading poets became an important event in the poetic life of Akisue. Creation of the collection refers to 1104 (according to other data, to 1105). Sixteen people participated in compiling Horikawa, among them there were glorified poets and those who just began their ascension to the heights of poetic glory, in particular Minamoto no Shunrai (1055-1129), the poet whom many contemporaries and poets of the next generations called the best, and his poetic rival Fujiwara no Mototoshi (1060-1142), a bit later they would start to fight for the right to compile the fifth imperial anthology. This "project" had a huge significance for Japanese poetry. It was the first case when participants composed poetry cycles of hundred songs, and the subject of each song was determined in advance[2]. Such a practice was very successful, and many subsequent contests and collections were arranged like this: participants composed cycles of 100 poems on the predetermined subjects.

300 years after Horikawa-in hyakushu was compiled, poet Shōtetsu mentoring young authors on how to choose themes for their exercises wrote:

"In the old times all beginners composed on the subjects of Horikawa-in hyakushu as practice. However, the subjects of Horikawa-in hyakushu poems are a little bit difficult for the composition".[3]

The poem composed by Akisue as part of Horikawa-in hyakushu opens the fifth imperial anthology - Kin'yōwakashū (金葉和歌集), compiled by Minamoto no Toshinari in 1126. The first section of the imperial anthology is always the Songs of Spring, and to be the author of the first poem of the anthology is always a great honor.

"When the hundred poems of the times of Emperor Horikawa were being composed, the following was composed on the nature of early spring:

Sarumaru no Dayu Akisue


utinabiki [4] / faru fa kinikeri / jama kafa-no / ifama-no koori / kefe ya tokuramu


Trailing in

Spring has come,

In the mountain streams,

Between the rocks the ice

May melt today, I think.[5]


Kin'yōwakashū includes 20 songs by Akisue[6]. However, it wasn't the first imperial anthology which featured his poems, one poem was included in the fourth anthology, Goshuishu, in 1087.

Akisue's son - Akisuke promised to become the great poet, which made it the poetry dynasty, however, to found the real poetry school, to win poetic superiority, perhaps to fight for the right to compile imperial anthologies, the family had to possess something special, have something that would distinguish poets of this school from all others. Poets of Rokujō school made the knowledge of ancient poetry, the study of the ancient poetic monument - Man'yōshū

(万葉集) their trademark. In many respects the idolization of the poet of the 8th century Kakinomoto-no Hitomaro occurred due to the efforts of Rokujō family poets as the family possessed a treasure - the portrait of the famous ancient poet, and worshipped it as a deity.

The history of this idolization begins with the first imperial anthology. The preface in Japanese (kanajo), written by Ki no Tsurayuki (868-945), the text which was doomed to become the main poetic text of medieval Japan, precedes the first imperial anthology of Kokin Wakashu. Ki no Tsurayuki called Kakinomoto-no Hitomaro uta no hijiri - a divine poet in A.E.Gluskina's translation, however, later Hitomaro started to be considered as a deity (meijin) of poetry and to be worshipped at special poetry gatherings which are called eigu (影供). The first such meeting was organized in the mansion of Fujiwara-no Akisue in 1118.

There were many records about this episode in the history of poetry. The legend about Kakinomoto-no Hitomaro's portrait becoming the object of worship among other sources can be found in two collections of setsuwa - Kokonchomon-jū and Jikkinshō. Versions differ only in details. The Jikkinshō tells the following.

"There was a man called the Awata Governor of Sanuki Kanefusa[7]. For many years he had been an enthusiast of waka, but being unable to produce good poetry, he prayed constantly in his heart to Hitomaro. In a dream one night, he seemed to be in a place which he thought was Nishi Sakamoto; there were no trees, only plum blossoms falling like snow, which were extremely fragrant. As he was thinking in his heart how wonderful it was, he noticed a man of advanced years beside him. He was wearing a naoshi robe and pale-colored gathered sashinuki with crimson hakama underneath, and an unstarched eboshi with a very high tail. He did not look like an ordinary person. In his left hand he held paper, and with his right hand he held an ink-dipped brush, and appeared to be deep in thought. As Kanefusa was thinking, "How strange. Who is this person?" the man spoke: "You have been good enough to keep Hitomaro in your heart for many years; due to the depth of your wish, I am showing myself to you." Saying only this, he vanished completely.

After waking from his dream, when morning came Kanefusa called an artist, described Hitomaro's appearance, and had him draw a portrait. However, the portrait did not resemble Hitomaro, so he had the artist repeatedly redraw it until it did resemble Hitomaro; making it his treasure, he always made obeisance to it, and so, possibly due to a miracle, he was able to write better poetry than previously.

Many years later, when he seemed about to die, he presented the portrait to Retired Emperor Shirakawa, who was greatly delighted and, adding it to his treasures, kept it in his Toba treasury. The Rokujō Head of the Bureau of Palace Repairs, Lord Akisue, asked repeatedly and was finally allowed to borrow the portrait. He spoke to Nobushige[8], who copied the portrait for him, after which Akisue kept the copy. He had Atsumitsu[9] write the praise inscription, had Head of the Department of Shintō Akinaka[10] make a clean copy, made it his main object of veneration, and held the first eigu with it. At the time, Akisue had many sons-in-law, but it was Toshiyori, as a person of the Way of poetry, who made the offerings to the portrait.

Hitomaro eigu were held in this way for many years without fail.[11]

According to Kokonchomon-jū the portrait which was stored in the imperial treasury was destroyed in fire, and the one owned by Akisue was the oldest portrait of Hitomaro. The description of the first eigu gathering was left by its participant Fujiwara no Atsumitsu in Kakinomoto eigu ki [12]. We find the version of the description of this event in the story from the Kokonchomonjū collection (5-178) "About the Head of the Bureau of Palace Repairs Akisue holding a Ceremony of Offering to Hitomaro's image". Atsumitsu's praise mentioned in the text of Jikkinshō is placed in the collections in Chinese: Honchō monzui, (本朝続文粋 the exact time of creation is unknown, compiled after 1140) and Choya gunsai (朝野群載 compiled in 1116, expanded in 1135-1141). This praise is also placed in the text of Kokon chomonjū.

"Praise inscription on the portrait of Kakinomoto no Ason Hitomaro: one poem with preface.

The official, clan name Kakinomoto, given name Hitomaro, was truly a poet of ages past. He served at the holy courts of Jitō and Mommu, and entertained Princes Niita and Takechi. In the spring wind of Mount Yoshino, he followed the imperial palanquin and offered congratulations; in the autumn mist of Akashi Bay, he thought of a small boat and let flow his words. Is this not truly the pinnacle of the six styles, and a splendid tale for a myriad generations? Now, due to our respect for his old poems of unfathomable beauty, we would like to pass on a newer-looking picture. Having such feelings, we thus composed this praise inscription. It says:


Sage of Japanese poetry,

Receiving your nature from Heaven

Excelling in that genius,

Your style of poetry is powerful.


In thirty-one characters,

Your flowers of words are fresh as the dew;

For over four hundred years,

They have come down to later ages.


A teacher of this Way,

You were a sage of our land in ancient times.

Although touched by the black earth, your poems are undefiled;

If one tries to cut them, they grow ever harder.


Splendid as phoenix feathers, their like are few,

Rare as the kirin's horn, none may follow them.

Your peerless excellence is already stated;

Who could stand as your equal?




In the morning mist of Akashi Bay

I think of a boat

Going island-hidden.[13]


The story has it that a desk was placed before the portrait and flowers were placed on it. On the desk were placed a bowl of rice, delicacies, and various fish and birds. However, they were made of other things, and were not real. Next a banquet was set out. Then was the first libation to Kakinomoto. The attendants, holding nautilus-shell winecups and small gilded sake flasks, waited on the veranda. The host Akisue deliberated, saying, "The first libation should be performed by a master of poetry." As all attendees were unanimous, Tosiyori Ason got up from the place and approached the portrait. Akisuke took a cup and delivered before Hitomaro's image. Мotosune[14] brought a gilded vessel, filled a cup and delivered on a little table. All returned on the places and drained on a cup"[15].

Later the second delivery followed, everybody listened to glorification, read Kakinomoto-no Hitomaro's compositions.

«Next waka poems were read out. Their topic was "the wind over the water at evening." (水風晩来). Atsumitsu Аson wrote the preface. <...>

On a summer's day at the waterside tower of the Third-ranked Head of the Bureau of Palace Repairs, composed together on the topic of "the wind over the water at evening," one poem with preface.

By Head of the University Atsumitsu

Waka is the main custom of our land. Arising in feelings, it takes form in words; It is written on each thing, and recited on each thing, and is truly the origin of allegory; Long may it depict the beautiful relationship of lord and ministers. Thus, whenever the Head of the Bureau of Palace Repairs has time to spare from his imperial duties, he settles the dew of his words on the six styles of poetry. What matches his perceptive mind is the splendid interest of the flowers and birds and grasses and insects; Those who responded to his invitation are fine men with perfumed robes and good horses. Today's meeting is a result of the convergence of these circumstances.

The garden stream is cold, although it is summer; The cool breeze comes with the evening. How cool it seems as the reed leaves sway; The shoreline haze gradually darkens. The cedar twigs rustle as they move; The moonlight on the sand begins to brighten. Our feelings greatly inspired, we compose a few poems.

Those words are»[16].

That evening Akisue composed such a song:


yufudzuku yo / musubu идзуми mo / nakeredomo / shiga-no ura kaze / suzushikarikeri


Moonlit night,

Even if there is no spring,

From where I will scoop water,

But the wind from the Shiga Bay

Bears cool.


Akisue composed:



mada kijori / aki-no tatsuta-no / kawa kaze-no / suzushiki kure-ni / omoishirarenu


Time has not come,

But as

In twilight

From Tatsuta River cold wind blows,

It is clear - the fall has come.


By the time of eigu in 1118 Akisuke had already begun his poetic career, his first poetry contest occurred in 1116. He really became one of the best poets of his time and gained honor to become the author of the imperial anthology. It was the sixth imperial anthology Shika Wakashu (詞花和歌集), whose compilation was ordered by ex-Emperor Sutoku (1119-64, circa 1123-41), the anthology was compiled from 1144 to 1151.

Many poets admired Akisuke. Legends were made about him, thus Kamo no Chōmei tells how his teacher Shun'e (1113-1191), the son of Toshiyori, said how his father had admired the poem of Akisuke.

The poem of Akisuke Kyo says:


au to mitse / utsutsu-nо kai wa / nakeredomo / hakanaki yume zo / inochi narikeru

I can't


for a meeting in reality,

But in a momentous dream

It gives me life.

Toshiyori Ason spoke about this song with a great feeling: "It seems as if this poem had been ground and polished by a muku [17] leaf. An ordinary person for certain would have read it as the following: utsutsu-no kai wa /nakeredomo / hakanaki yume zo / (I can't/ Hope / For a meeting in reality / But in a momentous dream / It pleases me so much). Who else could have composed like this!"That's what I call glorification".[18]

End of Part I (to be concluded)

Go to Part II

[1] Hyakunin isshu hitoyo gatari (One Evening's Talk: one hundred Japanese waka by one hundred poets). Tokyo, Yuhodo Shoten, 1914.

[2] On Horikawa-in hyakushu subjects - Haruo Shirane. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons. New York, Columbia University Press, 2012, pp. 50-55, 222-223.

[3] Conversations // Кamo-no Chomei: Untitled notes. Conversations with Shōtetsu / tr. М.Тоropygina. St. Petersburg.: Giperion, 2015, p. 205-420. p.322.

[4] Utinabiki - Makurakotoba (fixed epithet) to the word «spring». The first eight imperial anthologies begin like that.

[5] Gappon Hachidaishu (the eight collections) / ed. Kubota Jun and Kawamuta Tetuo.Tokyo: Мiai Shoten, 1986. p.279.

[6] There are two editions of the anthology, here the second is referred to.

[7] Kanefusa - Fujiwara no Kanefusa (1001-1069), by birth was granted the most brilliant career, but failed to success, served mainly in provinces. 15 of his poems are part of anthologies, he organized poetry gatherings and contests.

[8] Personality not identified

[9] Fujiwara Atsumitsu (1063-1144) - prominent Confucian scholar and head of the University (Daigaku no kami).

[10]Fujiwara no Akinaka (1059-1129) - prominent poet. Was part of Horikawa hyakushu together with Akisue.

[11] Jikkinshō (Notes on Ten Lessons) / compiled. Аsami Каzuhiko. Тоkyo Shōgakukan, 1997. p.151-152. (Shinpen nihon koten bungaku zenshū, 51).

[12] Translation into English from Anne Commons. Hitomaro: poet as god. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2009. P.97-98.

[13] Kokon chomonjū. (A Collection of Notable Tales Old and New).Tokyo, Iwanami shoten, 1969, p. 162-163. (Nihon koten bungaku taikei, 84). The end of the glorification has the song the authorship of which is ascribed to Kakinomoto no-Hitomaro. in. М.Тоropygina. Stikhotvorenie vyshej proby. Akashi Bay//Japan. Annual edition 2012. М., «АIRO-ХХI», 2012. p.284-292.

[14] Fujiwara-no Mototsune (dates of life unknown) was the governor of Izumi. He is known to have taken part in poetic tournaments from 1096 to 1134.

[15] Kokon chomonjū. p.163.

[16] Ibid.p.164.

[17] Мuku椋 (мukunoki) - (Latin Aphananthe aspera) is a flowering plant with rough leaves used as sandpaper.

[18] Kamo-no Chomei. Nameless Notes // Kamo-no Chomei: Nameless Notes. Conversations with Shōtetsu / translated by M. Toropygina. SPB.: Giperion, 2015, p. 15-204. P.94.