Fujiwara no Teika Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Fujiwara no Teika 1162-1241

(Also Fujiwara no Sadaie) Japanese poet, anthologist, critic, and diarist.

Recognized as a seminal figure in classical Japanese literature, the poet and critic Fujiwara Teika presided over the Shinkokin Jidai, a pivotal half-century literary period of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Regarded as a high point of innovation and renewal in Japanese poetry, this era takes its name from the Shinkokinshū (c. 1204), the eighth and by many accounts finest imperial anthology of Japanese verse, compiled in part by Teika. As a poet, Teika composed works almost exclusively in the waka, the dominant lyrical form of the Japanese classical period, a five-line poem consisting of thirty-one syllables, arranged in measures of five syllables, then seven, five, seven, and seven. An acknowledged master of honkadori (“allusive variation”), Teika perfected this technique of adapting the ideas, imagery, and phraseology of recognizable poems of the past, and integrating them into his own verse, while simultaneously harmonizing and contrasting the sense of old and new. His often experimental writing, noted for its sense of emotional detachment, evocative yōen (“ethereal beauty”) style, and authoritative conviction (ushin), is considered among the most influential in the Japanese tradition. Admired for his originality in the composition of practical and theoretical works, Teika was a key arbiter of poetic taste in medieval Japan and the sole editor of the nation's ninth imperial anthology. Teika is also popularly acclaimed for his collection Ogura hyakunin isshu (c. 1235; The Little Treasury of One Hundred People, One Poem Each), which is the source of a well-known Japanese literary card game still played during New Year's celebrations in contemporary Japan.

Biographical Information

A member of the influential Fujiwara clan, Teika belonged to the Mikohidari branch of this aristocratic family whose members were part of a long literary tradition, enjoyed multitudinous links to the Japanese imperial court, and were notorious for their affinity for political intrigue. Born to the renowned poet and courtier Fujiwara no Shunzei in 1162, Teika was inspired by the talents and prestigious position of his father, among whose achievements was the compilation of the seventh imperial verse anthology, the Senzaishu, or “Collection of a Thousand Years.” In his youth, Teika heeded Shunzei's urging to devote himself to a literary career. His earliest published verse appeared in Wakeikazuchi no yashiro uta-awase (1178), a compilation of works written for the poetry contest (uta-uwase) of the same name, which gathered talented young versifiers and was judged by Shunzei himself. In 1180 Teika began composition of a literary diary, his Meigetsuki (“Chronicle of the Bright Moon”); he would continue to add entries and edit the work until about 1235. Advised by Shunzei in his fledgling literary pursuits, Teika completed his first hundred-poem sequence, Shogaku hyakushu, in 1181. Teika married twice. His first marriage in 1183 dissolved within a decade for reasons that remain unclear. During this time Teika continued to compose collaborative poem sequences and also judged his first poetry contest, the Miyagawa uta-awase, in the late 1180s. By 1189 Teika had received formal recognition of his place in the court of Emperor Go-Toba, his principal patron for the next three decades. Meanwhile, Teika continued his productive association with the so-called Kujō-Mikohidari poets, a literary coterie of young writers that included such noted versifiers as the Tendai abbot Jien, Kujō Yoshitsune, and Fujiwara no Ietaka. Teika's connection with the group would culminate in 1193 with his contributions to the Roppayakuban uta-awase, a sizable and decisive contest that pitted Teika's innovative poetics against the more established and traditional works of his conservative contemporaries, the Rokujō poets, and brought Teika unprecedented attention as a writer. Teika remarried in 1194, this time to the daughter of a palace minister, also of the Fujiwara clan. The union produced a son, Tameie, born in 1198. That year also witnessed the abdication of Emperor Go-Toba, a move that did little to prevent Teika's patron from his continued engagement in political and poetic matters. The relationship between the haughty Teika and dilettantish Go-Toba remained volatile for years, with the ex-emperor forcing the poet to accompany him on far-flung and expensive excursions throughout Japan that sapped Teika's patience, health, and finances. After withstanding a series of disappointing conflicts with Go-Toba, Teika was commissioned to contribute to the esteemed Shōji hyakushu (1200). Go-Toba subsequently named him one of twelve members of the newly formed imperial poetry bureau or wakadokoro and one of six compilers of the Shinkokinshū, the esteemed eighth imperial anthology of classical Japanese verse. Thereafter, Teika became the personal tutor of both Go-Toba's son, Emperor Juntoku, and Shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo, leader of Japan's military government (bakufu) centered at Kamakura. Teika's outstanding early critical work, the Kindai shūka (1209; Superior Poems of Our Time), was written at this time to instruct the Shogun in the art of poetic composition. The poet's growing mastery of his literary talents was subsequently featured in his personal collection, Shūi gusō (1216), a work whose title means “Gleanings of Worthless Grasses.” The poet continued to write well into his later years. In 1220 Teika underwent a final break with Go-Toba when the ex-emperor forbade him to engage in his duties as court poet. This sanction, however, was relatively short-lived as the defeat of imperial forces by the samurai warriors of the bakufu in the 1221 Jōkyu Rebellion forced Go-Toba and his son Juntoku into exile. A new emperor, Go-Horikawa, was named, replacing Teika's former patron. Strong family connections and an alliance with the Kamakura government served Teika well in the ensuing period. Elevated in rank by Go-Horikawa, Teika was afforded the enviable opportunity of compiling the new imperial anthology, the Shinchokusenshū, a project he undertook in 1230 and completed approximately four years later. Despite advancing age and decades of poor health, Teika continued to compose poetry well into the 1230s while grooming his son Tameie as his poetic successor. The crowning achievement of this period was his compilation of The Little Treasury of One Hundred People, One Poem Each. Teika's death in 1241 did nothing to diminish his renown, which continued to grow well into the subsequent eras of Japanese literary history.

Textual History

Due to their long-recognized and enduring influence on Japanese literature, Teika's writings have been extensively preserved and codified by scholars from the medieval era to the present. Major difficulties for modern scholars, however, arose in the centuries after his death as spurious works were fabricated and ascribed to Teika by his descendants eager to promulgate and share in his unprecedented fame and authority. In the contemporary era, the standard critical edition of Teika's collected writings is the comprehensively annotated, two-volume Japanese edition Yakuchu Fujiwara no Teika zenkashu (1987), edited by Kubota Jun. Interest in Teika outside of Japan since the nineteenth century has prompted foreign language translations and critical commentary on his writings, including English versions and scholarly analysis of his Superior Poems of Our Time and representative poetic works.

Major Works

Teika's writings can be divided into three general categories: original works of poetry and poetic sequences, anthologies and critical pieces, and literary prose, including a diary and a lengthy romantic tale. Among his poetic works, the waka pieces of Shogaku hyakushu are typically viewed as apprentice efforts composed under the stylistic influence of Shunzei. Intimations of Teika's developing individual style began to appear with his poetic contributions to Futaminoura hyakushu (1186), a collaborative collection that suggests a future break with Shunzei's lyricism and his poetic principle of yūgen (“mystery and depth”) in favor of the yōen style characterized by its evocative symbolic language and haunting imagery. Shōji hyakushu (1200; Hundred-Poem Sequence of the Shōji Era) reflects Teika's broad and effective use of allusive variation (honkadori) to fashion innovative works of poetry from the raw material of so-called foundation poems, familiar pieces of the past that constituted the Japanese literary tradition in verse. Teika first collected his original poetry in the 1216 edition of Shūi gusō, a work that in its expanded 1233 final version comprised over 3,500 waka. The collection prominently features the two main subjects of Teika's poetic oeuvre—love and seasonal poems—along with elegies, occasional and congratulatory verse, travel poems, and pieces on other mixed or miscellaneous topics. The Shūi gusō also marks a shift from Teika's youthful romanticism to an immediate, observational style that nevertheless eschews the limitations of personal subjectivity. Scholars observe numerous affinities between Teika's poetic anthologies and theoretical writings, which were often crafted for similar ends. A principal example of this tendency appears in Superior Poems of Our Time, a short treatise on poetry together with a relatively lengthy poetic sequence illustrating Teika's aesthetic theories through representative works of classical Japanese verse. The volume also includes a brief history of the waka from its origins in pre-Heian Japan, along with guidelines on the proper use of allusion, diction, imagery, and poetic themes. The eighty-three poems by thirty-seven poets whom Teika selected for this handbook range in age from the late seventh century to his own time and were intended as models in the proper use of emotion, subject matter, and formal poetic construction. With his Maigetsushō (1219), Teika composed his most comprehensive critical treatise, a work that builds upon some of the ideas adumbrated in his Superior Poems of Our Time. Taking the form of a letter addressed to one of his students, Maigetsushō first warns against excessive reliance on archaic style, then goes on to list the ten fundamental poetic styles, each with instructive or evocative titles (for example, the “demon-quelling style”). The treatise also details the poet's centralizing ideal of ushin, or “conviction of feeling,” describes the impact of breaking traditional poetic patterns, and provides further formulations necessary for the achievement of distinction in verse. Other critical works by Teika include Eiga no taigai (c. 1221), which contains an illustrative poetic sequence similar to that of Kindai shūka (1209), and Genji monogatari okuiri (c. 1235), a commentary on the seminal Japanese proto-novel Genji monogatari (c. 1010; Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu. Among Teika's other prose works, Matsura no miya monogatari (c. 1190; The Tale of Matsura) is an early experimental departure from Teika's otherwise lifelong theoretical and practical concentration on poetry. A fictional tale centered on the romantic hero Ujitada, The Tale of Matsura is set in Japan and China prior to the establishment of permanent Japanese capital cities at Nara and later Kyoto in the eighth century. Originally written in three volumes (or, more accurately, on three scrolls), the tale features elements of fantasy and the supernatural and unfolds before a backdrop of war and succession in early medieval east Asia. After a series of harrowing adventures in China, its Japanese hero returns to his native land where he marries a magically revived princess he has long since loved and lost. A work of romance, The Tale of Matsura was first attributed to Teika in the late modern period. In another prose work that he revised steadily throughout his life, the diary he called Meigetsuki, Teika recalls his poetic apprenticeship and sorrow upon facing the deaths of his father in 1204 and of his friend and fellow poet Yoshitsune two years later. The journal additionally records his difficult relationship with Emperor Go-Toba and Teika's self-imposed emotional isolation necessitated by his indefatigable devotion to excellence in matters of poetic composition and aesthetics.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Teika's personal reputation suffered from reports of his arrogant, uncompromising, and contentious manner. His long, sometimes submerged feud with ex-emperor Go-Toba, detailed in his Meigetsuki, is considered a prime example of Teika's haughty defiance toward what he perceived as inferior aesthetic taste. Scholars have observed that these apparent flaws of character nevertheless served Teika effectively throughout his literary career. In response to some of Teika's more experimental works, contemporary poetic rivals denigrated his verse as Darumauta (“poems of Zen gibberish”), referring to the often inscrutable maxims and stories of the Daruma, a Zen Buddhist sect. Such disparagement was largely ineffectual, however, and Teika ascended to become the supreme arbiter of Japanese poetic doctrine in his later years. Within a few generations, Teika, in the words of Robert H. Brower, had “been virtually deified by his descendents, who cast his influence over the entire course of classical poetry for more than six hundred years after his death.” Teika also became a figure of Japanese literary lore. Legends of his life were disseminated, including the story of his unlikely romantic involvement with the daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa, which forms the narrative core of the fifteenth-century Nō drama Teika. Teika's poetry was widely admired and imitated in the ensuing centuries, while his Superior Poems of Our Time and other critical writings were praised for their consummate skill and insight. Despite a rather precipitous drop in Teika's formerly unassailable literary reputation during the Edo period and into the twentieth century, his writings continue to draw the attention of contemporary scholars in Japan and elsewhere. Detractors observe that the lingering value of the Superior Poems of Our Time and similar works is principally historical and biographical, reflecting Teika's personal tastes rather than a substantial advance in the theory of poetic composition. Nevertheless, many modern critics have urged that with his anthologies Teika succeeded in producing new and unique works of literature, each possessing their own fully integrated literary merit, thus reinvigorating the staid tradition of waka verse in the early thirteenth century. Overall, Teika's significance to the development of classical Japanese poetic tradition remains beyond question, and his influence is unsurpassed by that of any other poet of pre-modern Japan.