Kokinshu Essay - Critical Essays




(Also called Kokin Wakashu.) Japanese poetry.

Considered the epitome of Japanese poetry for a thousand years, the Kokinshu (which loosely translates as "A Collection of Old and New Poems") is an anthology of poems, or waka, from the Heian dynasty, which marked the end of Chinese poetry's domination in Japan. Decreed by order of Emperor Daigo and completed between 905 and 917, the Kokinshu consists of 1,111 poems, almost all of which are in the form of the tanka, or short, 31-syllable poem, composed by 127 poets, selected by Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi no Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine. The poems chosen include selections from the ninth century as well as contemporaneous works, arranged thematically and not in chronological order. They are organized into twenty books with emphasis on the seasons and love. Care was taken in deciding the order of the poems, with sometimes obvious progressions based on the changing seasons, and sometimes subtle transitions based on mood or theme, resulting, as critics have often noted, in a work greater than the sum of its parts. This structure was highly influential on succeeding Japanese poetry and continues to have an impact even to the present day. The Kokinshu also contains two prefaces, one in Chinese and one in Japanese. These are significant for the critical theory they advance regarding the nature of quality poetry. The first of a long series of imperially-commissioned Japanese poetry anthologies, the Kokinshu is unrivaled in its importance and influence.

In the ninth century the Japanese language was out of favor for use in poetry. Japanese poets composed their verses in Chinese, with Japanese compositions viewed as trivial. A new pride in their own nation led Japanese poets to return to the use of their native language in their literary works, although these still remained modeled on Chinese court poetry. Japanese poets displayed their works at new competitions and contests, and other poems were used in public celebrations, inscribed on large portable screens. Ki no Tsurayuki received an imperial commission to act as supervisor of the compilation of what would be the Kokinshu. The most important and most copied of all the poets whose works are represented in the Kokinshu, Tsurayuki is also the author of its Japanese preface. Tsurayuki was joined by three other poets of minor-court rank—Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi no Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine—in selecting the best examples of Japanese poetry and arranging them in the best fashion. The four compilers chose some 243 poems of their own and many anonymous poems. Among the other significant poets included are Ono no Komachi, Ariwara no Narihira, and Oshikochi no Mitsune. The Chinese preface is attributed to Ki no Yoshimochi. In the prefaces, the compilers announce that Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart and proceed to describe the glorious history of Japanese poetry, bemoan its impoverished state in the previous hundred years, describe its six styles, and humbly offer their collection to readers. The emphasis placed on human feelings as subject matter contrasts with popular poems of battles, mythical gods, and didactic works.

As is the case with all translations, particularly of poetry, disagreements abound among scholars as to which version of the Kokinshu is superior. Some favor a gloss of the Japanese, paraphrasing meaning and neglecting the poetics entirely. This extreme choice is not typically made in the case of the Kokinshu, and the translations are rendered in verse. Some translators lean more toward expressing their feelings based on what the original verse spontaneously evokes in them, using the preface's reference to the human heart as support for their interpretation of the original poets' meanings. Other translators favor literal description with additional explanation in footnotes, arguing that the text is more than a thousand years old and commentary is essential to understanding the original authors' intentions.

Critics have long recognized that the chief merit of the Kokinshu is not to be found in its individual poems but in the book as a whole. A particular tanka on love, while fine in and of itself, becomes something richer when it is read as an element of a progression of poems on a love affair, as seen through the words of several different poets. While there is agreement that some poems are outstanding, critics agree that it is the interesting contexts, progressions, and balance that give the Kokinshu its reputation for greatness. Helen Craig McCullough has stated that in following their guidelines, the compilers used "such specific tactics as association by season or other kinds of chronology, by author, by event, by locale, by imagery, by content, by theme, and especially by diction in the broadest sense." Critics have also extolled the compilers' overcoming the challenge of creating an anthology of short verse that does not become wearisome or boring to its readers. Additionally, Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner have praised the contributors to the Kokinshu for their use of new words and new imagery. Scholars agree that the Kokinshu more than fulfilled its purpose of serving as a reference book for future generations of poets: McCullough has stressed that the Kokinshu is "an assertion of national pride and confidence."

Principal English Translations

Early Japanese Poets: Complete Translation of the Kokinshu [translated by T. Wakameda] 1922

The Kokin Waka-Shu: The 10th-Century Anthology Edited by the Imperial Edict [translated by H. H. Honda] 1970

Kokinshu: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern [translated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd with Mary Catherine Henkenius] 1984

Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry [translated by Helen Craig McCullough] 1985


Ichiro Kobayashi (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: An introduction to Early Japanese Poets: Complete Translation of the "Kokinshu," by T. Wakameda, The Eastern Press Ltd., 1922, pp. xi-xvi.

[In his introduction (written in 1921) to the Wakameda translation of the Kokinshu, Kobayashi advances several reasons why shorter Japanese poems, such as those found in the Kokinshu, became far more popular than longer forms of verse.]

The Kokinshu or Poems Ancient and Modern was published as is seen in its Preface, in the fifth year of Yengi in the reign of the Emperor Daigo, viz., in the year 905 A.D., and fifteen years after the founding of Oxford University. This collection of one thousand poems was selected from those which had been composed during a period of two hundred years after the beginning of the Nara period, with the intention of showing models to those who wished to compose verses. It was edited by order of the Emperor Daigo, the Editors being four of the greatest poets of that day. They were Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Ochikochi no Mitsune and Mibu no Tadamine. This was the first time that Japanese poems were edited by order of an emperor; and in the course of three hundred years from this time down to the first stage of the Kamakura period such work was often undertaken. Of all these four poets, the most excellent was Ochikochi no Mitsune, but the most learned and highest in position was Ki no Tsurayuki. He became chief Editor and wrote the Preface to this collection. In addition, another Preface was written in Chinese by Ki no Yoshimochi, but being nothing but a translation of Tsurayuki's Preface, it was not important.

The first collection of typical poems in Japan is the Manyoshui, which appeared towards the close of the Nara period; and the Kokinshu is the second in age. The Manyoshiu exhibits the features of the verse in the Nara period whilst the characteristics of the poetry in the Heian period are clearly shown in the Kokinshu. Most of the Manyoshiu poems are simple in diction and express the thoughts direct from both heart and mind, while the Kokinshu poems are generally elegant and graceful in thought. Though the Kokinshu contains some of the poems composed in the Nara period, yet they do not signify the features of that day. This is not surprising for the Kokinshu was originally intended to show models to those who wished to compose verses. There have been many changes in the methods of composing Japanese poetry since these days; but generally speaking, the Kokinshu had been looked upon as a model collection of poems for hundreds of years. Therefore it is most important for those who wish to know Japanese poetry.

The Emperor Daigo was an excellent versifier—nay, and many other Japanese Emperors excelled in poetry. Before founding the capital at Kashiwara, the first Emperor Jimmu subjugated the natives in the neighbourhood: on that occasion he himself composed a song with which he encouraged his men. This poem is mentioned in the ancient history of Japan and handed down to posterity. (It may be called an old song, for it was composed in 662 B.C.) Many of the other emperors, the princes and the court officials composed poetry. And there were some peasants and huntsmen who were fond of composing verse. In such ancient days, of course, they used no special art in making poems, but sang what they actually thought. So these poems have little or no poetical merit, but the elegancy of national spirits can be traced up to such an ancient age. In days of yore, there was little strict distinction between the high and low. Some emperors were of so plebeian taste that when they went out hunting they often talked in verse with peasants. When Chinese learning was imported in abundance and people imitated Chinese institutions troublesome ceremonies arose by degrees and the distinction between the high and low began to assert itself. In the Heian period the emperors and court officials were called "kumo-no-uwabito" or "men above clouds." This was contrary to the intrinsic national traits of Japan, which were simplicity and homeliness, with both of which the emperors treated their people generally. These good qualities later revived among the samurai: the so-called spirit of the samurai was merely the revival of the national traits of the Japanese nation. It will be most interesting to study these national traits by means of Japanese poetry.

The art of composing poetry gradually made progress age after age, until at last many true poets appeared in the Nara period. While the capital of Nara was growing prosperous, art and literature were making great progress; whilst amidst the beautiful fields and mountains splendid...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)

Jin'ichi Konishi (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Association and Progression: Principles of Integration in Anthologies and Sequences of Japanese Court Poetry, A.D. 900-1350," translated by Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 21, December, 1958, pp. 67-127.

[In the following excerpt, Konishi demonstrates that poems in the Shinkokinshu were inspired by and developed from poetry in the Kokinshu.]

… The meaning of the title, Shinkokinshū, is "New Anthology of Poems Ancient and Modern"—in other words, the "New Kokinshū." In> giving their anthology this name, the compilers were consciously expressing a neoclassical ideal and were specifying the...

(The entire section is 11313 words.)

E. B. Ceadel (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "The Two Prefaces of The Kokinshu," Asia Major, Vol. VII, No. I & 2, 1959, pp. 40-51.

[In the following excerpt, Ceadel contends that the Chinese preface to the Kokinshu predates the Japanese one, and offers internal evidence from the prefaces themselves to support his claim.]

The Japanese poetic anthology the Kokin wakashū, from which Dr. Waley translated thirty-five poems in his book Japanese Poetry, the "Uta" (Oxford, 1919) was compiled as a result of an Imperial order of 905 A.D. by Ki no Tomonori, Ki no Tsurayuki, Ōshikōchi no Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine. Of these four poets, Ki no Tsurayuki undoubtedly took the largest part...

(The entire section is 5058 words.)

Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Poetic Practice" and "Consolidations, New Developments, and Decline" in Japanese Court Poetry, Stanford University Press, 1961, pp. 198-220.

[In the following excerpt, Brower and Miner discuss the diction. rhetorical techniques, syntax, subjects, themes, and tone of the Kokinshu.]

Poetic Language and Imagery

The different conventional modes illustrate the complex adjustment of personal response to social environment which is basic to the age. One will fail to understand either the good or the inferior poetry of the period unless one realizes that it produced poem after poem which was at once personal and conventional—or...

(The entire section is 14875 words.)

John Timothy Wixted (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Kokinshu Prefaces: Another Perspective," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1983, pp. 215-38.

[In the following essay, Wixted explains how the prefaces to the Kokinshu, while largely modeled on those of earlier Chinese works, affirm a new value attributed to Japanese poetry.]

Literary anthologies are compiled for a variety of ends.1 They can be made for pragmatic / didactic purposes, as was the Shih ching (Classic of Songs); for the sheer diversionary pleasure of the material, as was the Yüt' ai hsin-yung (New Songs from the Jade Tower); or for a more complex mix of motives. The compilation of the...

(The entire section is 10664 words.)

Helen Craig McCullough (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Kokinshu as Literary Entity" in Brocade by Night: "Kokin Wakashu" and the Court Style in Japanese Classical Poetry, Stanford University Press, 1985, pp. 421-93.

[In the following excerpt taken from her important critical work on the Kokinshu, McCullough reviews all the books that comprise the anthology, particularly their topics, transitions, and arrangement.]


Tsurayuki and his colleagues undoubtedly viewed their imperial commission as a mandate to advance beyond the modest accomplishments of their immediate predecessors, the compilers of Kudai waka and Shinsen man-'yōshū. As we have...

(The entire section is 23920 words.)

Edwin A. Cranston (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "A Web in the Air," Monumenta Nipponica: Studies in Japanese Culture, Vol. 43, No.3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 332-52.

[In the following excerpt, Cranston evaluates McCullough's translation of the Kokinshu and directly compares some of her versions of particular poems with those of other translators.]

… People who have practiced translation, especially poetic translation, tend to have strong opinions on the subject; others couldn't care less. I belong to the former category. Miller, pp. 758-59, makes it clear that he regards literary scholarship and translation as sciences. I do not. Not at least in the sense 'science' has acquired since it came to be applied...

(The entire section is 5975 words.)

Further Reading

Cranston, Edwin A. "The Dark Path: Images of Longing in Japanese Love Poetry." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 35 (1975): 60-100.

Reviews dozens of examples of Japanese love poetry and its prevailing imagery.

Harper, T. J. "Norinaga on the Translation of Waka: His Preface to A Kokinshu Telescope." In The Distant Isle. Studies and Translations of Japanese Literature in Honor of Robert H. Brower, pp. 205-30, edited by Thomas Hare, Robert Borgen, and Sharalyn Orbaugh. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1996.

Reprints and discusses Motoori Norinaga's preface (much of it in Japanese) to his A Kokinshu...

(The entire section is 282 words.)