Kokinshu Introduction

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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


(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."