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.)