Ki no Turayuki - The Father of Japanese Poetry

Tsurayuki as portrayed by Kikuchi Ysai
Tsurayuki as portrayed by Kikuchi Ysai | Source

A Short Overview

Ki no Turayuki (紀貫之), born as Akokuso(阿古屎) some time between 866 and 872 was a Japanese poet, essayist and courtier of the Heian Period. His exact date of birth is unknown, though he died in 945. He is one of the 36 Poetry Immortals (三重六歌仙, sañzyuurokkaseñ) as appointed by Fuziwara No Kiñto. He is considered the father of Japanese poetry and literature in general, mostly owing to his preface to the Kokiñ Wakasyuu (古今和歌集) which was the first critical essay on waka ever written. He also exerted influence on the then upcoming women's literature (女流文学, zyoryuubuñgaku) with the Tosa Nikki (土佐日記) which he wrote entirely in Kana, a practice which was only followed by the women of that time.

Turayuki the Poet

Turayuki became a waka poet in the 890s . He must have been very talented, because he was asked by Emperor Daigo to help compile the Kokiñ Wakasyuu in 905 along with Ki no Tomonori (who died before it was finished), Oosikooti Mitune and Mibu no Tadamine. It was his work on this first official compilation of japanese poetry that helped Turayuki rise to greatness; afterwards he came to be one of the most (if not the most) sought after poets of his time. Everyone, regardless of social standing inquired him to write a poem, oftentimes to accompany a picture on a sliding screen (襖, fusuma). When former Emperor Uda visited lake Oigawa in 907, Turayuki dedicated 9 poems on 9 topics to him. In 913 he participated in an Uta-Awase (Poetry Contest) in Teiizin. It was also during this time that he became friends with Fuziwara No Kanesuke (another one of the sañzyuurokkaseñ) and his cousin Sadakata. Between 930-935, during his time in Tosa, he compiled the Shiñseñ Wakasyuu, again under imperial order. When he came back from Tosa in 936 his popularity had decreased somewhat, but nevertheless, his achievements and prestige were enough to elevate him to almost godlike status in the world of japanese literature in general and poetry in particular. His poems have been preserved in two private collections titled “Turayukisyuu” by unknown hands and one is included in the Ogura Hyakuniñ Issyu.

Turayuki the Courtier

At the time of his birth, Turayuki's family has already lost almost all importance in the world of politics, and Turayuki himself was struck by the same fate. He was mainly appointed to do oddjobs and never gained any political prestige in his lifetime. In 917 he was granted the rank of 従五位下 ( zyuugoige; Junior 5th Rank, Lower Grade),one of the lowest ranks attainable by a man of his occupation. During his lifetime he was only promoted once, to Zyugoizyoo ( 従五位上 ; Junior 5th Rank, Upper Grade) in 943; but roughly 950 years later, in 1904, he was posthumously elevated to zyuuni(従二位; Senior 2nd Rank). Among his several occupations were being a member of the Nakatsukasasyoo (中務省; Ministry of Central Affairs), working in the Geñbaryoo (玄蕃寮; Bureau of Buddhism and Aliens) in 940 and being appointed Mokunogoñnokami (木権守; Head of Palace Repairs) in 945, probably the last occupation he filled before his death. The most notable position he was appointed though was Provincial Governor of Tosa in 930. From a political standpoint this was nothing special or even positive; Being sent away from the capital (the center of politics) implied a certain sense of unimportance. But it was this stay in Tosa that later led Turayuki to write the Tosa Nikki.

Turayuki and the Tosa Nikki

The Tosa Nikki was written by Turayuki shortly after his return from Tosa, around 935. It is the first example of nikkibuñgaku (日記文学, “Diary-Literature”). It gives an account of his travel back to the capital after his service as governor of Tosa, spanning the time from 21.12.934 to 16.2.935. Since at the time it wasn't deemed appropriate for a man to write such “trivial” literature, especially not using Kana,  Turayuki decided to impersonate a woman who supposedly accompanied him on his travels. It contains 57 tañka of various style, complexity and quality, a fact that has sparked some discussion among scholars. Some say that by the time the Tosa Nikki was written Turayuki was losing his edge, and as such resorted to more simplistic poems. Others say he wanted to create a “collection” of the different styles and levels of poetry written in his time; This theory makes more sense because the poems in the nikki are (supposedly) composed by different persons of various social stands, therefore explaining (and maybe even sanctioning) the differing quality of poems. One recurring topic is the mourning of the death of Turayuki's daughter in Tosa, of which no more details are known.

A page of the Tosa Nikki, as copied by Fujiwara no Teika
A page of the Tosa Nikki, as copied by Fujiwara no Teika | Source

Turayuki the Man

Very little is known about his private life. He had a wife and at least two children, one unnamed daughter (whose death was a recurring topic in the Tosa Nikki) and one Son, namely Ki no Tokibumi, who also became a poet, albeit not as recognized as his father. Turayuki's own Father, Motiyuki, was also a poet. Turayuki's residence in the capital was located in 平安京左京一条四坊十二町 (Heian-Kyo, Left Part, First Road, Temple Area 6, 2. Quarter). Since he had many cherry trees in his garden it is reported he called it Sakura-Mati (桜町, “City of Cherry Blossoms”).

Turayuki and the Kokiñsyuu

In 905, Turayuki was asked by Emperor Daigo to help compile the Kokiñ Wakasyuu, the first
collection of japanese poetry compiled under imperial order., as envisioned by former emperor Uda. Turayuki worked together with Ki No Tomonori, Oosikooti Mitune and Mibu No Tadamine, and although their respective roles in the compilation can not be specified anymore, it is probably safe to say that Turayuki was the leading spirit behind the effort, seeing as most of the poems included were written by him. It is also unclear when the Kokiñ Wakasyuu (or Kokiñsyuu for short) was finished; the last of the ca. 1111 poems is said to have been added at some point between 914 and 920. Turayuki wrote one of the two prefaces to the compilation, the first critical essay on waka ever written, which established him as the “father” of all japanese poetry. The introductory part goes like this:

“The seeds of Japanese poetry lie in the human heart and grow into leaves of ten thousand words. Many things happen to the people of this world, and all that they think and feel is given expression in description of things they see and hear. When we hear the warbling of the mountain thrush in the blossoms or the voice of the frog in the water, we know every living being has its song.” (Kokinshū 35)

These words, defining poetry as a strictly natural, affective act, are seen as the essence and foundation of Japanese poetry even to this day and differ severely from how the English poets defined their craft several centuries later. It was this insight and understanding of the human nature which differentiated Turayuki from his contemporaries and lifted him from merely being a gifted poet to being regarded as probably the most important contributor to Japanese poetry of all time.

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campbelldan 4 years ago

Very informative.

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