Burning with Longing: Poem 97

Fujiwara no Teika’s gravesite at Shokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At last, faithful readers, we come to the final poem of the Hyakunin Isshu, composed by the anthology’s compiler himself!

こぬ人をKonu hito woFor the man who doesn’t come
まつほの浦のMatsuo no ura noI wait at the Bay of Matsuo—
夕なぎにYunagi niin the evening calm
やくやもしほのYaku ya moshio nowhere they boil seaweed for salt,
身もこがれつつMi mo kogaretsutsuI, too, burn with longing!
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

This poem was composed by Fujiwara no Teika (藤原定家, 1162-1241), or alternatively Fujiwara no Sadaie.1 He is considered one of the greatest poets in all of Japanese history. Teika was the compiler of this Hyakunin Isshu anthology and was also one of the major compilers of the official Shin Kokin Wakashū anthology. As alluded in other posts, his influence and talent and his family’s influence were so great that the family virtually monopolized the Court poetry for centuries to come. But we’ll talk more about that shortly.

Fujiwara no Teika composed many of his own poems in his lifetime, and yet in compiling the Hyakunin Isshu, why did he select this particular poem for inclusion?

Like many of the later poems in the anthology (poem 90, 91 and 94), this poem alludes to a much older one. In Teika’s case, his poem alludes all the way back to the original anthology in Japan, the Manyoshu. Unlike later anthologies, the Manyoshu was a loose connection of poems, compiled 400+ years before Teika, and the particular poem he alludes to was written from the perspective of a man whose love was burning for a woman like the boiling of seaweed at Matsuo Bay. As you can see, Teika reversed the perspective to be that of a woman, while still alluding to the original. Additionally though, Teika gives his poem a sadder tone than the poem from the Manyoshu, which came to be a hallmark of Teika’s style.

Incidentally, Matsuo Bay (written as Matsuho 松帆 here) is on the very northern tip of the famous Awaji Island in the Inland Sea. It is a scenic part of Awaji Island, and even has its own homepage. The technique of extracting salt by boiling seaweed, or moshio (藻塩) is a time-honored tradition in Japan, and the seaweed gives the salt a special flavor. There’s a really good article about it here.

Fujiwara no Teika was a master of expressing yūgen (幽玄) or subtle, profound beauty in his poetry. This kind of subtle beauty centuries later came to influence other arts in time in Japan including Noh theater, tea-ceremony, etc.

But who was Fujiwara no Teika?

He was born from an illustrious family of poets though a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan. His grandfather was Fujiwara no Toshitada and his father was Shunzei (poem 83). As a youth, Teika was a sickly boy but as the eldest son, he was obligated to carry on the family legacy. Unfortunately due to complex court politics, Teika was overlooked for much of his early life. However after a fortunate turn of events, he was noticed by Emperor Go-Toba (poem 99) who eventually commissioned him to compile two new anthologies, including the Shin Kokin Wakashū.

Over time though, Teika and Emperor Gotoba disagreed over poetry and the anthology, leading to an increasingly distant and cold relationship. Teika found Gotoba overbearing, while Gotoba didn’t care for Teika’s free-wheeling style. At times, Teika and Gotoba openly criticized one another through poetry, or in their diary entries, and Gotoba even banished Teika for a year from the capitol. Teika meanwhile grew closer to Gotoba’s son who later became Emperor Juntoku (poem 100), while Gotoba became increasingly occupied with the martial arts, and with wresting power back from the samurai rulers in Kamakura.

Unfortunately for Emperor Gotoba, his meager forces were utterly routed by the Kamakura army in the short-lived Jōkyū War, and Gotoba was sent into exile (since it was sacrilege to kill the Emperor). Teika was not involved in the war, so he remained in Kyoto, and even reached the Imperial post of Middle Counselor. During this time, he also completed another Imperial anthology, the Shin Chokusen Wakashū, which shows more of his down-to-earth later style.

Finally though, his health declined from old age and from the famine at the time, so he retired and took Buddhist tonsure. It was during his final years in a Buddhist monastery that he was invited by his son’s father-in-law, Lord Utsunomiya no Yoritsuna, to his villa at Mount Ogura near Kyoto.

Lord Utsunomiya asked Teika to compile 100 poems in his own hand, so that they could be adorned on the silk screens of his villa, and these 100 eventually became the collection that we know today.

After Teika died at the age of 80, his grandchildren formed into three rival schools of Waka poetry that dominated the poetry scene for centuries:

  • Nijō School (nijō-ha 二条派) – the conservative and dominant school at first. Over time, a series of misfortunes eventually caused the school to decline and fade by the medieval period in Japanese history.
  • Reizei School (reizei-ke 冷泉家) – the more liberal branch, but a few generations later became the dominant branch. By the middle of the Muromachi Period, two branches had formed: the upper Reizei school (kamireizei 上冷泉家) and the lower Reizei school (shimoreizei 下冷泉家), which the upper school prevailing in the long-run. This school still maintains a large compound in Kyoto to this day.
  • Kyōgoku School (kyōgoku-ha 京極派) – this school died out in only a couple generations.

But more importantly, the legacy of Fujiwara no Teika is in his celebrated poetry anthologies, and especially this one. Even today, many kids in Japan enjoy playing uta-garuta in school competitions, and there are even Japanese anime about the Hyakunin Isshu.

And of course readers like yourself. This was a originally a little experiment of mine, but I have enjoyed your readership, your comments, and of course your support. Thank you everyone from the bottom of my heart.

As this is the 100th and final poem of the Hyakunin Isshu, that is all I have to offer on this blog. I may take it up again sometime in the future and cover other anthologies like the Kokinshu and the Shinkokinshu, but for now, I decided that I prefer to leave it as it is.

All good things must come to an end, after all.

1 The Chinese characters (kanji) for his given name have multiple readings possible, and both are seemingly correct. However, based on a cursory glance in Japanese, it seems that “Teika” is the more common reading.

6 responses to “Burning with Longing: Poem 97”

  1. I have enjoyed this immensely. I will endeavor to go back and read the posts I missed. I look forward to reading a new anthology project in the future. Very best to you.

    1. Thanks very much. 🙂

  2. お疲れ様でした!
    I really enjoyed following this blog and it’s a wonderful resource. I have a set of the Hyakuninisshu Karuta so I’ll be using this when I want to look up the background to the poems.
    Thank you!

  3. Thank you! I had this poem as a shodo assignment and was looking for some context – I found it here…

    1. Awesome. Glad you found what you were looking for. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: