Ki no Tsurayuki: A Famous Poet from the Heian Period

Poems have a way of touching one’s heart and soul. Something about the way the words are composed and combined together makes poems pieces of art. Around the world, there are many forms of poems composed by various artists based on different languages and varying inspirations. In Japan, poetry began hundreds of years ago. It has developed through time by some of the greatest poets known in the history of Japan. One of the most famous poets from the Heian period was none other than Ki no Tsurayuki.

The Biography of Ki no Tsurayuki

Public Domain,

Born in the year 872, Ki no Tsurayuki served as a Japanese author and poet. He was also a courtier during the Heian era. He was a renowned poet and best known as the leading compiler of the first imperial poetic anthology called the Kokin Wakashu. Some people also speculated that Ki no Tsurayuki was the author of the Tosa Diary but this was not verified. He passed away on the 30th of June in the year 945.

Tsurayuki’s father was known as Ki no Mochiyuki. Tsurayuki only became a waka poet in the 890s. He composed short poems inspired by his observations and surroundings. He held a number of offices in Kyoto before he received the appointment of provincial governor of the province of Tosa.

Following this appointment, Tsurayuki stayed in the Tosa Province from the year 930 to the year 935. He was later on assigned the position of provincial governor of the province of Suo. Tsurayuki even held a waka party called Utaai in his Suo residence to celebrate this opportunity.

Ki no Tsurayuki was a celebrated waka poet who was famous across the state. He was also a designated member of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry, as chosen by Fujiwara no Kinto. Under the order of Emperor Daigo, he was selected to be the primary compiler of the Kokin Wakashu, Kokinshu for short, in the year 950. Together with three other well-known poets, they were tasked to compile and create the first imperial poetic anthology.

Tsurayuki also served as one of the editors of the Kokinshu. In addition, he also wrote one of the prefaces of the anthology. The second preface was written in Chinese. Tsurayuki’s preface was the foremost critical essay on waka poetry. His essay consisted of the history and origin of waka. He also described contemporary waka as well as grouped waka into different genres. Included in his preface was his criticism of Ariwara no Narihira, his predecessor.

Because of his great works, Tsurayuki’s waka can also be found in the Hyakunin Isshu. The Hyakunin Isshu is recognized as one of the most important poetry anthologies in Japan. Its compilation dates back to the 13th century, which was already long after the passing of Ki no Tsurayuki. It was compiled by Fujiwara no Teika.

Ki no Tsurayuki: The Supposed Author of the Tosa Diary (Tosa Nikki)

By English: Kanō Tan’yū日本語: 狩野探幽 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Tosa Nikki, also known as the Tosa Diary, was said to have been written by Ki no Tsurayuki. This diary was supposedly written and published anonymously. It provides details of a person’s journey for 55 days in the year 935. The journey was from Kyoto to the province of Tosa, where Tsurayuki served as a provincial governor. The accounts of this journey were written in prose and punctuated by poems.

What sets the Tosa Nikki apart from other diaries was its wording and its impact in Japanese literature. The text is considered the first example of the Japanese diary recognized as literature. Previously, the term “nikki,” which means “diary,” only referred to dry official records of affairs in the government. These records were traditionally written by men in Chinese. However, the Tosa Diary used the Japanese language. It incorporated phonetic kana characters.

During the period when the diary was written, women were only taught the kana literature while the men were taught both kana and Chinese. Because the diary was written in the point of view of a fictitious woman, he was able to avoid incorporating characters or poems from the Chinese language. As a result, the text was able to focus more on the aesthetics and poetry of the Japanese language.

The diary is recognized as an essential piece of literature, as it serves as a model for composition using the native Japanese style. It is also ranked amongst other important Japanese classics in literature. It also signified the substantial development of Japanese literature.

With using the phonetic characters in the Tosa Diary, Tsurayuki wrote the nikki in the perspective of a woman. Being a man himself, he was typically referred to as the third person in the diary. With this work and his preface and poems in the Kokinshu, it is easy to say that Ki no Tsurayuki was considered as one of the greater Japanese writers and poets from the early Heian era.

Leading the Compilation of Kokinshu and Writing Its Preface

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as the Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times, the Kokin Wakashu was the first of the series of imperial poetic anthologies in Japan. It is commonly called Kokinshu for short. The Kokinshu is a compilation of Japanese poems compiled by four well-known poets during the Heian period. Most of the poems in the Kokinshu are of waka.

The concept of creating an imperial anthology was conceived by Emperor Uda. Sadly, he was not able to see it through during his reign. Thankfully, his son Emperor Daigo executed an order to make this concept become a reality. Under his order in the year 905, four renowned poets were put to the task of compiling several waka poems into an anthology.

The leading compiler of the Kokinshu was none other than Ki no Tsurayuki, who also served as a court poet. The other three court poets who helped him in the compilation of waka poems were Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi no Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine. Unfortunately, Ki no Tomonori passed away before the Kokinshu was finally completed.

The Kokin Wakashu was the first anthology in the Nijuichidaishu. The Nijuichidaishu was a series of 21 collections of Japanese poetry that were accumulated under the request of the Imperial court. At the time, the Nijuichidaishu was the most significant development of the ideas of poetry. It also served as a guide on the format of Japanese poetry until the end of the 19th century.

The Kokinshu was divided into two categories. The first category was about the four different seasons, namely, spring, summer, autumn, and spring. The second category was about love. The primacy of the poems in the first category served as the model until today in the haiku tradition.

Tsurayuki was also tasked to write the Japanese preface of the Kokinshu. The second preface was written in the Chinese language. The preface written by Tsurayuki was the start of Japanese criticism that was far different from the Chinese poetics that was more prevalent at the time.

In English, the preface written by Ki no Tsurayuki is called the Japanese preface. This was to distinguish the preface written by Tsurayuki from the Chinese preface called mana-jo written by Ki no Yoshimochi. The Japanese preface was the first poetic criticism written in the style of waka. The preface was also considered the predecessor of the following works of karon.

Another innovation incorporated in the Kokinshu was the concept of including both old and new poems into the compilation. This idea was later on employed in later works of both verse and prose. Though the poems were written in different periods of time, they were arranged in a way that let the readers understand the progression of the poems as well as its fluctuations.

Based on the textual tradition, the exact number of poems compiled in the Kokinshu is different. More or less, the Kokin Wakashu consists of more than a thousand poems, primarily of waka. An online edition centered on a manuscript done by Fujiwara no Teika can be found that consists of 1,111 poems.

The name of the author of every poem in the Kokinshu was included by the compilers. Furthermore, they also included the topic of the poem composed as well as the inspiration behind it (if known). The Kokinshu included several major poets aside from Tsurayuki and the other compilers such as Ariwara no Narihira, Fujiwara no Okikaze, and Ono no Komachi. Being included in the imperial poetic anthologies were considered a privilege as well as an honor.

Some of His Poems Found in Kokin Wakashu

By Kamakura-period artist ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Kokinshu Book I Poem 2, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem on the first day of spring. The poem went, “sode Fidite; musubisi mizu no; koForeru wo; Faru tatu keFu no; kaze ya tokuran.” It translates to, “Once I wet my sleeves; Scooping water; It’s frozen now; On this first day of spring; Will the wind melt it, I wonder?”

In Kokinshu Book I Poem 22, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem on the command of the Emperor. The poem went, “kasuga no no; wakana tumi ni ya; sirotaFe no; sode FuriFaFete; Fito no yukuran.” It translates to, “To the fields of Kasuga; To gather fresh herbs; All in white; Sleeves aflutter; Do the girls go?”

In Kokinshu Book I Poem 42, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem inspired by his host. He used to stay at a certain person’s home every time he traveled to Hatsuse on a pilgrimage. It had been some time since he last visited but upon his visit, his host told him that there would always be a place for Tsurayuki there.

Upon hearing this, Tsurayuki went to a nearby tree and broke a spray of plum blossom. He composed a poem that went, “Fito Fa isa; kokoro mo sirazu; Furusato Fa; Fana zo mukasi no; ka ni nioFikeru.” It translates to, “Of people: one cannot; Know their hearts; But in my home of old; The blossom, with its ancient; Scent perfumes the air.”

In Kokinshu Book II Poem 128, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem inspired by the song of a bush warbler, which he had not heard for quite some time. The poem went, “nakitomuru; Fana si nakereba; uguFisu mo; Fate Fa mono’uku; narinuberanari.” It translates to, “With a song he tried to keep; The blossoms, yet now they’re gone; So the warbler too; At the last, in melancholy; Has sunk, it seems.”

In Kokinshu Book III Poem 156, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem for a poetry contest during the Kanpyo era. This competition was held by the Empress. The poem went, “natu no yo no; Fusu ka to sureba; Fototogisu; naku Fito kowe ni; akuru sinonome.” It translates to, “On a summer night; I wonder if I should go to bed, and then; A cuckoo; Gives a single cry and; Bright dawn breaks.”

In Kokinshu Book IV Poem 232, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem for the Maidenflower Poetry Contest held at the Suzaku Palace. The poem went, “ta ga aki ni; aranu mono yuFe; wominaFesi; nazo iro ni idete; madaki uturoFu.” It translates to, “Alone for you Autumn; Has not come; Maidenflowers; So why do you colour; So swiftly, then fade?”

In Kokinshu Book V Poem 256, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem inspired by the autumn leaves that he saw at Otowayama upon going down to Ishiyama. The poem went, “aki kaze no; Fukinisi Fi yori; wotoFayama; mine no kozuwe mo; irodukinikeri.” It translates to, “The Autumn wind; Blew and since that day; On Otowa Mountain; The tips of the trees on the peak; Have been touched with colour.”

In Kokinshu Book VII Poem 352, Ki no Tsurayuki composed a poem for the folding screen at the back of Prince Motoyasu. This poem was written during the prince’s 70th birthday celebration. The poem went, “aru kureba; yado ni madu saku; mume no Fana; kimi ga titose no; kazasi to zo miru.” It translates to, “When the spring has come; First flowering at my house; The plum blossoms; In your thousandth year; I see you with them in your hair.”