Fujiwara no Yoshitaka; A Poet From the Heian Period

The rules of governing a land may not have always been democratic and fair. History has seen many figures work their way to top political ranks by sheer charisma and dynastic tradition. This is especially the case for Japan, especially during its earlier years.

Power: Distributed to A Hierarchy

Depending on which period you look at, Japan’s socio-economic and political system has always been in favor to those who belonged to the upper echelon of their classes. A class that was considered elite during its medieval period used to be the “bushi” or warrior class. Thus, samurais were often exalted and took on leadership roles. 

Because of its ruling bushi class, you could say that Japan’s governing system from the 12th century onwards was militaristic in nature. Before that, however, Japan was ruled by a powerful clan called the Fujiwara clan, who served as regents. Their cultivated connections to the imperial family bolstered their prestige and seat in society, as they made sure that Fujiwara descendants had familial ties to those in the Royal class, often letting their daughters become princesses by marrying whoever was emperor. 

They were unstoppable as they ruled alongside the emperor in the capital, which was Kyoto (then Keian-kyo), and no one could harm a hair on their heads.

パブリック・ドメイン, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=626213

Nakatomi Kamatari, The Founder of the Fujiwara Dynasty

The Fujiwara clan did not become powerful overnight. It took many centuries for them to become as intertwined with the imperial family as they would come to be. Their beginnings root back to one man who lived during the 7th century named Nakatomi Kamatari, also known as Fujiwara Kamatari. He was responsible for helping Emperor Tenji (before he was considered an emperor) beat his rival. For this, Emperor Tenji was very grateful and made Kamatari in charge of different governmental affairs.

The name “Fujiwara” was bestowed upon Kamatari by the emperor the year Kamatari died. Fujiwara was chosen because the location that they had chosen to beat their enemy was supposedly a wisteria plane, which is what Fujiwara means. Since then, the rest of Kamatari’s descendants used the name, with his son Fuhito being the first to do so. Fujiwara Fuhito was also the first to set up his daughter for marriage with Emperor Tenji’s descendant, Emperor Shomu. 

Since then, it almost became tradition for someone of the Fujiwara clan to marry imperial kin. Fuhito also had four sons who would establish the “Hokke” branch of the Fujiwara clan. This branch would go on to become the most prominent and powerful among other branches. One of the descendants of this branch is Fujiwara n Yoshitaka.

By Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Japan, 1797-1861) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who Is Fujiwara No Yoshitaka?

Written in Japanese as “藤原 義孝”, Fujiwara no Yoshitaka was born in the year 954. He was known for writing “waka” poetry, as this was popular in the middle of the Heian period, whose entire length on from year 794 until 1185. A word to describe him, based on his poetry, would be melancholic. You may find a poem of his in the publication “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu”, and in Yoshitaka-shu, which is his personal series of waka poems, or “kashu” (家集).

His father, Fujiwara no Koretada, was also a waka poet, aside from being a politician, statesman, and courtier and later in his life, head of the Hokke branch. Fujiwara no Yoshitaka took after his father’s liking to writing, as his father was deemed conservator of Japanese poetry by Emperor Murakami during the year 951. Koretada produced different literary pieces that would be featured in publications like Ichijo Sessho Gyoshu and Hyakunin Isshu.

Poetry of Fujiwara no Yoshitaka

If you read the “Chokusen wakashu” (勅撰和歌集), also known as chokusenshu (勅撰集), which are anthologies that the Japanese imperial forces commissioned poets to create, you will find poems written by Yoshitaka – 12 of them, to be exact. The entire collection of 21 anthologies is called “Nijuichidaishu” (二十一代集), which in English, is “Collections of the Twenty-One Eras”.

Not only was his work highly regarded by the elites of this period, he would also be a member of a highly acclaimed group of exemplary poets; the Late Classical Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry. These 36 waka poets were chosen by a man named Nori Fujiwara. 

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=164439

An Example of Yoshitaka’s Poetry, Modern-Day Use

After meeting a woman and returning from where they had met, Fujiwara no Yoshitaka wrote a poem. This poem would go on to become part of “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” (小倉百人一首), sometimes called “Hyakushu”. Fujiwara no Teika compiled 100 waka poems written by 100 waka poets to create this specific anthology. 

There is even an adaptation of this anthology that was turned into a very liberal manga called “Choyaku Hyakunin isshu: Uta Koi”, of which Takaiko is a member of the Fujiwara clan, along with Michimasa and Masako and exist as characters.

The following is the original poem, listed as the 50th out of 100 in the original anthology.

“Kimi ga tame / Oshikarazarishi / Inochi sae / Nagaku mogana to / Omoinuru kana”. In English, this is translated to: “Because of you, my love / Even in this life I thought / hardly a thing to hoard / Now I find myself wishing / “Let, oh let it be long!”.

The poem deals with a man who discovers that there is more to life than what he had initially thought after an encounter with a woman. He originally had a glum outlook on life, as he writes, “Even in this life, I thought hardly a thing to hoard”. This states that he didn’t really mind passing away, as not much was worth to bring with him to the afterlife anyway, until the second he realizes that this life has more substance in simply being with this woman, thus his sudden craving for life to be longer.

By Русский: Моронобу, Хишикава (1618?-1694?)Français : Moronobu, Hishikawa (1618-1694 env.)English: Hishikawa, Moronobu, circa 1618-circa 1694中文: 菱川师宣, 约1618-约1694Português: Moronobu, Hishikawa (1618?-1694?)العربية: مورونوبو, هيشيكاوا (1618?-1694?)Español: Moronobu, Hishikawa (circa 1618-1694) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What Is Waka Poetry?

Translated directly, “waka” (和歌) just means “Japanese poem”. It is also known as yamato-uta (大和歌). Until the 8th century, it was used to generally refer to Japanese poetry, and even had categories. One example being a category for short poems, called “tanka” (短歌), and another category for long poems, or “choka” (長歌). There were even other categories beyond this, such as a poem that “repeats the first part” or “sedoka” (旋頭歌), and “Buddha footprint poem” or “bussokusekika” (仏足石歌).

Before waka-style poetry was in, “kanshi”, or Chinese-style poetry, was trendier to the Japanese court. However, that would quickly end during the first bit of the Heian period. This is because ties were cut between China at that time, thus giving the Japanese court no other choice but to create their own form of poetry, even though they took on some patterns of poetry from Chinese influence. They would even have utaawase, which are Japanese “waka matches”, or poetry contests.

Other Aspects of Fujiwara no Yoshitaka’s Life

Aside from writing poetry, Yoshitaka also worked as an “ushosho” (右少将) which is a captain of the right bodyguards. He would later have a son in the year 972 - Yukinari, who would grow to become a famous calligrapher. Sadly, Yoshitaka’s life was cut short at the age of 20, as he passed away due to an epidemic episode of smallpox. Yoshitaka’s twin brother perished along with him in 974, on the exact day as Yoshitaka did. They were both 20 years old.

Actualized on A Woodblock Print

An artist who was alive during the Edo period who goes by the name of Katsushika Hokusai (he also painted Ariwara no Narihira) was very fond of using poems made by ancient poets, and illustrating them on woodblock, while inscribing also the poem itself. This specific piece is called “Poem by Fujiwara no Yoshitaka”, and it is one of many that are compiled in a series he created called “One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse”, which in Japanese is “Hyakuninisshu uba ga etoki”, (百人一首うはかゑとき 藤原義孝).

In the series (this print is #50), the illustration depicts people looking out of a wooden balcony on a river, in what seems to be an onsen, as men can be seen bathing. The steam from the onsen pours out, rises, and fills up what seems to be almost a fifth of the entire illustration.

The poem that is inscribed in the artwork is the same poem as mentioned above, where longs for more time in life to spend with a woman he met. The woodblock print is signed by Saki no Hokusai Manji (前北斎卍). And the markings have a censor’s seal of Kiwame (改印:極). The painting was purchased by William Sturgis Bigelow and was donated to the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts Boston) on August 3, 1911.

Fujiwara no Yoshitaka: One Among Many

The Fujiwara clan was so immense that there are so many other historical figures bearing the same surname. Due to his untimely and early death, Fujiwara no Yoshitaka was never able to experience what would have probably been the life of a regent. He was, however, able to contribute to historical Japanese literature, which was a large part of the Heian period’s artistic expression. 

It was evident when Emperor Go-Sanjo became emperor in 1068 that the Fujiwara clan lost its tight grip on the imperial court. Unlike many of the emperors before him, Emperor Go-Sanjo did not have a mother from the Fujiwara clan.  There was a succession of events that occurred during the middle of the twelfth century leading to this event that would resort to the weakening of this clan. Though they were not as powerful and as many as they were before, descendants of the Fujiwara clan would stay as close advisors, working in the imperial courts for the next 700 years.

The Importance of Learning History

Though Fujiwara no Yoshitaka’s character may seem fleeting compared to other historical identities, learning about his existence is almost as important as learning about major historical characters. Every person adds color to the painting that is history, and though Fujiwara no Yoshitaka’s contribution may have been minimal, his story is still a story to tell. 

Just because someone’s life was not well documented and fully lived does not mean that it does not get a chance at the spotlight. If Fujiwara no Yoshitaka was never spoken about for a minute, one would never get a chance to read his poetry and be moved by this literary treasure. 

By simply reading the poetry of Yoshitaka, one can feel how he truly fell in love with a girl he had spent a short amount of time with. This is a feeling that resonates in the hearts of many (and probably many young Japanese men during the Heian period who did not have a voice to be etched out in history) and is culturally enriching to learn and talk about.