Fujiwara No Kinto: One of the Greatest Japanese Poets of All Time

Early Life and Family of Fujiwara no Kinto

Fujiwara no Kinto is the son of regent Fujiwara no Yoritada who was regent to Emperor Kazan. He came from a wealthy, powerful, and influential family and he is brought up to become a scholar and a politician. Despite that, he did not let his status in life get in the way of his ambitions to become an important poet.

He lived in the Heian period, a time when art and literature became an important part of everyday Japanese life. It is believed that these years were the peak of Japanese art and literature. It was the time when religious influences were highest, almost everyone of importance wrote poetry and prose. Also, it was a time when many individuals divulged themselves into art.

By Hannah [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Fujiwara no Kinto has reached such achievements that his thoughts on his contemporaries’ works are considered vital for their improvement. Aspiring poets actually use most of his compilations as study guides on how to effectively write poetry about specific thoughts and topics. Kinto has been given a special state or stature in the poetic realm, equalling to other famous writers like Minamoto no Kanezumi.

The Fujiwara Clan

Kinto was a part of the powerful Fujiwara clan who, in history, is known to have intense political influence and power during the Heian period. This particular family was chosen as personal advisers to the throne, working right next to the Emperor himself. In fact, the father of Fujiwara no Kinto was a Chief adviser (or a regent) to the emperor during Kinto’s birth.

The Fujiwara clan is believed to have originated from an ancient kami which is why they are spiritually chosen as compatible partners of the royal family. Intermarriages between the royal family and the Fujiwara clan was common. Princesses marry family heads or leaders while Emperors marry daughters from the Fujiwara clan. However, in history, their family was founded in the early 6th century when Emperor Tenji awarded Nakatomi no Kamatari the honorific of Fujiwara. Since then, his descendants had carried his name throughout history. For centuries, and pretty much all of the Heian period, the Fujiwara clan is considered as one of the most powerful families in the country.

His ancestry proves Kinto’s right to power and influence. However, even though he was a politician himself, he made his fame through his impressive works. And it is through this that he had caught the attention of his contemporaries and even the emperor who would later on give him impressive responsibilities no other poet ever received in life.

This is why many of the poetic influences at the time were written by artists and writers from the family. Interestingly as well, many members of the clan are artists, poets, writers, and scholars. They make up the majority of poetry collections and immortal lists at the time.

Fujiwara no Kinto as a Poet

He is a regular participant of what is known as an utaawase or poetry competition announced by the court. He started writing poetry at the young age of 19 and has since improved to become one of the most legendary poets in all of Japan. Throughout his life, he was given responsibilities to compile not only poetry but also a list of individuals who would be given honor by the Imperial court for writing impressive works about intricate ideologies. Despite all this responsibility, it does not mean that he has ceased to create works of his own. Some of his popular works include:

By Fujiwara no Kintō (self-scanned from museum brochure) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shui Wakashu

Also known as the Shuishu, this particular collection of poetry is one of the most used in learning Japanese literature. This features the works of many ancient waka poets who write in different styles and techniques. This specific collection has a total of twenty books or volumes.

Each version has a specific topic or idea. Books one through four focus on poems written about seasons. Book three is about autumn poems clearly describing the beauty of nature during November.  Book two is about poems describing the refreshing beauty of summer in July. Book five is about felicitations, the wonder and awe of humans on unexpected things. Book six is about partings where authors focus on sadness, longing, loneliness, and unwanted goodbyes. Book ten focuses on sacred poems written by monks, priests, and preachers. Books 11 through 15 are poems written about love. Book twenty is about lamentation. Privacy and peace were common thoughts during this period.

All in all, there are about 1,300 poems in the total of twenty books most of which are written by waka poets or classical Japanese writers. Popular poets in this collection include Taira no Kanemori, Minamoto No Shitago, Emperor Murakami, and more. Tsurayuki has a total of 113 poems and Kakinomoto no Hitomaro has a total of 104.

Fujiwara no Kinto, the legendary poet responsible for compiling the entire collection included 15 of his works in the twenty books. This compilation of works has bumped up his life into stardom and it is through this that he had become an acclaimed poetry critic.

Wakan Roeishu

Also known as the collection of Japanese and Chinese Poems for Singing, this is literally a collection of poems written in the Chinese language by Japanese writers. These kinds of poems are known as Kanshi, in contrast to the waka which are poems written in the Japanese language by Japanese writers. There was a time in Japanese history when writing in the Chinese language was more valued by literary scholars and artists. It took centuries before scholars and writers chose to write in their Japanese vernacular.

This particular set of books were compiled by Fujiwara no Kinto in the early 10th century and it includes a total of no less than 500 articles and poems. However, unlike other anthologies he compiled, the Wakan Roeishu included about 30 Chinese poets like the popular Xu Hun and Yuan Zhen. There are a total of 50 Japanese poets including Oshikochi Mitsune, Kakinomoto no Hitomoro, and more.

By Fujiwara no Koreyuki (Kyoto National Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first book included in the anthology is known as the ‘Seasonal Poems’ book which includes poems relating life and love to seasons. This is very common in Japanese literature since many of the ideologies and thoughts of scholars are taken from nature. The correlation between nature and life is very vital in the daily lives of the Japanese society.

The second book is known as the Miscellanea because it includes articles and poems about a variety of different topics. The book also has a section which focuses on ‘common topics’ with which Fujiwara no Kinto has alternated Kanshi and Waka poetry effectively (on the same subject).

The Collection of Gold and Jewels

Also known as the Kingyoku Shu, or Golden beads, this is one of the most historically important collections Fujiwara no Kinto has compiled. It is said that he had used this compilation to describe to the world (readers, listeners, and poets alike) what good tanka should be. Each verse or poetry is known as a golden bead or a jewel because each is a rare piece of literature that must be given timeless recognition.

Hyakunin Isshu Poem 55

Among the most popular collections of classical poems throughout Japan’s history would be the Hyakunin Isshu. Ideally, this collection consists of a hundred different works from a hundred different authors. It is a type of anthology which was arranged by Fujiwara no Teika in the early 1200s. The most popular kind of Hyakunin Isshu would be the Ogura Hyakuni Isshu. It is also known as “A Hundred Verses from Old Japan”. They are not really just poetry but these are wisdom that came from important individuals of Japan.

Many of the works were not written by poets, instead, they are written by scholars, politicians, monks, Emperors, Empresses, courtesans, and more. Among the famous individuals included in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu would be Emperor Tenchi who owns Poem number 1, Empress Jitou for having written poem 2, and even Emperor Juntoku who wrote the 100th poem.

One of his most important works would be the Hyakunin Isshu Poem 55 of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. The poem goes:

Though the waterfall

Ceased its flowing long ago,

And its sound is stilled,

Yet, in name, it ever flows,

And in fame may yet be heard

There are many different interpretations of this poem. However, the most basic understanding of this verse would be that a person’s good works and achievements will live beyond his or her life. That even though the person has ceased to exist, like the waterfall that ceased flowing, in name the person will live immortally. There will always be the memory of good deeds and achievements.

Thirty-six Poetry Immortals           

Fujiwara no Kinto is a nationally famous poet whose life and works continue to inspire Japanese individuals today. Although he is a politician, it is widely known that he enjoys joining court competitions of poetry. This had included him among the legendary poets throughout Japan’s history. What makes the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals even more special for Fujiwara no Kinto is the fact that he was the legendary critic who established it. This list is known to have superseded the original ‘Six Immortals of Poetry’. As centuries pass, more and more styles of poetry and writing have been prevalent and it is important that the recognition is updated as well.

At the same time, he had compiled a set of works known as the ‘Anthology of Poems by the Thirty-six Poets’ which featured works from every individual. Literary scholars have since then used this book to educate individuals on writing poetry. Aspiring poets are advised to study poetry through this book.

By UBC Library Digitization Centre (Hyakunin isshu [Ogura hyakunin isshu] [Page 170]) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Out of the 36 individuals, there are only 24 of them whose works were included in the Hyakunin Isshu. These include Yamabe no Akahito, Otomo no Yakamochi, Lady Ise, Dharma Master Sosei, Taira no Kanemori, and more.

Poetry and Art in Modern Japan: The Hyakunin Isshu Karuta

What is interesting about the Hyakunin Isshu is the fact that there is a card game that was taken from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. There are a hundred cards with illustrations of the author on one side and the actual verse on the other side. The rules of the game are simple, they will try to find the last two lines of a poem by being given the first three lines. One person is chosen as the reader and the player will try to finish up the verse or poem.

This is an educational exercise for young children so that they will learn about classical poetry or waka. This game is an interesting and mind-twisting activity and is usually played on New Years’ Day. However, there are national championships held every January at the Omi Shrine in Shiga prefecture, Japan.

Fujiwara no Kinto as a Calligrapher

A calligraphy is a form of visual art, it is very common to scholars, literary workers, writers, storytellers, artists, and even poets. Receiving a scroll (or artwork) of a popular person’s hand is actually very special and is considered valuable treasure, even up to today.

Other than the fact that Fujiwara no Kinto is a popular poetic critic, he himself is an artist of his own. Throughout his life, he has used his talent in calligraphy when compiling works from different authors. He has used his talent to produce his famous poetry collections where many of these are written in his own hand. Calligraphy adds art to the words, seemingly producing the harmony and rhythm the author originally intends for the readers to see. The usage of calligraphy with poetry was a common combination during classical Japan.

There was a time in Japan’s history when calligraphy did not have a ‘Japanese’ style. It was a form of art and writing brought by the Chinese culture. The invention of the Hiragana and Katakana was vital to the development of intrinsically Japanese calligraphy. Fujiwara n Kinto, although born at a much later time, was important in the increasing interest towards Japanese calligraphy. Many of his works not only focus on the letter but also typography.