Minamoto no Sanetomo and Other Waka Poets

Waka poetry is not as known by foreign individuals as compared to tanka poetry or haiku poetry.  Interestingly, tanka originally served as a sub-genre of waka poetry, which was basically a term used to refer to various kinds of Japanese poetry.

Over the years, the two terms have become synonymous with each other and are often used when researching about Japan’s various poets. Waka poetry dates back to ancient history and, thus, has been used by a wide range of poets throughout time.

Among the most notable waka poets of Japan who also served other roles in Japanese history is Minamoto no Sanetomo, an important figure of the Kamakura Period.

Overview of Minamoto no Sanetomo’s Role in Japanese History

By Hannah (Japanese Book 『國文学名家肖像集』) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Minamoto no Sanetomo was born on the 17th day of September during the year 1192. He served as the third shogun of the Kamakura bakufu and was the second son of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura bakufu. His older brother, Minamoto no Yoriie, served as the second shogun of the Kamakura bakufu.

During his adolescence, Minamoto no Sanetomo went by the nickname Senman. Daijiji tono Sei ni Kurai Gosho Ko Jingi served as his Buddhist name. According to records, Minamoto no Sanetomo was the Minamoto Clan’s last head.

After Minamoto no Yoritomo’s death during the year 1199, the power of the shogunate was relegated to a figurehead. By 1202, the role of shogun was passed on to Minamoto no Yoriie through hereditary succession.  

Within a year, he was put under house arrest for having plotted against the Hojo Clan. Minamoto no Sanetomo was then appointed as the third shogun during the year 1203. The following year, the Hojo Clan assassinated Minamoto no Yoriie.

Since Minamoto no Sanetomo was still a child when he was given the position of shogun, he served as a puppet for the plans of his mother, Hojo Masako, in her feud with Tokimasa, his father. From 1205 onwards, Tokimasa attempted to depose Minamoto no Sanetomo numerous times, which made him quite paranoid until his last breath.

Minamoto no Sanetomo understood that he was basically powerless against the Hojo Clan and feared meeting the same fate as his older brother. As such, he spent most of his time and effort into composing waka poetry and gaining the respect of members of the imperial court.

Minamoto no Sanetomo as a Poet

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It was undeniable that Minamoto no Sanetomo had a natural talent when it came to poetry. He wrote more than seven hundred poems in a span of five years (from the age of 17 to the age of 22), under the guidance of Fujiwara no Teika.

His private collection was entitled “Kinkai Wakasyu”, while one of his poems was included in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshi, which roughly translates to mean “a hundred poems from a hundred poets”, one of Japan’s most important literary pieces.

Other Notable Waka Poets and 13th Century Poets

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro was one of the most respected poets and aristocrats of the latter years of the Asuka Period. He was often called Hito-maru and is included in the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals of Japan.

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro served as a court poet during the reign of Emperor Monmu and Empress Jito. In the Man’yoshu, one of the oldest collections of Japanese poetry, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro contributed a total of 85 poems ranging from short to long variations.

Most of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro’s poems revolve around topics such as the reigning emperors, the imperial princesses and princes, court women, and hymns. There are also several poems written by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro that tell of his travels and random experiences.

According to literary experts, the style of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro was quite solemn. His poems were written with human sensitivity in mind and carry an interestingly fresh sense of rustic Japan.

Otomo no Yakamochi

Otomo no Yakamochi was born to the Otomo Clan during the eighth century. He was a known statesman and a renowned waka poet of the Nara Period. Just like the other notable poets of Japan, Otomo no Yakamochi is also included in the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals of the country.

At the time, the Otomo Clan was among the most prestigious and powerful families of the country. It consisted of bureaucrats and warriors of the Yamato Court. Otomo no Yakamochi served as the provincial governor, or the kokushi, in a number of provinces. As such, Otomo no Yakamochi was also known as an influential politician.

As for his career as a poet and writer, Otomo no Yakamochi spent his time transcribing, rewriting, and refashioning various ancient Japanese folklore and poems, while also composing

Ariwara no Narihira

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Ariwara no Narihira lived from 825 to 880. He served as a courtier and a waka poet during the earlier years of the Heian Period. Not only is he included in the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals but Ariwara no Narihira is also among the Six Poetic Geniuses of Japan. Some names that Ariwara no Narihira went by include Mukashi-Otoko, Zai Chujo, Zai Go, and Zai Go-Chujo.

Among his greatest poetic achievements is his contribution to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, an anthology of waka poems by one hundred Japanese poets. Ariwara no Narihira’s characteristic style is described to be exceptionally ambiguous. Most of his poems revolve around Japanese court life.

Kisen Hoshi

Kisen Hoshi, or simply Kisen, was a well-known poet and Buddhist monk who was quite popular during the earlier years of the Heian Period. Not a lot of things are known regarding his life, except for the fact that he spent his life in Ujiyama.

Similarly, the poems linked to Kisen Hoshi lack solid evidence as to whether he really was the one who composed them. Only a couple of poems, particularly one from the Kokinshu and another from the Gyokuyoshu, can confidently be attributed to Kisen Hoshi.

Otomo no Kuronushi

Otomo no Kuronushi’s contribution to the Kokin Wakashu serves as an expression of how closely tied he was to the Shiga and Omi domains. According to another poetic anthology, Otomo no Kuronushi has such a strong influence on the said lands that he eventually ascended to become a god and was even enshrined as a god in Omi’s Shiga Province.


Kukai, who also went by the name Kobo Daishi, is best known for being one of the most important Buddhist monks of Japanese history. He served as the founder of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism and was behind several accomplishments that greatly impacted Japan including the development of kana (a Japanese syllabary) and various religious structures.

Aside from being a monk, Kukai also served as an artist, scholar, civil servant, and poet until his death in 835.

Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu, or Lady Murasaki, was an esteemed lady-in-waiting, novelist, and poet of the Imperial Court during the Heian Period. Murasaki Shikibu served as her pen name, while her birth name, or even a personal name she used, remains unknown. One theory regarding her true name is that it was Fujiwara no Takako, which was mentioned in one of the court diaries at the time in reference to a particular lady-in-waiting.

During the Heian Period, women were typically not included in the teaching of the Chinese language, which served as the main writing language of the local government. However, given that Murasaki Shikibu was raised in the household of her erudite father, she featured an aptitude from Chinese literature and was able to acquire a rather impressive level of fluency.

Among her greatest literary achievements was writing The Tale of Genji, which depicted court life during the Heian Period and is now regarded as a Japanese classic. Other works by Murasaki Shikibu include a 2-year long diary and a collection of more than a hundred poems that each contain a detail about Murasaki Shikibu’s life.

Kamo no Chomei

Kamo no Chomei was known for having witnessed several social and natural disasters, as well as being passed over for a position for a particular Shinto shrine that had close ties with his family. As such, he chose to take Buddhist vows and become a hermit in order to truly turn his back on the society that had been unfair to him.

He lived outside the capital, which was seen as a rather unusual act at the time, given that people who chose to no longer be part of the community typically ended up joining monasteries.

Some important factors that led to the development of Kamo no Chomei as a poet include his father’s death, his mentor, Shomyo, his interest in music, and Emperor Gotoba’s support of his writing. Kamo no Chomei’s greatest achievements include the Kamo no Chomei Shu, Hojoki, Mumyosho, and Hosshinshu.

Ueda Akinari

Ueda Akinari, or Ueda Shusei, was born on the 25th day of July during the year 1734 in Osaka, Japan. Until his death in 1809, Ueda Akinari lived his life as a prominent literary figure of Japan, particularly as a waka poet, scholar, and author.

According to records, he was among the early writers who ventured in the yomihon genre, which basically refers to Japanese reading books that had little illustrations and focused more on the actual texts.

His greatest achievements include the Harusame Monogatari, which roughly translates to mean “stories about the moon and the rain” in English, and the Ugetsu Monogatari, which roughly translates to mean “stories about spring rain” in English. Both of these masterpieces have become vital parts of the core of Japanese literature.

Fujiwara no Teika

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Fujiwara no Teika, also known as Fujiwara Sadaie, lived from 1162 to 1241 and served as an anthologist, novelist, critic, calligrapher, scribe, scholar, and poet during the latter years of the Heian Period and the earlier years of the Kamakura Period.

According to records, he had a great influence on the world of Japanese poetry and was perhaps Japan’s greatest waka poet. His influence was so enormous that his ideas on poetry compositions and sequences were kept under study up until the Meiji Period.

The development of Fujiwara no Teika’s career as a poet is often traced back to the relationship he built with Emperor Gotoba. Initially, the two shared promising ideas for the future of Japanese literature but ultimately went their separate ways after a series of disagreements and petty fights which stemmed from their contradicting opinions on poetry.

Nonetheless, Fujiwara no Teika dominated the transformation of classical Japanese poetry, even surpassing the success and influence of his father, Fujiwara no Shunzei.


Abutsu-ni was a nun and poet who lived from 1222 to 1283. She also served as Princess Kuni-Naishinno’s lady-in-waiting. It is believed that she married Fujiwara no Tameie, another Japanese poet, sometime during the year 1250 and eventually had two children. She then chose to become a nun after the death of her husband in 1275.

Due to an issue regarding the inheritance of her son, Abutsu-ni traveled to Kamakura from Kyoto to plead on behalf of her child. Throughout her journey, Abutsu-ni expressed her thoughts and experiences by writing letters and poems. These were then published as a diary entitled “Izayoi Nikki”, which roughly translates to mean “the waning moon’s journal”.

Asukai no Masatsune

Asukai no Masatsune, who also went by the name Fujiwara no Masatsune, was one of the most esteemed waka poets of the earlier years of the Kamakura Period. He was among the one hundred poets who contributed to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu and to the Shin Kokin Wakashu.

He was born to Nanba Yoritsune on the year 1170 and is regarded to be one of the ancestors of the Asukai Clan, a family known to be highly skilled in Japanese poetry and kemari, a type of Japanese ball game. Asukai no Masatsune was also a successful kemari player during his time.

Other poetic achievements by Asukai no Masatsune include the Asukai-shu, a private collection which was later edited by one of his grandchildren, and various contributions to imperial anthologies. He was also part of the Wakadokoro, or the Bureau of Poetry.

Asukai Gayu

Asukai Gayu, also known as Asukai Masaari, was the grandson of Asuka no Masatsune.  He lived from 1241 to 1301 and was a highly respected nobleman and poet of the Kamakura Period. Aside from these titles, he also held a high position in the local government system, or the shogunate.

In the Shokukokin Wakashu, a total of eighty-six poems by Asukai Gayu can be found and serve as his greatest poetic accomplishments. Asukai Gayu also had a collection of his own published under the title “Rinjo Wakashu”, which roughly translates to mean “The Woman Next Door”.