The Poetry and Life of Saionji Kintsune

There was a period in Japan wherein their very own artists were able to tremendously enrich the art in their culture. Many amazing paintings and works of literature were produced during those times and it really contributed in defining the Japanese character. There are many poets and artists that you can look into when looking for people who had a come up with extraordinary works but one that definitely stood out was a man named Saionji Kintsune.

By 日本語: 藤原豪信English: Fujiwara Gōshin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Type of Poetry He Created

Saionji Kintsune was a classical Japanese literature writer of the Waka or Japanese poem. The Waka is composed using the Japanese language and others might know it more as the contrast to the Classical Chinese poems known as kanshi. Much like other forms of poems, there is a certain structure or format that this art follows and that is the 5-7-5-7-7 meter. Some people might not appreciate this type of poetry because it focuses more on the structure of the writing rather than the actual rhyming of the poem. Contrary to this notion, it isn't that simple and easy to create a piece of literature with that specific structure that is, at the same time, also profound enough to touch the minds and the hearts of its readers. 

By purportedly Mibu no Tadamine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Waka used to be composed of so many more types of poems like the tanka, choka, bussokusekika, and sedoka during the 8th century. The tanka was the short poem version of the Waka. The choka, on the other hand, was the long poem version. The bussokusekika was a whole other thing because it this type was referred to as the Buddha footprint poem while the sedoka was the type with the structure that required the first part of the poem to be repeated. By the time the 10th century came, specifically around the time that the Kokunshi’s compilation was created, the only existing types or formats of the Waka were the tanka and choka. This was so because the artists focused on the tanka and the choka more throughout the years so the style of the writing for the other formats died.

Just like it was mentioned above, the usual format for these poems is a 5-7-5-7-7 meter. This means that it has five lines or “ku”, meaning phrases, which are composed of 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic units. To explain it further, the first line is to have 5 syllables while the second line is to have 7 syllables and so on and so forth until the sequence is completed. This is how the tanka is created. There isn't a standard list of topics these poems are supposed to be about but, more often than not, the writers of this type of poetry tend to focus on things about nature and how it appeals to them.

As for the choka, since it is referred to as the long poem version of this style of writing, the sequence that it follows is 5-7-5-7-5-7-5-7-7. This version of writing can be quite tricky because it can actually go on and on. The interchanging lines with syllabic units of 5 and 7 respectively can keep exchanging. The importing thing is that it ends with 2 consecutive lines with 7 syllabic units. These long ones were usually used in events like commemorations which explains its usual lengthiness. It isn't required for any official formal event in Japan but if you are able to prepare such a piece of literature for events that call for it, you are sure to be praised and applauded because that type of effort is truly giving meaning and appreciation by the Japanese culture.

You might not think much of this type of poetry but it does truly require skill to make. Everybody has something different they value and in the case of the Japanese during Kamakura period, to be able to create a sensible and profound piece of literature under such restrictions was something that they thought was incredibly cool and amazing. It really is cool and amazing though because if you think about it, they were able to create their own style of expressing themselves through words that they developed by themselves. That, in itself, is a feat that showcases just how defined and strong their tradition and culture are to them.

Saionji Kintsune’s Family History

By Fg2 [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

There were many rich and powerful Waka poets throughout the history of Japan but none like how Saionji Kintsune and his family was. This was because the origins of the Saionji family gave them quite the privileged life. The Saionji family was a court aristocrat family that had relations with the Fujiwara clan, specifically the Northern branch of the clan as well as the Imadegawa clan. This fact alone should be able to show you just how powerful and influential their family was once upon a time but that doesn’t mean that knowing how they rose to power is any less interesting.

Their family started with a man named Saionji Michisue who was the son of Fujiwara no Kinzane. For those who don’t know, the Fujiwara clan was already a powerful clan before any of this happened and their influence and power would only grow because by the time Saionji Kintsune, who was Michisue’s great-grandson, was living, Minamoto no Yoritomo’s niece was married into their family. This expanded their connections in different places as the shoguns of Kamakura from the Minatomo clan expanded their influence over the Imperial Court.

It was during these events that the members of the Saionji family started to be appointed into positions like Kanto Moshitsugi whose purpose, along with the Rokuhara Tandai, is to manage the interactions between the Imperial Court and the shogunate. Slowly but surely, their importance to the Court rose until they were put in positions like the Dajo-Daijin or Chancellor of the Realm. This position was once held by the princes of Japan so that should hint to you just how important this rank was.

You might be wondering how their family surname became Saionji from Fujiwara. The reason behind that is because of where they formally resided. The Saionji family made their formal residence in the northern mountains of the Kyoto, particularly in Kitayama. They called this residence the Saionji and from then on, their family was known as the Saionji family. The term Saionji actually translates to “Western Garden Temple”. Because of their residing in this area, they were soon known as the Lords of Kitayama. Their prestige was boosted even more when Ashikaga Yoshimitsu chose their area for his Kinkakuji when he became shogun in the year of 1368.

This act of taking the name of a place to be the surname of a clan isn't rare. This was also the exact case for the Miyoshi clan, who was formerly known as a part of the Ogasawara clan. The difference between these two scenarios is that the Miyoshi clan changed their name after several generations lived and learned to love the district of Miyoshi found in the Awa Province. the Saionji clan, on the other hand, immediately adopted the name of their castle as their clan name. In any case, these two clans successfully changed their name while also making sure that their clans improve and get even more powerful. 

Their connections would continue to grow as Saionji Sanekane married into the Imperial family of Daikaku-ji. This happened because of Sanekane’s involvement with the daughter of Emperor Go-Daigo or Emperor Kameyama and conceiving a son named Saionji Kinhira. Their reputation would slip a bit during the time of Saionji Kinmune because of Kinmune’s decision to help hide the persecuted Hojo Tasuie as well as his decision to scheme a plot to help Emperor Go-Fushimi get a hold of the throne. Unfortunately, these schemes were thwarted by none other than his younger brother, Saionji Kinshige. As a result, Kinmune was arrested and executed. Kinmune’s son would eventually restore the prestige of his family’s name by serving the Northern Court as their Udaijin or Minister of the Right during the Nanboku-cho period which was from 1336 to 1392.

Their family name, as well as their family members, would continue to live close to the world of politics all throughout the decades that followed all the events mentioned above. From the Edo period throughout the Meiji Restoration and even until the end of World War II, the Saionji were able to maintain a substantial level of prestige in Japan. In these present times, the family of Saionji still lives on in Japan but their name is now uncommon in Japan.

The Works of Literature that Compiled His Works

By UBC Library Digitization Centre (Hyakunin isshu [Ogura hyakunin isshu] [Page 152]) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Considering all the details of Saionji Kintsune’s life that had just been shared, it makes it easier to appreciate his writing because now you know that he had so much going on with other things as well. It highlights the fact that he was an all-around kind of guy. He was artsy and political at the same time and his involvement in politics wasn’t to a light degree. He was deep into that so to find out that he is also extremely skilled with words is just astonishing.

He made a lot of works of art but if you were to see his best outputs, you need not look further than the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu and the Shinchokusen Wakashu. These are both classic Japanese anthologies that are comprised of all kinds of articles of literature from different artists and writers. The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu has 100 poems that were written by 100 different people. It was compiled by Fujiwara no Teika during the times that he lived in the Ogura district in Kyoto hence its name. The Shinchokusen Wakashu, on the other hand, is an imperial anthology of Japanese Waka that was compiled for the Retired Emperor Go-Horikawa. This too was compiled by Fujiwara no Teika and unlike the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu that only made use of one piece of work from Kintsune, the Shinchokusen Wakashu made use of 30 which made him a major contributor for this particular anthology.

For a person to excel in so many things like Saionji Kintsune did without a master or a sensei is truly commendable. Without a source of guidance from a master, he really had to depend on his own and motivate himself to reach whatever it was that he wanted in his life. It is for this reason that he stands out among the other famous Waka poets of his time. He can and is honestly a great role model for those who wish to follow the same path. He had all the right values along with the right attitude and if someone were to mold themselves into a person like Kintsune, there is no doubt that that person will be looked up upon by many people.