Three works of Classical Japanese Literary Criticism

(A term paper I wrote in 2014, when I was doing my Masters in Silliman for Dr Andrea G. Soluta. Also available in pdf on!)


Three works of Classical Japanese Literary Criticism


Japanese literary criticism, while not as developed as western traditions, is certainly as old as the Japanese literary tradition itself. And while there are innumerable works in the two millennia of Japanese writing, three texts stand out for their impact on subsequent criticism and literary output.


History of Japanese literary criticism

Japanese literary consciousness may have begun earlier, but its oldest definite manifestation is in Japan’s oldest book, the Kojiki. The earlier of the two ancient histories attributed to 7th century court editor O no Yasumaro (the other being the Nihon Shoki), the Kojiki describes the mythological origins of the Japanese nation. In the Kojiki, the god Susanoo, god of storms and brother of the center of the Japanese pantheon, sun goddess Amaterasu, is described as writing the first Japanese poem, in the 5-7-5-7-7 kana pattern that would become Waka. Japanese mythology then served not only political purposes (it was used to assert the authority of the Imperial family, who claimed descent from Amaterasu), but also as the initial text for Japanese philology. It asserted the divine origin of literature.

Literature (poetry in particular) would serve a central role in Japanese culture. The Kojiki documents that the earliest poems, with divine authorships, were spoken, but the introduction of Chinese characters in the first century led to the preservation of many early texts. The oldest collection of poems, the Man’yoshu (Record of Ten Thousand Leaves), was compiled during Japan’s Nara period (around 759 AD) by the court editor Otomo no Yakamochi.

But it was another anthology that would showcase the first substantial work of Japanese literary criticism. The Heian (900 AD) Emperor Daigo ordered the compilation of a new imperial anthology of poetry, and four poets, Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine, served as its editors. The result came to be known as the Kokin Wakashu (Collection of Japanese Poems Ancient and Modern). This anthology was notable for coming with a preface, often attributed to Ki no Tsurayuki, which not only discussed the mythological origins of literature, but also the development of styles across the ages. The Kokin Wakashu’s preface would be the first of many discussions of the nature of Japanese poetry, and its approach to discussing poetry would be used for millennia by succeeding treatises.

The Heian, considered Japan’s classic age, also saw the emergence of the Utaawase, poetry contests, which contributed further development in literary consciousness. Participants in an Utaawase would write waka about a given topic, and a judge, usually an accomplished poet, would serve as arbiter, giving critical justifications to his decision. These justifications contributed to the development of Japanese poetics.

It was with the early Heian’s critical output, in the form of anthological prefaces and justifications by Utaawase judges (which were often circulated among the court nobles), that the aesthetic of miyabi emerged. Often translated as “elegance,” miyabi was the aspiration for what has been described as courtly polish, free of emotional excesses and archaisms, characterized by restraint and dignity. With the introduction of Buddhism during the Asuka period (500-700 AD), miyabi was also highly influenced by its teachings, and the Buddhist-oriented aesthetic of mono no aware (the pathos of things) was closely associated with miyabi. Miyabi’s restraint and dignity was often cast against a backdrop of decline and impermanence. To the miyabi sensibility, the most distinguished poems are those which express grief at loss or suffering from failed love in the most restrained manner.

Miyabi’s emphasis on restraint became restrictive of expression, and the arbitration of judge on diction, driven by the desire to promote polish and perceived appropriateness as well as remove excess expression and archaism, led to a rigid system of acceptable words for poetry. This made miyabi so repetitive and stifling that, by the late Heian, the poet Fujiwara no Teika had to lead innovations in expression to prevent expressive stagnancy.

Considered by successive generations of poets as the most influential Japanese poet, Teika’s poetry made use of fresh diction that brought in new life to the waka tradition. His influence arises mainly from his body of poetry, but his treatises were considerably influential as well. A letter written to an unidentified student, the Maigetsusho, encapsulates both Teika’s views on the principles of miyabi, and his ideas on the proper composition of poetry, and it serves today as one of the most referenced works of literary criticism in Japanese literature.

Teika wrote at the tail end of the Heian period, and after him there was a considerable hiatus of literary output as the nation was plunged into successive military conflicts: the Hogen Rebellion (1156), then the Genpei War (1180-1185). Literary output was further stifled by the volatile Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333), which saw continued dispute between the Seiwa Genji clan who held the shogunate, and the Hojo clan who served to provide its regents (and at times held actual power) upon a shogun’s minority.

Lasting stability in fact would not come again until the Ashikaga shogunate of the Muromachi period (1337-1573). Around this time, the trend in tastes in the imperial court in Kyoto (where culture had been centered since the Heian) had shifted to the aesthetic of yugen. Often translated as mystique, yugen is the implication of profundity in art, the effect of hinting at greater realities, achieving the profound mystique found in koans, often paradoxical anecdotes that impart Zen doctrine. It has its roots in Teika, who defined it as one of his ten styles of poetry, but it would see its literary culmination in another form, drama, and with the work of another writer, Zeami Motokiyo.

Like Teika (who was the son of the eminent poet Fujiwara no Shunzei), Zeami was also the second generation of a family of artists. His father, Kan’ami, had earlier brought innovation to Japanese performance by merging the now obscure Dengaku (solemn harvest rituals) with more festive dances like Sarugaku (literally “monkey fun,” ribald performances) to lay the foundations of Noh. Zeami, who would win the favor of the Ashikaga shoguns, would elevate his father’s innovation to the respectable court performance Noh is today.

Zeami was the first to write treatises on drama in the Japanese tradition, and today he is considered the father of Japanese drama. Among his many treatises, his most influential is the seminal Fushikaden (Transmission of the Flower through the Forms). In it, Zeami mirrors what Tsurayuki and Teika have done for poetry, define the origins of the art, provide its basic aesthetic principles, and give suggestions for the proper handling of the craft. In Fushikaden, Zeami metaphorizes his aesthetic ideal of Noh as the “flower,” a metaphor which is closely tied with his treatment of yugen. To Zeami, it is the ultimate aesthetic aim to reveal without showing, and as such the power of art is in implying and suggesting rather than in showing. Consequently, Noh became highly symbolic and minimalist in its representation. This discussion of mimesis would prove to be influential in later discussions of art in Japanese culture.

The Muromachi period was to be followed by the tumultuous Sengoku Period, during which various feudal lords would scramble against one another for power following the collapse of the Ashikaga shogunate. Lasting nearly two centuries, the Sengoku became a period of constant unrest, and the Japanese people grew used to living in turmoil.

It was during the tail end of this age of upheaval that the aesthetic of wabi sabi emerged. Even more closely tied with Buddhism than was yugen, wabi sabi could roughly be translated as “imperfection,” and was founded on the appreciation of transience. But while it shared miyabi’s link to mono no aware in this appreciation of impermanence, wabi sabi differed with its emphasis on simplicity, asymmetry, and deliberate crudeness. Whereas miyabi was polished with cold dignity, wabi sabi was rustic and somber. Wabi sabi was particularly pronounced in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and its leading aesthetician was the tea master Sen no Rikyu.

While no contemporary treatise about the application of wabi sabi on literature was written (one, In’ei Raisan by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, would only be published in 1933), it nevertheless came into the written art with inter-media influence (a recurring theme in Japanese aesthetics: the arts inform one another). It saw its literary manifestation in the haiku. Written during the tail end of the Sengoku period, the brief Azuchi-Momoyama period, and into the early Edo period (1600s), the haiku was first called “hokku,” the first three lines of a five-line waka (of 5-7-5 syllables, with waka having 5-7-5-7-7 syllables respectively). The hokku came to evolve as an independent form with renka, or linked verse: one poet would write a hokku, and another would add the two remaining lines to form a waka. To these two lines another poet would add another hokku to make another waka, and so on. Influenced by wabi sabi and its emphasis on imperfection, the early haiku poets wrote hokku as poems of their own right, “imperfect poems.” To add to this, many of the haiku written were about raw images of nature and rustic life, further adding to the effect of wabi sabi. Poets who first wrote in the form include Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. It would not be until Masaoka Shiki, who wrote during the Meiji period (1868-1912), however, that discussions on the haiku, and its links to wabi sabi would appear.

The Sengoku period ended with the unification of the warring domains started by Oda Nobunaga and completed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1603), but lasting peace only came during the Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period.

During this period of stability and isolation, there came a boom in arts, with several art forms emerging from the various capitals, including the shogunate capital of Edo (now Tokyo). Among them were two performing arts of related origin: Joruri, or Bunraku (puppet theater); and Kabuki. Playwrights for one form often wrote for another, and plays in one were also adapted to the other, making the two forms intimately connected. The connection is such that Kabuki’s theatrical movements have always emphasized on mimicking the movement of Bunraku’s puppets.

One of the most prominent playwrights for both stages was Chikamatsu Monzaemon. At various times described as the Shakespeare of Japanese drama, Chikamatsu wrote diverse plays, from historical action to his famous Love Suicides, and many of his works were adapted for both Bunraku and Kabuki. Chikamatsu’s work was what contributed to the development of the dramatic form during his time, but one commentary of his exists, the Naniwa Miyage. Compiled by Hozumi Ikan, the Naniwa Miyage is Hozumi’s record of remarks made by Chikamatsu (a close friend of his) about writing for Kabuki and Bunraku. As the two theatrical forms have been governed more by convention than by theory, Naniwa Miyage serves more as a manifestation of poetics common during its writing rather than as prescription, although subsequent writers would invariably take heed of Chikamatsu’s remarks from time to time.

A cultural sensibility also emerged during the Edo period: Ukiyo. Literally “floating world,” Ukiyo was the urban decadence characterized by the seeking of pleasure, both aesthetically and corporally (often together), and was the result of the wealth a large middle class had come to acquire as a result of the political stability. Brothels and Kabuki theater houses were often the focal point of this decadence, and the lifestyle manifested itself in art. This was most visible in the woodblock printing form known as “ukiyoe,” which often depicts scenes of this lifestyle, but it also manifested itself in literature (ukiyo-zoshi): from the respectable, often aristocratic art that it was, literature suddenly found itself a mass product as the novel emerged as a popular form. Works of high drama and action, written for the emotional pleasure of the reader, were written during this time and contributed to the overall decadence of life. Such writers as Ihara Saikaku, who wrote both lurid erotic stories and historical action serializations, and Akinari Ueda, known for his grotesque and perverse tales, characterized Ukiyo literature. No work of criticism other than Chikamatsu’s emphasis on feeling in Naniwa Miyage, however, comes close to discussing Ukiyo in writing.

The Edo period ended with the Meiji Restoration, and with the succeeding Meiji era came rapid Westernization. This had a profound effect on Japanese literature, and modern Japanese literary criticism has its roots during this time.

With many Japanese writers receiving European education, Western aesthetic and literary movements began entering the Japanese tradition. Most notably, many Meiji writers began writing in a style that was roughly parallel to European Naturalism, with such writers as Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Yasunari Kawabata leading the helm. In poetry, Masaoka Shiki continued the writing of haiku, but shifted it away from Basho’s wabi sabi and applied instead the principles of what would later be seen as Imagism in western poetry. Shiki in particular wrote numerous treatises, both attempting to evaluate the tradition of poetry he was following (sometimes in negative light, as he criticized Basho’s poetry) and to bring it to modernity.

Japanese society was devastated after the war, and many writers reflected the sense of existential crisis felt by post-war Japanese society in their works. Chief among these post-war writers was Osamu Dazai, whose seminal novel Ningen Shikaku captures both the cultural schizophrenia of the post-war Japanese and the hollowness of urban life. The development during this phase was evident more in the literary output than in the criticism, which was at best minimal.

This largely continues to be the case to this day, with the sole exception perhaps of visual artist Takashi Murakami’s discussions of the “Super-flat.” According to Murakami, post-war Japan had to deal at once with two things: the disintegration of the traditional social hierarchies dismantled after the war; and the popular, largely western culture brought in following Japan’s reconciliation with the west. What emerges is a “super-flat” culture, where there seems to be no social stratification, and where all consume a popular culture that is a mishmash of western as well as traditional Japanese influences. This condition makes art spread out rather than stratified, and what would be considered “high art” in other cultures would be popular consumption in Japan, and vice versa: a manga with an anime adaptation, Aku no Hana, was recently produced, inspired by Baudelaire’s Le Fleur du Mal; while Murakami himself often creates anime-themed sculptures that are auctioned for millions of dollars or are exhibited in such venues as Versailles or the Louvre. Whether this may in fact be a return to the popular consumption of art in the Ukiyo age of the Edo period (when prostitutes were expected to know Heian poetry) is simply this author’s conjecture.



Ki no Tsurayuki, The Preface to the Kokin Wakashu

The tradition of Japanese literary criticism substantially traces its roots to the preface of the Kokin Wakashu. While it is often attributed to the poet Ki no Tsurayuki, it is uncertain if he, or one of his other fellow editors, wrote the preface. Posterity has remembered him most among the editors, and as such the preface is attributed to him.

The preface comes in two: the first one in Japanese, written by Tsurayuki, and another one in Classical Chinese, attributed to Ki no Yoshimochi, a rough translation of the first one.

The preface begins with a declaration of poetry’s emotive origins (“it has the human heart as seed and myriads of words as leaves”) and its power (“It is song that moves heaven and earth without effort”). It then continues by mentioning the divine origins of Japanese poetry before pointing out that poems of old were unregulated in the absence of form until Susanoo introduced the waka form.

It then proceeds to describing two poems, the Naniwazu poem, and the Asakayama poem, as the mother and father of Japanese poetry.

The Naniwazu poem goes thus:
Naniwazu ni
saku ya ko no hana
ima wa harube to
saku ya ko no hana

(Flowers on the trees
in bloom at Naniwazu
say “now the winter
yields its place to the springtime!”
flowers blooming on the trees)

The poem, attributed to the semi-legendary scholar Wani, was obliquely referring to the emperor Nintoku, who had just been put on the throne but who was thinking of abdicating. The poem is indirectly convincing Nintoku to stay as the court wishes him to continue reigning, with his reign characterized as “springtime.”




The Asakayama poem is thus:

Kage sae miyuru
yama no i no
asaki kokoro o
wa ga omowanaku ni

(Mount Asaka –
Its reflection appears in the mountain spring
that is not shallow, and of you
my thoughts are not shallow either)

The poem is attributed to a daughter of the governor of Mutsu province, who recited it to cheer up a disgruntled prince Kazuraki, who was sent to the distant province and was poorly received.

The preface then provides its six styles of Japanese poetry, with examples provided for each style: the indirect style (which implies its allusive reference); the enumerative style (which is direct and non-metaphorical); the figurative style (which draws comparisons); the metaphorical style (which refers to scenes of nature); the correct style (where there is a logical chronology of things described); and the eulogistic style (which praises the current reign and the gods). This categorization of styles of poetry, a mimicry of Chinese poetry’s tradition of making categories, would be continued by succeeding generations of Utaawase judges, but many more systems will emerge, most notably Fujiwara no Teika’s ten styles.

Then the preface describes how the art of poetic expression is an ancient one, once dominated by the poet’s expression rather than the “frivolity and empty show” the author saw in his time.

It then proceeds to discussing great poets of old, beginning with Kakinomoto no Hitomaro and Yamanobe Akahito, and mentions the Man’yoshu, the first anthology of poetry (which the Kokin Wakashu follows).

What follows is the preface’s famous criticism of the Rokkasen, or the Six Gods of Poetry: Henjo, Ariwara no Narihira, Fun’ya no Yasuhide, Kisen Hoshi, Ono no Komachi, and Otomo Kuronushi. Henjo was judged “master of style but deficient in substance,” Narihira “tries to express too much in too little words,” Yasuhide’s language “is skillful, but his style is inappropriate to his content,” reading Kisen is like “trying to keep the autumn moon in sight when a cloud obscures it before dawn,” Komachi’s poetry “is lacking in strength,” and Kuronushi’s poems “are crude.”

Pointing out the emperor’s realization of the lack of education of many with regard to poetry (the same lack which has allowed these six poet’s flaws to go unnoticed for centuries), the preface then describes how the emperor has called for the collection to be made with discerning eye to further the development of the art. It then describes how the collection is divided into themes, before the editors extol the immortality the collection will bring to poetry and collectively lament their own shortcomings as poets.


As is evident, the preface was not only aware that it is the first work of literary criticism in its literary tradition, the collection itself had been written to fill in this gap. The preface makes up for the lack of criticism before it by making a general assessment of poetry before its (the preface’s) writing: that poetry in ancient times was heartfelt and of genuine expression, but was crudely written and unpolished. This assessment would be echoed by subsequent critics later on.


Fujiwara no Teika, The Maigetsusho

Written as a subtly admonishing letter to a disciple of high rank, Fujiwara no Teika’s Maigetsusho (Monthly Records) is the lengthiest and most detailed discussion of poetics Teika has written. The letter is crucial in providing insight into the creative process of the poet who has been considered the greatest waka poet.

The letter begins apologetically, as Teika has always resisted giving lengthy lectures on poetry lest he be deemed pretentious by posterity. He is unable to resist this time, as the student has sent him hundreds of poetry and, while he has seen the improvement in them, he feels he must caution him against several errors in writing.

He first points out that not everything in the Man’yoshu, or in fact in imperial anthologies in general ought to be taken as models for poetics without some skepticism, as the tastes of the times vary. He thus cautions against contemporary poets writing in archaic styles, emphasizing instead on writing in fundamental styles first before the poet can experiment with this archaisms.

He then sets out his ten styles of poetry, which he however does not discuss as he has already written about them in previous correspondence: the style of mystery and depth (yugentei), the style of appropriate statement, the style of elegant beauty, and the style of deep feeling (ushintei) which he considers the fundamentals the beginning poet must learn, the lofty style, the style of visual description, the style of clever treatment, the style of novel treatment, and the style of exquisite detail, which are easy to learn after the fundamental styles are mastered, and the demon-quelling style, which says is most difficult to write. He particularly cautions against this last style, which is characterized by violent, “demon-quelling” words, as they may be deemed inappropriate in the tradition of “gentleness and sensibility” that dominates Japanese poetry. Teika makes particular emphasis on the style of deep feeling (ushintei), saying it is in deep feeling (ushin) that the success, or failure, of poetry lies.

He then enjoins the poet to take his writing seriously, lamenting many who take poetry for granted, and he insists that the writing of poetry demands rigid attention and dedication. It is in this dedication, he says, that the poet captures authentic ushin.

He gives advice on writing: one must not write when one is dispirited or in mental turmoil, as it will not wield deep feeling; at such times, easy poems such as those of nature’s beauty ought to be written instead, specially if the topics of writing has been provided in the Utaawase, not only because they are easier, but because they cheer one up with their lightness; Ushintei must be used in such topics as “love” and “expressing grievance.” He reiterates the importance of Ushintei, and enjoins the poet to extend it to the other nine styles.

He then discusses diction: making a distinction between “thick” words (words of heavy imagery and connotation) and “thin” ones (which are otherwise). He then enjoins the poet to consider the balance, never letting thick words overwhelm thin ones, or isolate thick ones in thin ones, and to consider if the overall line is too thick or too thin.

Teika then discusses the literary metaphor of fruit and flower, which he takes from the preface to the Kokin Wakashu (which, however, does not discuss it in detail). By “fruit” is meant thought and feeling, while by “flower” is meant language. He points out that some poems “have fruit but neglect blossoms, while others are all blossom and no fruit.” He emphasizes the importance of ushin (which is synonymous with the fruit) but nevertheless insists that the two must be considered with equal care, enjoining the poet to ensure organic unity between the two.

He then points out, almost romantically, that it is impossible to fully teach poetry, and that while poets of his time focus on form their work’s empty polish is inferior to poems of old. He then describes characteristics of the superior poem: it is free in its topic and theme, fresh in its treatment, and it is characterized by ushin.

He describes the seemingly inarticulate spontaneity of some poems to be works of masters, as it takes great skill to express by failure of expression, but cautions against beginning poets from attempting this without mastering fundamental styles first. He then condemns overly fancy verse, insisting that poetry must be of genuine feeling.

His famous discussion of the honkadori – poetic allusion – then follows: it takes great skill to allude to thematically corresponding poems, such as one about cherry blossoms, to describe seasons (in this case, alluding to the cherry blossom poem in writing a spring poem), so he advices beginners to use autumn or winter poems instead in writing spring poems. He also cautions against copying too much at the risk of un-originality. He condemns those who obscure phrases in order to achieve a semblance of breathing new life into an old verse at the risk of making the line nonsensical.

He then discusses the use of the topic words in the poem, suggesting to disperse the words of topics of several words, and warns poets never to begin the poem with the topic word.

Teika mentions the several “poetic ills” that have been prescribed against by centuries of Utaawase judges, but never discusses them in detail except for a passing expression of what he thinks as their irrelevance in the face of a superior poem. He does however agree that rhyme is a fault in poetry.

In a return to diction he tells the poet to avoid both repeating a word too much, and giving the impression that one is fond of a phrase.

While he enjoins the mastery of the ten styles, he insists that each poet has his temperament, and that a student of poetry must be allowed to grow in the style he is most comfortable with before he can explore other styles. In what might be one of the earliest discussions of teaching Creative Writing, he insists that beginning poets must be taught how to write in their comfortable style, and the teacher must adjust to this, and he alludes to the Buddha adjusting his teachings to the capacities of his disciples.

Teika then laments that deplorable trend of judging a poem by the poet, pointing out that many will criticize an otherwise good poem by an unknown author, while an inferior poem by a well known poet is deemed a masterpiece.

He then discusses allusions to Chinese poetry, which is conventionally deemed improper. He agrees with this but only if it is made a habit, it ought not to be completely shunned. He then goes on describing the merits of old Chinese poetry.

Teika then discusses how the poet must write: never over think, and write in a relaxed manner. Citing his father Shunzei, he says a poet must not try too hard to write to many, advising the poet to contribute just seven or eight in an Utaawase.

His last point is then to advise the student to consider the first line thoroughly, as it is the most important. He says he got his father’s habit of writing the body of the poem first before the first line, and recommends the student to do so as well. He then apologizes for the vanity of giving these suggestions and expresses deep respect.

The addressee of the Maigetsusho remains unknown, but likely candidates are two of his disciples at that time: Kujo Ieyoshi, or Minamoto Sanetomo. Two versions of the letter, with subtle variations, have been passed down to the two families descended from Teika: the conservative older Nijo branch, and the innovative younger Reizei branch. Historians have pointed out that the Reizei manuscript appears first in historical records and it may have been the original.

As is evident, Teika is at once a follower of tradition and an advocate of innovation. He agrees with many accepted ideas during his time, but he insists that it is the poet’s feeling – the ushin he constantly repeats – which matters in poetry. He is moderate with many of the rigid prescriptions on poetry common during his time, and advocates instead freedom of expression so long as form and appropriateness are not neglected.

The Maigetsusho also continues several traditions that the preface to the Kokin Wakashu begins: the metaphor of flower and fruit (and the insistence of balance between the two); the assessment of ancient poetry as emotionally authentic but formally inferior; the emphasis on ushin; and the independence of the poem from the poet (Teika, with his views on those judging by the poet’s fame, no doubt admired the audacity in the criticism of the Six Gods of Poetry in the Kokin Wakashu’s preface).


Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Naniwa Miyage

A compilation of Chikamatsu’s remarks on writing for Bunraku attributed to Hozumi Ikan, Naniwa Miyage (Souvenirs from Naniwa) is important in not only giving insight into Chikamatsu’s creative process, but also at the state at which literary and dramatic criticism had reached at this time.

The compilation begins with emphasizing the power of words in Joruri. Because Bunraku puppets have to compete with live Kabuki actors, Chikamatsu says, the words in Joruri have to be more powerful and must evoke action more.

He refers to a Heian story he had once read, wherefrom he learned the power of words to evoke feeling. He insists that even the descriptions of locations must be charged with feeling in order for the work to come alive. He compares this to what poets call “evocative imagery.”

Chikamatsu described Joruri plays before him as “lacking in fruit and flower,” and hinted that it is his work, with the careful attention he has paid into writing them, that has brought polish into the art.

He describes his first principle as the distinction in characters’ social classes, and from there determine how to describe them and how to make them speak and move.

Then he begins his famous discussion of the nature of art and mimesis: while Joruri attempts to mimic reality, it is nevertheless an art, and it must work by that definition. As such, a woman in a Bunraku play may say things a normal woman would not, but this might be essential for revealing facts to the audience.

In another famous portion he distinguishes his plays’ pathos from that of other playwrights by emphasizing emotion not with explicit statement but with reason (giri). “The audience will be moved by the convincing logic (rikugi) of the dramatization (giri no tsumarite)… it is important that the moment be filled with pathos in and of itself.” The same he argues must be true of beautiful description: beauty must be conveyed by its details shown rather than beauty being explicitly pointed out.

He then continues his discussion of art as mimesis: while he agrees with the general chagrin over frivolous antics on stage over realistic acting, he insists that art lies between the real and the lie, “between the skin and flesh.” He gives a parable to demonstrate the view: a court lady in the Heian is prohibited from seeing the man she loves, so she has a wooden sculpture made in his exact likeness. The statue is so similar to him that it was possible to be deceived and think it was him. But when she saw how the imitation had been so successful her desire for him subsided, and her love for the man began waning as well. Chikamatsu then points out that if the real thing is duplicated exactly it is somehow repulsive, and so art must know its limits. It is the artist’s license to fabricate plot, or make unrealistic dialogue, where he deems it most entertaining or artistic to do so.

The discussion on feeling with which Naniwa Miyage begins is immediately reminiscent of Fujiwara no Teika’s discussions on ushin, himself taking it from the preface to the Kokin Wakashu. The use of “fruit and flower” is also a testament to the lasting influence of the preface, as it has been applied to drama as well.

Chikamatsu’s discussion of giri, reason in dramatization, is reminiscent of Aristotle’s inevitability of action in his Poetics. While it is not impossible that Chikamatsu might have read Aristotle, however, it is quite unlikely that he had considering the policy of isolation Japan was in at the time.

Chikamatsu’s views on the role of art in mimesis are only different than those of Zeami Motokiyo’s in his Fushikaden in their emphasis and motivation. Zeami insisted that “for the actor to represent the flower, the flower itself must not be shown.” Zeami made Noh the theater of suggestion, with the aim of revealing to the audience the true nature of things beyond their physical aspects. Chikamatsu agrees that outright realism would produce substandard, even repulsive drama, but his motivation seems to be for the enjoyment of the audience rather than for any introspective intent. Both of them have their roots in Teika, but while Zeami follows Teika’s yugen, Chikamatsu subscribes to his emphasis on ushin.

Judging by these three texts then, it seems that Japanese thinkers have recurring emphases across the ages. There is an insistence on the balance of thought and feeling and language, encapsulated by the convenient metaphor of “fruit and flower.” There is the freedom of the current generations to innovate from and even criticize writers of the past (Masaoka Shiki himself would be a later reflection of this). And most distinctly, there is an emphasis on the importance of ushin, deep feeling, in literature. Above all else, it seems, the Japanese value literature of authentic, honest feeling.





Texts discussed

Fujiwara, T. “Maigetsusho.” in Browner, R. (ed). 1985. Monumenta Nipponica, vol 40, No. 4. Sophia University. (Original work published n.d.)

Hozumi, I. “Naniwa Miyage.” in Shirane, H. (ed). 2002. Early Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1738)

Ki, T., et al. “Kokin Wakashu.”  in McCullough, H. C. (ed). 1985. Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 905)


Other references

Beichman, J. 2002. Masaoka Shiki: his life and works.

“Japanese Aesthetics.” In 2011. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Keene, D. (ed). 1955. Anthology of Japanese literature, from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century. Grove Press.

Keene, D. 1978. Some Japanese Portraits. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Murakami, T. 2001. Superflat. Last Gasp.

Rimer, T. & Yamazaki, M. 1984. On the art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton University Press.

Ueda, M. 1982. The Master Haiku Poet, Matsuo Basho. Tokyo: Kodansha International



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