Social Knowledge & Cultural Memory in Japanese Waka Poetry


A review of Learning with Waka Poetry: Transmission and Production of Social Knowledge and Cultural Memory in Premodern Japan, by Ariel G. Stilerman.

Waka, the poetic form dominant in Japan for more than a millennium, has been subject to a great deal of attention for its allusive intertextuality and imagery. Few scholars, however, have focused on waka in situ, waka on the ground. In this subtle and deeply researched dissertation, Ariel Stilerman turns to a too often overlooked aspect of waka practice: its function as a vehicle for cultural transmission. By bringing into his study bodies of text as varied as early poetic treatises, medieval anecdote collections, and early-modern instructional anthologies, Stilerman takes on the ambitious task of writing a social and pedagogical history of waka from the Heian (794–1185) to the Edo (1600-1868) period.

The first chapter examines the uses of waka as posited in poetic treatises of the insei 院政 period, the time of rule by cloistered emperors, straddling the late Heian and early Kamakura (1185–1333) periods.  Stilerman first takes up Toshiyori zuinō 俊頼髄脳 (1111–14), written by Minamoto no Toshiyori 源俊頼 (1055–1129), followed by Fukurozōshi 袋草紙 (1159), by Fujiwara no Kiyosuke 藤原清輔 (1104–77), and Mumyōshō 無名抄 (1211), by the monk Kamo no Chōmei 鴨長明 (ca. 1155–1216). As a lens, Stilerman develops a conceptual category he calls the “waka vignette,” “a poetry-prose configuration that—regardless of the text or genre in which it appears—combines waka with a brief evocative description, expository account, or narrative episode” (p. 13). Finding that they are uncommon in poetic treatises before Toshiyori zuinō and Fukurozōshi, Stilerman posits that the reason for their sudden appearance was that the knowledge demanded of waka poets had ballooned considerably by the late Heian period. These waka vignettes made poetic history and technique both accessible to and memorable for the student. Because these episodes were in essence retellings of anecdotes from court history, waka and waka vignettes became vehicles for a broader preservation of the culture of the imperial court. Toshiyori zuinō was written for a single pupil, but found its way into other hands soon after its completion: clearly, such instruction was in demand. Fukurozōshi was written as household manual for the Rokujō 六条 school, but like Toshiyori zuinō, it quickly gained an audience beyond its original intended readership and likewise served as a vehicle for enculturation. Mumyōshō also contains a great number of vignettes, but rather than drawing from court and literary history, they largely concern the author himself. All of these texts have received only glancing attention from past scholarship, and Stilerman’s contribution to our understanding of them is considerable.

Chapter 2 moves forward into the Kamakura period and takes up two new texts: Jikkinshō 十訓抄 (1252), and Kokonchomonjū 古今著聞集 (1254). If the treatises of the preceding chapter shed light on a turning point in waka education within the aristocracy, these texts bring waka education beyond its traditional boundaries into the lower reaches of the court and the burgeoning warrior stratum. Both texts fall into the setsuwa 説話 genre of anecdotal literature typical of the medieval period. Though stylistically and generically quite different from the texts discussed in the first chapter, Stilerman shows how this later pair also deploys waka vignettes to preserve and pass on court traditions, but this time to a much wider audience. The compiler of Jikkinshō is unknown, and it is difficult to speculate about his/her social class, but the received preface makes the aims of the text clear: to guide others through the pitfalls of social climbing in post-Heian society. The text is arranged in ten sections, each chapter titled with a maxim such as “One Must Grant Benevolence to People” and comprised of a series of anecdotes related to that principle. Many take the form of waka vignettes, and many of those are gleaned directly from the earlier Toshiyori zuinō. However, Stilerman argues that when they appear in Jikkinshō, they have been bent to a different purpose. While the earlier text sought to inculcate the reader with a knowledge of waka history and technique, here the editors use the text to illustrate the material benefits that flow from a knowledge of poetry. Kokonchomonjū was written by the aristocrat Tachibana no Narisue 橘成季 (fl. 13th c.) and is a veritable encyclopedia of court history and culture. Like Jikkinshō, however, it was written for a warrior audience. Taking these texts together, Stilerman shows that waka moved from being a social practice of the aristocrats to a means for non-aristocrats to acquire knowledge that had once been closed to them.

The third chapter pauses chronologically and shifts the focus to a discourse that in modern scholarship is called katoku 歌徳, the virtues or benefits of poetry. Stilerman identifies three streams of katoku scholarship: as related to a hypothesized ancient belief in the magical efficacy of the Japanese language (kotodama 言霊); as a philosophical attempt to unify poetic practice and Buddhist soteriology; and as attempts by displaced and impoverished aristocrats consciously mysticizing waka in an attempt to carve out places for themselves as professional poetry instructors. All three of these interpretations converge in the Buddhist setsuwa collection Shasekishū 沙石集 (1283), by the priest Ichien 一円 (1226–1312).  Shasekishū is particularly well known for its association of waka with Sanskrit dhāraṇī.  Rather than follow previous scholarship that emphasizes the magical potential of words in either a Buddhist (dhāraṇī) or native (kotodama) context (see for example Keller Kimbrough, “Reading the Miraculous Powers of Japanese Poetry: Spells, Truth Acts, and a Medieval Buddhist Poetics of the Supernatural.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32.1 (2005), p. 1-33 and Herbert Plutschow, Chaos and Cosmos. New York: Brill, 1990), Stilerman invokes J. L. Austin’s concept of “performative sentences” from his influential How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).  For a speech act to be effective, it requires “appropriate circumstances.” By emphasizing the necessity of “appropriate circumstances” for waka to be effective in katoku scenarios, Stilerman argues that the “benefits of waka are a subgroup of the social functions of waka. […] The wondrous benefits and miraculous events in the waka vignettes in these texts are a hyperbolic reflection of the social value of waka knowledge” (p. 167). By thus demonstrating that katoku is activated primarily in interaction, Stilerman connects Shasekishū to his larger project of situating waka within its social circumstances. Also discussed is the fragmentary imayō song collection Ryōjin hishō 梁塵秘抄 (after 1169), attributed to Retired Emperor GoShirakawa 後白河法皇 (1127–92), which has received very little attention in English language scholarship.

Chapter 4 moves again, this time both temporally and socially. Stilerman brings his analysis to a group of texts known as otogizōshi 御伽草子, or “companion tales,” particularly to the role that kyōka 狂歌  (humorous poetry) plays in the further dissemination and reinterpretation of court culture by a new social group: commoners. Of the roughly three hundred-fifty extant tales, Stilerman takes up two: Menoto no sōshi 乳母の草子 and Monokusa Tarō 物くさ太郎. The educational underpinnings of Menoto no sōshi are clear: it describes the upbringing of two aristocratic sisters, one under a prim-and-proper nursemaid, and the other with an uncouth nanny. In Stilerman’s view, Monokusa Tarō is no less instructional. It tells the story of the eponymous hero, roughly Lazy Tarō, who begins life in a small village in a state of Bartleby-esque indolence. When a call for corvée labor arrives, the villagers are delighted to unburden themselves of him and send him to the city. Through clever exchanges of kyōka, he is able to climb the social ladder, in the end marrying a court lady and returning to his village a rich and ennobled man. Rather than focus on the protagonist’s lethargy, as previous scholarship has done, Stilerman sees the kyōka exchanges between Tarō and his ladylove as the key to understanding the story. Though it is tempting to read the exchanges as a parody of katoku vignettes, as Stilerman notes, “kyōka achieve their humorous effect only when read against the background of the tradition and conventions of orthodox waka” (p. 205). Indeed, they function much as the vignettes in treatises such as Toshiyori zuinō of the first chapter: condensations of court cultural knowledge preserved, transmitted, and reinterpreted. Bringing this lens to otogizōshi allows Stilerman to make a conceptual bridge between the late court culture of the Heian-Kamakura and the rise of commoner literacy in the Muromachi-Sengoku.

If until this point the dissertation has focused on the preservation and dissemination of court cultural memory, in the final chapter Stilerman turns to waka that preserve other kinds of more technical knowledge, such as that of kemari 蹴鞠 (traditional football) or cha no yu 茶の湯 (tea). Stilerman draws on the work of Inoue Muneo, who makes a distinction between didactic waka meant to convey specialized or technical knowledge, shodō kyōkunka 諸道教訓歌, and waka meant to instruct morally, dōka 道歌 (Inoue Muneo, “Waka no jitsuyōsei to bungeisei – kyōka kyōkunka to shōfūtei.” Chūsei kadan to kajinden no kenkyū. Tokyo: Kasama shoin, 2007). Stilerman expands on this dichotomy by contrasting instructional waka that were produced in vertically oriented households of specialists such as Asukai Masayasu’s 飛鳥井雅康 (1436–1509) Kemari hyakushu 蹴鞠百首 with works from decentralized artistic communities such as tea practitioners in the early Edo period, as represented by Chanoyu hyakushu 茶湯百首, attributed to Sen no Rikyū 千利休 (1522–91). Asukai was a member of an aristocratic household, and as such was well schooled in the techniques and canons of orthodox waka. This is clear from his writings, as learned toponyms pepper otherwise drab poetry about tree placement around the football court. Although the Chanoyu Hyakushu contains orthodox imagery, the references are much more easily accessible, and Stilerman surmises that this is due to an assumption of the education of the intended audience. Nonetheless, references are made as part of a broader pedagogical apparatus designed to instruct the reader in etiquette, appreciation of implements, and creation of tea spaces. Indeed, its emphasis on appropriate conduct in social circumstances places it in the same category as the treatises discussed in the early chapters of this dissertation. As Stilerman concludes, “the pedagogical functions of waka […] are not restricted to distinct subgenres of waka such as kyōkunka, dōka, or shodō kyōkunka, but lie on a continuum with orthodox waka, humorous waka, and the many other roles that waka played as a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge” (p. 242).

A useful epilogue draws waka into the modern period through the Meiji-period poet Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規 (1867–1902).

Stilerman’s dissertation will be of interest to anyone interested in transmission of knowledge, cultural memory, and cultural production, particularly where it concerns the long slow devolution of Japanese court practices away from their original center. The conceptual tool of the “waka vignette” allows him to draw in much textual information external to the poem itself and will be tremendously useful to anyone studying texts in which poems appear mixed with prose, from genres as diverse as the poetic anthology and the medieval anecdote. By focusing on how waka functioned in social practice and how this social practice affected the transmission of poetic form, Stilerman makes an important contribution to a field notable for its neglect, the social history of waka.

Ross Henderson
Department of Asian Languages & Literature
University of Washington

Primary Sources
Minamoto no Toshiyori 源俊頼, Toshiyori zuinō 俊頼髄脳
Jikkinshō 十訓抄
Ichien 一円, Shasekishū 沙石集
Monokusa Tarō 物くさ太郎
Sen no Rikyū 千利休, Chanoyu hyakushu 茶湯百首

Dissertation Information
Columbia University. 2015. 276 pp. Primary Advisor: Haruo Shirane.

Image: photo by author

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