The Japanese “Poetic Immortals”


A review of Remembrance(s) of Immortals Past: Kasen as Memory and Polemic in Japanese Court Poetry, by LeRon James Harrison.

The study of the nature and formation of memory in literature has received less study than its intellectual cousin tradition, especially by those of us working on East Asia. Premodern Japan has such a long history of self-referential literary “tradition(s)” that scholars often bypass other avenues for exploring how works create, maintain, and alter views of the past. This is an error LeRon James Harrison’s Remembrance(s) of Immortals Past: Kasen as Memory and Polemic in Japanese Court Poetry corrects, reading the process of canonization through the lens of cognitive science to understand it as a function of memory.

Harrison takes for his focus the kasen 歌仙, or “poetic immortals,” a group of thirty-six waka poets revered in later ages as the most exemplary. Rather than start with modern interpretations of kasen, Harrison looks back to Heian-period (784-1185) texts which first explored the idea of poetic excellence.Harrison conceptualizes kasen as “memories,” whose encoding, remembering, and misremembering led to the formation by the fourteenth century of a fairly stable set of poems and poets, which could easily be transferred to other media (p. 174).

Harrison’s introduction uses Daniel Schachter’s concept of the two “sins of memory,” omission and commission (p. 2), to explain how the transmission of the memory of selected individuals causes a representative grouping of poets to become defined as a specific and closed set, a process he refers to as “mnemonic slippage.” Harrison combines this with Gabriel Radvansky’s theory of memory as information storage, as well as Edmund Casey’s discussion of the sense of permanence we associate with memories, a “thick autonomy” that blinds us to the mutable nature of remembrance as an action (p. 28). In laying out his methodological undertaking, Harrison is clear to outline other approaches to literature and its relationship to memory, while presenting how his own addresses weaknesses that other scholars have so far failed to take into account.

Chapter 1 of Harrison’s dissertation focuses on the origins of the kasen designation and the forms it took in the early Heian period. He locates the first use of the term kasen in Japanese in the Kokin wakashū 古今和歌集 (c. 920) poetry anthology, more specifically in the mana 真名, or classical Chinese, preface to the work. Exploring references which later scholars cite to understand the term kasen, Harrison demonstrates how misreadings and “misrememberings” of earlier Chinese and Japanese precedents allowed Heian scholars to arrive at varying interpretations of the Kokin wakashū’s use of the term.

Chapter 2 turns to utaawase 歌合, or “poetry matches,” and focuses on three works written by Fujiwara no Kintō 藤原公任 in the mid-eleventh century which present and compare the work of poets from the Asuka through early Heian periods. Harrison argues that Kintō’s refusal to name winners or offer judgments for his comparisons displays an understanding of poetic excellence as categorical in quality, rather than inherent in specific individuals. However, this approach gets sidelined by late Heian and Kamakura (1185-1333) poets, who misappropriate Kintō’s term kasen and assign or deny it to specific poets on a polemical basis.

Chapter 3 presents examples which (borrowing Edmund Casey’s terms) move from a model of “remembrance” to “permanence,” closing off the definition kasen such that it revolves around a select group of individual poets (p. 174). Fujiwara no Moritaka’s 藤原盛方 Sanjūrokunin kasenden 三十六人歌仙伝 (late eleventh century), patterned on the zhuan segments of the classical Chinese histories, presents detailed biographies of thirty-six poets earlier given by Kintō, while allowing contemporary readers to access—and thus reinscribe—this information. Harrison next discusses a memorial service held in 1118 for Kakinomoto no Hitomaro 柿本人麻呂, a poet of the late Asuka Period (538-710), in which courtiers enacted their remembrance of a poet 400 years dead—and in doing so, Harrison argues, altered the way in which Hitomaro was remembered, granting him transcendental importance.

Chapter 4 takes the discussion into the late twelfth century and the final closing-off of alternate interpretations of kasen. Harrison cites Edward Shils’ theory of tradition as the repetitions of actions within a matrix of rules and applies it to Fujiwara no Kiyosuke’s 藤原清輔 Fukuro zōshi 袋草子 (1156-1159) and his rival Fujiwara no Shunzei’s 藤原俊成 Kosanjūrokunin utaawase 古三十六人歌合 (date uncertain). Despite offering alternate (and mutually incompatible) rationales for the selection of kasen, each work reifies these thirty-six individuals by eliding prior ideals of poetic excellence in favor of a fixed set of inherently exemplary poets.

In his conclusion, Harrison briefly traces the evolution of kasen after the Kamakura period. By revealing these poets as a now fixed set, Harrison demonstrates how they were able to be transferred to other media such as prints and paintings. Having become name-associations, the thirty-six kasen were objects of reverence, the act of which overrode previous understandings of how and why their poetry was important.

LeRon James Harrison’s research on kasen provides a new interpretation concerning the question of canonization and the development of tradition.By linking his theories to cognitive science, Harrison’s interdisciplinary work is both innovative in its propositions and forward-thinking in its approach to scholarship. Both Harrison’s theoretical and methodological models are worth emulating for a more nuanced understanding of the “canon” of memories with and within which we scholars of literature work.

Joshua Frydman
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures
Yale University

Primary Sources

Sanjūrokuninsen 三十六人撰 (“A Selection of Thirty-Six Poets”), Fujiwara no Kintō 藤原公任
Sanjūrokunin kasenden 三十六人歌仙伝 (“Biographies of the Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals”), Fujiwara no Morikata 藤原盛方
Kakinomoto eiguki 柿本影供記 (“A Record of the Memorial Service for Kakinomoto [no Hitomaro]”), Fujiwara no Atsumitsu 藤原敦光
Fukuro zōshi 袋草子 (“A Bagful of Letters”), Fujiwara no Kiyosuke 藤原清輔
Kosanjurokunin utaawase 古三十六人歌合 (“Poetry Match of Thirty-Six Poets of the Past”), Fujiwara no Shunzei 藤原俊成

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine, 2010. 235 pp. Primary Advisor: Susan Blakeley Klein.


Image: “The Thirty-six Poetry Immortals” (Sanjūrokkasen) by Ichieisai Yoshitsuya (1822-1866), Museum of Fine Arts Boston Educators Online.

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