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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

The Kanshi Poems of The Ozasa Tanzaku Collection: Late Edo Life Through The Eyes of Kyoto Townsmen
by Judith Rabinovitch and Timothy R. Bradstock
A Review by Robert D. Wilson

 

China deeply influenced the foundation of Japanese poetry. Basho, Shotetsu, Teika, Buson, and other Japanese poet masters studied and borrowed from Chinese poets, especially those of the Tang Dynasty. As a point of reference, look at this Tang Dynasty poem by Li Po; the imagery, and emphasis on nature coupled with a juxtaposition into the experiential. This poem was written before the tanka genre became the literary expression of the Japanese Imperial Court, yet the influence of Chinese poetry on Japanese poetry is clearly seen in this example:


So many cliffs, jade blue to scour the sky,
I've rambled, years uncounted,
brushing aside the clouds, to seek to ask the Ancient Way,
or maybe leaned against a tree to listen to a stream flow.
Among sun-warmed blossoms, the blue ox sleeps.
In the tall pines, the white crane naps.
Words came to me, with the river sunset:
alone, I came down, through the cold mist.

Li Po (701-762); Tang Dynasty
(translated by J.P. Seaton)


Poetry by Li Po, Tu Fu, Po Chu-i, Wang Wei, and other major Tang Dynasty poets was widely read by those of the Japanese Imperial Court. This influence, of course, spread to the common people when poetry broke free from the social hierarchy that espoused it. A study of poetry written by Basho, Saigyo, Buson, Shotetsu, and other notable Japanese poets makes this clear.

To get a broader understanding of Japanese poetry, it is important to study the influences that gave it shape and, perhaps through this understanding, we as Westerners can realize a more holistic picture of what Japanese short form poetry is and isn't.

According to Judith Rabinovitch in the introduction to her book The Kanshi Poems of The Ozasa Tanzaku Collection, "By the mid to late Edo period (1603-1868), the ability to compose poetry in Chinese (kanshi) had become a skill possessed by many Japanese, in particular well educated city dwellers in the major urban centers. Kanshi composition was no longer the exclusive domain of Japan's intellectuals, priests, and courtiers as it had been in earlier periods of the nation's (Japan) history. ." Continues Rabinovitch, "For these individuals, writing kanshi served both formal and informal functions, but its private use among friends and family was especially marked by this time. Countless pieces of verse recorded on attractive papers, these matched to the season and the occasion, were written impromptu and exchanged with an apparent ease and casualness rivaling the modern use of the picture postcard or greeting card in the West."


The infusion of Chinese poetics, religion, philosophy, etc., influenced voices penning haiku, waka (tanka), and other genres of Japanese short form poetry. Kanshi as Rabinovitch points out, "provided a mode of expression involving a range of thematic concerns uncommon, if not absent entirely, in the waka (vernacular poetry) tradition, which was relatively narrow and circumspect in its literary themes: political events, rural life, the pain of poverty, the misery of illness, and even death itself are examples of kanshi topoi virtually excluded from Japanese verse, especially that written after the Heian period began."

Kanshi poetry also gives one a glimpse into the social make-up of Japan during the Edo period. Kanshi were composed primarily by men. Male members of the Japanese Imperial Court and intelligentsia were expected to be able to read and write in the Chinese language. Women were considered second class citizens and were not as likely to be educated in the literary arts. Those who did write poetry usually did so in their native dialect, and usually in the form of tanka.


Let us look at a few of the kanshi poems. Note the similarity of the lines repeated in bold to haiku:

Down in the valley last night the rain fell in torrents.
Through fresh verdure, shady and dense, the slanting rays of dawn.
By a stone path, away in the distance, what is it one sees?
Off in the clouds, still remaining, a forest full of blossoms.


Yamamoto Baioku, 1822-?


Off in the clouds, still remaining, a forest full of blossoms.



Flowering peach trees soaked with dew bearing the chill of spring.
The water clock dripping on and on, the shades of night grow deep.
So very melancholy the moon shining beyond the crystal blinds.
She gazes at it all alone, from her coral pillow.


Priest Toteki ?-1807


So very melancholy the moon shining beyond the crystal blinds.


Near the bridge, seeing off a guest; cold wind from the valley.

Outside my house, with a priest; high the moon above the hills.
Old dreams, misty and distant, ones of you and me:
I can almost hear the sound of the tiger, letting out a roar.

Priest Rakei (Jihon), 1795-1869


Near the bridge, seeing off a guest; cold wind from the valley.



The Kanshi Poems of the Ozasa Tanzaku Collection is an enjoyable and important read. I found many of the poems inspirational. Reading them gave me a deeper perspective of the Japanese mindset of the time, and of the genres that make up Japanese short form poetry.


The Kanshi Poems of The Ozasa Tanzaku Collection: Late Edo Life Through The Eyes of Kyoto Townsmen
by Judith Rabinovitch and Timothy R. Bradstock
Published by The International Research Center For Japanese Studies
2002
ISSN 1334-4972