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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

Householders: The Reizei Family in Japanese History
by Steven D. Carter
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


History is a social science, contrary to what is being taught in many American public and private schools. Rote memorization and the study of material irrelevant to one's realm of experience, past, present, and future, has done much to quench the thirst students might have entertained towards personal and societal growth had the subject been taught correctly. History teaches us where we came from, who we are, and what we can become.

Steven D. Carter's new book, The Householders, is a history book that tells the story of Japan's Reizei Family and the important contribution they have made and continue to make, to the genres that make up Japanese short form poetry. With this in mind, Carter's book will give readers deeper insight into the mindset that helped shape the course of poetic thought in Japan. It is good to read waka (tanka) penned by the genre's pioneers but reading them is not enough. The deeper your study, the better equipped you'll be able to understand a poet's mindset and the tools used to craft poems.

An excerpt:

[Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114 - 1204) was commissioned to compile an anthology he titled "Senzaishu" (Collection of a Thousand Years) by Japan's Emperor Go-Toba. Although a well respected poet, Shunzei felt impelled at first to limit the number of his own poems included in the anthology. Thirty-six were selected for inclusion, including:]

As evening descends the autumn wind
on the fields ... pierces to the quick:
a quail cries from the deep grass of Fukakusa

yu sareba/ nobe no akikaze/ mi ni shimite/ uzura naku nari/ fukakusa no sato

Writes Carter:

"While it was placed in one of the autumn books of the new anthology, the poem is not straightforward natural description, and it seems to hint at something behind the surface in a way consistent with the author's ideal of yugen, or "mystery and depth." As any educated courtier would immediately know, that something is in fact a famous poetic exchange, recorded in Tales of lse, between the legendary Ariwara no Narihira (821-80) and a woman whom he is leaving behind in a place called Fukakusa, "Deep Grass"--a woman who vows to spend her time calling out like a forlorn quail awaiting her hunter's return. Shunzei's poem, through a technique called honkadori ("allusive variation," or the building of a new poem around a line or lines from a well-known older one), therefore gestures toward a story in one of the primary texts of the courtly poetic tradition, and toward a past that would serve as a kind of golden age in the courtly imagination. Not by chance, the poem also makes an important claim: that its author is one who has the proper knowledge and sensibility to respond to everything the call of the quail implies. That the poem was not written at Fukakusa but in his own chambers, for a small anthology solicited by a patron, makes the point even more clear. One of his critics complained that the line "pierces to the quick" contravened the ideal of understatement. Later generations have tended not to agree. The poignancy of the poem's emotional content, along with its sonorous phrasing and skillful combination of sensory images---the sight of the grassy fields, the cold touch of autumn wind, and the sound of quail---have sustained it as one of the most oft-quoted poems in the classical cannon."

Deepen your understanding of tanka. Reading Steven D. Carter's Householders will help you in this endeavor.

Householders: The Reizei Family in Japanese History
Steven D. Carter
Harvard University Asia Center
ISBN-10: 0-674-02453-2