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Love, Poetry and Renunciation: Changing Configurations of the Ideal of Suki*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2009


Anyone familiar with classical Japanese literature cannot but be struck by the rich array of terms such as mono no aware, yugen, wabi and sabi, to mention just a few, which are regarded as being central to the understanding of Japanese artistic theory and practice. These categories were not, of course, essentialist and unchanging. They were dynamic concepts which were subject to major transformations. These transformations illuminate important aspects of Japan's cultural history.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Asiatic Society 1995

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This article has been awarded the Major Barwis-Holliday Award for Far Eastern Studies for 1995.


1 LaFleur, William R., The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983), pp. 910.Google Scholar

2 Ōno Susumu has suggested that suki in the Heian period was quite close in meaning to the modern Japanese word suki. It signified an unbridled flow of emotions towards a particular object or person and reflected a sense of pure enjoyment which was free of moral constraints. See Susumu, Ōno, “Ōchō bungaku no kotoba”, Nihon bungaku kenkyū (Tokyo), pp. 50–1.Google Scholar

3 See Jin'ichi, Konishi, “Fūryū: an ideal of Japanese esthetic life”, Orient West, VII, no 7 (1962), pp. 1116Google Scholar. Konishi has pointed out that by concentrating on the purely lexical meaning of the term, scholars have often failed to grasp the cultural world within which this ideal took root. He has examined the poetry of the T'ang period with particular reference to the technique of parallelisms to understand the context in which feng liu was used. He suggests that four terms - liquor, poetry, woman and zither were constantly associated with feng liu. See also Harries, Phillip, “Fūryū, a concept of elegance in pre-modern literature”, in Europe Interprets Japan, ed. Daniels, Gordon (Kent, 1984)Google Scholar.

4 See Shirane, Haruo, The Bridge of Dreams: a Poetics of The Tale of Genji (Stanford, 1987), p. 35.Google Scholar

5 One of the rare examples of a negative attitude to irogonomi appears in the preface of the Kokinshū (Collection of Ancient and Modem Times). In the Japanese preface of the work, which was inspired in part by its Chinese counterpart, the author, Ki no Tsurayuki, uses the term irogonomi as the equivalent of kōshoku of the Chinese preface, and in so doing he takes over the attitude of disapproval for it embodied in Confucian thinking. He writes: “But in our present age, only surface brilliance is valued, people's hearts have grown frivolous: they produce naught but frothy poems, inconsequential words. Poetry has fallen into decay and oblivion amongst men and women of fashion and dalliance (irogonomi), never blooming forth in proper circles” (see Kokinwakashū, ed. Masao, Ozawa, Nihon koten bungaku zenshū [Tokyo, 1971], p. 54Google Scholar). In the actual collection of poems in the Kokinshū, however, as many as five of the twenty volumes of the work are devoted to the theme of love and present such poems as would be exchanged by lovers in private. The way in which irogonomi is used in the preface to the Kokinshū reflects the great gap that existed between Japanese sensibilities and the Chinese moral ethic. See Shin'ichiro, Nakamura, Irogonomi no kōzō (Tokyo, 1985), p. 22.Google Scholar

6 The Tales of Ise has also been read as a statement of a commoner's challenge to the Fujiwara aristocracy and the power of the court, through his pursuit of three women of high rank who are forbidden to him. See Marra, Michele, The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Early fapanese Literature (Honolulu, 1991), pp. 3043.Google Scholar

7 The uncertainty of a woman's fidelity often rendered her even more attractive in the eyes of men. See Ise monogatari, [hereafter IM], in Yoichi, Katagiri et al. (eds), Taketori monogatari, Yamato monogatari, Heichū monogatari, Ise monogatari, Nihon koten bangaku zenshū, 8 (Tokyo, 1972), p. 165Google Scholar; trans, in McCullough, Helen, Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth Century Japan (Tokyo, 1968) [hereafter Tales of Ise], pp. 95–6.Google Scholar

8 IM, p. 232Google Scholar; Tales of Ise, pp. 148–9.Google Scholar

9 IM, p. 166. All translations not otherwise noted are by the author.

10 Taketori monogatari, in Yoichi, Katagiri et al. (eds), Taketori monogatari, Yamato monogatari, Ise monogatari, Heichū monogatari, Nihon koten bungaku zenshū, 8 (Tokyo, 1972), p. 54.Google Scholar

11 See Yoshinori, Yoshizawa, Cengoshakusen (Tokyo, 1950), p. 174.Google Scholar Also Masao, Kinoshita, Heian jōryū bungaku no kotoba (Tokyo, 1968), p. 50Google Scholar, where he translates the word suki as kōshoku

12 See Stinchecum, Amanda, Ph.D dissertation, “Narrative Voice in the Tale of Genji”, published as Vol. V of the Illinois Papers in Asian Studies (University of Illinois, Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies, 1985), p. 15.Google Scholar

13 Genji monogatari (hereafter GM), vol i in Akio, Abe et al. (eds), Nihon koten bungaku zenshū (Tokyo, 1972), p. 217.Google Scholar I have, on occasion, chosen to rephrase some of the passages that appear in E. G. Seidensticker's excellent translation of this work, in order to highlight the meaning of the key terms that are the object of this study. See Seidensticker, E. G. [hereafter EGS], The Tale of Genji [hereafter TG] (New York, 1978).Google Scholar

14 GM, i, p. 410.

15 GM, ii, p. 12.

16 Ibid., iii, p. 88.

17 Ibid., i, p. 134; trans, in Waley, Arthur, The Tale of Genji (hereafter TG) (Tokyo, 1970), p. 23.Google Scholar

18 GM, i, p. 156; EGS, TG, pp. 31–2.

19 GM, pp. 344–5; trans, in EGS, TG, p. 115. The form iromeitari results by onbin (euphonic change) from iromekitari.

20 GM, ii, p. 23; trans, in EGS, TG, pp. 164–5.

21 GM, iv, p. 203; Cf. Seidensticker's translation, TG, p. 609.

22 GM, ii, p. 23; trans, in EGS, TG, p. 256.

23 Waley, Arthur, TG, p. 266Google Scholar; EGS, TG, p. 256.

24 GM, ii, p. 233; trans, in EGS, TG, p. 256.

25 Makura no sōshi, in Satoshi, Matsuo and Kazuko, Nagai (eds.), Nihon koten bungaku zenshū, II (Tokyo), p. 90.Google Scholar

26 Murasaki Shikibu nikki in Murasaki Shikibushū, Nihon koten shūsei, 35 (Tokyo, 1980), pp. 102–3Google Scholar. Trans, in Bowring, Richard, Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs (Princeton, 1982), p. 145Google Scholar.

27 For a detailed study of the ideal of michi see Jin'ichi, Konishi, Michi: Chūsei no rinen (Tokyo, 1975)Google Scholar. See also Jin'ichi, Konishi, “Michi and medieval writing”, in Miner, Earl (ed.), Principles of Classical Japanese Literature (Princeton, 1985).Google Scholar

28 The Rokujō branch of the Fujiwara was shaped into a school of waka by Fujiwara Akisuke (1090–1155) and his sons Kiyosuke (1104–77), Shigeie (1161–1207) and Suetsune (1131–1221). Fujiwara Shunzei (1114–1204), who became a pupil of Fujiwara Mototoshi, formed the Mikohidari school, which became the most prestigious of all waka schools.

29 Jun'ichirō, Takakusu, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy (Honolulu, 1956), p. 136.Google Scholar

30 The Ten Worlds refers to the world of hell and the nine realms - of hungry ghosts, animals, asuras, humans, celestial beings, Arhats, the Self-Enlightened, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas.

31 For detailed studies of twelfth and thirteenth century bakufu rule see Mass, Jeffrey P., Warrior Government in Early Medieval Japan (New Haven and London, 1974)Google Scholar and Minoru, Shinoda, The Founding of the Kamakura Shogunate (New York, 1960).Google Scholar

32 Brower, Robert H. and Miner, Earl, Japanese Court Poetry (Stanford, 1961), p. 246.Google Scholar

33 Mumyōshō, in Sen'ichi, Hisamatsu and Minoru, Nishio (eds), Karonshū, Nogakushū, Nihon koten bungaku taikei, 65 (Tokyo, 1961), p. 59Google Scholar. For a more detailed study of the writings of Kamo no Chōmei, see my unpublished Ph.D thesis, “In Search of a Synthesis of Aesthetic and Religious Ideals: The Works of Kamo no Chomei (1155–1216)”, 1989.Google Scholar

34 Tsurezuregusa, Nihon koten bungaku zenshū, (Tokyo), p. 96Google Scholar. Trans, in Keene, Donald, Essays in Idleness (New York, 1956), p. 5Google Scholar.

35 Mumyōzōshi, in Hiroshi, Kuwabara (ed.), Shinchō nihon koten shūsei (Tokyo, 1976), p. 105.Google Scholar

36 Fukurozōshi chushaku, ed. Masao, Ozawa (Tokyo, 1973), pp. 263264Google Scholar.

37 Saigyō shōnin danshō, in Sen'ichi, Hisamatsu (ed.), Karonshu, Vol. i, Chūsei no bungaku (Tokyo, 1971), p. 107Google Scholar.

38 Mumyōsho, p. 72.

39 Koraifūteishō, in Sen'ichi, Hisamatsu (ed.), Karonshū, Vol. i, pp. 119–20Google Scholar.

40 Jin'ichi, Konishi, “Shunzei no yugenfu to shikan”, Bungaku XX (2 02 1952), pp. III–12Google Scholar.

41 Myōeshonimhū, in jun, Kubota and Akio, Yamamoto (eds) (Tokyo, 1981), p. 213Google Scholar.

42 Mezaki Tokue, “Aesthete recluses during the transition from ancient to medieval Japan”, in Earl Miner (ed.), Principles of Classical Japanese Literature.

43 Toganoo Myōe shōnin denki, Kokubun tōhōbukkyō sōshō, denkibu, Vol. v (Tokyo, 1925), p. 287Google Scholar.

44 Shasekishū, in Tsunaya, Watanabe (ed.), Nihon koten bungaku taikei, 85 (Tokyo, 1976), p. 251Google Scholar.

45 Hosshinshū, in Sumito, Miki (ed.), Hōjoki, Hosshinshū, Shinchō nihon koten shūsei (Tokyo, 1976), p. 278Google Scholar.

46 See Shūzo, Kuki, Iki no kōzō, second edition (Tokyo, 1990), p. 30Google Scholar. In this work Kuki Shūzo (1888–1941), conducts a philosophical analysis of Japanese aesthetics by looking at one key term, iki. Kuki points out that the term iki is used synonymously with sui in the Edo period. Kuki locates this ideal within the world of the pleasure quarters and identifies three major components that constitute iki, namely, seduction (bitai), renunciation (akirame) and valour or pride (ikiji). It is the tension among these three facets of the ideal of iki, he argues, that lends it its particular dynamism.

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