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EDITORIAL | Treasure the Discovered Commentary on Medieval Japanese Poetry

Previously believed to have been lost forever, the handwritten commentary by the 13th-century poet Teika reflects the essence and depth of Japanese culture.



Distinctive signature of Fujiwara no Teika on the copy of the Kenchu Mikkan. It reads "Hachiza Chinro," which was Teika's pen name. (Courtesy of the Reizei Family Shiguretei Bunko Foundation, Kyoto). (Photo: Sankei by Sachimi Tanaka)

It is as if we have opened a veritable treasure box. A handwritten poetic commentary left by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), perhaps the most famous poet of the Kamakura period, was recently discovered at the home of his descendants, the Reizei family in Kyoto. 

It is also known as Fujiwara no Sadaie. It was Teika who selected the poems included in the popular Ogura Hyakunin Isshu collection of a hundred poems by a hundred poets. 

A National Treasure Found

The document in question is the Kenchu Mikkan. It is a commentary on the influential 10th-century poetry anthology, the Kokinshu. (Kokinshu is a "collection of waka poems of ancient and modern times.") It is also known as the Kokin Wakashu

A box labeled Kokindenju, where the commentary was stored. (Courtesy of the Reizei Family Shiguretei Bunko Foundation, Kyoto).

Previously, it was believed to have been lost forever. The manuscript has been designated as an important cultural property, but experts rate it as a "national treasure" because it is an original written by Teika. 

Waka poetry can be considered one of the fountainheads of Japanese culture. And the research results provided by a thorough study of the find will be eagerly anticipated. 

Actually, the commentary was written in three volumes. Importantly, the second and third volumes were confirmed by experts as written in Teika's own hand. The first volume is a copy made by a later member of his family, as the original appears to have been lost in a fire. 

Preserving Literary History

The three-volume commentary was stored in a special wooden box labeled Kokindenju ("Secret Interpretations of the Kokin Wakashu.") It had been kept in a storehouse and remained unopened for 130 years since the Meiji era. Stories about it said that successive heads of the family had used it to hone their poetry skills, in some cases opening it once during their lifetimes to copy it. 

The commentary itself was written by the famous poet Kensho (c.1130-c.1210), with Teika having added his own comments. To the present day, it is considered an important book for the study of waka poetry. It is important as well as the history of Japanese literature


The new find is especially noteworthy as a Teika original. Kazuhiko Kobayashi of Waka Studies at Kyoto Sangyo University hopes it will "resolve differences in the various transcribed documents that have been passed down." 

Distinctive signature of Fujiwara no Teika on the copy of the Kenchu Mikkan. It reads "Hachiza Chinro," which was Teika's pen name. (Courtesy of the Reizei Family Shiguretei Bunko Foundation, Kyoto). (Photo: Sankei by Sachimi Tanaka)

A Document of History

The Kokinshu (Kokin Wakashu) dates from around 905. It was the first of 21 waka anthologies to be compiled at the Emperor's behest as an imperial collection (chokusenshu). That was roughly three centuries before Teika lived. 

The newly discovered document shows how seriously Teika took his annotations to Kensho's commentary, and he even attached additional pieces of paper in places. His notations offer a window into the thinking of perhaps the foremost authority on Japanese classics, one that could never be found with copies. 

As a matter of fact, there was a reason that this cultural treasure was rediscovered. The Reizei family respected the storehouse as a sacred temple and guarded it through generations. More than anything else, they preserved the space out of reverence for their ancestors and their admonishments. In other words, this treasure was passed down to us because they stood in awe of the storehouse itself. 

Unfortunately, the commentary is in a severely deteriorated condition. However, the owners will consider putting it on public display after restoration work has been completed and experts have had the opportunity to carefully examine it. 

Portrait of Fujiwara no Teika (Courtesy of the Reizei Family)

Reflecting Japan's Culture

The fact that discoveries like this are still being made eight centuries after Teika's days reflects the depth of Japan's cultural heritage. 

The aesthetic sensibility conveyed by the Kokinshu has had a profound effect on Japan. It has impacted academic learning and art as well as the distinctive dress, eating habits, and forms of shelter favored by the Japanese people. 

The current head of the family, Tamehito Reizei, sums it up, saying, "[The collection] forms the basis of Japanese culture." 

The document's discovery sheds new light on the age in which Teika lived. Hopefully, it will provide an opportunity for the essence of Japanese culture to become more deeply and widely known. 


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun