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  • Householders: The Reizei Family in Japanese History
  • Lee Butler (bio)
Householders: The Reizei Family in Japanese History. By Steven D. Carter. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2007. xiv, 515 pages. $55.00.

The potential pitfalls of writing a book like this are numerous. After all, the topic—one thousand years of the Reizei, an aristocratic family of Japan famous for its poetry—comes across, depending on one’s perspective, as [End Page 471] narrow and confining or broad and unwieldy. Why, one might ask, should a study focus on a single poetic family, maintained hereditarily? Surely most of its members were undistinguished poets. From a broader cultural perspective, perhaps the family warrants a detailed examination, though one cannot help but wonder “why this family?” and “why all one thousand years of it?” If those are not pitfalls enough, it is easy to see that this topic hardly lends itself well to a tight thesis, for what sort of unifying argument can define one family over 11 centuries? On first glance, then, one wonders if this book will satisfy either the literary scholar (excepting perhaps the lover of all uta) or the cultural historian.

And yet it should satisfy both. This is a rich book, a treat of cultural history that repeatedly provides unexpected insights into the workings of Japanese culture. Many of the insights are subtle; more than a few are the result of Carter’s decision to follow the meanderings of this one family, to cut a narrow swath across a broad expanse of time.

Householders is chronological in organization. By simplest definition, the book traces and examines the Reizei family from its establishment in the eleventh century to its present situation in the twenty-first. Each chapter title is a place name, or several names. Thus there are “Mount Ogura,” the location of a cottage of Fujiwara no Teika, to the west of the capital; “Kamakura,” where Nun Abutsu (d. 1283), “the woman who is rightly credited as the true founder of the Reizei house” (p. 54), spent the last four years of her life pursuing a suit before the Kamakura shogunate; “Muromachi, Sakamoto, and Beyond,” which centers on the family’s fortunes in the fifteenth century, during which the Reizei ultimately fled the Kyoto conflagrations for Sakamoto; and “Tōkai Road,” which focuses on the eighteenth century, a time in which the Reizei head, Tamemura, was particularly active in accepting disciples to the east of the capital, along the “Eastern-shore Road.” This use of place names as chapter titles (ten in all) effectively emphasizes two themes that run through the volume: one, the Reizei were not, generation after generation, cloistered at court, bound to the capital; and two, the family’s fortunes and misfortunes were tied to landed income, patronage, and its disciples, assets that often lay beyond the capital. No study in English makes these points so convincingly as Householders.

Of course, a central focus of this study is the practice of poetry, specifically uta or waka. As one would expect of a work by Steven Carter, the volume includes translations of poems, scattered here and there and analyzed, as well as a 100-page appendix of 100 poems of the Reizei school, with commentary. Of more significance, Carter’s discussion sheds much light on the practice of poetry, in the following ways. First, although scholars (including Carter) have long insisted that the writing of waka remained an important art and significant cultural activity long after its heyday in the Heian era, such arguments have lacked punch; the reality, it appeared, was that uta had been superseded by new poetic arts such as linked verse. What we see [End Page 472] in Householders, however, is how and why waka remained important, not just to the Reizei family but to its disciples, including clergy and warriors in medieval times, and to a much larger and broadly defined group in the Tokugawa era. As Carter notes, in the eighteenth century the Reizei could number among their disciples members of the imperial family; clergy of various statuses; several Tokugawa shoguns; bannermen of the shogunate; daimyō; elite samurai; and certain merchants, artists, and artisans. All of...


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