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  • Cultural Knowledge and Professional Training in the Poetic Treatises of Late Heian Japan
  • Ariel Stilerman

For most of the Heian period (794–1185), aristocrats were expected to display a sophisticated knowledge of classical Japanese poetry (waka 和歌, or uta 歌). This entailed facility with the subtleties of deploying poems as part of a standard of elegance in everyday conversation—an expertise that encompassed the recognition and recreation of various forms of allusion, metaphor, and intertextual reference. To this end, courtiers needed to know the canon, to be masters of poetic technique, and to command broad cultural knowledge in fields ranging from history to botany to linguistics. How was this expertise taught, and how did this pedagogic practice change over time? This study examines the transformation in pedagogic, professional, and institutional dynamics within the world of waka that began in the twelfth century and continued into the thirteenth.

As with any other social practice in an elite society, waka had its specialists, and the way in which specialization was acquired changed over time. Up until the end of the eleventh century, learning waka had been inseparable from the wider processes of enculturation and socialization into aristocratic society. That is, instruction on waka was seamlessly integrated into the coordinated practices that gradually enrolled a person in the community and initiated him or her in the particular forms of subjectivity and cultural memory that were part of the fabric of life in the imperial court and its network of provincial administrative seats. This education was imparted without benefit of an explicit pedagogical method, professional instructors, or an institution devoted to teaching composition. For this reason, we have no detailed extant accounts of how the men and women of the aristocracy learned to become poets or what the general curriculum might have looked like—if indeed there was a curriculum at all.

The twelfth century was a time of transformation. During the early decades of the century, the time-honored, yet mostly unarticulated, ways in which an aristocrat was expected to pick up poetic knowledge began yielding to the efforts of a thriving, [End Page 153] entrepreneurial cadre of specialists. By mid-century, the craft of waka had coalesced under the stewardship of poetic households headed by instructors who were professionals in the dual sense of being recognized experts and engaging in the field as a primary remunerative occupation rather than as a leisurely pursuit. Recognition entailed having the poems of current and past school heads included in an imperially sanctioned anthology and, in the best possible case, being commissioned to compile such an anthology. These new professional specialists competed with each other for financial backing from wealthy and powerful figures participating in semipublic poetic contests. For these patrons, they would write treatises, create lists of required readings, provide copies of manuscripts, and grade practice poems. By the end of the century, a handful of poetic schools offered training in waka under an explicit master-disciple contract and produced sophisticated treatises for their students.

The changes in the practice of waka that came to the surface during the twelfth century have been explained in previous scholarship in connection with two historical processes: the shift from social poetry to topical composition and the ascendance of specialist lineages and concomitant development of relationships of rivalry among them.1 This article complements those earlier studies by exploring the emergence of an explicit, systematic, and professionalized instructional apparatus for waka. I show that although waka lost its centrality as a form of sophisticated dialogue in everyday aristocratic society, it began to play a new but still-practical role as the core of a process of transmission, mediated by professional poets, that embraced other forms of knowledge.

In the current study I look at two treatises from the twelfth century, each of which stems from a critical stage in the emergence of the model that would dominate the teaching of waka for the rest of the medieval period. The first, Toshiyori zuinō 俊頼髄脳 (Toshiyori's Essentials of Poetry; 1111–1114), by Minamoto no Toshiyori 源俊頼 (also read Shunrai; 1055–1129), belongs to an era of flux in which waka specialists like the author himself were not yet fully organized into stable households. The...


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