The poetry anthology 古今和歌集 Kokin waka shū ‘Collected Japanese Poems, Ancient and Modern’ (a.k.a. 古今集 Kokinshū) was compiled by imperial order, completed in the early 10th century, and turned out to be the first of 21 such imperially commissioned collections. In addition to its 1,111 uta ‘poems’, Kokinshū includes a 仮名序 Kana jo, or preface written in kana (which is to say in Japanese), positioned at the front of the anthology in some, if not all, early manuscripts. The Japanese Preface has long been surmised to be the work of 紀貫之 Ki no Tsurayuki, the prominent poet at the center of the anthology’s team of compilers. (Tsurayuki was also author of the Tosa nikki ‘Tosa Diary’, some selections from which are also featured at this site.) Our selection is from the Kana jo's opening.
The Kana jo (also written Kanajo) is an eloquent apologia--part literary-critical account, part defense--of the tradition of ‘song/poetry in Japan’ (大和歌・倭歌 Yamato uta) as ancient, venerable, grounded in the natural order of things, and expressively rich and nuanced. The rhetoric with which it discusses poetry owes much to Chinese precedent, but the story it tells is that of poetry in Japanese, illustrated with verses in Japanese, from the ancient to more recent. The Kana jo is critical of some poets’ work, and goes so far as to lament uta’s place in more (purportedly) trivial human pursuits, such as romantic dalliance.
The ‘Japanese Preface’ of Kokinshū was paired with a ‘Chinese Preface’ (真名序 Mana jo), which likewise presented an apologia for Japanese poetry in a rhetoric redolent of Chinese poetics. The two prefaces resemble each other closely, but also differ at some significant points.