Kyoto’s Reizei family passes down waka style bearing name of Teika

The Yomiuri Shimbun

An utakai poetry reading is held at the Reizei family residence in Kyoto on Tanabata Day in the old calendar. At far right is Tamehito Reizei.

By Yasuhiko Mori / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer KYOTO — The Reizei family of Kyoto, the head family of a school of waka poetry, has been passing down its style of waka since medieval times. The history of the family dates back to the Kamakura period (late 12th century to 1333), making it older than the Sen family school of the chanoyu tea ceremony and the Ikenobo family school of ikebana flower arranging, which both began in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

The waka school of the Reizei family, which still has many disciples, used to teach waka to emperors, court nobles, shoguns of the Kamakura shogunate and feudal lords.

The Reizei school branched off from the Mikohidari family school — the official family name of which was Fujiwara — which established its profession as that of kado shihanke, or lecturers on the art of waka poetry.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The Reizei family’s obunko storehouse in Kyoto, an object of faith, houses classical documents on the first floor and portraits of Shunzei and Teika on the second floor.

Since the lines of the Nijo family — which was the main branch of the Mikohidari school — and the Kyogoku family — which was next in rank — have died out, the first thing that comes to mind when people think of a waka school is the Reizei family.

When the Mikohidari family was broken up into three schools in the Kamakura period, the three branches took the names of Nijo, Kyogoku and Reizei for ordinary use, although they all still had the official family name of Fujiwara. In fact, their names were taken from street names: The Nijo family had its house on Nijo-oji street, the Kyogoku family on Higashi-Kyogoku-oji street and the Reizei family on Reizei-koji street.

The history of the Mikohidari family, the root of the three schools, dates back to the time of Fujiwara no Nagaie, the sixth son of Fujiwara no Michinaga, who rose to the upper echelons as a court noble in the 11th century and whose prosperity is legendary. Mikohidari was the name of Nagaie’s house.

Fujiwara no Shunzei and his son Teika, both widely recognized as outstanding poets during the late Heian period (794 to the late 12th century) and the early Kamakura period, were part of the Mikohidari family school.

After many twists and turns, manuscripts written in their own hands and documents on which they transcribed waka poetry in earlier periods were passed down within the Reizei family. These old manuscripts and documents are preserved as the treasure of the Reizei family, rather like a deity, in its obunko storehouse.

Kimiko Reizei, who was born into the Reizei family in 1947 and is now the wife of the 25th head of the family, said that when she was a child, her grandmother told her there was a deity in the storehouse.

On such occasions as the New Year’s season when the family goes on a trip, all the family members clap their hands and bow their heads in front of the storehouse to pray for safety — just as Japanese people pray at shrines, she said. “Even now, the Reizei family considers the obunko a shrine.”

The manuscripts written in the hands of Shunzei and Teika are of course valuable, but transcripts are of great value as well. Thanks to them, especially Teika, who energetically copied various kinds of writings, many literary works have been handed down to the present day even though the originals were lost.

Teika’s calligraphic style, called “Teikayo” or “Teikaryu,” came to be imitated by many people later in history. Even textbooks for learning literature were written in the Teika style.

The style is characterized by extreme differences in the thickness of characters, with his brushwork using both bold and thin strokes.

Court nobles before the time of Teika were fond of a calligraphic style of writing multiple characters continuously without breaks between them. Teika, however, wrote each letter clearly one by one. He did not write horizontal lines fluidly from left to right with an upward stroke, but instead just drew the line straight across.

As his penmanship is so distinctive, it seems that he actually had poor handwriting.

According to Akira Nagoya, former vice director of the Gotoh Museum, Teika created this calligraphic style to prevent himself from making mistakes in transcribing sentences others wrote, and making the characters easy to read. Actually, the Teika style allows people to write a lot of letters effectively, he said.

The Reizei family school made it a rule that a newcomer starting waka lessons must write a pledge on the oath document in the Teika style and submit it to the school. The family gave its endorsement to copying not just the waka style but also the writing style of Teika, who is revered as a deity. It was, so to speak, a branding strategy such as you might find today, as the family is now identified with the name Teika.


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