Wednesday, May 8, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Onihishigitei, Style of Demon-Quelling Force

                                                                      I cut off
                                                                      my goddamn finger
                                                                      to numb
                                                                      my goddamn pain ...
                                                                      snow falling on snow

Fujiwara Teika (1162–1241) was a Japanese poet, critic, and anthologist. Crowned with glories of poetic honors, he made himself known not only as a poet of the highest rank but also as the most important theoretician of waka (ancient name for tanka). His 1219 long letter on waka poetics, titled Maigetsushō (“Monthly Notes”), is his Ars Poetica. In the letter, he illustrated the ten waka styles. There are two styles that “require special consideration here because of their connection with Man’yoshū 1 : the style of ‘demon-quelling force,’ and most important, the ‘lofty style.’” (Brower and Miner, p. 247)

Onihishigitei is the style of demon-quelling force, and it is characterized by its “strong or even violent or vulgar diction.” (Brower, p. 406) This style refers to poems whose “imagery or treatment conveys an impression of violence. Such poems are found in particular in Book XVI of Man’yoshū." (Brower and Miner, p. 247)

Below is an excerpt from Fujiwara Teika's Maigetsusho to illustrate this style:

Of the twelve examples of the demon-quelling style in Teika Jittei (“Teika's Ten Styles”), the following version of a poem in Man'yoshu is the most 'violent' (Man'yoshu, 4:503; also, Shinkokinshu, 10:911):

Kamikaze ya                      Breaking off the reeds
Ise no hamaogi                  That grow along the beach at Ise
Orishikite                           Of the Divine Wind,
Tabine ya suran                  Does he spread them for his traveler's bed
Araki hamabe ni                 There on the rough sea strand?

The "demon-quelling" elements in the poem are presumably the pillow word "of the Divine Wind" (Kamikaze ya), and the imagery of breaking coarse reeds and the rough shore (see also JCP, pp. 247-48). Hardly "demon-quelling" to our modern tastes, but if such a tame example was considered extreme by Teika and his successors, it can be imagined what they must have thought of this poem by Sanetomo, one of his most admired by modern Japanese: "On seeing the waves break upon the rough shore," in Kinkaishu (NKT, 29, p. 424):

Oumi no                             From the vast sea,
Iso mo todoro ni                 The waves encroach in thunder
Yosuru nami                       Upon the quaking shore --
Warete kudakete                Breaking, smashing, riving,
Sakete chiru ka mo.            Falling in great sheets of spray.


Man’yoshū (“The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) was compiled in ca. 759, Japan’s most ancient anthology of native poetry. By the time of its compilation, the waka form was well on its way to becoming the dominant form of lyrical expression. The anthology contained some 4, 200 poems, written by poets from all walks of life. Their language was mainly unpolished, but " its simplicity and artlessness had a seemingly effortless, natural quality envied by later, more self-conscious versifiers." (Ueda, p. 2) Masaoka Shiki, urged tanka practitioners to emulate the ancient poets represented in  Man’yoshū, who wrote from their own experience. In his view, the essence of  Man’yoshū is “makoto (“truthfulness”),” and the shasei (“sketches from life”) principle he had advocated is ‘nothing other than makoto.” (ibid.,  pp.4, 17, 31)


Robert Hopkins Brower and Earl Roy Miner, Japanese Court Poetry, Stanford University Press, 1988
Robert H. Brower, "Fujiwara Teika's Maigetsusho," Monumenta Nipponica, 40:4, Winter, 1985, pp. 399-425.
Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1983


  1. Jane Reichhold published "Teika's Ten Tanka Techniques" in Ribbons, 6:1, Spring 2010. The first half of her article was taken mainly from Robert H. Brower's essay, Fujiwara Teika's Maigetsusho.

  2. "If such a tame example was considered extreme by Teika and his successors, it can be imagined what they must have thought of [my poem above]."