Home Culture Interview with Paul Atkins: UW Professor offers insights on waka master Teika

Interview with Paul Atkins: UW Professor offers insights on waka master Teika

In 1990, a young Paul Atkins fresh out of Stanford University decided that after graduation, he would travel to Kyoto and experience Gion Matsuri, the world’s oldest urban festival. That experience changed his life in profound ways. Professor Atkins is now chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, where he has been teaching since 2002.
Later this month, Atkins is offering a free lecture in conjunction with Washin Kai, a UW volunteer group (more information at: https://washinkai.info). The lecture, titled “Friend from a World Unseen: Fujiwara no Teika and Medieval Japanese Poetry,” is open to the public. It will be held in room 210 of UW’s Kane Hall from 7pm.
We sat down with Professor Atkins to hear how the Gion Matsuri changed his life and to begin to understand the influence of Fujiwara no Teika. Excerpts from our conversation follow.

“I didn’t know any Japanese. But I knew that Kyoto was the cultural capital of Japan, and I timed my arrival so that I
could see Gion Matsuri. ”


When did you become interested in Japanese literature?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I had very little contact with Japanese culture. I grew up in the world of Saturday Night Fever, Dog Day Afternoon. That was my life. I went to Stanford to attend college. I wanted to be a writer and became an English major with a creative writing emphasis in both fiction and poetry. I studied with Denise Levertov, who was a wonderful Seattle poet. In my junior and senior years, I discovered East Asia through Taoism, through Zen, and also through the writings of the Beat Generation. They
were very interested in Eastern culture. I wanted to be Gary Snyder!

I just decided after I graduated that I was going to go to Kyoto. I had taken only one course on traditional Japanese culture. I didn’t know any Japanese. But I knew that Kyoto was the cultural capital of Japan, and I timed my arrival so that I could see Gion Matsuri. I graduated in the middle of June, and by early July, I was there. I wasn’t on the JET program, I didn’t know any Japanese. I wasn’t coordinated enough for that. I made up this plan too late. I found jobs teaching English conversation. I found a homestay with a
Japanese family. I enrolled in the Kyoto YMCA because I needed a visa and needed to learn Japanese, then I met the woman who became my wife. And this all happened within two weeks.

The bookcase in Professor Atkin’s office is lined with Japanese classics
Wow. How long did you stay?

I stayed in Japan for two years, and when I left, I decided that since I came in with Gion Matsuri, I want to go out with Gion Matsuri. One of my homestay students was a well-connected Kyoto person and I was offered the chance to actually pull the Naginata Hoko, which is the most prestigious of the carts. I’m glad I did it because you have to be under 40 years old to do that.

I was auditing classes at the Stanford Japan Center, and a very kind Kyoto lady took me to the Noh theater. She asked me what I was interested in and I said poetry. She asked what sort of poets, and I said, Ezra Pound. She said, I have something I want to show you. Pound was a huge booster of the Noh drama.

I would go to the Noh theater and have an English translation. The plots of the Noh plays are very simple. You can figure out who the priest is and who the lady is and who the ghost is. I would follow along and watch the action on the stage, listen to the music, and I thought, I would really like to know what they are saying. I’d like to know the original. So I went back to Stanford, this time to study classical Japanese. I wrote my master’s thesis on waka poetry. Then I went back to Japan for dissertation research at the University of Tokyo and completed a dissertation on Noh drama, then finished my PhD.


Which leads us to the topic of your lecture. Who is Fujiwara no Teika?

Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) is kind of like the T.S. Eliot of Japan. Everybody has heard his name, he is really important, but sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on why he is so influential. With Eliot, we can say, well he wrote “The Wasteland” and that encapsulated what people were feeling after World War I. With Teika, we have these waka poems, and it’s really asking a lot of one waka poem to stand in for his entire work. Like Eliot, he was not just a poet, he was a critic, he was a judge of poets, he was an editor. He’s not known just for his own poetry like his friend Saigyo Hoshi (1118-1190), but for being behind the scenes.

I think many of the North American Post readers will be familiar with Hyakunin Isshu – it’s 100 poems by 100 poets, and people would memorize the poems and play this memorization game. It’s a big deal and I think it’s inspired a manga and anime series as well. Teika is regarded as the editor, the selector, the compiler of that series. And he’s been regarded as the editor of it for the past 600 years. I’ve come to think that he is not actually the compiler, which a lot of people will find shocking. But it doesn’t detract from his legacy because I think people wanted to pick someone famous, and they picked him.

I think the people who compiled it were his descendants. If you read the poems in Hyakkunin Isshu, they’re pretty simple and easy to understand and memorize. This is not the style of poetry that Teika was known for. The style of poetry he was known for was called Daruma Uta, Bodhidharma poems. Bodhidharma is the founder of the school that became the Zen school. Around Teika’s time, Zen was just starting out in Japan. It was regarded as an almost heretical form of Buddhism. It was associated with nonsense. Zen relies very heavily on paradoxes, short-circuit logic and long periods of meditation to lead people to a higher truth. But for establishment Buddhists at the time, Zen was just gibberish. Teika wrote these complex, difficult to understand poems, and when people wanted to criticize him, they said, that’s just nonsense, that’s gibberish, that’s Bodhidharma poetry, that’s Zen poetry. Today Zen poetry would be a compliment, but to these people, it was not a compliment at all.

That brings us to the question of what Teika was doing in his poems. People will have to come to my lecture so that I can show them, but a short answer for your educated readers would be: Think of a haiku and how much a haiku demands of the reader because it is so brief. And not only is it brief, but the haiku was not invented in a vacuum. It’s actually the beginning of a sequence that a group of people would compose. After the initial poem of 5-7-5 syllables, there would be another person composing a second verse
of 7 and 7 syllables. That would make a waka or tanka poem. And then the next person would ignore the first verse and, based on the second verse, compose a third verse. That’s called renga poetry, linked verse. People would compose poems together in groups. Haiku is just the lead-off verse in that entire sequence. It could have been 36, it could have been 100, it could have been 10,000 links. That’s why a haiku has so much negative space in it. It needs to leave something out for the next person and it gives you tremendous compactness, concision and power.

Atkins’ book on Fujiwara no Teika was published last year by University of Hawai’I Press

Teika’s poetry was highly allusive, so with 5 or 7 syllables he could summon a famous poem from the early period of the Kokinshu (which is an early anthology of waka published in 10th century), for example, and that would be doing a lot of his work. Or he would demand that readers imagine a scenario, a scene. You really have to work hard. Some people didn’t want to work all that hard. They were trying to sell a simpler style and would call his writing gibberish. He would say, this isn’t gibberish, this is esoteric Buddhism. He uses that phrase in his writing. For people who were initiated, people who know how to read it, it makes sense. Those who know don’t say; those who say, don’t know.

In his age, the stuff we venerate now as the Classics was contemporary Japanese literature. It was cutting edge, it was the vanguard, it was avantgarde literature. It looks familiar to us now, but it looked very unfamiliar to the people at the time. He was a co-compiler of the New Kokinshu (the Shin Kokinshu). That was one of his big achievements.


There was a diary left behind, right?

Teika left a diary called Meigetsuki, Chronicle of the Brilliant Moon. But he never called it that. He called it “my foolish diary.” He kept this diary for at least 55 years, really faithfully. Unfortunately, we only have about a third of it that’s extant. There are a fair number of courtiers’ diaries from that period. What makes Teika’s special is he tells you about his feelings. He doesn’t just list who was there at the ceremony and what they were wearing and who got what sort of fiefdom, but he’ll sit down and reflect. Like the night before he turned 70 years old, he reflects on how rare it is to be able to turn 70. People celebrated their birthdays on New Year’s Day. So on New Year’s Eve, he is reflecting on turning 70, how rare it is, how few people in his ancestral line have made it to 70. He was enormously conscious of rank and office, so he’s also tracking not just who made it to 70 in his father’s family, but what ranks they achieved. He’d done very well for himself. He spent his whole life complaining about being sick, but he lived to the age of 80. He had a house in Saga and often went there to take medicinal baths, but he lived a long time and outlived his rivals. People say he was a grumpy person, but I’m not sure where they get that from. Perhaps he was honest, and others were more decorous in their writings.

Another way we feel we know him is his handwriting, his calligraphy, which is really quite distinctive. His handwriting is fairly easy to read, but it’s not pretty. It doesn’t have the wiry tautness of his father’s handwriting, for example, or the classical courtier handwriting style. He developed it because he needed it to be easy to read. He ran a scriptorium at his house. He was obsessed with writing, not just writing his diary, not just writing his poems,
copying out ancient texts, editing them. That’s one of the reasons we have a lot of scraps of his handwriting. He wanted something that would be easy to read that would be accurate. There were no computers, there were no typewriters, there were no Xerox machines. If you wanted a copy of a book, you had to borrow it from somebody, you had to get a lot of paper and ink, you had to get some free time – either yours or someone else’s – you needed to get a brush, and you needed to just write, to copy it yourself. With age, his handwriting was not pretty to look at, but it has this patina, this aura of authenticity. He would say that his handwriting was like the devil’s handwriting. But he was proud of the fact that it was easy to read and accurate.

That’s why we know him, one for his diary and the other for his calligraphy. We feel attached to him. It’s the calligraphy of someone who had it and is slipping, and I think there is tremendous pathos in that.

So he would write out the complete texts of classics like The Tale of Genji?

He writes in his diary about The Tale of Genji. His copy was stolen when he was a young man. He went 20 years without it, which is very unusual because during that time he was writing poems that alluded to The Tale of Genji. Later in life, there is a section of his diary where he says he gets the ladies in waiting in his household together and – it’s 54 chapters and 1,200 pages in English translation – and he mobilizes them. They finish The Tale of Genji. The editions that we use now are editions that he edited. There were multiple versions, and you need somebody who is really intelligent, competent and confident to say this is right and this is wrong.

To hear more about Fujiwara no Teika, go to room 210 in Kane Hall on UW campus on 10/25 at 7pm for the lecture. It is free and open to the public. No prior registration is needed.

“What makes Teika’s special is he tells you about his feelings.”

Professor Paul Atkins is the chair of the Department of Asian Languages & Literature at the University of Washington. His fields of interest include classical and premodern Japanese language and literature, premodern Asian studies, drama, poetry and poetics, and translation and interpretation. Last year, he published Teika: The Life and Works of a Medieval Japanese Poet with the University of Hawaii Press. Atkins received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University.

University of Washington Department of Asian Languages & Literature offers instruction in the principal languages and literatures of Asia, including East, Southeast, Central, and South Asia. Emphasis is placed on the roles of these languages within the cultures they serve as well as on linguistic, textual, and literary analysis. The department offers undergraduate degrees in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and South Asian languages and literature, and graduate degree programs in Chinese,
Japanese, Korean, South Asian, and Buddhist Studies. Washin Kai, also known as Friends of Classical Japanese at UW, was formed in spring 2018 to preserve and strengthen classical Japanese studies at the University of Washington. The all-volunteer group includes people from the Puget Sound area with strong ties to the university and Japan. The group aims to create a permanent fund at the university dedicated to supporting the study of classical Japanese language, literature, and culture.