Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Nijō Yoshimoto: The Grand Father of Renga

Nijō Yoshimoto

My last post was about Takayama Sōzei, and I wrongly referred to him as “one of the founding fathers” of renga. I made this mistake because in my most trusted source, “Traditional Japanese Poetry” by Steven Carter, Steven neglected to mention that Nijō Yoshimoto (1320-1388 A.D.) was actually the first poet to compile a collection of renga.
He probably didn’t feel the need to mention it because of his disdain for the Nijō faction which dominated Japanese poetry after the death of Fujiwara no Teika. Japanese poetry in the medieval period can be described as pre-Teika and post-Teika. He was a very important figure, and after his death there was much discord among his followers. Two main factions emerged: the Nijō school and Kyōgoku Tamekane’s school. According to Steven, the majority of scholars nowadays consider Kyōgoku Tamekane’s school to have produced better poetry, however, the Nijō school had the edge in terms of political power. Therefore, almost all the poetry anthologies of this period were compiled by those from the Nijō school. The major difference between the two was the Nijō school was more conservative and its followers thought that Teika’s later years were what they should emulate. The Kyōgoku Tamekane school on the other hand, thought that Teika’s younger, rebellious years were of more importance.
Nijō Yoshimoto was a scholar and a poet from a privileged background. It seems that he had a passion for renga, but also wrote tanka. The first couple tanka I translated below are from the Shingoshūiwakashū which was an imperial anthology compiled in the 14th century. After that I translated an excerpt from the Tsukubashū which he edited himself, and is the first renga anthology ever compiled (officially...that we know of...).



When spring’s upon us,
Haze will float down the center
Of Imose river.
It seems that the winter’s ice
Has begun to melt away.

Nijō Yoshimoto

The Imose river did confuse me a bit and after further research, thanks to the investigation of Mootori Norinaga who investigated this back in the 18th century, I found out that there is no Imose river. It comes from a poem in the Man’yōshū, which is one of the oldest poetry compilations in the Japanese tradition. The poem goes: “I crossed Mt. Imo and Mt. Se”, so we can infer that Imose river is the river that lies in between these two mountains. Nijō could be merely referencing the older poem to show off how learned he is.
Imose could also be a play on words. The first kanji is  (imo) which means young girl, but I think could also be an archaic way to say “wife”. The second kanji is (se) which can mean height or stature, but could also mean “husband”. So it could be the river that runs between “Mt. Husband” and “Mt. Wife” which add some sexual innuendo to the poem.

Can be found here


In the early dawn,
Clouds dwelling in the treetops,
Descend upon us,
The first plum blossoms this year
Glimmer with subtle crimson.

Nijō Yoshimoto



On a bright, calm day
During a spring festival,
Blossoms shine bright, and
When the wind is at peace
I will bow my head and pray.

Nijō Yoshimoto

Aside from the poem’s religiosity, it has a some nice wordplay. I like the line “kaze wo samare to” because samare comes from the verb osamaru which means “to be at peace” or “lessen”. I assume that the obvious translation would be “when the wind lessens”, but considering how inclusive the Shinto religion is with nature, I thought I would personify the wind.
-Note: This poem comes from Shinshūiwakashū.

The following is an excerpt from the Tsukubashū. It’s also spring themed.


For those who dwell in the shade
Of the mountain, vanish snow!


Joy to the new spring!
Another year has come and gone,
That’s the way things.

Asama Mountain

Smoke rises high in the sky
Even though the fire went out.


Spring’s yet to arrive,
There is only a light haze
At Asama Mountain.



In the mountain dwelling of Kajii, they begin a new renga sequence:


The wave breakers at Shiga
Still now, are frozen over.


Patches of grass in the snow
Seem a more suitable path,
Than the icy mountain road.


  1. Hi there. Thanks to explain about Nijoo Yoshimoto in your blog. It is very useful!
    May I ask you, where did you get the literature source of him?

    1. Hey thank you for reading. Most of the biographical information about him I got from Steven Carter's "Traditional Japanese Poetry". (
      I also got some of the poems from the anthologies but I did my own translation. I found the excerpt of the Tsukubashuu on this website. (