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Famous Cultural Figures


Famous poet
Matsuo Bashô stands as one of the greatest - if not greatest - of Japan's haiku composers. A samurai turned wandering priest, Bashô wrote a book called 'Narrow Road of Oku' and many of his poems remain well-known in Japan - and around the world.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose real name was Sugimori Nobumori, was born in Nagato Province and into a minor samurai family. He was at first a monk, then returned to secular life and established himself at Osaka. Starting at around age 30, he would become one of Japan's most prolific and beloved playwrights, composing as many as 160 plays for the Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) theatres. Many of his pieces were historically based and as many were on contemporary subjects that appealed to the common people. One of his favored devices was the tragic love between either a samurai or a townsman and a courtesan. In most of his plays, he presented a moral dillemna - the hero was presented with the confliction of duty and emotion - of what society expected and with what the hero felt in his heart. His most famous work was Chushingura, the story of the 47 Rônin. It may be that part of his ability came from the demands of writing for the Bunraku - he once commented that writing for that stage required him to make his dialogue as compelling and vivid as possible, given that, after all, the audience was looking at simple puppets.

Hasegawa Tôhaku
Noted painter
Tôhaku was born at Nanao in Noto Province. After painting a number of Buddhist-influenced works in his native Noto, he moved to Kyoto around 1471 and studied the Kanô school of painting. He produced a volume of work over the next 30 years and in 1603 was given the title Hôkyô. He died on March 20 1610. Tôhaku's paintings were done in a number of styles, from his earlier buddhist efforts to his later, black-ink genpitsu tai productions. His most famous works include 'Picture of Pine Forest', 'Picture of Monkey in Dead Trees', and 'Picture of Flower and Trees'. Tôhaku is attributed with the 'Portrait of Takeda Shingen' (which has long defined the popular perception of Shingen) but recently scholars have wondered if the subject of that work was in fact a Hatakeyama lord.

Ihara Saikaku
Saikaku was one of the mid-Edo Period's most popular authors. Like Chikamatsu's plays, Saikaku's works appealed to the common people and were often amusing while being supurbly crafted. His favorite theme was the life of the bourgeois, which provided him with a volume of material to depict both realistically and in a skillfully light manner.

Imai Sôkyû
Noted tea master and merchant
Sôkyû was one of Sakai's most important merchants and a member of the city's leadership council. When Oda Nobunaga demanded that Sakai acknowledge his authority, Sôkyû urged the council to submit and sent Nobunaga two valuable tea items (Matsushima no Tsubo and Jôô no Nasu) as a good-will gesture. Nobunaga awarded Sôkyû for his efforts by giving him a lucrative commisson to manufacture firearms for the Oda. Shôkyû instructed Nobunaga in the tea ceremony and as a tea master later enjoyed the favor of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was present for the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony.

Noted author
Chomei was the second son of Kamo-no-Nagatsugu, an important figure at the Kamo Shrine. Chomei proved himself a talented poet, being published in the Imperial poetry anthology Senzai-wakashu and a member of a number of notable poetry circles. He became a monk in 1204 and moved into the countryside. During his self-imposed exile he wrote the Hôjôki, a powerful view of the harshness of the world around him. In addition, he produced an anthology of his own poetry called the Kamo-no-Chomei-shu.

Kano Eitoku
Noted painter
Eitoku was the son of Kano Shôei (1514-1562) and carried on the Kano school of painting as established by Kano Masanobu (1434-1530). Eitoku was likely tutored at a young age by his talented grandfather Motonobu (1476-1559), who introduced him to shôgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru in 1552. In 1566 Eitoku produced a number of paintings for the Abbot's Quarters of the Jukônin in the Daitokuji. He was contracted by Oda Nobunaga to produce a series of wall paintings (shôhekiga) for Azuchi Castle around 1578 but these were all lost when Azuchi was destroyed in 1582. He afterwards worked for Toyotomi Hideyoshi and produced work for Juraku and Osaka Castle. Eitoku died suddenly in 1590 and his unfinished projects were completed by his son Mitsunobu. His most famous works included 'Chinese Lions', 'Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons', and 'Scenes In and Around Kyoto' (a screen Nobunaga sent as a gift, along with 'Tale of Genji', to the eastern warlord Uesugi Kenshin in 1574). The last is useful to historians in picturing life in Kyoto in the mid-16th Century.

Murasaki Shikibu
Famous novelist
Shikubu was the daughter of a certain Fujiwara Tametoki and married Fujiwara Nobutaka. Beyond educated conjecture, little is known of her early years. Her husband's death in 1001 marks the first date in her life history can assign with any certainty. She seems to have retired to her home after Nobutaka's death and presumably began work on the her great work, the 'Tale of Genji'. Around 1005 her father arranged for her to become a lady-in-waiting to the consort of the Emperor Ichijô. Even here the details of her life remain obscure, despite her diary. We might assume that Shikibu accompanied the Empress of the late Ichijô (who died in 1011) into the latter's retirement at a detached palace but when she retired or died is unknown - she simply disappears from history after about 1525. Despite this fact, her 'The Tale of Genji' (Genji Monogatari) remains as one of the world's literary milestones - it is believed to be the first example of what we today would describe as a novel (or, strictly speaking, a psychological novel). Genji was also one of the world's longest novels - at 630,000 or so words, it stands at twice the length of 'War and Peace'. The novel's scope is broad, occuring over the course of about seventy years and involving some 430 characters. (For a detailed look at Murasaki Shikibu, her novel, and times, see Morris: The World of the Shining Prince').

Rai San'yô
San'yô was the son of Rai Shunsui, a historian and author of such works as the Fushin-shi. San'yô, who was also something of a poet, produced the Nihon Gaishi and Nihon Seiki. He was also notable for his sympathy for the cause of Imperial Restoration, which did not occur for decades after his death.

Satomura Jôha
Poet of linked verse
Jôha was the younger son of a temple servent at the Ichijôin in Nara who died when Jôha was 12. After a period of monastic life, Jôha became a priest though he elected to devote himself to poetry and traveled with noted renga composer Shûkei to Kyoto in 1542. He trained under Satomura Shôkyu and assumed the Satomura name after the death of the latter in 1552 - as well as becoming a foster father to Shôkyu's son Shôshitsu. As head of the Satomura school of renga, Jôha's fame gradually increased and he gained as patrons both Miyoshi Chokei and Matsunaga Hisahide and later became a teacher for Chokei's son Yoshioki. He gained the favor of Oda Nobunaga in 1568 when the latter entered Kyoto and over the next ten years composed verse with such great names as Akechi Mitsuhide and Hosokawa Fujitaka. When Akechi killed Nobunaga in 1582, Jôha managed to spirit the crown prince out of Nijô and harm's way - which held him in good stead when Hideyoshi questioned him afterwards (he had been involved in a provocative linked-verse session with Mitsuhide only days before Nobunaga's death). He became active in politics under Hideyoshi and a companion of Toyotomi Hidetsugu - which led to his banishment to Miidera when Hidetsugu was ordered to commit suicide in 1595. He was allowed to return to Kyoto in the fall of 1596 and was soon forgiven by Hideyoshi. While enjoying the reputation of being Japan's last true renga master and a discerning critic, Jôha's reputation suffered from what some saw as opportunism and ambition in his character. His most notable works included the Renga shihôshô (Book of the Supreme Treasure of Renga) and his own journal, which detailed a trip he took to view Mt. Fuji in 1567.

Sei Shônagon
Famous author
Shônagon was the daughter of Kiyowara Motosuke and a maid of honor to the consort of the Emperor Ichijô. A colorful figure, she produced the famous 'Pillow Book', or Makura no Sôshi, which provides the reader with an insider's view of the going's-on of the Imperial Court as well as Shônagon's opinions on such subjects as love, good looks, commoners and gossip. Written around 1002, the Pillow Book stands as the second of the two great literary works of the day - next to Murasaki Shikibu's 'The Tale of Genji'. Shônagon was known for her wit and openness on all matters, leading Murasaki Shikibu to pen in her own diary, 'Sei Shônagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction.'. (TWSP, pg.263)

Sen no Rikyû
Master of the tea ceremony
Sen no Rikyû was a man of merchant background from Sakai and was known for much of his career as Sôeki. His father was Sen (Tanaka) Yohyôe, himself the son of a certain Sen'ami whom we are told fled Kyoto during the Ônin war and took up in Sakai. Rikyû's first mention in surviving documents is a listing (as 'Yashiro', which he was known as in his youth) as a contributor to a Sakai temple in 1535 (AWC, pg. 211). A practitioner of the tea ceremony from at least the age of fifteen, Rikyû had been trained as a tea man in the elegant Ashikaga style. He would in time reject this school in favor of a very different approach. The nobility's tea ceremony had been developed to cater to the sorts of individuals that partook of it, with elegant Chinese utensils and great pains taken to avoid offending any guests of higher status. In his own vision, Rikyû substituted the pricey utensils with simple, practical ones, and replaced the expensive and often gaudy teahouses of the nobility with the Sôan, or 'grass hut' style teahouse. The only way into the tearoom of a Sôan was through a small door, the nijiriguchi, which was only some two and a half feet square. Guests therefore entered by crawling, a deliberately humbling device intended to create a sense of equality once inside. Rikyû intended for the tea ceremony to be an activity free from social and political trappings, though in this he was to be ultimatly disappointed. As Rikyû was making a name for himself, the warlord Oda Nobunaga was also gaining fame through his steady expansion and at length came to meet Rikyû. Rikyû's early connection with Nobunaga is uncertain, as are the specifics of their relationship in general. However, it seems clear that Rikyû's prestige grew over the roughly 14 years Nobunaga dominated Kyoto. His star would contine to rise under the good graces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi after Nobunaga's death in 1582; in fact, Rikyû was performing ceremonies at Hideyoshi's behest at Yamazaki (the site of the latter's victory over Nobunaga's destroyer) before the year was out. It has been speculated that Rikyû and Hideyoshi had known one another since the 1570's - yet even their later relationship is hazy. Clearly, however, Hideyoshi - who used culture as a tool in the legitimization of his rule - saw many uses for Rikyû. This is perhaps ironic - the warlord who basked in the ostentatious - the teaman who stressed the humble. At any rate, as Rikyû's prestige grew, so did his opportunities to throw his voice into the political arena. The most obvious case in point may be the visit of Kyushu daimyô Ôtomo Yoshishige (Sôrin) in 1586. Ôtomo had come out of retirement to beg for Hideyoshi's assistance against the encroaching Shimazu family. After the fact he would observe that Rikyû's assistance was most vital for anyone hoping to have an audience with Hideyoshi (AWC, pg.216). Rikyû's career seemed to be at its height when he assisted Hideyoshi in a tea ceremony held for the emperor Ôgimachi in 1585. Two years later he accompanied Hideyoshi on the latter's invasion of Kyushu; he would also entertain him during the 1590 Odawara Campaign. Yet, in 1591, Hideyoshi suddenly ordered Rikyû placed under house arrest in Sakai and was two weeks later made to commit suicide. This shocking turn of events provides historians with one of the great mysteries of Hideyoshi's later career. Various theories have been presented over the years but none quite seem to satisfy. The official cause for Rikyû's fall from favor and subsequent suicide concerns a gate to the Daitokuji in Kyoto. In 1589 Rikyû had donated money so that the gate (which had gone uncompleted since the 1520's) could be finished and in tribute a statue of Rikyu had been added at the top of the structure. Hideyoshi, then, was infuriated at the notion of passing under the image of an inferior should he enter the temple and thus brought his fury down on Rikyû. In fact, Hideyoshi had the offending statue crucified along with ordering Rikyû's suicide. Certain scholars have suggested that Rikyû had also incurred Hideyoshi's displeasure in another way - that he was selling tea utensils for a great profit, thus abusing his position (and the fact that he could set the prices as he saw fit) (AWC, pg. 220). An alternate theory has Rikyû caught in the midst of a struggle within the Toyotomi ranks. This holds that Rikyû, who evidently favored a softer hand in dealing with the daimyô and their rights, was executed to appease those who took a harder line (such as Ishida Mitsunari). At any rate, Rikyû's passing has been described as the end of an era - for Japanese culture in general and the tea ceremony in particular. Rikyû stands as one of the more complex and fascinating figures of Japan's 16th Century, his fatal association with Hideyoshi somehow very appropriate and in keeping with the nature of that colorful time.

Suzuki Harunobu
Woodblock artist
Harunobu was a noted painter in the ukiyo-e ('pictures of the floating world') style and is thought to have been the first to produce a full polychrome print. His trademark was his delicate depiction of his female subjects.

Pioneer of Nô drama
Zeami was the son of the playwright Kan'ami (1333-1384). In 1374 one of Kan'ami's plays was preformed before the shôgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and the latter was much taken by the young Zeami, an actor in the work. Yoshimitsu arranged for Zeami to be placed in his custody and saw that the young man received a strong education and cultural refinement. Under the patronage of that great patron of the arts, Zeami flourished. The leader of his own troupe, he developed many plays (though scant few traces of his original work remain) and refined what would become known as 'classic' Nô drama. Yet his later life was to be marred by misfortune. His two sons would predecease him and after 1429 he suffered a troubled relationship with the shôgunate. In that year Zeami and his son Motomasa (himself author of the famous drama 'Sumida River' and others) were banned from entering the shôgun's palace by Ashikaga Yoshinori and in 1434 Zeami was exiled to Sado Island for reasons unknown. He returned to Kyoto around 1441 but died only a few years later. His heir would be a son-in-law named Komparu Zenchiku (1405-1468). Among the many works attributed to Zeami are counted 'Atsumori', 'Hanjo', 'Izutsu', and 'Yamamba'. Nô would remain a favorite of the upper-class into the Edo Period, when it was to fall out of favor somewhat at the start of the 18th Century.


Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi Harvard University Press, 1982
Ellison, George and Bardwell L. Smith, eds. Warlords, Artists, and Commoners The University Press of Hawaii, 1982
Hall, John Whitney and Toyoda Takeshi. Japan in the Muromachi Age University of California Press, 1977
Kamo-no-Chomei Hojoki Stone Bridge Press, 1996
Morris, Ivan The World of the Shining Prince Peregrine 1969
Sansom, G. B. Japan. A Short Cultural History Tuttle 1973
Tsunoda, Ryusaku, Wm. Theodore De Bary, Donald Keene. Sources of Japanese Tradition Columbia University Press, 1965
Tyler, Royall (ed.) Japanese Nô Dramas Penguin 1992