Upon pale blue dyed paper, court poems (waka) are inscribed in an elegant, flowing script, mostly kana (Japanese phonetic writing). This particular eleventh-century transcription of poems is from the Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern (Kokin wakashu), the first imperially commissioned anthology of waka, compiled by around 905. Until this time, poetry composed at official palace gatherings had always been kanshi (Chinese poems composed by male courtiers). This detached page, remounted as a hanging scroll, was originally part of a bound booklet with pages dyed various colors. The Sekido Version of the Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern Poems—referred to in abbreviated form as the Sekido-bon Kokinshū—to which this page belongs, has long been esteemed as an exemplary model of ancient court kana calligraphy.
This work is among a couple of dozen or so superlative examples of brush writing traditionally attributed to the renowned calligrapher Fujiwara no Yukinari, active in the early eleventh century, who was known as a master of brush writing styles of both kana and kanji (Chinese characters). This work, however, is unsigned and such speculative attributions to Yukinari were already prevalent by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—when there was revived enthusiasm for the study of Heian calligraphy models of the tenth and eleventh centuries. In fact an authentication statement dating to the seventeenth century inscribed in one of the surviving intact volumes still in the Sekido Family Collection states, “….these pages are indubitably the genuine handwriting of the Provisional Major Counselor (Gon Dainagon) Yukinari.” In all likelihood, however, this work dates to a generation or two after Yukinari died in 1027, by which time he was already revered as a master calligrapher and his descendants had established a lineage of calligraphers, called the Sesonji-ryū, which for several centuries was viewed as the upholder of an orthodox, highly refined calligraphic style admired by the aristocracy. The work, nonetheless, may be considered to reflect the kana calligraphy style he passed down to his oldest son and daughter, and others in his aristocratic social circles.
The page here was originally part of Book One, the opening section of the Kokinshū anthology, which comprises poems on spring topics. The so-called Sekido Version (Sekido-bon) refers specifically to five separate bound volumes—Books One, Three, Four, Eleven and Twelve—that were preserved in the modern collection of the Sekido family Collection of Nagoya, in central Japan. For over three centuries, before passing to the Sekido family in 1882, the volumes had been part of the renowned collection formed by Lord Maeda of Kaga Province (modern Ishikawa Prefecture), which was then passed down through his descendants.
Since the assertive but highly refined calligraphy of the Sekido-bon Kokinshū was so highly admired by connoisseurs, over the course of the past century or so, about forty sections—usually just a page, sometimes a double-page spread—were excised from the bound booklets and mounted separately in hanging scroll format. This process of taking pages or handscroll fragments of famous kana calligraphy models and mounting them in albums (called tekagami) or as luxurious hanging scrolls for showing in a tokonoma display alcove was a common practice by the sixteenth century. Although in the early medieval period the preferred practice was to show a Chinese-style ink painting or Chan (Zen) calligraphy in the tea ceremony tokonoma, it gradually became more common to display fragments of famous kana calligraphy, usually transcriptions of court poems, a practice that remains to this day.
The page included here shows two characters from the end of the poem on a previous page, and then has a headnote and the name of the poet, and poem 45. The final two columns of text comprise the headnote for a poem that would have been on the following page (see the transcription below).