Theses Doctoral

Learning with Waka Poetry: Transmission and Production of Social Knowledge and Cultural Memory in Premodern Japan

Stilerman, Ariel

This dissertation argues that throughout premodern Japan, classical Japanese poetry (waka) served as a vehicle for the transmission of social knowledge, cultural memory, and specialized information. Waka was originally indispensable to private and public social interactions among aristocrats, but it came to play a diversity of functions for warriors, monks, farmers, merchants, and other social groups at each and every level of premodern society and over many centuries, particularly from the late Heian period (785-1185) through the Edo period (1600-1868).

To trace the changes in the social functions of waka, this dissertation explores several moments in the history of waka: the development of a pedagogy for waka in the poetic treatises of the Heian period; the reception of these works in anecdotal collections of the Kamakura period (1192-1333), particularly those geared towards warriors; the use of humorous waka (kyôka), in particular those with satiric and parodic intent, in Muromachi-period (1333-1467) narratives for commoners; and the use of waka as pedagogical instruments for the codification, preservation, transmission, and memorization of knowledge about disciplines as diverse as hawking, kickball, and the tea ceremony. In the epilogue, I trace the efforts of Meiji-period (1868-1911) intellectuals who sought to disconnect waka from any social or pedagogical function, in order to reconceptualize it under the modern European notions of “Literature” and “the Arts.”

I conclude that the social functions of poetry in the premodern period should not be understood as extra-literary uses of poems that were otherwise composed as purely literary works in the modern sense. The roles that waka played in pedagogy, in particular in the transmission of cultural memory and social knowledge across diverse social spaces, were an inherent feature of the practice of waka in premodern Japan.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shirane, Haruo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 11, 2015