Koya-gire (fragments of the Kokinshu from Koyasan monasterys manuscript) (高野切)

Koya-gire is the popular name for the incomplete manuscript of the "Kokin wakashu" (collection of ancient and modern waka poems, usually known as Kokinshu in English) that was transcribed in the eleventh century, near the end of the Heian period. As the oldest extant text of the "Kokin wakashu," it is a vitally important source for students of the history of Japanese literature and the history of the Japanese language, and moreover has been held in great esteem from time immemorial as the most prominent example of calligraphy in kana (a syllabic script), making it a work of tremendous importance for the history of Japanese calligraphy.


The Koya-gire is a transcription of the "Kokin wakashu" that began with the twentieth volume (or about the 1100th waka). Today, only a portion of the original length is still extant. The Koya-gire was transcribed on high-quality hemp paper made of plant fibers, and for the front cover a material was used that featured scattered glittering mica dust. Hemp paper was often used to transcribe Buddhist sutras, but cases where it was used for waka anthologies are few and far between.

The 'kire' (or 'gire') from 'Koya-gire' is a technical term used in art history, calligraphic history, and the tea ceremony; it refers to the process of cutting out sections of the original scrolls or booklets of the waka or kanshi (Chinese poem) anthologies and featuring them for aesthetic reasons, for example by integrating them into a kakejiku (hanging scroll) or pasting them into albums called 'dekagami' (literally 'hand mirrors,' collections of handwriting). This sort of aesthetic approach rose in popularity with the rise in prosperity of the tea ceremony starting in the Muromachi period. Scraps of paper cut out like this were called 'dankan' (fragments); among the entire collection of the Koya-gire volume of the Kokinshu, Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI had possession of the dankan appearing at the beginning of scroll nine, the 17th line. The dankan in question was afterwards given to Ogo MOKUJIKI as a gift, who bequeathed it to Mt. Koya monastery, which is how the name 'Koya-gire' came to be. This dankan, from the beginning of scroll nine, is still extant, and is currently held at the Yuki Art Museum in Osaka.

As the standard par excellence for waka, a thorough knowledge of and familiarity with the "Kokin wakashu" was considered an indispensable mark of refinement for distinguished personages of the Heian period, and was held in very high regard. Many written copies were made as a result, to the point that it's said there were about 60 different copies made of it during the Heian period alone; but among all such transcribed copies, the Koya-gire is the oldest, and continues to be revered as a model for calligraphy.

The transcriber and his calligraphic style

Tradition has it that the Koya-gire was transcribed by KI no Tsurayuki (882-946), but in actuality the transcription dates from the eleventh century, more than 100 years after Tsurayuki's time.

Thanks to the advancement in recent years of techniques to research and analyze brushstrokes (and calligraphic style), it is clear the brushstrokes in the Koya-gire can be divided into three distinct styles, which for convenience are called 'the first style,' 'the second style,' and 'the third style.'

Altogether the "Kokin wakashu" consists of 20 scrolls (volumes) and a preface, but the Koya-gire has preserved only scrolls one, two, three, five, eight, nine, eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, and it is thought that the remaining scrolls have not survived to the present day. Among the extant scrolls, only scrolls five (in a private collection), eight (held in Yamaguchi at the Mori Museum), and twenty (owned by Kochi Prefecture) are still complete in scroll form (all three are National Treasures), while scrolls one, two, three, nine, eighteen, and nineteen have been split up as dankan and scattered to various places. The dankan from the very beginning of scroll one is in the possession of the Goto Art Museum in Tokyo.

The first style

The calligrapher who created the first distinct calligraphic style was responsible for scrolls one, nine, and twenty. Because he was in charge of transcribing both the very beginning (scroll one), and the very end (scroll twenty) of the Kokinshu, the presumption is that the calligrapher of the first style was the one who had the highest social status among the three. In terms of identifying the calligrapher, the most prominent theory is that he was FUJIWARA no Yukitsune (1012-1050, also known as Yukitsune SESONJI), son of famed calligrapher FUJIWARA no Yukinari (his first name can also be rendered as Kozei), but there is no definitive proof of this. The calligraphy of the first style remains highly regarded as a model of kana calligraphy, and continues to be used as such even today. The calligraphic style is marked by grace and beauty, with the form of the characters done mainly in the calligrapher's own hand; there are no rough spots, and the continuous, flowing lines (in which multiple characters are written continuously, without breaks between them) show restraint. Examples of other brushwork done in the same or closely connected hand as that of the first style include the Daiji wakanroeishu-gire (Fragmented Collection of Japanese and Chinese Poems, currently owned by various families), the Shinso hisho (in the possession of the Fujita Art Museum), and the Waka keijushu (10 Different Styles of Waka, owned by Tokyo National Museum).

The second style

Of the scrolls that are still extant, the calligrapher of the second style was responsible for scrolls two, three, five, and eight. The art historian Shigemi KOMATSU has postulated that the calligrapher of the second style was MINAMOTO no Kaneyuki (active around 1023-1074). The second style matches the brushwork of one of the passages written on the reverse side of the volume of the Engi-shiki (an ancient code of laws) owned by the Kujo family that is known to be by Kaneyuki, and for this and other reasons, even when looked at from different viewpoints, the theory that Kaneyuki was the calligrapher of the second style is all but conclusively proven. Of the three calligraphic styles in the Koya-gire, it is the brushwork of the second style that is the most idiosyncratic and unique; it is distinguished by the frequent use of brushstrokes at oblique angles, rising to the right, and by its thick, heavily drawn characters. Examples of brushwork in the same or closely related hand as that of the second style include the colored headboard of a wall painting in Phoenix Hall of Byodoin temple, the Katsuranomiya manuscript of the Manyoshu (owned by the Imperial House), the Kumogami manuscripts of the Wakan roeishu (in the possession of the Sannomaru Shozokan), and the Sekito manuscripts of the Wakan roeishu-gire (owned by a variety of families).

The third style

Of the Koya-gire scrolls still extant, the calligrapher of the third style was responsible for scrolls eighteen and nineteen. There is a theory claiming the calligrapher was FUJIWARA no Kintsune (?-1099), but this matter is still very much in doubt. The style of the calligraphy is marked by gentleness, and of the three styles in the Koya-gire, it is considered the most modern. Examples of brushwork in the same or closely related hand as that of the calligrapher of the third style include the Deccho manuscript of the Wakan roeishu (owned by the Sannomaru Shozokan), the first scroll of the Genryaku kobon manuscript of the Manyoshu (owned by Tokyo National Museum), the Iyo-gire (dankan from the Wakan roeishu, owned by various families), the Horei-gire (dankan from the Misho kashu or "collection of anonymous poems," owned by various families), and the Horinji-gire (dankan from the written copy of the Wakan roeishu, owned by various families).

[Original Japanese]