Fujiwara no Shunzei became prominent for renovating a genre of Japanese poetry known as Waka, the other major forms being Kanshi, Tanka, Haiku – probably the best known and most imitated in the west – and diverse forms of complex collaborative writing, like the Renku, that remains little acknowledged in the western world, and needs to be read in Japanese to be better understood and appreciated. Waka, strictly speaking, was a complex setting of poetic meters, that could comprise several different forms of poetry, that also changed and evolved over time. Fujiwara no Shunzei was responsible for giving a more rejuvenated and modern refinement to this particular form of poetry. He also achieved notoriety for compiling the seventh imperial anthology of Waka Poetry. Literary compilations, poetry readings and poetry competitions remained widely popular in the Japanese imperial court for several centuries, being a cultural trademark in the classic history of Japan.
Fujiwara no Shunzei apparently was born in the year 1114, and has enjoyed a long existence, having died at eighty nine or ninety years old, in 1204, in the dawn of the thirteenth century; little is known about his life, though his literary legacy and achievements remains quite solid to this day. His offspring would also carry on his talent ahead, since his son, Fujiwara no Teika, would become one of the greatest literary icons in the history of Japan, being a notable poet, literary critic and essayist, whose lasting reputation survives to the present day. Indeed, affinity with the literary arts ran within the family for generations. He was also proficient in classic Chinese literature, a cultural characteristic that would remain a common feature among Japanese writers.
At sixty-three years old, Fujiwara no Shunzei fully embraced Buddhism, changing his name to Shakua, and isolated himself, something that another prominent Japanese man of letters, fourteenth century essayist Yoshida Kenkō – better known for his work Tsurezuregusa – would also do. From then on, until his death, his life became enshrined in obscurity, and what is mostly known as a fact, which is close to nothing, would be information recollected in his own work.
According to some sources, Fujiwara no Shunzei liked to wrote at the full darkness of dawn, with an oil lamp as the only source of light. In these quiet, lonely hours, he would compose his finest pieces, embraced by the somber solitude of creative tranquility, where his personal thoughts could contemplate the density of poetic expression in full accordance to his creative urges. While his literary efforts never brought him financial fortunes, he managed to be greatly recognized as a major poet in his lifetime.
Literary talent would remain in the family for generations. Besides his son, Fujiwara no Teika, Fujiwara no Shunzei had a granddaughter – Fujiwara Toshinari no Musume – that would become a famous poet, one of the most relevant of her generation. Despite not widely read today, Fujiwara no Shunzei’s literary legacy remains alive, and teaches important creative and historic elements of the Japanese literature of his period. An author that evokes sentiments of nostalgia, perplexity and devotional rapture with strong vividness, Fujiwara no Shunzei certainly is a marvelous example of the pure degree of perfection that Japanese poetry could easily achieve.