House of noble poets displays treasures from ancient Japan

by Gary Tegler

KYOTO — Tucked away near the southeast corner of Doshisha University in Kyoto is the last surviving house of Japanese nobility. Home to the Reizei family, it is now occupied by 54-year-old Kimiko Reizei and her husband, Tamehito, head of Tamao Kai, a school that teaches traditional “waka” poetry.

The main quarters of the Reizei family residence in Kyoto will soon be open for public viewing, along with other treasures of the former noble clan.

Situated on a 2,500-sq.-meter site, the Reizei residence was constructed 400 years ago but recently restored at a cost of 1 billion yen, three-quarters of which was paid by the central and Kyoto Prefectural governments.

The remainder came from donations and proceeds from an exhibition of Reizei family treasures that toured the country in 1999.

From Nov. 5 to 10, the house will be opened to the public for the first time. Over 25,000 people applied for the 7,500 admission tickets.

How this house managed to survive out of the dozens that once existed in Kyoto involves several twists of historical fate.

The Reizeis trace their origins back 25 generations to a schism in a branch of the powerful Fujiwara family.

Fujiwara Tameie lived in the 12th century and had two sons by two wives. Upon his death, he left a will in which he bequeathed his possessions to his second son.

These included numerous manuscripts of waka composed by nobility and by members of the Imperial family in the Heian Period, as well as copies of much older Chinese works. They came into his possession as he and previous members of his family had been given the honor of editing an annual compilation of waka by Imperial decree.

The first wife demanded the manuscripts be given to her. The second wife, her late husband’s will in hand, petitioned the government for the right to keep them. She won.

“She wrote about this experience in a diary called the ‘Izayoi Nikki,’ ” Kimiko Reizei said. “This was the first time that a woman had ever successfully petitioned the government. Though the original diary no longer exists, the will is still in our possession.”

The family split apart during the Nanbokucho War in the early 14th century, and the first son’s line produced no heirs. The other line managed to survive.

“Our branch of the family continued, but had no power and was ranked very low in the hierarchy, so we remained above the fray,” Reizei said. “That was our family policy. We were poets, not politicians.”

Then came the first twist of fate. During the Onin War (1467-77), the Reizei family moved to Osaka, along with many other noble families, to avoid the devastation.

When they returned to Kyoto in 1601, they were forced to locate their new house north of what is now the enclosure of the Imperial Palace.

The Tokugawa shogunate required that the noble families of Kyoto relocate their homes around what is now Sento Gosho, except for the Reizei and three other families whose homes were situated just to the north.

This led to the second twist of fate.

When Emperor Meiji relocated to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1868, the nobility moved with him. They left their Kyoto homes behind and squatters soon moved in. The rising crime rate in the area prompted the government to order the dismantling or destruction of most of these houses.

The Reizei family decided to remain in Kyoto, but since their home was situated outside the compound, it was spared destruction.

However, the home was destroyed in a fire that swept through Kyoto in 1788 and was rebuilt two years later. This is the house currently standing.

The documents and family artifacts that had been in the family for generations miraculously survived the 1788 fire inside a thick-walled treasure house called Gobunko.

At the end of World War II, the noble families were stripped of their status by the Occupation Forces. The Reizei family discussed what to do with their house.

“After the war, there was not much appreciation for old things,” Reizei explained. “We thought that owning such a large house would be viewed unfavorably, and my father felt guilty. Also, now that we were no longer nobility, we were subject to inheritance and property taxes.”

Nevertheless, the family, concerned about what might happen to the precious historical documents stored in their treasure house, held onto the property despite offers from Doshisha University to purchase it.

After Reizei’s father died in 1980, the family asked the Cultural Preservation Department of the Kyoto Prefectural Government to research the documents in their possession.

The researchers were astonished at the wealth of the collection and recommended that four artifacts be designated national treasures and 41 others important cultural assets.

A front-page newspaper article about the house later that year excited the public’s interest and the family realized times had changed.

Although Reizei and her husband continue to live in the house, it now belongs to the Reizei Family Shigure-Tei Museum, a nonprofit foundation for research set up by Kimiko Reizei in 1981.

From Feb. 16 to March 24, Kyoto Bunka Hakubutsukan will host a second exhibition of the Reizei family treasures.