The Hyakunin Isshu: 100 poems by 100 poets

Typically, when people think of poetry in Japan, they think of haiku (俳句), but there is another, more venerable style of poetry that I enjoy even more: waka (和歌) poetry. Waka poetry has been a part of Japanese culture, especially the aristocracy of the Heian Period, but can be dated as far back as the earliest Japanese literature.

What makes waka differ from haiku? Haiku are expressed in 5-7-5 syllables, but Waka are expressed as 5-7-5-7-7, so there are two additional lines, with the middle 5-syllable verse often used as a “pivot”. In modern times, Waka poetry is also sometimes called tanka poetry, but in Japanese language waka is more commonly used.

A karuta card featuring poet Onakatomi no Yoshinobu Ason (大中臣能宣朝臣), courtesy of Wikipedia.

The most famous poetry anthology in Japanese culture is a collection of 100 poems by 100 poets from the Nara and Heian Periods (roughly 7th through 12th centuries) called the Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首), compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241, 藤原定家), whose name can be alternatively read as Fujiawara no Sadaie. Because of the prevalence of such anthologies at the time, this particular collection is more specifically called the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (小倉百人一首) named after the district in Kyoto where Teika lived and compiled the poetry.

Early-medieval Japan saw many waka poetry anthologies come and go, many of them officially promulgated by the reigning emperor, but also private compilations, but the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu remains by far the most popular today due to the quality of the arrangement, and breadth of poetry. Teika was a talented poet and calligrapher in his day, and it shows. For example this is one of my favorite poems in the anthology, composed by Sugawara no Michizane (845 – 903), whom I’ve written about elsewhere:

このたびはKono tabi waThis time around
幣もとりあへずNusa motori aezuI couldn’t even bring the sacred streamers
手向山Tamuke yama—Offering Hill—
紅葉のにしきMomiji no nishikibut if this brocade of leaves
神のまにまにKami no mani maniis to the gods’ liking….
Poem number 24 of the Hyakunin Isshu, translated by Joshua Mostow

The Hyakunin Isshu covers a wide variety of subjects, love, grief, old age, young love, etc. Even now in 21st century Western culture, there is much resonance with people in the 10th century who experienced various hardships, or feelings of joy. Some of the poems were composed due to real events, such as the one above, others are fictionalized examples of a mood, often composed as part of a poetry contest among the literati of the time. Years ago, I wrote a blog compiling the poems using translations by Professor Joshua Mostow (with his permissions, thank you!) and even now I still refer back to it from time to time.

But the popularity of the Hyakunin Isshu isn’t limited to poetry, during the late-medieval period, it was also converted into a card game. Indeed, the Japanese term for karuta (カルタ, derived from Portuguese carta) is often synonymous with the Hyakunin Isshu game. The basic gist of the game is that two people face off, with cards containing the second half of each poetic verse laid out in front of them, half facing one player, the other half facing the opponent. A third person reads a select poem in its entirely, and the two players race to find which card matches, and then swat it off the board and thus take the card. Sometimes, to re-balance things, the winning player also moves a card from their side to their opponent’s. At the end, the person with no cards left on their side wins.

Cards used in the game, each depicting the last 3 verses of a poem. Ceridwen, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

A famous anima / manga named Chiyahaburu tells the story of a group of high-schools who learn to compete in the world of karuta. As a game and after-school activity, it is popular, but also has a bit of a refined air to it. I have tried to play this game with my family, but none of us have memorized the poems enough to be really good at it. There is a much simpler game you game that you can play with the karuta cards and easy enough for a 7 year old to play too.

The karuta game can be quite competitive too. Here’s a video from a competition in 2020 (note the face masks). After the reader (the man in the middle) recites a “warm-up” verse, around 2:18, you can see the lady on the left successfully swatting away the correct card before her opponent. Also, some of the poems recited are not actually among the laid out cards, just to throw people off. Not all 100 cards are laid out as you can see, only a subset. So, you not only have to know all the poems, but quickly recognize them among the pile, if they are even there.

Waka poetry in general still appears from time to time in modern Japanese culture, arguably more than haiku in my opinion, though both are popular. For Western audiences, I found waka somewhat underappreciated, but I hope readers will find something they enjoy as the world of waka poetry is long, vast and beautiful.

P.S. Some of the official, imperial anthologies such as the Kokin Wakashu and Shin Kokin Wakashu are also quite good, but they’re somewhat longer and have less resources in English, though I am happy to own a translation of these too.

P.P.S. Karuta cards are available for purchase online from various retailers. The box set we have was my wife’s when she was a little girl (still includes the old cassette tape for reading out the poems 😉)

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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