Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 5, 2016

The Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each)

The Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each) is Japan's most popular and widely known poetry collection, containing one hundred poems in the tanka form, selected by the famous poet and scholar Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241). These were in part arranged to represent the history of Japanese poetry from the 7th c. down to Teika's own day. The rough chronological order starts with Emperor Tenchi (626-671) and ends with Retired Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242).

[Fujiwara Teika]

In Teika's time it was common to write one hundred poem sequences with one's own poetry - Teika himself produced twenty - but Teika also compiled several collections of poems with work by other poets, from his own and earlier ages, of which the present one is the best known. As it offered an excellent overview of the living history of poetry, it became a tool for the instruction of novices in the art. The Hyakunin Isshu also became the basis for a popular uta karuta card game, and as such the poems have been memorized by countless Japanese since the Edo period. The game is still widely played today, especially at New Year.

[Poem Card (yomifuda): Emperor Tenchi and his poem]

Fujiwara Teika probably wrote out the single poems by 100 poets to decorate a set of sliding doors, somewhere towards the end of his life between 1235 and 1241. He had written out an almost similar set for the mansion of his son's father-in-law, and later made the present set for his own house. As this was located near Mt Ogura in Arashiyama, west of Kyoto, the collection is also known as Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Teika put great care into the creation of the collection and the sequence can be seen as his personal version - including his biases - of poetic history, as he saw it towards the end of his life. The most important theme is love (almost half of all poems), the most popular season is autumn. There are also interesting patterns in the poems, both thematic as in the fact that Teika has included several sets of poems by parents and their children, such as the first two poems, by Emperor Tenchi and his daughter, Empress Jito; and the last two, by Emperor Go-Toba and his son Juntoku. Important place names, from Mt Fuji to the sakura spot Yoshino and autumn symbol Tatsuta (both in the wider Nara area) have also been included.

The Hyakunin Isshu has been translated many times in English, but you can do yourself a favor by forgetting all early translations, certainly those made before WWII and those in rhyme. The only truly reliable version is the one by Joshua S. Mostow, which is at the same time the best study of the Hyakunin Isshu in English, called Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image, published by the University of Hawai'i Press in 1996. The problem with early translations (which are still being reprinted, such as the one by William Porter from 1909) is that the knowledge of Japanese and Japanese poetry of the translator is often insufficient (these were pioneers, I am not criticizing them!), but above all that they try to force the poems into a rhymed version. Not only do they have to make significant changes in the meaning of the poem to make the rhyme possible, as a result the poems also read like cheap verse, not like poetry at all.

Japanese poetry does not rhyme; it has a fixed number of syllables (5-7-5-7-7 for tanka), but it is not useful (although some translators do it) to reproduce that in English, as in English we feel stresses, and not syllables. The best translation is a literal and more or less prosaic one, which tries to include everything that is included in the original without trying to recreate poetry - that last is after all impossible without significantly changing the meaning of the original. And we need annotations to explain certain words and phrases, or overtones that could not be covered in the translation - it is meaningless to translate classical Japanese poems in bare translations without giving any background or further explanation. And of course the original Japanese should be included, at least in transliteration. All this is what Mostow does.


This year at New Year I wanted to play the karuta game, but I soon noticed that is impossible without a sound knowledge of the poems - so I have decided to translate the Hyakunin Isshu on this website in the course of this year, in the hope that next year I will be able to play the uta karuta game!

By the way, that karuta game is quite interesting. The poems themselves (with an image of the poet) are printed on yomifuda (reading cards) and the last two lines (the lower phrases of each 7 syllables) on torifuda ("grabbing cards"). So there are 100 of each. There are two main ways to play the game. In both cases, the reading cards are shuffled to change the order and then read out one by one by a reader (who doesn't take part in the game itself). In the first way of playing, Chirashi-dori, the torifuda are placed on the tatami around the players, and these grab them as quickly as possible as soon as the first part of the poem is read out. Winner is who has the most cards. In the other way of playing, Genpei-gassen, two teams of each one or more players are formed. Each team has 50 torifuda neatly arranged in front of them. Again they have to grab the torifuda as soon as the first part of the relevant poem is read out. Players can also grab torifuda from the cards laying in front of the opposing team. In that case, they may replace that with a card from their own side. When a wrong card is grabbed, the opponent can also move a card from their side. Winner is the team that first cleans away all torifuda on their side. In both versions of the game players may already grab the torifuda when the first syllable of the poem is being read. As all players have the poems memorized, it is more a match of agility and speed (the torifuda are swept up with a shooting movement) than of poetic knowledge. Players also memorize which lower phrases fit to which initial syllables, and during play they memorize the positions of the torifuda.

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).