This blog is devoted to a famous poetry anthology in Japan called the hyakunin isshu (百人一首) which features 100 poems by 100 famous poets from the ancient Nara Period to the early Kamakura Period, in rough chronological order. The anthology spans about 400 years of Japanese history in other words. It is frequently studied in Japan by young and old, and even in primary school.
This is a side project of mine, while my main blog can be read here. My goal for this blog is simply:
- To promote Japanese Waka poetry, its history and in particular the Hyakunin Isshu.
- To post all 100 poems of the anthology. Project is currently 100% complete as of March 2014.
- To celebrate the culture behind the Heian and Nara periods that helped shape the anthology and its poetry.
The Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首) is a poem anthology compiled in the 13th century by famed poet Fujiwara no Teika. After the exile of his liege lord, Emperor Gotoba, Teika eventually retired into the Buddhist monastic life, quietly researching literature and poetry of the past. However, at the request of his son’s father-in-law, Lord Utsunomiya no Yoritsuna, Teika compiled 100 poems in his own handwriting, so that they could be adorned on the silk screens of Lord Utsunomiya’s villa near Mount Ogura outside Kyoto. It was these 100 selected poems that eventually became the collection that we know today as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (小倉百人一首), to distinguish it from other “100 poets” collections that were popular at the time.
The anthology features 100 famous waka (和歌) or Japanese-style poems, as opposed to kanshi (漢詩) or Chinese-style poems that were also popular during that period. Haiku as we know them didn’t exist until centuries later during the medieval “samurai” period.
Within Japanese poetry, these are specifically tanka (短歌) poems in 5-7-5-7-7 syllable form, and were a popular style of poetry at that time, but even today the Waka style poem remains popular in some literary circles including the Imperial Family.
The Hyakunin Isshu Today
In Japan, the Hyakunin Isshu continues to be one of the most beloved anthologies in Japanese culture because it spans poems from Japan’s early Golden Age, the Nara and Heian Periods, and includes some very memorable poems. Children in schools often study the Hyakunin Isshu even today and games have been made around it particularly for New Year’s.
My interest began earlier in 2010 when I was looking for ways to improve my Japanese reading skills, so at the local Japanese bookstore, I picked up a copy of Chibi Marukochan’s exploration of the Hyakunin Isshu which explores the anthology from the perspective of younger, middle-school aged children (and thus easier for me to read). It was difficult to read at first, but as time went on, I became more and more absorbed in the poetry. Poetry, especially during the Nara and Heian Period, were deeply woven into the culture at the Court, and achieved a refinement not easily found in other periods of Japanese history. I was so moved by some poems, that I started writing about them in the blog, first here and then other posts followed.
This page is dedicated to this excellent anthology and includes links to other resources for those who would like to learn more, and will be updated from time to time.
English translations of the poems, which sometimes struggle to capture the essence of the poetry. The reason why the poems are so highly praised is their clever use of double-meanings, literary phrases and inside references that don’t always translate well into other languages. However, some respectable efforts have been put forth over the century.
- University of Virginia online edition – the most complete edition you can find online. A modified, more readable version of the classic MacCauley version. My primary source in this blog. 🙂
- Porter’s 1909 edition – This can still be found in print and on SacredTexts.com
- Pictures of the Heart by Joshua Mostow. This book is a more in-depth scholarly review of the poems, and their evolution over time. The translations are fantastic and more up to date than others currently available, thanks to new research by Mostow and others. Professor Mostow has also kindly given permission to use his translations for this blog. Please show your support and appreciation if you get the chance. 🙂
Authors in the Hyakunin Isshu
Famous people whose poetry are included in the anthology:
- Sei Shonagon – author of the Pillow Book
- Sugawara no Michizane – Confucian scholar, poet and statesmen.
- Lady Murasaki – Author of the Tale of Genji and eponymous diary.
- Emperor Gotoba, mentioned above.
- Fujiwara Teika, mentioned above.
- Lady Izumi – Another lady of the Court at the same time as Lady Murasaki. Famous for her many love trysts.
- Priest Saigyo – A famous poet/Buddhist monk who left a promising career to devote himself to poetry and the monastic life.
- The Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry and the original Six Immortals of Poetry.
Here are additional links, updated as I find more information:
- A University of Kyoto Article – Also covers a museum in Kyoto devoted to the Hyakunin Isshu
- The Hyakunin Isshu in high-school competitions – An article by the Asahi Shimbun
- A Karuta Store in Tokyo Going Strong After 90 Years – An article by the Japan Times