As you may have started to notice, the Hyakunin Isshu anthology provides a subtle historical overview of the classical period in Japanese history. This may have been intention on the part of Fujiwara no Teika, or just reflects the sentiment of his time. Either way, it’s an interesting tour of Japan from the 8th to 12th centuries.

The anthology begins with poems in the Nara Period, when Japanese culture, flush with cultural imports from China (e.g. Confucian ethics, Buddhism, technology, administration, poetry, etc). It was an exciting time in Japanese history. And if you look at the poems from this era, you can see that they tend to feature benevolent rulers (poem 1), bright and happy natural scenes (poems 2 and poem 4), or just often dealt with frivolous issues of love (poem 3 and poem 12) or just life in general around the capitol (poem 10).

Even when the poems were more melancholy (poem 9, poem 11) they still reflected a more genteel time, and were probably included by Fujiwara no Teika to demonstrate the range of poetic skills of the nobility during that bygone time.

However, the Nara Period eventually gave way to the Heian Period, which was a 400-year flowering of Japanese culture that is still revered today. The transition was slow, and much remained the same generations later, but eventually things started to change:

  • Japan’s contact with China and the Asian mainland eventually stopped, and Japanese culture turned more and more inward for several centuries. Poetry and culture at this time reflected more “native” styles by and by.
  • Politically, the northern-branch of the Fujiwara clan gradually monopolized power around the Emperor through political marriages. In the early period, the nobility included several families who supported the family, but by the 11th century, the Fujiwara controlled every major position in government and most emperors were related to them in one way or another. This is what led in part to Sugawara no Michizan’e exile for example. You’ll notice too how many of the poets have the surname “Fujiwara” in the anthology as well, including Fujiwara no Teika the compiler himself.
  • Toward the end, conflict began to arise again and again, culminating in the famous Genpei War. The new samurai class (originally bodyguards to the noble families) clashed with one another for control of Japan and ultimately swept aside the nobility.

As such, if you look at poems toward the very end of the Hyakunin Isshu, they tend to be more dismal in tone. Often they speak of longing for the past (poem 100), complaints about life (poem 83, poem 99) or just expressions of people suffering (poem 95).

Indeed, by this time the flowering culture that started in the Nara Period and flourished in the Heian Period had declined, and war and politics had taken their toll on society. The final few poems begin in the militaristic Kamakura Period, and reflect both nostalgia and unease by people of that era. Small wonder that Fujiwara no Teika, who took tonsure after Emperor Go-Daigo was exiled, decided to compile the Hyakunin Isshu the way he did.


Ninomaru Palace, Kyoto, Japan - facade detail

This poem goes along with the previous one in our theme on the end of the Heian Court era:

百敷や Momoshiki ya
古き軒端の Furuki nokiba no
しのぶにも Shinobu ni mo
なほあまりある Nao amari aru
むかしなりけり Mukashi narikeri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

The hundredfold palace!
even in the shinobu grass
on its old eaves
I find a past for which
I long yet ever more.

This poem was composed by Emperor Juntoku (順徳天皇 1197 – 1242) who’s father, Emperor Go-toba (poem 99) led the famous Jōkyū Disturbance in a last-ditch effort to wrest back power from the Samurai class in 1221. Like his father, Juntoku was exiled after the rebellion was crushed, but he was sent to Sado Island instead, and lived there for 20 years before his death.

This poem apparently was composed in 1216, five years before the war though, and recalls the glory days of the Imperial Court before the downfall in the late 12th century. As Professor Mostow points out, it’s a stark contrast to the bright and optomistic poetry in the early Hyakunin Isshu, written 400+ years earlier. Emperor Juntoku is reminiscing about the decline of the Imperial Family and the fall of the Court culture that once flourished around it.

Also, the phrase momoshiki is an interesting one. Apparently it’s borrowed from a much earlier poem in the Manyoshū:

ももしきの Momoshiki no
大宮人は Ōmiyabito wa
暇あれや Itoma areya
梅をかざして Ume wo kazashite
ここに集える Koko ni tsudoeru

This poem colorfully describes how people in the palace are decorating their hair with plum blossoms they’ve collected, and playfully suggests that life at the palace is well and carefree.

So, it’s really interesting to see how Emperor Juntoku revives this ancient phrase in a poem that conveys the opposite meaning. The sun has set on the Imperial Court, and the palace looks tired and worn now.

Also, even the phrase momoshiki is really interesting. Professor Mostow translates this as the Hundred-fold Palace which is as good a translation as any in English. But the kanji (chinese characters) are 百敷 or “hundred [something] laid out”, but alternatively, the characters are 百石城 meaning “100-stones castle”. Both meanings refer to the Imperial Palace or kyūchū (宮中) in Japanese, so either character is valid. The first word refers to a hundred mats laid out for sitting (i.e. many people attending the court), while the latter means 100 stones, implying a palace with firm foundations.

But it’s a poignant reminder that even mighty castles decline some day.

Photo of Victor Hugo Brooding

Another patron of the arts, Victor Hugo, brooding in this photograph from 1853. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Since I touched upon the end of the Court-era in Japanese history, I thought it would be fitting to post this poem:

人も惜し Hito mo oshi
人も恨めし Hito mo urameshi
あぢきなく Ajiki naku
世を思ふゆゑに Yo wo omou yue ni
もの思ふ身は Mono omou mi wa

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

People seem dear and
people also seem hateful
when vainly
I brood about the world—
this self who broods about things.

The author of this poem was Emperor Go-toba (後鳥羽天皇 1180 – 1239), one of the most noteworthy Emperors in medieval Japanese history. Gotoba was responsible for a revival in Waka poetry. He commissioned Fujiwara Teika (poem 97), who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu, among others to make a new official anthology after the Kokin Wakashū centuries before, and this new edition became the Shin Kokinshū which is still an important part of Japanese literature.

Gotoba was a bold character, and sought to restore power which had recently been wrested from the Imperial family by the new Samurai class based in Kamakura, Japan. So, he and his son (Emperor Juntoku, poem 100), organized a rebellion in 1221 called the Jōkyū Disturbance where he called all samurai back to his banner. Unfortuantely, most didn’t want to lose their recent gains, and sided with the Kamakura government instead. The Jokyu Disturbance was a disaster and the Emperor’s forces were quickly destroyed. The young firebrand of an Emperor was then exiled to the Oki Islands (more photos here) and lived their for another 18 years.

This poem though, predates the rebellion and exile. According to Professor Mostow, it was composed as part of a series in 1212, which included Fujiwara no Teika, with the topic of “personal grievance”.

As to “who” he was referring to in the poem, that’s tricky. The word hito means “person or persons”, so it’s pretty generic. Mostow suggestions some traditional interpretations, such as those who oppose the Kamakura government, and those who uphold it (whom he detests), or another traditional interpretation was the common folk vs. those who opposed the rebellion (whom he obviously didn’t like).

We will never really know. But certainly after his exile, we can be sure he was a little bitter toward the victors.

Fall Sunset

Winter’s always a quiet, lonely time:

山里は Yamazato wa
冬ぞさびしさ Huyu zo sabishisa
まさりける Masari keru
人めも草も Hitome mo kusa mo
かれぬとおもへば karenu to omoeba

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

In the mountain village,
it is in winter that my loneliness
increases most,
when I think how both have dried up,
the grasses and people’s visits.

According to Mostow, this poem was composed in answer to the question of whether Fall or Winter was the lonelier season. Obviously the author, Minamoto no Muneyuki, favored winter. Minamoto no Muneyuki was the grandson of Emperor Kōkō and had a large portfolio of poems published in official anthologies, and earned himself a place among the Thirty Six Immortals of Poetry as well.

To me at least, the poem reminds me also of nobleman from the Heian Court who were required to do at least one tour of duty in remote provinces as a provincial governor for 4 years. The more remote the province, the more menial and degrading the task. Very well-to-do men could usually get themselves out of this obligation but most middle and lower ranking officials could not. Being cut off from the Heian Court was often a lonely affair as evinced in the writings of men like Sugawara no Michizane and others so imagine the author was also conveying this familiar sense of the time of loneliness officials stuck in a remote mountain village away from the Court in Winter and from friends.