The Christmas Blog Series 2 (IV) – The Hyakunin Isshu and Medieval Verse


The pastime of karuta is a fascinating one; a kind of competition of literary knowledge mixed with a test of reactions, based upon recall and identification of poems from the 100 verses of the hyakunin isshu. It received significant visibility in pop culture – especially overseas, thanks to the growing popularity of international availability of animé – with the airing in 2011 of the series Chihayafuru, which focused on a young girl learning the apparently unpopular hobby. While the series, with its emphasis on presenting how welcoming and inclusive apparently forbidding niche activities can be, and on the importance of persevering with things regardless of how unpopular or difficult they may seem, works as good entertainment in its own right, it drove me towards the hyakunin isshu themselves.

My first encounters with the verses came from two sources – 2012 animé Uta Koi, which presented a strangely anachronistic and Horrible Histories-esque treatment of the lives of the poets and the stories of the verses, and the historical novel covering the life of Murasaki Shikibu The Tale of Murasaki; Shikibu wrote a number of the hyakunin isshu. While the novel about Shikibu was ultimately underwhelming – a decent enough period novel which largely avoided the pitfalls of writing about historical Japan, but one which as it progressed felt increasingly unbelievable in its depiction of the figure behind certain of the 100 poems and The Tale of Genji – it did inspire me to try and find out more about the literature of that period. Thus, when I found translations of the hyakunin isshu, I began with Shikibu’s entries.

This is poem 57:

Meeting on the path

But I cannot clearly know

If it was he,

Because the midnight moon

In a cloud had disappeared

From a literary perspective it is interesting to me as a medievalist; the 100 poems were compiled, according to current historical thinking, in the 13th century from a corpus of works from the 7th to 13th centuries, with Shikibu living c.978-c1014 (with some sources suggesting her death was in 1025). This predates many of the medieval poems I studied at university; The Tale of Genji is believed to have been completed by 1021 at the latest, while the most well-known canonical medieval English-language texts such as the Pearl manuscript and the Canterbury Tales date from the 14th century or thereabouts (Chaucer having lived from 1343-1400). These works are more contemporary with Old English texts such as Beowulf, and provide a completely different literary field – there is comparatively little courtly poetry surviving from this era in Europe (many of the famous poems of this type such as the Goldyn Targe (1508) are even later) and the canonical works that do survive are epics.

Compare Shikibu’s entry in the hyakunin isshu with the slightly later Song of Roland, possibly the earliest surviving work of French literature (believed to have been first written in the mid-1000s, and an example of the verse epic):

Ten snow-white mules then ordered Marsilie,
ifts of a King, the King of Suatilie.
Bridled with gold, saddled in silver clear;
Mounted them those that should the message speak,
In their right hands were olive-branches green.
Came they to Charle, that holds all France in fee,
Yet cannot guard himself from treachery.

The first difference is one of intent and subject matter; the epic of this kind, here detailing historical events around the Battle of Ronceveaux, has a clear historical intent. Even among the later popular poems that survive in English there is a strong historical and spiritual focus; what has survived is not the personal, courtly poems so much as the popular culture of the time, the epics, lyrics and ballads – and many of those lyrics and ballads particularly were either spiritual parables or fables, or repurposed as such by religious leaders.

To consider the poems in terms of versification also proves interesting; the French epic is clearly showing some techniques of later medieval verse in this translation, which places it more closely within a contemporary English verse form (see the alliteration added at “Came they to Charle, that holds all France in fee”). Each line of the laisse form is around 10 syllables and even though it predates much recognisable verse the roots of later forms are evident in it – there is even some basic rhyme within the generally assonal structure (Marsilie / Suatilie set against each other in a couplet showing a king and his realm even in the Old French). Yet the defining verse feature is the lines divided into two halves with a pause between, often with the second half qualifying or opposing the thought, and each laisse ending with a conclusion or aphorism. In this way, each section stands as its own thought but also contributes to a larger narrative.

The form of Shikibu’s poem, the waka, is a predecessor of the 17th-century haiku; it is a strictly syllabic verse based on a 5-7-5-7-7 form which splits generally into two stanzas. There is a similar thought and counterpoint or qualification structure, but the poem itself is one complete thought. While I am unsure if the novel about Shikibu I read was wholly accurate, the suggestion within it was courtly Japanese poetry of the Heian era was frequently intensely personal – not so much for mass consumption as an epic might be, but written for someone or about a specific event. In poem 57 of the hyakunin isshu, the splitting of the thought comes midway through what could be considered in later terminology the “volta”; the doubt the speaker feels about the chance meeting described is set up and explained – not introduced – in the qualifying second stanza. However, since this poem (like the extract from the Song of Roland) is being considered in translation, it is difficult to talk more about the word choice and instead analysis must remain on a structural level.

What my research following a series of tangential pop culture references to karuta and the hyakunin isshu led to was a new interest in early literature – my existing beliefs about a medieval literary canon firmly placed within a 13th-16th century English and European tradition were set in a new context. The vast corpus of early Japanese poetry – and its continued popular resonance (albeit via apparently niche activities such as karuta) – was quite different in authorship and – insofar as it is useful – intended audience to the populist, folkloric and spiritual stuff I was used to.


  1. animecommentary

    If I recall correctly, early court poetry (that is, from the Man’yoshu to the Kokinshuu) had two different, concurrent patterns – publicly show poetry, those shown in the compilations, were based on Chinese models, while private correspondences where written in Japanese. The idea was that Chinese was the language off the educated, and most courtesans wrote in it; with the Kokinshuu and subsequent works, Japanese started being used in public recitations and publications.

    • r042

      Thanks for the clarification – I wasn’t entirely sure on the situation of Chinese as a language in Heian Japan. Do you know any good reference books about the period? I’ve only been working from more synoptic and introductory stuff at the moment.

      There’s an interesting parallel there with the contemporary (in Europe) rejection of the vernacular in favour of French and Latin.

      The novel about Shikibu mentioned her Chinese education as being a sign of a much higher level of education than most, as I recall.

  2. animecommentary

    Indeed, that development in Europe popped into my head as well when I wrote the comment. lol Anyway, as far as reference books, there’s a recent-ish translation of the Kokinshuu (1996) that includes a fairly comprehensive examination of the Heian period.

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