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Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012


The wonderful worlds of 100 waka

For 1,500 years, people in Japan have being writing poems in lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables each. Even today they're a part of daily life — and especially at New Year's, the role played by the revered 'Hyakunin Isshu' collection often becomes decidedly unpoetic

Special to The Japan Times

The scene: England, Boxing Day 2012. The archetypical Carters are relaxing after a cold turkey lunch (with bread sauce) and are watching the Royal Family's latest sonnets being read on the goggle-box. Time for a game!

News photo
The first half of Poem No. 1 by the seventh-century Emperor Tenji (right), as portrayed on a woodblock-printed yomifuda from an "Ogura Hyakunin Isshu" set by contemporary artist Kichisaburo Kuriyama, published by Kyoto Tobei on Jan. 1,1978. COURTESY OF STUART VARNAM-ATKIN


"No, it always becomes 'Squabble'!"


"No, Grandad monopolizes the bank!"


"No, too much effort!"

"How about '100 Quotations'?"


And so they settle down to play the time-honored card game.

"I'll be the reader," chirps Grandma, who has bad knees and is not allowed to play because she always wins. She takes a pile of 100 'reading cards' bearing quotations from "Beowulf," "The Canterbury Tales," "Le Morte d'Arthur," etc. — as selected by Shakespeare 400 years ago. Everyone's familiar with every word, even though the youngsters have no idea of the meaning of "Hwat! We Gardena in geardagum" — well, "Beowulf" is at least 1,000 years old. "Whan that aprill with his shoures soote" is a bit easier, but Chaucer only goes back to the 14th century.

The Carters divide into two teams, each one spreading on the carpet in front of it 25 "grab cards" bearing only the last part of each quotation, dealt out at random from the pack of 100. As Grandma reads from one of the "reading cards," the players have to swish away the corresponding grab card — actual grabbing is not necessary. Swish a card from the other team's set and you can hand them one of your cards; but accidentally swishing for a "ghost card" not on the floor is one of the various ways to incur a penalty. The team that succeeds in getting rid of all its cards is the winner.

It's fast, funky and frustrating, but endless fun — at least until teatime and more mince pies. Next month, the national "100 Quotations King and Queen 2013" championship will be televised live from Canterbury Cathedral, and the second series of an anime based on a best-selling manga titled "Uther Pendragon" will be aired in January ...

News photo
A woodblock-printed torifuda with the second half of Poem No. 5, written by Sarumaru Dayu early in the Heian Period (794-1185). COURTESY OF STUART VARNAM-ATKIN

This fantasy scene may appear absurd — and, indeed, a tad high-brow for our common-or-garden Carters — and yet it's remarkably close to one of Japan's treasured traditional entertainment phenomena called uta-garuta (poem cards).

To realize the unlikely parallels, in place of that scene, simply substitute New Year's, the archetypical Tanakas, the Emperor's annual poetry-reading event, tatami, the "Ogura Hyakunin Isshu" poetry collection, yomifuda (reading cards, printed in kanji and hiragana), torifuda (grab cards, printed in hiragana only), Omi Shrine in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture (where the seventh-century Emperor Tenji is enshrined) and the "Chihayafuru" manga and anime.

Indeed, to this day in Japan, ancient poems are still widely beloved; part of the national curriculum from an early age; memorized syllable by syllable; illustrated by the finest ukiyo-e (woodblock-print) artists; and regularly featured on special postage stamps issued for the annual Letter Writing Week.

But the ancient hyakunin isshu (lit. "100 people, one poem [each]") phenomenon is more even than all that.

Just how much more becomes especially evident at New Year's, which is to families in Japan the time of year most akin to the Carters' gathering last week. Then, one hyakunin isshu collection in particular — the overwhelmingly best-known "Ogura Hyakunin Isshu" anthology of 100 poems compiled in Kyoto's Ogura district by Fujiwara no Teika (or Sadaie, 1162-1241) — comes prominently into play, and especially in the interactive parlor game (which may also be a sport) called uta-garuta.

In the dynamic competitive version of uta-garuta called kyogi-karuta, demure young 21st-century ladies in kimonos fling themselves at cards and scatter them across the tatami. Oddly, too, this has a lot in common with sumo, another ancient form of entertainment which stipulates formal dress (un-dress in the latter case), respect for the opponent, strict etiquette, no arguing with the ref and a ranking system — and in which success can hinge on moments of split-second action when suddenly everything turns rough and nasty. In terms of speed, kyogi-karuta's right up there with kendo.

So certainly, the game involves much more than just memorizing all 100 poems. Each bout features a random selection of only 50 torifuda cards from the pack of 100, arranged however the players want. To be proficient demands tactics, quick reactions and great concentration; long arms and a ruthless attitude are also useful — along with the bluntly subtle technique of blocking your opponent's hand with your knuckles as you flick the cards with your fingertips.

Competitors in major tournaments, playing several 90-minute games every day, are said to lose several kilos in the process — perhaps making it an ideal sport for dieters.

News photo
A woodblock-printed yomifuda with the first half of Poem No. 97, by "Ogura Hyakunin Isshu" compiler, Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). COURTESY OF STUART VARNAM-ATKIN

The two roots of karuta derive firstly from a game popular among aristocrats of the Heian Period (794-1185) in which players had to match the halves of clamshells, and otherwise from carta (playing cards) brought in by 16th-century Portuguese sailors.

These two roots were initially combined into a card game called hanafuda (meaning, "flower cards") that would later become a popular form of gambling. Meanwhile, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu — generally written in the classic 5-7-5-7-7 meter of waka poems — had long been studied both for its literary qualities and as a way to practice calligraphy. Hence it wasn't so much of a stretch to invent the 100-card uta-garuta game when hanafuda gambling was outlawed by the ruling Tokugawa shogunate in the late 18th century.

Its popularity spread nationwide thanks to the growth in woodblock printing, and by the start of the 20th century it had became the perfect New Year's family activity, something old and young alike could enjoy — as long as you could kneel on tatami.

But what about the poems on the cards?

More than a century ago, the prominent British Japanologist, Basil Hall Chamberlain, wrote: "The overwhelming majority of Japanese poems are tiny odes".

That is a perspicacious way in which to describe the lyrical five-line, 31-syllable verses of waka (aka tanka), many of which directly address either another person, the moon, trees or the season.

Hence the "Ogura Hyakunin Isshu" collection (so famous that's it's often just referred to as the "Hyakunin Isshu") — which consists of 100 odes written by 100 poets over a period of 650 years — comprises a remarkably few 500 lines in total, with around 3,100 syllables— the equivalent of just over 22 of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets or eight times the length of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. That's all, which of course makes them easier to memorize.

The historical details are also mind-boggling. Himself a distinguished poet and editor, Fujiwara no Teika, who assembled the great work around 1237, did so not long after the signing of Magna Carta (1215), 100 years before the birth of Chaucer (1343) — and more than 300 years before the birth of Shakespeare (1564). The odes go all the way back to the mid-seventh century, when waka writing really took off — around the time of "Beowulf."

News photo
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) created this striking and unusual take on Poem No. 36, by the 10th-century writer Kiyohara Fukayabu. It shows summer revelers on the Sumida River in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in Hokusai's time. COURTESY OF STUART VARNAM-ATKIN

Teika kicked off the series that's still listed his way, from No. 1 to No. 100, with a poem possibly written by the 38th emperor, Tenji (aka Tenchi), while out in the rice-fields, wet from both the rain and his tears for his poor, hard-working people. This was followed by a brighter early summer piece by his daughter, Empress Jito.

These two choices indicated several points: the collection would be authoritative, noble, and closely connected to the Imperial court; it would underline the hereditary nature of waka expertise; and last, but certainly not least, it was Tenji who had given the name "Fujiwara" to one of Teika's ancestors after he'd helped him vanquish the Soga clan.

And so we have a distinguished bunch of 79 poets (including 15 monks) and 21 poetesses, mainly aristocrats, with not a few fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, cousins, grandparents — and plenty of Fujiwaras, including Teika himself.

Some of the waka were written for poetry contests rather than from the heart, others referred to a particular incident. Nonetheless, all human life is most certainly not there, because of the limited social range of the poets and the narrow range of topics — love, the seasons, travel, parting and grief. But they do display a wide emotional range: cries of passion and unrequited love, reflections on exile, loneliness, the transience of life and old age, appreciation of the passing seasons, smart quips by women as they reject courting courtiers (including Sei Shonagon, she of "The Pillow Book" fame from around 1000), and so on. Humor, however, is in short supply, and what there is comes mostly from the poetesses.

Because the poets employed native Japanese words rather than Chinese, and because the sound of syllables written in (non-kanji) hiragana script has hardly changed in a millennium, the waka are surprisingly comprehensible today — whereas the Anglo-Saxon of "Beowulf" or even the Middle English of so modern a writer as Chaucer is impenetrable for most speakers of English today.

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