So You’ve Decided to Memorize the Hyakunin Isshu

I started this blog in 2011, and after a long lull, I have picked it up again and added a lot more to it. One thing I never did though was memorize the Hyakunin Isshu anthology. I had a poem or two (poems 24 and 33) that I kind of remembered, but never really put in much effort beyond that. It seemed daunting, and yet as I have learned, many kids in Japan do it as part of high school competitions and other things. My wife used to learn it in school too.

Further, after a long stay in my room due to Covid, I had a lot of time to revisit various hobbies, and I realized that I truly enjoyed the Hyakunin Isshu above many other things. Between this, and visiting Japan in December 2022, I finally decided it to make the effort.

You might be asking yourself why someone who’s not Japanese would go to the trouble of memorizing 100 poems, especially if they’re not written in modern, standard Japanese. But recently I’ve come to appreciate a few things:

  1. Translations are just translations. Even the really excellent translations by Joshua Mostow don’t quite convey things the way the original author intended. It’s not because of bad translations; it’s just the reality of language.
  2. I discovered that reciting the poems in Japanese out loud sometimes reveals things that simply reading them cannot. It’s hard to explain, but for example Lady Izumi’s poem (poem 56) sounds a lot nicer to me when recited as-is even in my badly accented Japanese. Same with Emperor Koko’s poem (poem 15).
  3. Memorizing the poems is essential for the karuta card game. You simply won’t succeed without it.
  4. Finally, to my surprise, I’ve discovered that if you do know some Japanese, the poems are still understandable even to a modern (let alone a foreign) audience. It’s amazing how much of the language has carried over across the centuries.1

So, how does one memorize the Hyakunin Isshu? Here’s some tips:

Learn Hiragana, Optional

First, while not required, it is really useful to learn Hiragana script in Japanese especially if you want to play the karuta game. Kanji (Chinese characters) are nice to know, but not strictly required. You can rely on Romanized Japanese (rōmaji), but you’ll often hit limitations. If you’re interested in Japanese culture anyway, hiragana opens a lot of doors, and makes learning the Hyakunin Isshu a lot more fun.

Keep in mind that spelling of words has changed over time, so modern omou (おもう) was often spelled as omofu (おもふ) in pre-modern times even if the pronuncation was the same. These spelling differences aren’t as bad as you’d expect, but just be aware that they are there, and usually any text in Japanese or English will include modern pronunciation somehow.

Get a Karuta Set, Optional

This is another optional suggestion, but I find it really helpful for using spaced repetition: purchase a karuta set. If you are not able to get a hold of one, 3×5 cards can work too.

Use Spaced-Repetition

Another day, another card. This is me trying to memorize a couple more poems.

The notion of spaced repetition is a technique for memorizing a lot of content by dividing it up into small chunks (hence the need for 3×5 cards or a karuta set) and then gradually sorting out the ones that are easy to learn vs. the ones that aren’t.

I started only learning 1-2 poems a day, randomly selected from my karuta set, and then reviewing everything I had learned up to this point. Some cards naturally floated to the top as “easy” cards (the poems were just easier to memorize) and get sorted into the easier pile. Other cards have more tricky poems, and I sort these into a harder pile, and focus on memorizing that harder pile until they all go into the easy pile.

Sometimes you’ll still forget an “easy” poem. This is natural. In such cases, you just move it to the hard pile for that day and re-learn it.

Memorize As A Song

Many experts and educators will tell you that learning new information through verses, songs or rhymes is often a handy method to easily memorize the content, and the poems of the Hyakunin Isshu have in fact been recited out loud across the ages. This is often true of haiku as well: the poems come to life when recited out loud in a sing-song style.

Japanese people often recite the poems in a style like that shown below:

Notice how the first three verses are recited, then after a pause the final two verses are recited. Even if you are tone-deaf, like me, you can still pick up this style of recitation easily enough to help you practice the poems out loud.

Find A Sustainable Pattern

Finally, unless you are Vulcan or an Android, it is quite difficult to take in all the poems at one time. I found it better to focus on a poem or two at a time, and keep reviewing old ones. Eventually, the review pile grows longer and longer, but as of writing I’ve memorized 15 poems in about 3 weeks. Maybe some people can do it faster, others might be slower.

It’s important to find a sustainable pace so it doesn’t become a source of stress (then you’re more likely to give up), but still gives a consistent sense of progress and reward. Since you have a fixed goal, each poem you learn reduces the number you have to learn by that much.

Good luck and happy memorizing!

1 Compare with English, which has undergone many radical transformations and now Old English is barely readable to a modern audience without sufficient training.

One response to “So You’ve Decided to Memorize the Hyakunin Isshu”

  1. Hi,
    congratulations and thank you for your great Hyakunin Isshu blog. What I did during the pandemic, and finished in summer 2022, was to translate one poem each week, compare it with an Early Irish poem, combine it with the illustration by Hokusai, and post the result on Twitter. You can see the collection in these two links:
    Best wishes

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