Poetry Contests in the Heian Period

Throughout this blog, I’ve alluded many times to poetry contests, called uta-awase (歌合), as the origin of many of the poems of the Hyakunin Isshu. These contests were a popular past-time among the nobility of Nara and Heian periods of Japanese history, and onward. The first such contest was recorded as far back as 885, and became a staple of nobility since.

The poetry contest was a ritualized affair, and worth exploring here.

An excerpt from an illustrated copy of the Tales of Ise showing two contestants in a poetry contest, with an incense brazier on between. The lady here serves as the judge of their poetry.

This image comes from an illustrated copy of the classic Japanese text, the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise)1 and shows an example of a typical poetry contest. The contestants sit facing one another as a pair, while some contests had multiple pairs facing off.

Presiding over the contest was a judge or hanja (判者) who would provide a topic for the contest. A small incense brazier would burn between the two contestants (方人, kata-udo), who would each come up with one poem to fit the given theme. Each participant would also trash-talk the opponent’s poem while praising their own, or their Allie’s (if multiple sets of participants). Basically, an ancient Japanese rap-battle. Once the winner was declared, the contest could go another round, and each contestant would come up with another poem.

According to the Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten, the longest recorded poetry contest during the classic Heian Period was said to have continued for 500 rounds!

In more formal settings, usually held at the Imperial palace,2 with a director overseeing the contest (a tokushi, 読師), with the poems and their theme recorded by a scribe (kazusashi, 籌刺) who sat off to the side. Musical accompaniments were often added to formal poetry contests, too. Finally, the particularly good poems often ended up later in Imperial Anthologies.

You can see an example of an Imperial uta-awase from a popular manga here:

You can also see examples of re-creations of an uta-awase in this Kyoto museum here, specifically here. This blog also has a nice example photo here.

1 Image and main image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Chester Beatty Library, Public domain.

2 These are specifically called dairi-uta-awase (内裏歌合)

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