This blog is devoted to a famous poetry anthology in Japan called the hyakunin isshu (百人一首) which features 100 poems by 100 famous poets from the ancient Nara Period to the early Kamakura Period, in rough chronological order. The anthology thus spans about 400 years of Japanese history, in other words. It is frequently studied in Japan by young and old, and even a part primary school curriculum.
This blog started a side project of mine in 2011, while my main blog (the current iteration) can be read here. My goal for this blog had been simply:
- To promote Japanese Waka poetry and its history, but in particular the Hyakunin Isshu.
- To post all 100 poems of the anthology. Project was 100% complete as of March 2014.
- To celebrate the culture behind the Heian and Nara periods that helped shape the anthology and its poetry.
In 2022, after being stuck at home with Covid for a week, I brushed off the old blog, greatly expanded the content, fixed broken links, and provided more accurate information. A trip to Japan in December 2022 has given me access to a lot of resources and information that I couldn’t find overseas, and I have been using that to further expand the blog.
A Brief History of the Hyakunin Isshu
(a quick note here: Japanese family names come before given names, and especially in antiquity, used a “no” in between to imply aristocratic pedigree. In English this would sound like “Teika of [the House of] Fujiwara”…).
The Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首) is a poem anthology compiled in the 13th century by famed poet Fujiwara no Teika (who also composed poem 97 in the anthology). The name literally means “100 poets, 1 poem each”.
Fujiwara no Teika had served the Imperial Court under Emperor Gotoba (poem 98) and his son Emperor Juntoku (poem 100). After the exile of his liege lords following the Jokyu War, Teika eventually retired into the Buddhist monastic life, quietly researching literature and poetry of the past.
However, at the request of his son’s father-in-law, Lord Utsunomiya no Yoritsuna (宇都宮頼綱), Teika selected 100 poems from the past, copied them in his own handwriting, and sent them to Lord Utsunomiya so that they could be adorned on the silk screens (fusuma) of his villa near Mount Ogura outside Kyoto. This collection was originally called the saga chūin shōji shikishi kata (嵯峨中院障子色紙形).
It was this collection of 100 poems that eventually became the collection that we know today as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (小倉百人一首), to distinguish it from other “100 poets” collections that were trendy at the time. “Ogura” was of course the same mountain where Yoritsuna’s villa resided. These poems already existed, and were often featured in more official Imperial anthologies, but Teika’s excellent poetic sense allowed him to select the very best of the best for his exclusive collection.
The 100 poems of the anthology are waka (和歌) or Japanese-style poems, as opposed to kanshi (漢詩) or Chinese-style poems that were also popular during that period. Haiku as we know them didn’t exist until centuries later during the medieval “samurai” period. The classical “Heian” period of Japanese history was more like a cultured aristocracy than the military governments of later times.
What Are Waka Poems?
Waka poetry (和歌) is a poetic form that predates the more well-known haiku form and is usually presented in 5-7-5-7-7 syllable form. Even today the Waka style poetry remains popular in some literary circles, including the Imperial Family, with its aristocratic image.
However the history of Waka poetry is surprisingly long and underwent multiple forms before settling on the form above. According to the Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten, the earliest forms of Waka poetry included various folks songs, love poems, prayers to the Shinto kami, lamentations and so on. These songs and prayers gradually consolidated in form that started out as 4-6-8 syllables, but then changed to the kata-uta (片歌) style of 5-7-7, then the sedōka (旋頭歌) style of 5-7-7-5-7-7 syllable verses and finally the tanka (短歌) or “short verse” style with the familiar 5-7-5-7-7.
This final tanka form is what became the dominant style across the ages, and what the Hyakunin Isshu poems all use.
Finally, one other note. Waka poems are composed of two parts, the upper 3 verses or kami no ku (上の句) shown in blue, and the lower 2 verses or shimo no ku (下の句) shown in green.
This is important when we look at karuta and how competitions work, but also if you are memorizing the poems, or reciting out loud in Japanese, it helps to mentally divide them this way too.
The Hyakunin Isshu Today
In Japan, the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu continues to be one of the most beloved anthologies in Japanese culture because it spans poems from Japan’s early Classical Age, the Nara and Heian Periods, and includes some very memorable poems. Children in schools often study the Hyakunin Isshu even today and karuta competitions are a common after-school activity, and also a fun family game often played during Japanese New Year.
My wife owns a karuta set from when she was in grade-school, and I got a couple new sets in December 2022 during my visit there.
We don’t play the full karuta game at home, but we do play simpler versions even now during family game nights.
My interest began earlier in 2010 when I was looking for ways to improve my Japanese reading skills, so at the local Japanese bookstore, I picked up a copy of Chibi Marukochan’s exploration of the Hyakunin Isshu which explores the anthology from the perspective of younger, middle-school aged children (and thus easier for me to read). It was difficult to read at first, but as time went on, I became more and more absorbed in the poetry. Poetry, especially during the Nara and Heian Period, were deeply woven into the culture at the Court, and achieved a refinement not easily found in other periods of Japanese history. I was so moved by some poems, that I started writing about them in the blog, first here and then other posts followed.
This page is dedicated to this excellent anthology and includes links to other resources for those who would like to learn more, and will be updated from time to time.
English translations of the poems, which sometimes struggle to capture the essence of the poetry. The reason why the poems are so highly praised is their clever use of double-meanings, literary phrases and inside references that don’t always translate well into other languages. However, some respectable efforts have been put forth over the century.
- University of Virginia online edition – the most complete edition you can find online. A modified, more readable version of the classic MacCauley version. My primary source in this blog. 🙂
- Porter’s 1909 edition – This can still be found in print and on SacredTexts.com. Porter’s translation has the unique distinction of making the poetry rhyme in English, per
- Pictures of the Heart by Joshua Mostow. This book is a more in-depth scholarly review of the poems, and their evolution over time. The translations are fantastic and more up to date than others currently available, thanks to new research by Mostow and others. Professor Mostow has also kindly given permission to use his translations for this blog. Please show your support and appreciation if you get the chance. 🙂
Example Authors in the Hyakunin Isshu
Famous people whose poetry are included in the anthology:
- Sei Shonagon – author of the Pillow Book
- Sugawara no Michizane – Confucian scholar, poet and statesmen.
- Lady Murasaki – Author of the Tale of Genji and eponymous diary.
- Emperor Gotoba, mentioned above.
- Fujiwara Teika, mentioned above.
- Lady Izumi – Another lady of the Court at the same time as Lady Murasaki. Famous for her many love trysts.
- Priest Saigyo – A famous poet/Buddhist monk who left a promising career to devote himself to poetry and the monastic life.
- The Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry and the original Six Immortals of Poetry.
Here are additional links, updated as I find more information. For more details about purchasing karuta cards of the Hyakunin Isshu, check out my this article.
- Ogura Hyakunin Isshu exhibit – The Saga Arashiyama Museum of Culture and Art maintains a permanent exhibition to the Hyakunin Isshu (Japanese, English links).
- The Karuta History Museum in Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan is another example of a museum dedicated to the history of karuta cards, and especially the Hyakunin Isshu.
- A Karuta Store in Tokyo Going Strong After 90 Years – An article by the Japan Times, the actual store homepage is linked here.
- Tengudo Store in Kyoto (company website), founded in 1800, is another great choice for Karuta cards.
- New Year’s Karuta games – An article about the Hyakunin Isshu as a new year’s past time.
- Chihayafuru Fandom wiki – For fan of the manga!
- Hyakunin Isshu Daijiten (“Big Dictionary on the Hyakunin Isshu”) – this book is available in Japanese language only, but is an amazing resource on the places, people, and culture of the Hyakunin Isshu and since purchasing it in December 2022, has been invaluable in updating articles here with more background detail that simply isn’t available in English. Link on Amazon JP here.
Watching the Hyakunin Isshu Competitions
Since initially making this blog, you can now find karuta competitions on the official Youtube channel! I wrote more about the rules and how it works in this article.
Here’s a recent competition in 2022:
and ladies competition: