Imperial Poetry Anthologies

Kokin Wakashu Genei
The earliest extant copy of the Kokin Wakashū

Throughout this blog, I’ve alluded to what are called Imperial poetry anthologies, but what are these?

At A Glance

The poems of the Hyakunin Isshu are all waka (和歌) poems, which were very popular from the Nara Period (8th century) to the Kamakura Period (14th century) when they started to dwindle in favor of other poetry forms such as Renga and Haiku. Even today, Waka poems are still popular among high-society in Japan, including the Imperial Family, but their heyday was from the 8th to the 14th centuries.

During this time, it was very common for the Imperial Court to promulgate a new anthology from time to time. These imperial anthologies are called chokusen wakashū (勅撰和歌集) and there are 21 anthologies total, starting with the Kokin Wakashū (c. 920) and ending with the Shinshokukokin Wakashū (c. 1439). Collectively, these are known as the Nijūichidaishū (二十一代集, “Collection of 21 Eras”).

For each of these anthologies, often spanning a decade, the Emperor commissioned a talented group of poets to collect past poems and compile them into an anthology. Being tasked to compile an imperial anthology, especially the early ones, was considered a high-honor for court nobility and even a possible career advancement.


The imperial anthologies followed a fairly consistent format with one another. They would divided the collected poems under certain themes (since many were composed as topics for poetry contests) in the following order:

  1. Spring
  2. Summer
  3. Autumn
  4. Winter
  5. Love
  6. Miscellaneous

Within each topic, the poems were organized in rough historical order: older poems presented first, more recent poems toward the end.

By contrast, the Hyakunin Isshu is an example of a “private” poetry collection in that it was not commissioned by the government. Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97) compiled the Hyakunin Isshu in the later years of his life after his lord, Emperor Gotoba (poem 99), was exiled and the samurai government in Kamakura had won the civil war. As you will notice in the anthology, the Hyakunin Isshu poems cover the same topics, and maintain the same historical order, but are not subdivided by topic.

Anthologies As Source Material

Additionally, the poems selected for the Hyakunin Isshu had all been contributions to official anthologies, and their poets often worked on the official anthology projects as well. The poems chiefly come from the Kokin Wakashū and the later Shin Kokin Wakashū, but a few early ones came from the Manyoshu.

Thus, taken together, the Manyoshu, the Kokin Wakashū and the Shin Kokin Wakashū are called the san dai wakashū (三大和歌集, “Three Great Waka Compilations”).

Notable Anthologies

The very first anthology in Japanese history is technically the Manyoshū, but this anthology is not like the official 21. The Manyoshu was written in an earlier era, when Japanese writing used phonetic-style Chinese characters. Hiragana writing came later. Its looser format also differs from the one described above. However some of the poets of the Hyakunin Isshu did have poems in the Manyoshu, such as Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (poem 3) and Yamabe no Akahito (poem 4).

The first true Imperial anthology, and still considered one of the best, is the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集 “Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times”), which starting around the year 905 and finished by 920 (or 914 in some sources). The compilation of the anthology was done by four high-ranking court poets: Ki no Tsurayuki (poem 35), Ki no Tomonori (poem 33), Ōshikōchi no Mitsune (poem 29) and Mibu no Tadamine (poem 30). The 1,111 poems, past and contemporary, of the anthology were organized by topics and had a clever format to show progression of love affairs and other innovations.

The next major anthology was the Shin Kokin Wakashū (新古今和歌集, “New Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern”). It was compiled 200 years after the Kokin Wakashu but for practical purposes you can think of it is as The Kokin Wakashu, part II. In many ways, it improves upon the original in the way it is organized, innovations in expression, but also many of the poems directly alluded to older, original Kokin Wakashu poems in subtle ways. A person who somehow knew poems from both anthologies would appreciate the frequent, subtle references to the older poems in the newer ones, just as we might enjoy subtle references in one Marvel Comic movie to a previous one. The compilers of the Shin Kokin Wakashū were Fujiwara no Yoshitsune (poem 91), Fujiwara no Teika (who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu, poem 97), Jakuren (poem 87), Fujiwara no Ietaka (poem 98), among others.

Some, like the Gosen Wakashū (後撰和歌集 “Later Collection of Japanese Poems”), were compiled using “leftover” poems that didn’t quite make the cut in other anthologies but deserved an honorable mention. Thus, the Gosen Wakashu is less noteworthy than other anthologies, but is still included in the official 21.

In general, later anthologies in the Kamakura Period tended to imitate earlier anthologies, with varying success. Interestingly, after Fujiwara no Teika, starting with his grandchildren, his descendants virtually monopolized all the subsequent Imperial anthologies as the Nijō School. The conservative Nijō School dominated court poetry and the anthologies, occasionally making politically motivated collections that excluded rival schools, etc. However, another school related to Fujiwara no Teika, the Mikohidari/Reizei school (Jakuren, poet 87 was a member), occasionally gained the upper-hand and made some of the anthologies as well such as the Gyokuyō Wakashū (玉葉和歌集?, “Collection of Jeweled Leaves”).


It may seem a bit off to hear of a government investing so much into compiling anthologies of poetry, but I think that many such emperors hoped to emulate the Confucian ideal of virtue through elevation and cultivation the arts, and this was an effective way to do it. Because poetry was so integral to court life anyway, it was a way to leave a monument behind for future generations to appreciate.

Obviously, if you are reading this, you can still hear and appreciate those echoes of the past.

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