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A New Year`s Card Game- Hyakunin Isshu Karuta (百人一首かるた) is a Gateway to the Sublime World of Classical Japanese Poetry

A 17th century set of Hyakunin Isshu Karuta

By Avi Landau

The special dishes and decorations, the visits to shrines or temples, the family gatherings, the greetings, even the pre-holiday cleanings, make O-Shogatsu ( the Japanese New Year Celebration) fascinating for me. They reveal how the Japanese  make a clean break with the past and then make a fresh, new start- with wishes for the health, prosperity and happiness of the family, the community and the nation, manifesting itself in the amassing of  ENGI-MONO (縁起物)- objects, words, colors, etc., which are believed to have a POSITIVE impact on the world. In addition, there are also objects, words, colors etc., which are compiled to keep all forms of misfortune away.

What is fascinating, is what it is that determines the making of GOOD ENGI- symbolism and connection expressed through shape, name, color, etc. I have given numerous examples of this in my past  few Tsukublog articles. Here are some things which are symbolically auspicious:

Oranges (DAIDAI), because their Japanese name DAIDAI also means GENERATION BY GENERATION- thus representing the wish for the continuation of the family line. Shrimp- because their bent backs resemble the bodies of extremely old people- expressing  desire for longevity.

Buckwheat noodles (soba): are eaten on New Year`s Eve  because ( among other reasons) they break easily, representing a clean break with the past year. As my articles show, the list of these ENGI MONO goes on and on.

The presence of this type of symbolism extends even, or should I say extends naturally, to traditional New Year`s games. For example, there is HANE TSUKI , a game in which decorative paddles ( HAGOITA, which are ENGI MONO in themselves) are used to battle a shuttle cock back and forth. This batting away of the birdie symbolizes batting away mosquitoes, and illness. Very clever. Like all the other ideas for ENGI MONO which have been popularized over the years.



There is another very popular traditional New Year`s game, however, which rather than having a significantly auspicious symbolism ( though I would suggest that it might), is a surprising celebration of Japan`s  classical culture- specifically, its poetry- in which the players must familiarize themselves ( and in many cases memorize) one hundred poems of varying degrees of complexity and difficulty.

The name of the game is Hyakunin Isshu Karuta ( The One hundred Poets, One Hundred Poems Card Game), and I first encountered it years ago while spending an O-Shogatsu with a Japanese Family. After a long leasurely afternoon of eating and drinking, everyone in the house, young and old, suddenly got down on the TATAMI floor to play a card game. One hundred cards were spread on the floor. Each, I was told, contained the last segment ( SHIMO KU) of a poem. What we were to do was to try to grab up these cards as their first portions (KAMI KU) were chanted.

Playing hyakunin Isshu Karuta with a wooden tablets insted of cards (Tsukuba)

As you might have guessed, since I was a complete beginner in Japanese at that time ( and was unfamiliar with these poems), I ended up with not a single card when the game was over. Still, I never forgot that game. Being the stubborn obsessive personality that I am, in the subsequent years I studied and studied, until what was once an exotic hum to me ( as the poems are recited), are now clearly understandable pieces, which evoke all their possible interpretations in my mind when I hear them. Yes, it was that one game of Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, which started me off on my ongoing relationship with Japanese poetry.

The cards ( in this case wooden tablets) are usually arranged in alphabetical (A, I,U,E) order to make finding them easier

Let me tell you a little bit more about what the Hyakunin Isshu is- and maybe you too will catch the addiction. The Hyakunin Isshu is a collection of WAKA (和歌)- Japanese poems of the TANKA variety.. Unlike English poetry which often involves RHYME,  these poems are created by fitting ideas into a set number of syllables- specifically 31 (MISOHITOMOJI, 三十一文字), broken up into phrases of 5-7-5-7-7 ( longer than the mere 5-7-5 pattern which was popularized later with HAIKU poems). The reason that this unusual syllabic rhythm was set upon as the standard form for WAKA poetry was that  it was in this particular pattern (5-7-5-7-7) that the God SUSANOO NO MIKOTO, as recorded in Japanese mythology, announced his marriage. This form was thus deemed to be the WAY THE GODS SPEAK. Thus, waka were used to express thoughts and feelings which could not be expressed in normal everyday speech.

Two girls ready to go at it during the prefectural Hyakunin Isshu Karuta Championships (Ibaraki 2014)

Two girls ready to go at it during the prefectural Hyakunin Isshu Karuta Championships (Ibaraki 2014)

As its title , ONE HUNDRED POETS. ONE HUNDRED POEMS suggests, the Hyakunin Isshu is a selection of 100 WAKA by 100 different poets – 79 men ( including 8 Emperors, and 13 Buddhist monks) and 21 women ( including 1 Empress. The first poem of the collection is  attributed to the Emperor Tenji (626-671), and the last to retired Emperor Juntokuin (1197-1242), and thus the anthology spans the works from a period of 500 years. Among these works are some (one each of course) by Japan`s  greatest NAMES in classical poetry and literature: Otomo no Yakamochi, Ono no Komachi, Ki no Tsurayuki, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon. All the poems in the Hyakunin Isshu strongly reflect the tastes and sensibilites of its compiler, FUJIWARA NO TEIKA (1162-1241), a highly respected poet in his own right and an advocate of  aesthetic principles which he developed emphasizing the expression of the SPIRIT OF THINGS ( mono no kokoro) over realism ( Teika`s ideas would have a MAJOR impact on the Japanese culture of the Muromachi Period- especially on The Noh Theater, and The Tea Ceremony). The subject matter dominating the collection also reflects Teika`s own particular preferences, with  LOVE poems (43 out of 100)making up a large portion, followed by SEASONAL POEMS ( 32 out of 100), with works on what surely must have been Teika`s favorite season- autumn, predominating these.

the Ibaraki Prefecture Junior High School Hykaunin Isshu Championships- (Mito 2014)

the Ibaraki Prefecture Junior High School Hykaunin Isshu Championships- (Mito 2014)

With only 100 poems, the Hyakunin Isshu is the slimmest volume among Japan`s great anthologies of classical poetry. But that`s what makes it so great ( for me, at least). Japan`s poetic traditional boiled down to its essence. It is a most convenient medium through which to work your way into the world of traditional Japanese aesthetics. And not only this. Working to understand these poems will lead you on the road to exploring many other aspect of Japanese culture nature and history. It is interesting how this influential collection came into being ( whether the story is true or not, no one is sure). It is said that Teika was asked to select one hundred poems, which would be written on sheets of paper to decorate the sliding doors of a mountain villa in a place called Ogura ( this is why, though there have been many subsequent alternative Hyakunin Isshu, i.e. one hundred warrior poets, one hundred women poets, etc.) Teika`s collection, the standard, is referred to as the OGURA HYAKUNIN ISSHU). This ( and more) is all detailed in Teika`s extant diary- the MEIGETSU KI (明月記).

An old set of hyakunin Isshu karuta

The fact that the poems Teika selected were originally written on sheets of paper ( at the even number of one hundred), made it conducive for them to be made into a card game- with distinctive illustrations of the poets and in an even more distinctive script( supposedly based on Teika`s idiosyncratic calligraphy). The idea of this card game, by the way, most probably would not have arisen without the arrival in Japan of the Portuguese, who introduced playing card ( among other things) to this country. This is reflected in the use of the Portuguese based word KARUTA  (carta) for the game. For those who are not ready to tackle the poems Teika selected in their original language, there are MANY translations. In fact, some say that the first work in Japanese ever rendered into English was the Hyakunin Isshu. You can find numerous translations online, including this 1909 version by William Porter: http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/hvj/index.htm Tsukuba`s very own Shaney Crawford (founding member, editor and frequent contributor to TsukuBlog), has also been working on a translation of the anthology, and she has already completed English renditions of the first 30 poems: http://www.shaneycrawford.com/2002/03/hyakunin-isshu-my-interpretations/ These should help you get started off on your own road into the world of Hyakunin Isshu – which naturally should at some point get you into reading into the poems for yourself . It is only by close examination of each poem in its original that REAL appreciation can be achieved. The reason for this is not only the fact that the poems are written a specialized form of classical Japanese ( if that were the case, looking up each word in the dictionary would  be enough to achieve understanding), but these works abound in puns and allusions which are completely lost in translation. There is even a poem ( number 22), whose beauty lies in its play on the construction of the Chinese character for the word storm( 嵐), which is made of  a mountain (山)on top of wind (wind)!- this makes for a mighty difficult challenge for translators. Let me give you one more example. Since this is Tsukublog, I will present the case of poem number 13 of the collection, which just happens to be set in Tsukuba.

The second half ( shimo ku) of poem number 13- which is set in Tsukuba- it reads: KOI ZO TSUMORITE FUCHI TO NARI NURU

The poem is attributed to the Retired Emperor Yozei-In(868-949) and goes like this: 筑波嶺の峰より落つるみなの川 恋ぞつもりて淵となりぬる (TSUKUBANE NO MINE YORI OTSURU MINANOGAWA KOI ZO  TSUMORITE FUCHI TO NARI NURU) which I will DIRECTLY translate, or rather explain the general meaning as: “From the peaks of Mt. Tsukuba flows the Minanogawa River, which forms deep pools ( at the foot of the mountain) … in the same way my love for you has grown (strong and) deep”.

What has to be dealt with by the translator in the case of this poem is conveying the significance of Mt. Tsukuba for the aristocrats at that time, as well as the meaning of the characters used to write the name of the river MINANOGAWA. For the educated Japanese of Yozei-In`s time, Mt Tsukuba represented COUPLES, ROMANCE, and SEX. This is because  the oldest collection of Japanese poems the Manyoshu, as well as the Chronicles of the land of Hitachi ( Hitachi no Kuni no Fu-doki  , refer to Mt Tsukuba as having been the most famous location for special COUPLING festivals, at which men and women, most of whom had never met before, would GET TOGETHER.

These ceremonies which were held twice a year in spring and autumn were called KAGAI. The reason that Mt Tsukuba would have become an important place for such rites was because of its TWIN PEAKS, which for the Japanese naturally represented the Male and the Female.

According to poems in the Manyoshu, the men and women who wanted to participate in the KAGAI would gather on Mt Tsukuba at a river called the MINANOGAWA. The name of this river is spelled with the Kanji characters 男女川, which directly translated mean the MAN-WOMAN RIVER. Thus we can see that the place at which the poem is set Mt Tsukuba, as well the MINANOGAWA river, were terms pregnant with meaning for educated Japanese, and this makes understanding the poem extremely difficult without delving deeper. (It is obvious that Yozei-In did not ever actually visit Mt. Tsukuba ( there are no deep pools which form at its base), but rather selected the setting of his love poem for its symbolic significance). (It is interesting that Tsukuba`s most most famous Sake Brewery, located at the foot of Mt Tsukuba calls its brand - Minanogawa (男女川). One reason its products are so delicious is that it uses the water that flows from the peaks of Mt. Tsukuba.) Anyway, I`d better stop now. VOLUMES could be written about the complexities  these poems and their backgrounds ( and many volumes HAVE in fact been written about them!). I hope that you too take the leap into this special poetic world-  maybe by O-Shogatsu ( New Year`s) next year you will be ready to take on your Japanese friends in a game of Hyakunin-Isshu Karuta!

Different Hyakunin-Isshu Karuta sets on sale at a bookstore in Tsukuba