A Hundred Verses from Old Japan (the Hyakunin-isshu), translated by William N. Porter [1909]:

This is a collection of 100 specimens of Japanese Tanka poetry collected in the 13th Century C.E., with some of the poems dating back to the 7th Centry. Tanka is a 31 syllable format in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. Most of these poems were written about the time of the Norman Conquest and display a sophistication that western literature would not achieve for a long time thereafter. These little gems are on themes such as nature, the round of the seasons, the impermanence of life, and the vicissitudes of love. There are obvious Buddhist and Shinto influences throughout. Porter’s notes put the poems into a cultural and historical context. Each poem is illustrated in this edition with an 18th century Japanese woodcut by an anonymous illustrator… In this text I have put the Japanese, English and the notes on one virtual page per poem, and supplied page numbers for the apparatus.

A fine web presentation (by John Bruno Hare) of a fine (if antiquated) translation-cum-annotation. (Via wood s lot.)

A sample:



  Tsukuba ne no
Mine yori otsuru
  Mina no kawa
Koi zo tsumorite
Fuchi to nari nuru.

THE Mina stream comes tumbling down
  From Mount Tsukuba’s height;
Strong as my love, it leaps into
  A pool as black as night
  With overwhelming might.

It was a frequent custom in the old days for the Emperors of Japan to retire into the church or private life, when circumstances demanded it. The Emperor Yôzei, who was only nine years of age when he came to the throne, went out of his mind, and was forced by Mototsune Fujiwara to retire; he reigned A.D. 877-884, and did not die till the year 949. The verse was addressed to the Princess Tsuridono-no-Miko. Mount Tsukuba (2,925 feet high) and the River Mina are in the Province of Hitachi.

Koi here means the dark colour of the water from its depth, but it also means his love, and is to be understood both ways. Note also mine, a mountain peak, and Mina, the name of the river.


  1. This is tangential, Hat, but — what kind of sophistication did Western poetry acquire after the Conquest, when? I don’t think our poetry’s ever gotten more sophisticated than it is in Sappho’s or Ovid’s verse. Or, for that matter, (in its kind) Old English and Old Norse verse. Unless sophisticated means something I’m not clued into here…?

  2. Arthur Waley’s “The Uta” (perhaps really called,, according to Google, “The Utah”) has more poems of the genre, plus a sketch grammar. Add Sansom’s “Historical Grammar of Japanese” or a more specialized grammar, Rexroth’s collection, and Miner’s collection, and you can rather quickly go rather far in the appreciation of these poems.

  3. dale: Good point; I think we can chalk it up to typical enthusiastic overstatement on the part of a partisan of some neglected genre or period.
    Zizka: “The Utah”? I love it.

  4. Okay, I’m mollified 🙂
    You’re right, these are amazing poems! Thank you for the link.

  5. An additional fact of interest about these poems is that they form the basis for a game known as karuta in which the players must match the first half of the poem, displayed on a card, with the second. It is traditional to play this game at New Year’s. There is a televised national tournament.

  6. As a follow-up to Bill’s comment, karuta is not only a traditional new year’s game, but a game that high school students spend days studying for in preparation for the tournaments held in every school’s gym.. It’s a rowdy game–two teams of three students each face off with 100 cards containing I think the first three lines & last 2 of 100 famous tanka. Another person, chosen for his or her chanting voice reads out the beginning of the poem I think–not sure–the first two or three syllables of each tanka in the karuta game are different, in all the 50 poems… so this means traditionally, court ladies and well-heeled women of the pre-louis-vuitton-handbag-era were said to be so well-versed (bad pun) in karuta that hearing the first two syllables of a poem was enough for them to identify the poem…
    Apologies for late night possible incomprehensibility! I found a fantastic website on the history of karuta a few months ago and can’t even imagine where/how I discovered it, now that I’m looking!

  7. That’s fascinating! If you do find the website, please link to it here; I’d like to see it.

  8. Actually, in karuta, the entire poem is read out. The actual karuta cards that players compete to grab only feature the last half of the poem. Furthermore, the cards are written entirely in hiragana, which can make it difficult to visually distinguish between cards with different poems. It is a very large advantage to know all the poems by heart – but not essential for play. The basic skill required is still recognize the hiragana script – something even elementary school students can do.
    There is an article on wikipedia about the game with a detailed explanation.

  9. I also forgot to add that a better page exists with the original japanese text, a romanisation, and translation of the hyakunin-isshu, along with some information about the card game.
    Hyakunin Isshu

  10. Wow, thanks — that’s a great site!

  11. > I found a fantastic website on the history of karuta a few months ago and can’t even imagine where/how I discovered it, now that I’m looking!
    Maybe http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~xs3d-bull/essays/karuta/karuta.html is the page?

  12. That’s a fantastic piece, Dave — thanks for the link, and I’m going to give it its own post.

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