The scene: England, Boxing Day 2012. The archetypical Carters are relaxing after a cold turkey lunch (with bread sauce) and are watching the Royal Family’s latest sonnets being read on the goggle-box. Time for a game!


“No, it always becomes ‘Squabble’!”


“No, Grandad monopolizes the bank!”


“No, too much effort!”

“How about ‘100 Quotations’?”


And so they settle down to play the time-honored card game.

“I’ll be the reader,” chirps Grandma, who has bad knees and is not allowed to play because she always wins. She takes a pile of 100 ‘reading cards’ bearing quotations from “Beowulf,” “The Canterbury Tales,” “Le Morte d’Arthur,” etc. — as selected by Shakespeare 400 years ago. Everyone’s familiar with every word, even though the youngsters have no idea of the meaning of “Hwat! We Gardena in geardagum” — well, “Beowulf” is at least 1,000 years old. “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote” is a bit easier, but Chaucer only goes back to the 14th century.

The Carters divide into two teams, each one spreading on the carpet in front of it 25 “grab cards” bearing only the last part of each quotation, dealt out at random from the pack of 100. As Grandma reads from one of the “reading cards,” the players have to swish away the corresponding grab card — actual grabbing is not necessary. Swish a card from the other team’s set and you can hand them one of your cards; but accidentally swishing for a “ghost card” not on the floor is one of the various ways to incur a penalty. The team that succeeds in getting rid of all its cards is the winner.

It’s fast, funky and frustrating, but endless fun — at least until teatime and more mince pies. Next month, the national “100 Quotations King and Queen 2013” championship will be televised live from Canterbury Cathedral, and the second series of an anime based on a best-selling manga titled “Uther Pendragon” will be aired in January …

This fantasy scene may appear absurd — and, indeed, a tad high-brow for our common-or-garden Carters — and yet it’s remarkably close to one of Japan’s treasured traditional entertainment phenomena called uta-garuta (poem cards).

To realize the unlikely parallels, in place of that scene, simply substitute New Year’s, the archetypical Tanakas, the Emperor’s annual poetry-reading event, tatami, the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” poetry collection, yomifuda (reading cards, printed in kanji and hiragana), torifuda (grab cards, printed in hiragana only), Omi Shrine in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture (where the seventh-century Emperor Tenji is enshrined) and the “Chihayafuru” manga and anime.

Indeed, to this day in Japan, ancient poems are still widely beloved; part of the national curriculum from an early age; memorized syllable by syllable; illustrated by the finest ukiyo-e (woodblock-print) artists; and regularly featured on special postage stamps issued for the annual Letter Writing Week.

But the ancient hyakunin isshu (lit. “100 people, one poem [each]”) phenomenon is more even than all that.

Just how much more becomes especially evident at New Year’s, which is to families in Japan the time of year most akin to the Carters’ gathering last week. Then, one hyakunin isshu collection in particular — the overwhelmingly best-known “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” anthology of 100 poems compiled in Kyoto’s Ogura district by Fujiwara no Teika (or Sadaie, 1162-1241) — comes prominently into play, and especially in the interactive parlor game (which may also be a sport) called uta-garuta.

In the dynamic competitive version of uta-garuta called kyogi-karuta, demure young 21st-century ladies in kimonos fling themselves at cards and scatter them across the tatami. Oddly, too, this has a lot in common with sumo, another ancient form of entertainment which stipulates formal dress (un-dress in the latter case), respect for the opponent, strict etiquette, no arguing with the ref and a ranking system — and in which success can hinge on moments of split-second action when suddenly everything turns rough and nasty. In terms of speed, kyogi-karuta’s right up there with kendo.

So certainly, the game involves much more than just memorizing all 100 poems. Each bout features a random selection of only 50 torifuda cards from the pack of 100, arranged however the players want. To be proficient demands tactics, quick reactions and great concentration; long arms and a ruthless attitude are also useful — along with the bluntly subtle technique of blocking your opponent’s hand with your knuckles as you flick the cards with your fingertips.

Competitors in major tournaments, playing several 90-minute games every day, are said to lose several kilos in the process — perhaps making it an ideal sport for dieters.

The two roots of karuta derive firstly from a game popular among aristocrats of the Heian Period (794-1185) in which players had to match the halves of clamshells, and otherwise from carta (playing cards) brought in by 16th-century Portuguese sailors.

These two roots were initially combined into a card game called hanafuda (meaning, “flower cards”) that would later become a popular form of gambling. Meanwhile, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu — generally written in the classic 5-7-5-7-7 meter of waka poems — had long been studied both for its literary qualities and as a way to practice calligraphy. Hence it wasn’t so much of a stretch to invent the 100-card uta-garuta game when hanafuda gambling was outlawed by the ruling Tokugawa shogunate in the late 18th century.

Its popularity spread nationwide thanks to the growth in woodblock printing, and by the start of the 20th century it had became the perfect New Year’s family activity, something old and young alike could enjoy — as long as you could kneel on tatami.

But what about the poems on the cards?

More than a century ago, the prominent British Japanologist, Basil Hall Chamberlain, wrote: “The overwhelming majority of Japanese poems are tiny odes”.

That is a perspicacious way in which to describe the lyrical five-line, 31-syllable verses of waka (aka tanka), many of which directly address either another person, the moon, trees or the season.

Hence the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” collection (so famous that’s it’s often just referred to as the “Hyakunin Isshu”) — which consists of 100 odes written by 100 poets over a period of 650 years — comprises a remarkably few 500 lines in total, with around 3,100 syllables— the equivalent of just over 22 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets or eight times the length of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. That’s all, which of course makes them easier to memorize.

The historical details are also mind-boggling. Himself a distinguished poet and editor, Fujiwara no Teika, who assembled the great work around 1237, did so not long after the signing of Magna Carta (1215), 100 years before the birth of Chaucer (1343) — and more than 300 years before the birth of Shakespeare (1564). The odes go all the way back to the mid-seventh century, when waka writing really took off — around the time of “Beowulf.”

Teika kicked off the series that’s still listed his way, from No. 1 to No. 100, with a poem possibly written by the 38th emperor, Tenji (aka Tenchi), while out in the rice-fields, wet from both the rain and his tears for his poor, hard-working people. This was followed by a brighter early summer piece by his daughter, Empress Jito.

These two choices indicated several points: the collection would be authoritative, noble, and closely connected to the Imperial court; it would underline the hereditary nature of waka expertise; and last, but certainly not least, it was Tenji who had given the name “Fujiwara” to one of Teika’s ancestors after he’d helped him vanquish the Soga clan.

And so we have a distinguished bunch of 79 poets (including 15 monks) and 21 poetesses, mainly aristocrats, with not a few fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, cousins, grandparents — and plenty of Fujiwaras, including Teika himself.

Some of the waka were written for poetry contests rather than from the heart, others referred to a particular incident. Nonetheless, all human life is most certainly not there, because of the limited social range of the poets and the narrow range of topics — love, the seasons, travel, parting and grief. But they do display a wide emotional range: cries of passion and unrequited love, reflections on exile, loneliness, the transience of life and old age, appreciation of the passing seasons, smart quips by women as they reject courting courtiers (including Sei Shonagon, she of “The Pillow Book” fame from around 1000), and so on. Humor, however, is in short supply, and what there is comes mostly from the poetesses.

Because the poets employed native Japanese words rather than Chinese, and because the sound of syllables written in (non-kanji) hiragana script has hardly changed in a millennium, the waka are surprisingly comprehensible today — whereas the Anglo-Saxon of “Beowulf” or even the Middle English of so modern a writer as Chaucer is impenetrable for most speakers of English today.

As venerable as the “Hyakunin Isshu” poems may be, though, even in the modern, bustling Land of the Rising Sun, most people will readily name their favorite one — and likely recite it and many others perfectly.

Interestingly, too, in a straw poll I conducted recently, people’s selections were almost always different, rather than just a few of the poems being everyone’s favorites. For instance, the choices included the following four: “The reed nodes image meant a lot when I was a student in love!” (No. 19 — male antique dealer in his 60s); “It makes me imagine beautiful red leaves and a man faithful to nature and the gods” (No. 24 — female editor in her 30s); “Nara’s my hometown and I love its double-blossom cherry trees, which have always been beautiful and will be in the future, too!” (No. 61 — a female artist in her 30s); “For its exquisite suggestion of lovers parting and being reconciled” (No. 77 — male professor in his 30s).

So there seems to be something for everyone Japanese — but what chance do English-only speakers have of savoring what native speakers can? This of course leads directly into the supremely thorny thicket of translation.

The renowned English scholar Arthur Waley (1889-1966), who scaled tremendous linguistic heights in Japanese and Chinese without ever visiting Asia, said that Japanese poems are perhaps the hardest in any of world literature to translate — in fact, almost impossible.

However, translators faced with the awesome task have one thing in their favor: Opinions differ greatly regarding the meaning of ancient waka. For centuries, Japanese and foreign scholars have been scrutinizing every word and coming up with all kinds of possible nuances which may or may not have been intended by the glorious dead poets. In that sense, of course, they’re great works of literature.

The condensed form of the waka, though, raises many questions: Is the poem addressing “an other” or “you”?; is it written from the Emperor’s point of view or that of a rice-farmer?; are the Immortals up on the mountain airing their robes or are the local villagers washing flax cloth?

Another major stumbling-block is the prevalence of homonyms and complex wordplay — just like Shakespeare, in fact.

Translations differ greatly as a result of these uncertainties, and it’s not easy to say one particular interpretation is entirely “incorrect.”

Personally, my interest in waka developed through work connected with “The Tale of Genji,” the 11th-century novel by Murasaki Shikibu, who appears as the writer of No. 57 in “Hyakunin Isshu.” In fact, I co-translated part of a manga titled “Asakiyumemishi” based on the novel and wrote a simplified version of the early chapters.

Recently, working on a bilingual version of another manga, titled “Chihayafuru,” I was asked to translate all the 100 “Hyakunin Isshu” poems as an appendix. This threw me straight into that thorny thicket, as the issue wasn’t just my grasping what each waka was all about — but which poetic style to use?

When he tackled the translation of the 800 waka that are such an intrinsic part of “The Tale of Genji,” Waley clearly found them obtrusive and included them in the dialogue wherever possible. For his part, the American scholar and translator of Japanese literature, Edward Seidensticker (1921-2007) — who’s often cited as the best-ever translator of Japanese — kept them short and simple in his 1976 version of “Genji,” using couplets without rhymes.

In contrast, in his 2001 contribution to the oeuvre, U.S. scholar and translator of Japanese literature, 1936-born Royall Tyler, set himself the challenge of rendering the poems in 31 syllables each. That was something of a tour de force.

In the case of “Hyakunin Isshu,” various late-19th and early-20th century translators used a rhyme scheme, and sometimes a five-line format as well. One of the most amazing efforts, still in print, was “One Hundred Verses from Old Japan” (1909), in which William N. Porter, the translator of “The Tosa Diary” by Ki No Tsurayuki (ca. 872-945) created five-line verses totaling 34 syllables (8-6-8-6-6), with the second, fourth and fifth lines rhyming.

Such translations as the foregoing have a certain formality and validity as English poems, but many eminent academics object strongly to those kinds of approaches, and the pendulum swung their way as the 20th century progressed. Steadily, translations free of any rhyme or particular meter became the norm, as they were supposedly more faithful to the Japanese ambience. In fact some were just written as long sentences.

However, waka have a distinctly Japanese rhythm and have always been recited. Coming to them as an actor, narrator and writer, I felt translations should have an English rhythm and be easy and pleasant to recite.

Certainly I’m not keen on copying the five-line layout, because a Japanese place name can use up the five allotted syllables of one line. Nor do I think there’s much point in using the same number of “syllables,” since there’s little resemblance between English and Japanese ones: for example, a lengthened vowel in Japanese counts as two syllables.

Going even further back to basics, a distinguished reciter once explained to me that to say waka have 31 syllables is misleading. That’s because Japanese poems have long been called uta (song) and Japanese music is traditionally based on an eight-beat form; a waka actually consists of 40 beats in five lines of eight, with the nine extra ones being accounted for by slight pauses when the poem is recited correctly. This means the important concept of ma (space or interval) comes into play; we don’t normally talk about the length of pauses in English poetry.

But back to my thorny thicket: Because waka poets wrote under severe restrictions of length and the number of beats per line, I decided a strict format was also required in English and chose that quintessential poetic form also favored by rap singers — the rhyming couplet.

Before mass printing, when his poems were also intended to be read aloud, Chaucer was another who found the rhyming couplet a perfect tool for that. I can only hope to have at least conveyed something of the essence of each waka, and to have made them fun to read out loud.

Another intriguing aspect of the “Hyakunin Isshu” is visual interpretation. Poetry and artists have inevitably long been linked in Japan via the fine art of calligraphy. Woodblock-printed books of the collection included many illustrations and notes, and the yomifuda cards have always featured portraits of the poets. Some fancier sets also have illustrations on the torifuda.

What’s particularly enthralling are the close links with the great ukiyo-e artists. And oddly (nay, almost bizarrely) there are real and significant connections between my industrial hometown of Birmingham in central England and the “Hyakunin Isshu” — courtesy of three of my predecessors at the high school I attended: Sir Harry Parkes, Edward Burne-Jones and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Handmade paper called washi is the raw material for woodblock print-making, and in 1871 Parkes, then the Minister to Japan, made a unique, fully annotated collection of washi samples and items for the government in London.

Then in his works Burne-Jones (1833-98), who was to become prominent in the reform-minded Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists formed in London in 1848, duly placed emphasis in a manner similar to ukiyo-e on clarity, bright colors, flat compositions — and many classic and classical themes such as the Greek myths, King Arthur, and Chaucer. Coincidentally, too, with visual interpreters of waka in Japan, the Pre-Raphaelites were greatly inspired by the 18th- and 19th-century English Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Alfred, Lord Tennyson whose themes commonly spanned nature, classical, legendary and allegorical themes.

Hence, in both style and content, the works of Burne-Jones and like-minded artists on one side of Eurasia inadvertently reflected what had been happening on the other side, in Japan, for several decades as woodblock prints of the “Hyakunin Isshu” by veteran artists increasingly featured legendary figures in a fusion of the plebeian art form of ukiyo-e and the refined poetic pieces composed by the aristocracy.

Around 1835, the then septuagenarian Hokusai went out of the box to design a “Hyakunin Isshu” print series that consisted of down-to-earth images, some of them tongue-in-cheek as they rendered mostly contemporary scenes of everyday life having some connection with the odes.

In the following decade, the ukiyo-e artists Kunisada and Kuniyoshi both created solo “Hyakunin Isshu” series — the former going for pin-ups of beautiful women with the poets and odes in cartouches, the latter portraying the poets in appropriate settings.

They then teamed up with another ukiyo-e genius, Hiroshige, to produce a complete series in which each print incorporates the ode, a commentary by writer Ryukatei Tanezaku and historical or legendary figures somehow related to the theme — many of them popular kabuki characters. From No. 51, they even also added portraits of the artists. The fun for customers was to identify the connection in the artists’ minds.

There was a huge market for these new visual interpretations, and the series sold like hot rice cakes on a cold day.

And Tolkien? Well, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s prodigious collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, drawings and tapestries probably influenced him — and he certainly stimulated my interest in folklore and mythology.

Okay, it’s not quite the same as the fact that the words that will be recited at the televised “Competitive Karuta Master and Queen 2013” championship to be held on Jan. 5 at Omi Shrine, will have been familiar to most Japanese people for centuries. Or that the first poem in the collection sets an Emperor in a rice-field — while at the annual Imperial New Year’s Poetry Reading (Utakai hajime), to be held at the Imperial Palace on Jan. 16, one will have been written by the present Emperor, who personally grows rice.

In addition, when the new, 25-episode “Chihayafuru” anime series goes on air at 1:53 a.m., Jan. 12, on NTV, it will surely help to foster a new generation of “Hyakunin Isshu” lovers — even though many may not realize that the major producer of uta-garuta and hanafuda cards for more than a century has been the computer game-maker Nintendo, which was founded in Kyoto in 1889 for that purpose.

The “Hyakunin Isshu” collection is as fundamental a part of Japanese culture as Mount Fuji, cherry blossom, soy sauce, natto and rice. Those 3,100 syllables, or 4,000 beats, are like an ancient plum tree with deep roots that continues to burst into flower at the beginning of every year — in many homes with at least as much vigor as the Carters exercised in their festive pursuits.

Stuart Varnam-Atkin is a British-born co-translator of Kodansha’s “Chihayafuru” and “Tale of Genji” bilingual manga and a co-writer of IBC’s “Who Invented Natto?” and “Are Japanese Cats Left-Handed?” His own original books include “Tales from The Tale of Genji” (IBC) and “Trad Japan, Mod Nippon/Trad Japan Snapshots” (NHK Shuppan). He is also a co-presenter of “Trad Japan” (NHK Educational TV) and “A Wild Pronunciation Chase” (Hoso Daigaku), as well as being the narrator of “Begin Japanology” (NHK World TV/NHK BS-1).

Savor transports of delight from long, long ago

The “thorny thicket” of waka translation in action: English versions of the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” poems mentioned in the text or included in featured illustrations are rendered here as rhyming couplets with six to eight stresses per line:

No. 1

I gaze across the autumn fields, from a rustic hut with broken eaves; But there is much more than the dripping dew to wet my lonely sleeves.

Emperor Tenji (621-71)

No. 4

Glancing back from Tago Bay, I see an awesome sight: Snow falls again on Fuji’s peak, white on gleaming white.

Yamabe no Akahito (early eighth century)

No. 5

Trudging through the fallen leaves amidst the mountains steep, I hear a stag cry for his mate, so loud, so sad, so deep.

Sarumaru Dayu (eighth century)

No. 19

Even for a time as short as the nodes of reeds on Naniwa Shore, Does this mean that we should never ever meet once more?

Lady Ise (late ninth century)

No. 24

Traveling to Mount Tamuke, no silken offerings to choose; I beg you, gods, accept instead this cloth of autumn hues.

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903)

No. 36

Oh, this speedy summer night has ended all too soon! So where in the clouds is it hiding, the stranded fading moon?

Kiyohara no Fukayabu (ninth century)

No. 57

Was that really, really you, dear lover from the past — Like the moon within the clouds slipping away so fast?

Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 973-1025)

No. 59

How much better to have gone to bed than waiting for you, I think — All the way through the tedious night till the moon began to sink!

Lady Akazome Emon (956-1041)

No. 61

Eight petals bear the double cherries in ancient Nara born; And nine gates has the Kyoto Palace those fragrant flowers adorn.

Ise no Taifu (989-1060)

No. 62

Pretending to crow like a cock won’t fool the Ausaka guard; And I hope that if you try it, they keep the gate well barred!

Sei Shonagon (966-1017)

No. 77

A mighty boulder in a stream divides the foaming flow; But, reunited, on it goes, and so will we, I know.

Retired Emperor Sutoku (1119-64)

No. 97

You do not come, but still I wait at sunset on Matsuo Bay; Like the salt-seaweed along the beach, my heart is burning away.

Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241)

Translations © Stuart Varnam-Atkin.

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