The Hyaku-nin-isshu is a collection of 100 poems by 100 different individuals compiled by Fujiwara no Teika during the 11th century. The poems follow the tanka form of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line and are mostly about love or nature, written when only members of the nobility were allowed, or known, to write poetry. In fact, several poems in the collection are written by emperors or empresses. The poems in the Hyaku-nin-Isshu, though short, are said to be rather deep, the meanings of which are sometimes lost on Japanese readers or foreign translators. The play on words and the ideas they represent in the original Japanese verses are rather complex and extraordinary. Though mostly about love, the poems evoke feelings of evanescence, loneliness, or melancholy.
I learned about the Hyaku-nin-isshu serendipitously through an anime titled Chihayafuru. Chihayafuru is about a girl named Chihaya, who, through a childhood friend, learns to play karuta, which is a Japanese memory card game that utilizes the poems of the Hyaku-nin-isshu. Karuta involves cards with the second verses of the poems of the Hyaku-nin-isshu written on them. Each player gets a set of cards that they arrange in front of each other. A third person, the reader, pulls out random cards from a box containing the first lines of the same poems and reads each one aloud. The object of the game is to match the second verse of a poem (those written on the cards in front of the players) with the first verse read by the reader. The player who matches the most number of poems by swiping the cards on the floor, thereby reducing the number of cards on his/her side, wins.
From the anime, it’s obvious that competitive karuta is a very complex game. Each player must have already memorized all 100 poems of the Hyaku-nin-isshu before he/she can play karuta. When playing karuta, both players must also memorize not only the positions of their cards on the floor in front of them (for ease of matching them with the first lines being read out loud) but also the positions of their opponents’ cards, which are opposite them. This seems to require an extraordinary amount of memory power, especially when both players have the option of moving their cards around after each round of play. Aside from concentrating on the positions of their cards, both players must also pay close attention to the poems being recited by the reader, as a single word or syllable is enough for them to identify the matching second verse.
Karuta players start out in Class E and move up to Class A as they improve their skill and win games in local, regional, and national competitions. The best male karuta player in the country is known as the “master,” while the best female player is crowned the “queen.” In Chihayafuru, Chihaya forms a karuta school club hoping to introduce karuta to more students. Once she had successfully recruited several students, each with their own special set of skills, Chihaya and her small group compete in team and individual games with the goal of being the best in the country. Of course, no anime is complete without the requisite love angle and possible love triangle between the protagonists.
Chihayafuru provides many interesting tidbits about the poems in the Hyaku-nin-isshu, its writers, and the circumstances behind their creation. Overall, the anime is interesting, but the plot’s repetitiveness gets tiring after a while. Although I’ve never seen a real karuta competition and don’t know how it’s really played, I find the idea of combining literature and sports irresistible. Knowing poetry by heart is a wonderful thing, but creating a game that requires players to memorize 100 classic poems while boosting their memory, listening, and concentration skills is truly one of a kind.
The anime version of competitive karuta is of course exciting, with cards flying across the room and players creating different techniques to memorize the cards to win against their competitors. Some of the karuta players in the anime are so skilled that they can identify the card pairing after hearing just the first syllable of the first line of the poem. Naturally, everything is exaggerated in the anime to make the competition entertaining; otherwise, it might just be a bunch of people hunched over on a tatami mat, covering their cards with their hands until none are left on the floor.
I think karuta is the kind of game I could really get into if only I could read and understand Japanese. Still, it’s nice to read about the lovely poems of the Hyaku-nin-isshu in William N. Porter’s A Hundred Verses from Old Japan. This bilingual edition contains the original Japanese poems written in English and Japanese as well as English translations of the poems, with their meter and rhyme modified to a style that English readers would be familiar with. Each poem also contains a short explanation about the author and when the poem was written and an illustration from an ukiyo-e, or woodblock print, of the image that a poem is depicting.
The 100 poems in the Hyaku-nin-isshu are refreshing, evocative, and thought provoking. They are worth reading or certainly knowing by heart even if you have no plans of playing competitive karuta.
A Hundred Verses from Old Japan: A Translation of the Hyaku-nin-isshu (1909) – William N. Porter
Tuttle; 222 pages (paperback)