Classical Japanese Literature and the New Year

The past few months have gone by between the pages of a number of philosophical texts and books on literary theory, in addition to my usual fare of modern and contemporary Japanese fiction. I don’t have any prior experience with literary criticism as a discipline, so reading about the history of literary theory has been new and challenging. Equally new and challenging, I could say, have been my little forays into more classical Japanese literature since the start of the New Year holiday.

In Japan there is a well known New Year’s game called Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首) or Uta-garuta (歌ガルタ) [see here] which uses a collection of 100 classical poems by the same name. Each poem is divided onto two cards. The goal of the game is to match the phrases correctly. This is done by first arranging all the cards that display the bottom phrases of a poem on the floor or a table. Then, one player reads off the upper half of a poem, and the other players compete to claim the bottom half of the same poem from the pile.

I first heard about the game in high school, and was totally blown away by, well, how cultured it seemed. My admiration remains, although I still haven’t even gotten around to reading, let alone memorizing, the collection of poems. Both Y and I have been interested in learning how to play, and during our stay with her former host family in Sasayama in late December the topic came up. Y’s host mother jokingly suggested that we all play a round–an idea that was quickly chuckled away. But then, Y’s host mother introduced to us one of her favorite poems from the collection, and it quickly became a favorite of ours as well. (Poem 15, by Koko Tenno)

君がため 春の野に出でて 若菜摘む
   我が衣手に 雪は降りつつ

kimi ga tame   haru no no ni idete   wakana tsumu
waga koromode ni   yuki wa furitsutsu

As for the meaning, while I’m sure a quick search would lead to many professional and amateur translations, I decided to just make two poetic translations of my own. Of the two, the first one below recreates, in my mind, an atmosphere closer to that of the original poem, while the second rendition protects the meter (because why not?). In both renditions I’ve moved the first phrase and placed it after the third.

Out into spring fields
I go to gather herbs
   For you

Upon my sleeves
Snow falls gently

Out into spring fields
I venture to gather herbs—
A present for you

Upon my outstretched sleeves, look:
The snows gather quietly

In addition to this poem, Ghibli’s newest animated film, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, has also piqued my interest in classical Japanese. I went to see the film yesterday evening, and was not only extremely impressed, but deeply moved. It’s the kind of film that I want to show to my (currently nonexistent) children some day. As soon as the film ended I ran over to the bookstore and picked up a copy of Taketorimonogatari (the original story) that contains both classical text, notes, and a modern translation.

Before going to see the movie I had tried to explain to one of my friends what the original story was about. It had been years since I read an abbreviated version in English, and I did a horrible job relaying the tale in Japanese. I’d like to spend some time memorizing classical stories and poems this year, not only as a way of improving my Japanese, but as a way to spend more time with oral narration in general. It’s a great tradition, and it feels like something that has less and less of a place in people’s lives these days. At the very least, it has steadily disappeared from my own life over the years.



  1. What a lovely, lovely game! I would like very much to play!

    The oral tradition is difficult. I had a class with N. Scott Momaday, who is a proponent of it as a practice. But he talks about how and why it has become less practiced–it’s more difficult than transmitting stories through writing. He said to me once, that when someone tells you a story, in order to tell it yourself, you must “listen well, and remember“. The remembering being the sticky part. This is why I have always found it perplexing that it is considered a faux pas to tell the same story to the same person. I often specifically request the same stories from people.

    Are the poems in the collection relatively short? I would like to replicate the game in English, I think (being that I don’t read Japanese), but most of the classic English poems I can think of are on the long side. Hmm. And mixing authors seems problematic–you wouldn’t want to be able to win by picking up on an author’s style and matching accordingly.

    1. Being so terrible at this blogging thing, I never even realized that you left me a comment. Thanks for reading!

      To answer your question: yes, all the poems are very short, consisting of only 31 syllables.
      It would be cool to try to reproduce this in English. You would need to form a canon!

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