What is Ogura Hyakunin Isshu?

Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, also called Hyakunin Isshu, is an anthology of 100 poems by 100 different poets. The poems are all "waka" (now called "tanka"). Waka are five-line poems of 31 syllables, arranged as 5, 7, 5, 7, 7. The waka represented in Hyakunin Isshu were court poetry, which almost exclusively used the waka format from the earliest days of Japanese poetry until the seventeen-syllable haiku came into prominence in the seventeenth century.

Hyakunin Isshu is said to have been compiled by the famous thirteenth-century critic and poet Fujiwara no Sadaie (also known as Teika), though his son Fujiwara no Tameie may have had a hand in revising the collection. Teika also compiled a waka anthology called Hyakunin Shuka (Superior Poems of Our Time), which shares many of the same poems as Hyakunin Isshu.

The 100 poems of Hyakunin Isshu are in rough chronological order from the seventh through the thirteenth centuries. The most famous poets through the late Heian period in Japan are represented.

Hyakunin Isshu has had immense influence in Japan. In Donald Keene's phrase, the poems have "constituted the basic knowledge of Japanese poetry for most people from the early Tokugawa period until very recent times....This meant, in a real sense, that Teika was the arbiter of the poetic tastes of most Japanese even as late as the twentieth century." (Seeds in the Heart, p. 674; see Sources for full citation.) The influence of Hyakunin Isshu was particularly extended through the card game based on the collection, called uta karuta, played especially at New Year's.

Among foreign critics and translators there have been differing opinions about the value of Hyakunin Isshu. Arthur Waley thought that the collection "is so selected as to display the least pleasing features of Japanese poetry. Artificialities of every kind abound." (Japanese Poetry, The 'Uta' [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919], p. 7.) Kenneth Rexroth is more temperate: "[It] is a very uneven collection. It contains some of the most mannered poetry of classical Japan, but it also contains some of the best." (One Hundred Poems, p. xviii.) Donald Keene offers this summary: "It can hardly be pretended that all the poems deserve the immortality Teika bestowed on them, but many are fine poems, and his choices do no harm to his reputation as a critic." (Seeds, p. 674.)

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Last revised May 21, 1999