Chihayafuru and the Hyaku-Nin-Isshu

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 in a time when only members of the nobility were allowed, or known, to write poetry; in fact, several poems of in the collection were even 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 represented, in the original Japanese verses were 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 called Chihayafuru. Chihayafuru is about a girl named Chihaya, who, through a childhood friend, learns to play karuta, a Japanese card memory game that utilizes the poems of the Hyaku-nin-isshu.  Karuta involves playing cards that have the second verses of the poems of the Hyaku-nin-isshu written on them. Each player gets a set of cards, which they arrange in front of each other.  A third person, a reader, then 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 the poems (those written on the cards in front of the player), with the poems being read by the reader.  The player who matches the most number of poems, by swiping the cards on the floor, thus reducing the number of cards on his/her side, wins.

Just 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 just the positions of their cards with the second verses on the floor in front of them (for ease of matching them with the 1st lines being read out loud), but also the positions of their opponents’ cards, opposite from 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 position 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 the players 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 competitions 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 among the protagonists.

Chihayafuru provides many interesting tidbits about the poems in the Hyaku-nin-isshu, its writers, and the circumstances behind their creation.  The anime, in general, is interesting, though the plot’s repetitiveness gets tiring after a while. Though 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 in itself, but creating a game that would necessitate 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 of memorizing 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.  Of course, being an anime, everything is exaggerated to make the competition more 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 poem written in English and in Japanese, then an English translation of the poem, its meter and rhyme modified to one English readers are more familiar.  Each poem also contains a short explanation on the author, when the poem was written, and an illustration from an ukiyo-e, or woodblock print, of the images the poem is depicting.

The 100 poems in the Hyaku-nin-isshu is refreshing, evocative, and thought-provoking – 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)


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