Review: Hyakunin Isshu – One Hundred People, One Poem Each

Hyakunin Isshu edited by Fujiwara no Teika, Translation by Larry Hammer, Cholla Bear Press, 2011. Print edition through

In the 13th century CE, a nobleman named Teika of the Fujiwara clan compiled an anthology of 100 poems, each by a different poet, the Hyakunin Isshu. This volume wasn’t unique, but as Larry Hammer notes in his foreward, this particular collection has become so famous over the years that any time someone refers to the Hyakunin Isshu, they mean this one. Anyone who has watched much anime may have seen a memory card game called karuta being played on New Year’s Day. That card game is based on this compilation, which shows that the anthology has survived in Japan’s popular culture down to the modern age.

Among the nobility, poems were more than entertainment or expression, but a very important form of communication. Lovers would write poems to their intendeds and they answer in the same manner. Poems were written to flatter, to ask for favors, to defend oneself against slanders, to reminisce, to more or less gently turn aside unwelcome attentions, or pretty much any communication that required taste, propriety and delicacy. I’m no poet, nor do I pretend to grasp the esthetics of traditional Japanese poetry (waka) which make up this volume. I will say that even someone with a superficial knowledge of the subject can appreciate the intelligence, the skill and the wit that are so much a part of the form. Poems were full of puns, in-jokes, classical allusions, double-meanings, and deliberate ambiguity. There’s a playfulness in traditional Japanese poetry that comes through even in translation, though the skill and intent of the translator can make a big difference.

I think Hammer has done an excellent job, not only in the translation itself, but in the poem notes that tell us who the poet was and the context of the poem’s creation if known, which adds so much to the reader’s appreciation. As someone fascinated by process in general, I also enjoyed Hammer’s explanations of the choices he made, as choices must always be made in rendering a poem in another language into modern English. Someone comparing this volume to other translations can agree or disagree with his renderings, but at least you would know why he did what he did and didn’t do something else. Strictly as an interested amateur, I found it all fascinating reading.

I’d consider this a very good introductory volume of the Hyakunin Isshu for anyone curious about Japanese traditional poetry. There were one or two minor typos, but nothing that interfered with reading. Highly recommended.