Heian Poetry Jam

The Poetic and Social History of Waka

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“’Well now’ said Her Majesty, ‘where are they – your poems?’ We explained that we had not written any. 

’Really?’ she said. ‘That is most unfortunate. The gentlemen at court will certainly have heard of your expedition. How are we going to explain that you do not have a single interesting poem to show for it?’”[1]

                        - Empress Sadako to her ladies in The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon 

 The poetry slam, a competition in which poets perform their work and are judged by their audience, was, by all accounts, born in a Chicago club in the 1980’s. However, the Japanese held formal and informal poetry contests a thousand years earlier. These competitions at both pre-written and extemporaneous poetry on specified themes were not only a form of entertainment, but a way to make or break one’s social prestige in the Imperial Court. This article hopes to demonstrate how the poetry games of medieval Japan can work as creative entertainments within the SCA.

Waka literally means “Japanese poem or song”. The terms uta (“poem”) and more modernly tanka, also refer to this poetic ancestor to the hokku or haiku. The terms “tanka” and “haiku” are relatively modern, having been coined by poet and critic Masaoka Shiki in the late 19th century in an effort to bring traditional Japanese poetic forms into the modern age.[2] Hereafter, I will refer to this form as waka. 

Simply put, waka is an unrhymed poem of five lines with syllable counts of 5-7-5-7-7. The Man’youshu or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, dating from c. 759 CE is a collection of over 4000 classical waka. More than 800 waka form an integral part of the narrative of Murasaki Shikibu’s 10th century novel, The Tale of Genji. 

The brevity of this unrhymed form relies on such aural devices as alliteration and assonance as well as the use of concrete images, often from nature, to express an idea or emotion. In this example by Murasaki, Genji refers to an unresponsive lover: 

Asahi sasu                  in the morning sun 
noki no tarui wa        icicles underneath the eaves 
toke nagara                begin to melt 
nadoka tsurara no    why is it that the ice here
musuboru ran            remains so firmly frozen?[3] 

Japanese is a language rife with homophonic words that lend themselves to punning. One of the unfortunate frustrations of reading waka in translation is encountering lengthy footnotes explaining a pun or wordplay that just doesn’t translate into English. 

In examining the literature of Japan, it may help to think of Chinese as the equivalent of Latin in Western Europe during the early medieval period of both hemispheres. Japanese did not exist as a written language until the importation of Buddhist texts in the sixth century. Educated men wrote in Chinese – or adapted Chinese characters (kanji) to represent Japanese syllables. A more cursive writing form known as hiragana soon developed, in part to deal with some of the difficulties that arose in trying to use kanji to write in Japanese. Hiragana is often referred to as “women’s writing.” Certainly, hiragana became the vehicle for poetry, diaries and fiction written by women of the Imperial court, much of which has been preserved. 

Another tool in the Japanese poet’s kit was allusion or direct quotation from the “classics” of Chinese poetry. Being able to demonstrate familiarity with these classics was a way to show one’s erudition in a highly competitive atmosphere. From an entertainment standpoint, members of the Emperor’s court in Heian-kyo (now modern Kyoto) enjoyed recognizing these familiar themes or quotes, just as modern audiences appreciate quotes or references drawn from our own popular culture. 

The concept of mono no aware or the pathos of existence is frequently a key element of Japanese poetry, particularly waka. During the Heian period (785-1185 CE), it was common practice to retire from court life and become a Buddhist monk or nun. In fact, during the heyday of the influential Fujiwara clan, the Emperor would ascend the throne as a child, rule into his thirties, then abdicate in favor of a minor heir and live in retirement as a monk. One of the fascinating contradictions about life at court was the obsessive preoccupation with art, elegance and beauty, all the while influenced by the Buddhist view that such delights are fleeting. Silks tinted with plant dyes most likely to fade were always the most highly prized. Flowers die, beauty fades, but the sensitive heart still cries, “Ah!” at the fall of a cherry blossom or the gleam of the moon in a garden pond. 

By the height of the Heian period, the composition of waka had evolved into a vital social skill. It was considered a mark of sophistication for a courtier to be able to produce these little poems on almost any occasion, all the better if one could make a clever allusion to one of the Chinese classics and display one’s breadth of knowledge. At a social gathering one might start a formal or informal competition by suggesting a subject, or even offering a challenge of three lines for someone else to complete. Writing in the 10th century, Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Empress Sadako, would rather have died than have anyone believe she was not clever, accomplished, or possessed of good taste. In her diary, The Pillow Book, she relates a number of instances in which she and other ladies amused themselves and their Empress with poetry games. The quote at the head of this article refers to an instance in which they failed. 

In written form, Waka might be used in correspondence. As is frequently the case in The Tale of Genji, the hero sends poems to ingratiate himself with a lady he wished to meet, to continue a courtship – or indeed break one off! Sei Shonagon treats a fellow court member badly. Tachibana no Norimitsu, a man known for physical bravery and considered capable enough to later become a provincial governor, is embarrassed when Sei presents him with a poem: 

      “Norimitsu pushed it back to me with his fan. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you have been good enough to write out one of your poems for me. But when it           comes to poetry…’ and he hurried out of the room. . . I have heard Norimitsu say, ‘People who are fond of me should spare me their poems or I shall have to regard them as enemies. When you feel that the time has come to break our relations, just send me a verse.”[4] 

 Formal poetry contests (uta-awase) were extremely popular by the 10th century. No casual evening’s amusement, these contests to display one’s talent as a poet (and as a person of taste and culture) could make or break a courtier’s reputation. Topics would be announced well in advance so that the contestants might have some verses prepared. Entries were read out by official readers and recorded for posterity, as were the results of the judging and in some cases the reasons for them. 

Ensho-awase were far less formal. Players divided into two teams, with men on one and women on the other. Each player would recite a love poem to a member of the other team, who was then expected to compose an answer using the mood and imagery of the challenge piece as inspiration for their reply. Generally, the sentiments and resulting poems were all in fun and not intended to be taken seriously.[5] This game would be very well suited to an informal SCA bardic gathering. One need not stick to love poetry, one may simply start with a topic and let the game develop as each player takes a turn. 

In my own personal experience, I have found waka to be very well suited to extemporaneity and easily adapted to both serious and silly subjects, not to mention friendly flirtation. In fact, if one has some willing participants, it doesn’t take very much to get an ensho-awase started. 

What follows is a completely spontaneous exchange of waka that occurred on the sca-jml Yahoo Group mailing list on September 23 and 24, 2004. (Original spelling and punctuation have not been edited.) I am indebted to the participants for their permission to include their compositions in this article, as it is an excellent illustration of how ensho-awase can entertain and challenge. It also shows the interesting direction that the contest can take depending on what aspects of a waka each answering writer responds to. It all began when Date Saburou Yukiie posted the following waka in a greeting to the ladies on the list: 

“When cool breezes blow 
portending the changing leaves
adies fan themselves 
in shimmering colored silks 
...one cannot but enjoy life” (Date Saburou Yukiie, Aethelmearc)[6] 

I responded: 

“Blushing, the maples 
Bow and sway in autumn's breeze 
Like dancing maidens, 
Giddy at the merest thought 
That they are so much admired.” (Makiwara, West)[7] 

Otagiri Tatsuzou then wrote: 

“The heron pauses 
In solitary vigil 
Eyes a falling leaf 
The dusk comes so early now 
At the Sandy Bottom lakes” (Otagiri Tatsuzou, Outlands)[8] 

To which Jeannete de Beauvoir replied: 

“The red leaf dances
As it falls to the water 
To meet its image, 
And a lady waits, impatient--
Will we meet thus in autumn?” (Jeannette de Beauvoir, Aethelmearc)[9] 

Date came back with: 

“Arch of the moon bridge 
remind of fan covered smiles, 
mysty morning dream, 
pining for my companion, 
meloncholy sound of flutes...” (Date)[10] 

It being early Friday morning where I was, the image of mist made me write: 

“Mist wraps the mountain 
In silks of mourning colors 
As for a lost friend. 
Even the sun seems muted 
At this solitary hour.” (Makiwara)[11] 

Otagiri, who started this downward melancholy spiral, continued: 

“Amid fallen leaves 
Lies a crumpled paper ball 
A forgotten fan 
Will she not write once to me 
Before the high passes close” (Otagiri)[12] 

Jeannette finished with: 

“What is one to say 
In the last letter? Paper, 
White as snow, is mute. 
No more words until the spring; 
My pen cannot touch my heart.” (Jeannette)[13] 

Later Japanese poetic forms evolved from the 5-7-5-7-7 form of the waka. Renga alternated 5 and 7 syllable lines at greater length. Hokku (or haiku), which came into its own in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, is, quite simply, the first three lines of a waka. 

The social climate of the Heian court resulted in the production of a staggering body of poetry, much of it trite and unoriginal, much of it dedicated to producing art as a way to show off or improve one’s social status, rather than to create art for its own sake. However, it also produced some truly beautiful distillations of image and emotion of the kind that can still produces a gasp of revelation and recognition across the centuries. I hope you, Dear Reader, will be inspired to explore the literature of medieval Japan and perhaps try your hand at writing a waka or two. 


Carter, Steven D. (editor). Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. (Stanford University Press, 1991) ISBN 0804722129 

Reichhold, Jane and Kawamura, Hatsue (editors). A String of Flowers, Untied: Love Poems From The Tale of Genji. (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) ISBN 1880656620 

Bryant, Anthony J. “Nihon Zatsuroku: An Online Japanese Miscellany” http://www.sengokudaimyo.com/miscellany/miscellany.html (August 1, 2019, Available). 

Joseph, Lisa A. “Little Thoughts: The Waka of Lady Makiwara” http://www.geocities.com/wodeford/makiwarapoetry.htm (October 4, 2004, Available) 

AHAPoetry page on https://www.ahapoetry.com/ (August 1, 2019, Available)

sca-jml@yahoogroups.com was an SCA e-mail list for those interested in pre-1600 Japanese culture, and, yes, the occasional ensho-awase. 


[1] Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life In Ancient Japan. ( Penguin Books, New York) 1964) p.191. 

[2] “Masaoka Shiki” entry in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masaoka_Shiki (October 3, 2004 Available) 

[3] Reichhold, Jane and Kawamura, Hatsue (editors). A String of Flowers, Untied: Love Poems From The Tale of Genji. (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) p. 43  

[4] Morris, p. 193. 

[5] Morris, p. 164. 

[6] Used with the gracious permission of Christopher Wright, copyright 2004. Known in the SCA as Date Saburou Yukiie, 

[7]By the author, Lisa A. Joseph, copyright 2004. Then known in the SCA as Jehanne de Wodeford and as Makiwara. 

[8] Used with the gracious permission of Ronald Broberg, copyright 2004. Known in the SCA as Otagiri Tatsuzou. 

[9] Used with the gracious permission of Carrie Schutrick, copyright 2004. Known in the SCA as Jeannette de Beauvoir. 

[10] Used with the gracious permission of Christopher Wright, copyright 2004.

[11] By the author, Lisa A. Joseph, copyright 2004.  

[12] Used with the gracious permission of Ronald Broberg, copyright 2004. 

[13] Used with the gracious permission of Carrie Schutrick, copyright 2004. 

Copyright 2004, 2019 Lisa A. Joseph

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