Saturday, 16 January 2010

Imperial poetry: a quaint tradition

In a tradition dating back to the mid Kamakura era, 1267 to be precise, the Japanese imperial family this week convened their annual New Year poetry reading - in Japanese the utakai hajime. The theme for this years poetry reading was 'light'. The Emperor, Empress, Crown Prince and Princess each write a waka - Japanese style poem - about something related to the set theme that impressed them during the year and read it out in what has become a televised New Year event.

The utakai hajime also includes the winners of a national poetry competition. Of 23,346 entries from the public, (it was noted that of these 172 came from overseas) ten were selected for inclusion.

Poetry is close to the heart of traditional Japanese culture. Most waka follow a prescribed form - tanka 5-7-5-7-7, haiku 5-7-5 and frequently use nature as an agent of description. Particularly at New Year time, there are national televised karuta competitions that require extremely detailed knowledge of Japanese poetry. The first lines of a waka are read aloud and the competitors need to identify from the cards laid in front of them, which card completes the poem. Sets of the cards are available at most 100Y shops at New Year, so it is presumably entertainment enjoyed by the masses and not just the province of cultural elite.

It's not uncommon for people to send personal correspondence in waka form; putting poetry into daily life feels like a very refined custom. When I worked for in the Sydney office of a Japanese company, it took some time before I realised that some of the Christmas cards I received were actually tanka...

Courteosy of the Imperial Household website, I have pasted translations of this years poems from the Imperial Family below.
I couldn't find translations of the public competition winners.

Next years topic is 'leaf'.

The Emperor.
The Emperors poem was a reflection on walking in the Imperial Palace grounds.

Where rays of sunlight
Filter through the trees I see
In the middle of the path
Carpeted with fallen leaves
A clump of green grass growing

The Empress
The Empress' poem was a reflection on walking in the Imperial Palace grounds with the Emperor around the time of the their 50th wedding anniversary.

As I walk by your side
The path stretches far ahead
Though 'tis now evening
Yonder in the distance
A glow of a lingering light

The Crown Prince
The Crown Prince reflected on climbing Mt Fuji.

The rays of the sun
appear above the clouds.
Fuji's surface glows in red.

The Crown Princess
The Crown Princess reflected on walking in the Akasaka Palace grounds.

The wavelets rising
on the pond
catch the light of the winter sun
and glitter brightly.

As a P.S.
It's interesting to note three of the four poems talk of light inside the palace grounds. They get regretably little opportunity to have an independent life.

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