Japan Echo

Vol. 26, No. 2

An Imperial Poetic Tradition

In mid-January every year, the emperor and empress, their family, and guests assemble in the Matsunoma Stateroom of the Imperial Palace for a ceremony called Utakai Hajime, the Imperial New Year’s Poetry Reading. Poems composed in the traditional 31-syllable (5-7-5-7-7) waka style are declaimed in a distinctive, age-old manner. All are new works on a single theme, and the authors range from the emperor and empress to members of the general public, who are invited to submit their poems, the finest of which are recited at the ceremony. In addition to being one of the time-honored events on the annual palace calendar, this event allows the public to share in the pleasure of the poetic tradition of which the imperial family has long been a guardian and serves as a precious link between the palace and the people.

Gatherings to compose and recite poetry have been held at least since the Yamato period (ca 300-710), as cited in the Man’yôshu—Japan’s oldest anthology of poems, compiled in the eighth century from works written over the previous four centuries. But the origins of Utakai Hajime are not clear. Some historians date the ceremony back to the Heian period (794-1185), suggesting that the annual readings were already being held by the time a poetry office (Waka-dokoro) was established in the palace in 951 during the reign of Emperor Murakami, but there are no records to verify this. The earliest documented reference is from 1267, midway through the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when a poetry reading is said to have been hosted by Emperor Kameyama. It is from around this time that Utakai Hajime became an important imperial New Year ritual.

The ceremony was suspended toward the end of the Edo period (1600-1868) but revived by the Meiji emperor in 1869. Five years later, ordinary citizens were invited to pen New Year verses along with members of the imperial family and court. Since 1879 the best of the submitted poems have been recited at Utakai Hajime, and in the post-World War II era their authors have been invited to attend the ceremony in person.

To encourage more people to contribute their works, a committee of practicing poets is charged with proposing three simple themes. The list is narrowed down to two by an imperial selection panel, and the final decision is made by the emperor himself. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), the selected themes were generally subjects traditionally regarded as auspicious for the New Year, such as shunpû kaijô yori kitaru (spring wind blowing in from the sea) and shinnen yama o nozomu (viewing a mountain on the New Year). But over the past half century more everyday subjects have been selected, such as kodomo (children), sakura (cherry blossoms), and michi (path or way). The number of submissions, however, has declined; before the war the total sometimes exceeded 40,000, but in recent years the figure has been around 20,000.



The reading at the Matsunoma Stateroom is hosted by the emperor and empress, who are seated at the front of the room, flanked by the members of the imperial family, males on one side and females on the other. A small group of ceremonial retainers are seated at a table in front of the emperor, and along the sides of the room are ranged the other participants, including invited guests, judges, and people with winning entries.

The first poems to be read are those selected from the contributions by the public, the work of the youngest poet being read first. The poems are declaimed by retainers titled kôji, hassei, and kôshô. First the kôji is called upon to read them aloud, accenting and drawing out the final syllable of each of the five lines. The verses are then sung to a simple melody; the hassei sings the first line alone and is joined by a chorus of four kôshô on the subsequent lines.

These are followed by verses by the head of the judging committee, a designated guest (called the meshiudo), one imperial family representative, the crown princess, and the crown prince. The empress's verse, called miuta, is read twice, and the ceremony comes to a close with the recitation of the gyosei, the poem penned by the emperor, three times.



This year’s theme was ao, meaning blue (or green in certain contexts) and connoting youthfulness. There were 22,813 submissions from the public, including 247 submissions from 20 foreign countries and regions, such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Peru, and the United States. Most of the overseas entries were written by expatriate Japanese, but there were also poems by Chinese residents of Taiwan who were brought up during Japan’s colonial occupation of the island. An increasing number of works are being submitted by people who are not native speakers of Japanese. The only poem selected for a reading authored by a foreigner (except those of Japanese descent), though, was a 1957 submission by Lucille Nixon, an elementary school principal in California, on that year’s theme of tomoshibi, or “light”:

Akogare no

Uruwashiki Nihon


Hiru no miakashi

Itsu mata towamu

The votive light offered at

The temple Hôryûji,

So vibrant despite the mid-afternoon sun.

O, how I long to revisit Japan,

The graceful land I so dearly love.

Among this year’s 10 winners was 15-year-old Nakao Hiroaki, a middle-school student living in the town of Kiyama, Saga Prefecture. Nakao is the youngest author ever to have been selected in the postwar era, and his surprise selection generated great interest:


Hane o sorashite


Hishô majika no

Aosuji ageha

A young green-banded swallowtail,

Stretching its wings

And beating with life,

Ready to take off

On its first flight.

The author wrote about the swallowtail butterfly that he had kept records of as part of his homework over summer vacation. After the ceremony, Nakao, clad in his school uniform, told reporters that he could not stop his knees from shaking as he showed the emperor and empress the notebook in which he had recorded his observations. “I owe this honor to the butterfly,” he said.

Another winner, Shimizu Hideo, described the apprehension he felt just prior to undergoing surgery for cataracts. The 60-year-old schoolteacher in a school for the blind in Kobe recalls faintly seeing the character for water—part of his family name—written in blue ink on his medical records. When his poem was declaimed, “I felt as if a small voice had reached the heavens,” Shimizu recounted. He also reported having been so moved when the emperor shook his hand and told him, “I hope the lives of visually handicapped people will improve,” that he could not hold back his tears. Here is his poem:

Waga me nite

Saigo ni mitaru

Mizu no moji

Aoki inku no


Written in blue,

The character for water

Is the last thing I saw.

How beautifully it lingers

In the back of my mind.

Among the others whose verses were read were a woman with a 60-year waka-writing career whose entry was chosen for the third time and another who had her first contribution selected on her thirty-eighth try.

This year’s meshiudo, or designated guest, was 90-year-old astronomer and Japan Academy President Fujita Yoshio, who wrote about the Subaru, the just completed 8.3-meter optical-infrared telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Fujita said he hoped that his offering would give encouragement to the researchers at the mammoth telescope, built by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, who will be exploring the outer reaches of our boundless universe.



What makes the traditional Japanese poem, or waka, such an appealing form for people of all ages? Like other types of poetry, it is a medium for expressing a range of personal sentiments, such as love, joy, and sadness, but it can also be sent to somebody as a greeting, and it is characterized by its ability to evoke the sympathetic emotional responses of others, with the result that it developed into a medium of social communication. The set 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern of the tanka (short poem), the form that has long been the waka standard, has probably contributed to the enduring popularity of the genre, which has brought people together to share poems on a common theme for over a millennium.

A well-known introduction to the world of waka is the Hyakunin isshu, a thirteenth-century anthology of 100 verses by 100 different poets. Hyakunin isshu forms the basis of a card game called uta karuta, which has given countless youngsters their first taste of traditional poetry. Many daily newspapers have a column of tanka submitted by readers, the best of them carrying comments by professional poets. This has helped cultivate waka enthusiasts over the years, thereby helping to sustain the Utakai Hajime at the Imperial Palace.

Around a decade ago, a collection of tanka that rejected conventional rules became a bestseller. Tawara Machi’s Sarada kinenbi (1987; trans. Salad Anniversary, 1989) spawned a new generation of tanka poets whose works read like prose, enhancing the accessibility of this genre as a literary pastime. The renewed interest in tanka will no doubt steer the Utakai Hajime in new directions in the century to come, as efforts are made both to maintain tradition and to incorporate new styles and approaches. (LIN Yixiao, Jiji Press)

© 1999 Japan Echo Inc.