The Hyakunin Isshu is a concise history of Japanese poetry from the seventh to the mid-twelfth century. For hundreds of years, it has been the most widely known and popular collection of Japanese poetry. Along with the Tales of Ise and the Tale of Genji, the Hyakunin Isshu is one of the three most influential classical works of Japanese literature. It has had an inestimable influence on Japanese literature, culture, and visual arts at every level. In the visual arts, for example, every major Japanese print (ukiyo-e) artist has illustrated the entire collection. More recently, artists such as Shinoda Toko have illustrated it. For several hundred years, it has been the primer of Japanese classical poetry. It also became a popular card game that is still played at the New Year, and these cards have inspired yet another generation of illustrators. Even today, the Hyakunin Isshu is read and studied in Japanese literature classes in high schools throughout Japan.
The translation of this work was prompted in part by a personal quest to learn more about Japan and the Japanese. All the poems in the collection might not be of the first rank, but the finest reveal the subtle aesthetic sensibility of the Japanese at its most sophisticated and refined. More specifically, I found in the text many aspects that are evident in contemporary Japanese culture, such as subtlety in verbal expression, indirectness, an intensely visual nature, great emotional reserves, a capacity for deep and profound emotion, and the tendency to be both complex and elusive in emotional expression.
Haiku is widely known in the West, but haiku originally developed from waka. The term was originally hokku, the opening stanza of renga. Haiku came into being when the starting verse came to exist independently from the linked verse. Formally, it is the equivalent of the upper strophe of waka, namely, having lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively, for a total of seventeen. Although haiku developed in a completely different way from waka, a study of Japanese waka is helpful for understanding more about haiku and how to write it.
When Shunzei noted, “All who come to our land study this poetry; all who live in our land compose it,” he was speaking of waka, not haiku. Thus, if one wants to understand the heart of the Japanese, it could equally be argued that it is found not only in haiku, but also—or even more so—in waka. I hope that the translation of this venerable collection will provide a good introduction for that purpose. It is my wish, too, that one day the word waka will become as common in English as “haiku.” As I so happily discovered myself, so I recommend to you: If you want to understand the Japanese, read the Hyakunin Isshu.