Definitions: Poetry and Ukiyo-e
So many ukiyo-e prints and paintings include poems that a brief introduction to the terminology of classical and pre-modern
poetry should be included in a general survey about traditional Japanese prints. Most poetry found in ukiyo-e was linked to
traditional Japanese poetic forms, so definitions of the original forms and their later variants are provided below.
Definitions of Classical Forms of Poetry
Haikai: Shortened term synonymous with 'haikai no renga'. Haikai were derived from medieval verse called renga
("linked poem"), poems of thirty-one syllables (5-7-5-7-7), which were initially composed collaboratively by two
or more poets who took turns composing (linking) verses of three lines (5-7-5) and two lines (7-7) to produce poems of varying
length. Compared to classical renga, haikai were somewhat casual in style and often humorous in tone, many employing imagery
from daily life. Later, when the great poet Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694) and his followers used only the first three opening
lines ('hokku', or "opening phrase"), the term became associated with verse of seventeen syllables (5-7-5),
the same structure as haiku.
Haiku: Seventeen syllable poem, one of the two major forms of Japanese poetry (the other being tanka). Haiku developed
as a shortened form of tanka, composed of the first three lines of seventeen syllables (5-7-5) from the longer tanka form
(5-7-5-7-7). The haiku tends to eliminate the self-reflecting quality of tanka (typically present in the fourth and fifth
lines) and, instead, reflects those aspects of nature that concerned the poet without also introducing the meditative human element.
Tanka: "Japanese poem," synonymous with waka, the standard verse of five lines and thirty-one syllables,
arranged in lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, which constituted one of the two major historical forms of Japanese poetry (the other
form being haiku). Most tanka employed two poetic images, one of nature and another of personal reflection or meditation.
Classical Poetic Anthologies, Poets, & Literary Works — Sources for Ukiyo-e Design
Ogura hyakunin isshu: "Small Treasury of One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets," a collection of 'tanka' compiled
by Fujiwara Sadaie (also called Fujiwara no Teika, 1162-1241) at a villa near Mount Ogura in Kyoto. The collection is frequently
called simply Hyakunin isshu. The poems were composed by famous poets of the seventh through the thirteenth centuries. There
were various sets of ukiyo-e prints and books based on the poems and the celebrated poets who composed them. Some of these works
were relatively straightforward, offering the poems alongside imaginary portraits of the poets. Other ukiyo-e prints took great
liberties with the subject matter, often in the form of mitate-e or "analogue pictures" that relocated the significance
of the poems within the context of more contemporary, "floating world" themes. The poems were also the basis for a very
popular card game of poem-matching (uta-awase - see below), which served as a subject for ukiyo-e prints.
Ise monogatari: "Tales of Ise," an anonymous tenth century collection of around 143 very brief episodes or tales
serving as fictional headnotes to 209 poems. The famous historical poet Ariwara Narihara (825-880), whose life and legendary romantic
involvements are prominently featured in the tales, is sometimes said to be the main subject of the work, but it cannot be said to be
a biography of the poet. Although most of his surviving poems are included in the collection, the majority of the 209 poems are anonymous.
Most of the poems probably date from the ninth century and appear similar in theme and style to the first imperial anthology Kokin
wakashû, c. 905 (see below). Tales from the collection were popular subjects with ukiyo-e artists.
Kokinshû: "Collection of Ancient and Modern Times," it is also referred to as Kokin wakashû
("Collection of Ancient and New Japanese Poems"). It was the first important anthology of Japanese poetry compiled
under the auspices of an emperor, in this case the Emperor Daigo in 905A.D.
Man'yôshû: "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves," the first important imperial anthology of Japanese
poetry. It contains 4,516 poems and was compiled at the end of the eighth century. Poems from this anthology sometimes appear on
Sanjûrokassen: "Thirty-six poetic immortals," whose selected poems were compiled by the minor poet and
critic Fujiwara no Kintô (966-1041) around 1009-1011, who had collected the poems for the third imperial anthology (the
'Shûishû'). The Sanjûrokunin sen ("Selections of Thirty-six Poets") contained ten poems each
by Hitomaro, Tsurayuki, Mitsune, Ise, Kanemori, and Nakatsukasa, and three poems each by Yakamochi, Akahito, Narihira, Henjô,
Sosei, Tomonori, Sarumaru, Komachi, Kanesuke, Asatada, Atsutada, Takamitsu, Kintada, Tadamine, Saigû no Nyôgo,
Yorimoto, Toshiyuki, Shigeyuki, Muneyuki, Sane-akira, Kiyotada, Shitagô, Okikaze, Motosuke, Korenori, Motozane, Kodai no
Kimi (also read O-ô no Kimi), Nakafumi, Yoshinobu, and Tadami. The poets were popular subjects in ukiyo-e, especially in
'mitate-e' ("analogue pictures").
Definitions of Some Related Poetic and Ukiyo-e Terms
Egoyomi: "Picture calendars," illustrated calendars printed on single sheets with indications for the long and
short months (30 and 29 days, respectively, plus intercalary months when needed) for the lunar calendar system (used in Japan
before 1872). By the Meiwa era (1764-1772) 'egoyomi' exchange parties had become quite popular among both literate commoners and
samurai, whose purpose was to gather together the aficiondos of such print designs for gift exchanges at the New Year. The egoyomi phenomenon had an important effect upon the development of full-color printmaking in Edo. The wealthiest among the collectors even
commissioned their own artists and artisans to produce calendar prints, sparing no expense in their support of nishiki-e ("brocade prints") materials and techniques. Among the sponsors of such print productions and exchange parties was
Jôsei Sanjin Kyosen (Okubo Jinshirô Tadanobu, a hatamoto or samurai "bannerman" from the Ushigome
castle district). He produced a haiku picture book in 1758 illustrated by Toyonobu, Masanobu, Sori, and Ryusui, but is best known
for commissioning Suzuki Harunobu's famous set of privately issued prints (not egoyomi) titled Zashiki hakkei ("Eight
Parlor Views") around 1766.
Haimyô: Literary name (also called haigô) used in writing haikai poetry and other poetic forms. Haimyô is also used for the literary name taken by kabuki actors and artists who sometimes contributed verses to ukiyo-e print designs.
Hokku: "Opening verse," 17-syllables (5-7-5) that begin a larger poem such as the linked haikai or the renga;
also represented by the 17-syllable haiku. In ukiyo-e designs the hokku is occasionally found in connection with the practice
of composing the first poem of the New year.
Jisei: "Death poem" or "death message," also translated variously as "passing away,"
"last words," "farewell poem to life," or "parting with the world." The jisei is a formal
message written shortly before or even on the verge of death, usually in poetic form, but occasionally in prose. In ukiyo-e prints
and paintings the jisei would appear on shini-e or "death prints."
Kakekotoba: "Pivot-word," a word in Japanese court poetry that through its homophonic associations may offer two
meanings and thus create the possibility of multiple readings of the word and poem.
Kanshi: "Chinese poem," a poem written with Chinese characters. Early in the Edo period the Tokugawa shogunate
encouraged the study of Confucianism and the Chinese language, which eventually created a wide readership among the samurai class,
the literati, and some of the better educated 'chônin' for woodblock-printed editions of Confucian classics and Chinese
poetry anthologies. Such growing interest fostered the growth of 'kanshi' societies and the popularity of professional teachers
of the Chinese poetic forms. Many Japanese, a few possessing talent of the first rank, composed poetry and prose in the Chinese
language. Kanshi are sometimes found on ukiyo-e prints and paintings.
Kyôka: "Mad verse" or "crazy verse," 31-syllable comic poetry in tanka form especially popular
during the late eighteenth century, with the height of popularity coming during the Temmei era (1781-1789). Kyôka were not
"crazy" in the sense of wild expressiveness, but rather were unorthodox by virtue of their breaking the classical rules
of diction and subject matter used in conventional tanka. Many were actually somewhat serious in tone. Kyôka humor was set
in puns and other types of word play, or in gentle spoofing of classical poetry. When applying the term kyôka to late
eighteenth and early nineteenth century comic poetry, a less literal but more accurate translation would be "playful verse."
Kyômei: "Crazy name," a witty and humorous pen name used by kyôka poets when signing their poems. It
was common for many kyôka poets to attempt to outdo one another in contriving the most imaginative pen names replete with
double entendres and entertaining word play.
Makura kotoba: "Pillow-word," a word in traditional Japanese court poetry that takes up an entire but short, five-syllable
line and modifies a word usually in the next line. The makura kotoba is often ambiguous in meaning with a associative quality that
amplifies the meaning of the poem.
Senryû: A satirical poem named after its creator, Karai Senryû (1718-1790). Generally written in haiku form, it
is also found in two lines of seven syllables each. Its subject matter was primarily that of human weakness and vanity, and it was
especially popular during the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Shikishiban: Square surimono format in the form of a poem card measuring approximately 20.5 x 18.5 cm (also called kakuban).
The vast majority of privately issued 'surimono' were made in this format after around 1810 until the 1830s, although the first known
examples date from at least 5 years earlier. These roughly square sheets of paper were similar to shikishi sheets used by
calligraphers, but they may have found common usage after print designers and poets recognized that the typical folding into thirds
(for presentation within wrappers) of the previously popular long-format surimono (roughly 40 x 53 cm, today called yoko-nagaban or "long horizontal format") resulted in three squared sections.
Surimono: "Printed thing." The term was used generally for printed texts, pictures, or illustrated texts, but by the
eighteenth century it was also used specifically for two types of privately published and distributed woodblock prints. One type were
announcement, commemorative, or program surimono (with or without verses) for special events such as poetry gatherings, anniversaries,
musical performances, and actors' name changes; the other type were "verse pictures" designed for a great variety of
subjects and in various styles. Most verse 'surimono' were printed and distributed at the New Year and often included spring imagery.
Tanzaku: "Poem slip," narrow vertical paper format used in ukiyo-e printmaking. The tanzaku format was used for
various subjects, although kachô-e (flower and bird prints) were particularly well suited to the format.
Uta-awase: "Poetry competition," a contest before judges between two sides or individuals on agreed-upon topics. The
earliest competitions were somewhat casual entertainments, but gradually these matches became quite serious, with topics (often
taken from imperial anthologies) set in advance and an appeals process in place for protesting the decisions of judges. 'Uta-awase'
also became significant public forums for poets to establish reputations and display their poetic skills. The term is also used for
a popular card game. For a discussion of related topics, refer to the following links: