spacer 12
VJP title
Utamaro print showing


spacer 16

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

kanji_haikai 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 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 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 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 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.

kokinshu 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.

manyoshu 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 ukiyo-e prints.

sanjurokkassen 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 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.

haimyo 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 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 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 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 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.

kyoka 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."

kyomei 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 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.

senryu 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 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 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 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 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:

spacer 16
Viewing Japanese Prints
Designed & Written by John Fiorillo
Site launched 1999
All texts and pictures are copyright © (All Rights Reserved)
and may not be reproduced without permission.