Hyakunin Isshu: Teaching Foreign Students about Japanese Culture

The one hundred poems collected in the Hyakunin Isshu are an important cultural treasure in Japan, both for the beauty of the Heian era poems themselves, and also for the creative interpretations shown in the Edo period artwork that is now almost synonymous with the poems. However, while they can be sufficiently appreciated for their inherent splendor alone, they can also serve more practical purposes. For example, the poems can be used to document the ancient Japanese lifestyle (in particular that of the courtiers), while the artwork can be used to teach students how to appreciate and evaluate classical Japanese art. Furthermore, the collection can be used to offer students of the Japanese language an insight into both the language and culture of this enigmatic nation. In the following pages, I will outline ways that the collection could be used by teachers of Japanese to evoke, rather than explain, certain prevalent themes in Japanese history and culture to a student from North America.

NATURE: Seasons & Animals

Nature is a predominant theme in the poems. The poets often use the seasons, animals, and plants in place of mentioning thoughts and feelings directly. A number of poems could be used to convey Japanese sentimentality about nature.

The image that students from North America most likely associate with autumn is harvest, thanksgiving, and going back to school. The traditional Japanese association of autumn with sadness can be seen in this poem [5].


Sarumaru Dayuu Walking on the fall leaves deep in the mountains,
I hear a stag calling and I think,
How sad is autumn!

At this point, the teacher can explain that the call of a deer (or monkey) is associated with yearning for one’s lover, and the fact that the character 愁 is made up of autumn (秋) and heart (心) and it means sadness, grief, or lamenting. The students will be able to feel the emotion rather than just accepting the words at face value.

Spring, on the other hand, means birth and regrowth in either culture, but there is no association with a particular flower in North America. In Japan, the connection between spring and cherry blossoms is ubiquitous. The following poem does a good job of connecting the two [33].


Ki no Tomonori
Relaxing on a spring day,
only the falling cherry blossoms are doing their job.

The teacher can explain about the hard-working ethic of the average Japanese salaried worker, and how the chance to have hanami parties comes as a true break from the hardships of winter and work.

An animal may be perceived as auspicious by one culture, and yet scorned in another. The traditional Japanese way of thinking about certain animals can be taught by using the artwork that accompanies the poems. For example, turtles [30] show up as signs of longevity, and they are used as a symbol of long life even now. Bats [10], however, were very auspicious creatures during the Edo period, often showing up on kimono patterns, but they seem to have lost their revered reputation. Cats, too were very symbolic: dreaming of a cat meant that someone was pregnant, and occasionally royal princesses would die and turn into cats [30]. And spiders would show up to announce the coming of a suitor. There is even a poem that can be used to help a lost pet find his home [16].


Relations between men and women were extremely ritualized in the Heian court. Relationships were often clandestine, obliging the participants to mask their feelings in poems, and to save their passions for the dark night, when people could move around unseen if they were careful enough.

Approximately half of the poems in this collection are about human relationships, more specifically about love. Of course, many euphemisms had to be employed to hide the enthusiasm of the writers, as it was not appropriate to make blatant reference to affairs of the flesh. Poets would long to meet (会う) or see (見る) their partners, which, to the trained ear, unveiled a most passionate plea. While the language may be different, this is not an unusual technique in poems, either Eastern or Western.

However, a number of poems can be used to teach about the Japanese virtue of endurance. While patience is praised in Western cultures, it is not always rewarded, so the lesson is not always learned. In Japan, however, patience and endurance, especially where love is concerned, serve to enhance the feelings — to the point where it almost can’t be called love unless there is some hardship to endure (unrequited love, not being able to meet due to certain circumstances, being unable to bear the gossip). The treatment of endurance as a virtue can be seen in these two poems [40, 39].


Taira no Kanemori
I’m trying to endure, but it shows up on my face,
and people even ask me, Are you thinking of love?


Sangi Hitoshi
I have endured, like the bamboo on the Shinohara plains,
but my love will not fade

Many cultures fear death, but the specific feelings are subtly diverse. Death is mentioned in a few poems, generally euphemistically, and they can be used to express various attitudes towards death. In the following poem, the wish for a longer life is taken to its natural conclusion [34].


Fujiwara no Okikaze
I no longer know a soul, and even the pine trees,
who have been here much longer than I have,
cannot serve as my friends.

The association of pine trees with Shinto gods can also be discussed.

On the other hand, death is used to effect a happier result in the following poem [50].


Fujiwara no Yoshitaka
I used to think that I would die a happy man if I could just meet you,
but now I want to live a little longer to spend more time with you.

These thoughts about our mortality are universal, so they can be used to show that while our cultures are different, we are all human, and we all have basic needs and wants. We all share an apprehension about our own demise.

There are many other ways to use the poems to help foreign students understand — and interpret — Japanese history and culture. After studying a number of the poems, students may be able to interpret the poems by themselves, and be able to offer an estimation of the meaning. I was able to do that with the following poem [52].


Fujiwara no Michinobu Ason
Even though I know to expect the rising of the sun,
it still upsets me when it comes.

After learning certain words (ie. あさぼらけ) and structures in previous poems, it is possible to guess the meaning. Then, after discussing the arrangements that men and women would have to make for their clandestine affairs, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that this was written by a man who could only spend the dark hours with his love. In this way, the poems can be used both as teaching tools and as a chance for the students to experiment with their new knowledge.

Poem #52 is fairly straightforward, but more difficult poems can be researched as homework and presented to the class. This will help the students to learn new vocabulary, and will probably introduce them to several new concepts while they are doing the research. Presenting their findings to the class would allow the other students to benefit from following the thinking patterns of the researcher.

There are a number of other ways to use the collection as a teaching tool.

  • Writing reviews of the artwork (eg. finding Komachi, identifying important priests).
  • Comparing the roles of women then and now.
  • Learning how to play the games (eg. bozu mekuri, kemari, etc.).
  • Trying to play with the words (eg. 子子子子子子子=ねこのこのねこ).
  • Trying to write their own poems following the form, and using some of the techniques that they have seen.
  • Looking at certain kanji and seeing if they can be separated into interesting units (愁=秋+心、嵐=山+風)。
  • Trying to write a sentence about a feeling without ever using the specific word.

The Hyakunin Isshu collection has value as a collection of poems, and it probably survived to this day because of its merit as a work of art. The fact that it is such a deep well of information, and that it can be used in so many ways to enhance learning, should ensure that it lasts another 700 years unabated.

See also: Hyakunin Isshu: My Interpretations.