Book Launch for the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds

The School of East Asian Studies was pleased to hold a launch on 10 December 2019 to mark the publication of a new book by Dr Thomas McAuley, The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds: A Translation and Commentary (2 vols) (Brill, 2020). Dating from 1192-93, the contest, known in Japanese as Roppyakuban uta’awase, contains 1200 poems by twelve poets on 100 topics, covering both the seasons and love. Each round of poetry was judged by Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204), the preeminent poet of his age, with the combined judgements representing the most substantial statement of Shunzei’s poetics at the end of his life. An alternative perspective is provided by a lengthy Appeal (chinjō) against many of the judgements lodged by one of the participants in the competition, the monk, Kenshō (1130?-1209?).

The product of a decade of translation and research, the book is the first complete English translation and commentary of the competition and its judgements, and the first complete commentary on Kenshō’s Appeal in any language. With a critical introduction to the contest, and extensive notes on the judgements, appeal and poems, and including a significant number of additional poems in translation to illustrate the development of interpretations of poetic topics and vocabulary, the book is certain to become a much utilised reference work for present and future scholars of Japanese waka poetry, and to be of interest to readers interested in the history of the development of literary criticism.

At the launch event, context for the competition was provided by a presentation by Professor Christina Laffin, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Premodern Japanese Literature and Culture, University of British Columbia, entitled Vernacular, Cosmopolitan, and Poetic Learning in the Age of the Roppyakuban uta’awase. In her presentation, Professor Laffin discussed the complex attitude to literacy illustrated by the competition, whose poets referred freely to language and literary material deriving from both Japan and China. She continued by noting the enduring link between Japan’s poetry and its material culture, ranging from texts combing poetry, calligraphy and paper design for aesthetic effect in the premodern period, to poem cards still used for both family New Year entertainment, and national competitions today – competitions which have inspired popular culture works such as Chihayafuru in manga (2007- ), anime (2011- ), and live action film (2016).

Professor Laffin concluded her presentation with a discussion of how poetry was intrinsically linked to relations between men and women in premodern Japan, noting Nun Abutsu’s (c. 1222-1283) instructions to her daughter to memorise poetry in order to have a successful career at court and that ‘it would truly be regrettable to think that you were memorizing the poems and yet, despite my strident request, for you to find it tedious and fail to apply yourself’, but also how women’s verbal facility with poetry could often reduce male poets to silence – so much so that Fujiwara no Kiyosuke (1104-1177) provided advice on how to escape from the social embarrassment of being unable to think of a reply to a woman’s poem by, ‘pretend[ing] once or twice not to have heard’ then ‘say[ing], “I have business elsewhere and flee[ing]’ (Bundy 2012, 226).

In his presentation, Washed by the waves of Waka Bay: Competitive composition and criticism in early medieval Japan, Dr McAuley began by citing the poem with which Shunzei concludes the contest:



sumiyoshi no

matsu wa aware mo

kake ya semu

yasoji suginuru

waka no uranami

At Sumiyoshi will

The pines feel compassion

For me?

Spending more than eighty years

Washed by the waves of Waka Bay…



In this poem, Shunzei wonders if the pines at Sumiyoshi, the location of the shrine to the patron deity of poetry, will feel anything for him. Pines, much longer lived than any human being,  were a symbol of longevity, and so the reference serves to express Shunzei’s hopes that his judgements and knowledge would be of use to future generations.

Dr McAuley then outlined the historical and socio-political context which gave rise to Roppyakuban uta’awase, and discussed the history of the poetry contest in Japan, as well as the key features of the poetics which governed Shunzei’s judgements of whether the poems in the competition were of good or poor quality. He illustrated this with reference to poems such as:




susono no tsuyu ni

shika nakite

hito matsu sode ni

namida sou nari


Drapes dewfall on the mountains’ skirts,

With a stag’s sad cry;

Awaiting him, my sleeves

Are wet with tears.



which Shunzei describes as ‘richly evocative’.

He further discussed the poets’ use of intertextuality to add additional layers of meaning to their work through reference to prior poems and the incorporation of some of their wording, a technique known as honkadori or ‘allusive variation’, as well as allusion to both Chinese and Japanese literary sources, and Shunzei’s description of this as ‘particularly charming and…profound’. Finally, he addressed the critical conflict between Shunzei and Kenshō, including the latter’s use of evidence derived from discussions with peasants in the countryside to support his interpretation of key items of poetic diction as correct, something which Shunzei describes as ‘mistaken’ and a theory which he ‘should cease to circulate’. This subject is covered in more detail in Dr McAuley’s recent article ‘A fine thing for the way: evidence, counter-evidence and argument in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’ (Japan Forum).

Finally, Dr McAuley concluded with Kenshō’s statement in his Appeal that, ‘if my ideas should not be mistaken, they may be of some unknown use to folk in the years to come’ and expressed his view that the poems, judgements and appeal would, indeed, be so.

The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds (2 vols) is available in both hardback and e-format