7. Abe no Nakamaro

Into night’s dark field

I stare, and I imagine 

Kasuga Temple,

standing near Mount Mikasa,

lit by this same rising moon.



22. Fun’ya no Yasuhide


Autumn mountain wind—

the grass knocked flat, the trees whipped,

their branches broken.

The brush strokes meaning storm, 

read aloud, can mean destruction.



30. Mibu no Tadamine

Now, in the sunrise,

alone, I watch the moon set—

a cold, cold parting.

Daybreak has brought me nothing

but your absent affection.



35. Ki no Tsurayuki

People change, it’s true.

One can’t know a heart’s drift.

Still, I return here

to find the old plum blooming,

the air full of its perfume. 



67. Lady Suō no Naishi

On this short spring night

a dream almost came to pass—

my head on your arm.

But it would have been pointless

to risk my reputation.



84. Fujiwara no Kiyosuke

Given enough time, 

all these troubles may become 

like those of the past—

all those mean, hard, fear-filled days,

remembered with nostalgia.





7. Abe no Nakamaro (701-770):
At age sixteen Nakamaro went to study in China. Working in the Chinese court of emperor Hsūan-tsung, he rose to a high position. In 753, he had the opportunity to return to Japan. This poem, it is said, was written at his farewell party. Unfortunately, the ship on which he traveled was wrecked in what is now Vietnam. He survived, returned to China, and remained there the rest of his life. There was a custom among those going overseas to visit Kasuga Temple and pray for a safe return.


22. Fun’ya no Yasuhide (9th century):
Originally a provincial official, Yasuhide was later given a position at court, possibly because of his poetic skills. Six of his poems are in the imperial anthologies. This poem is based on wordplay which is untranslatable. Despite the harsh subject matter, the original is considered witty.


30. Mibu no Tadamine (late 9th-10th centuries):
Tadamine was a significant poet and worked on the first imperial anthology, Kokinshū. Eighty-two of his poems are in the imperial anthologies. This poem is in a woman’s voice.


35. Ki no Tsurayuki (c. 870-945):
Tsurayuki was a major literary figure and the chief compiler of the early imperial anthology, Kokinshū. Over 450 poems appear in the different imperial collections. The story behind the poem is Tsurayuki went to visit a friend after a long absence. Uncertain of his reception, he presented his friend with a flowering plum bough and this impromptu poem.


67. Lady Suō no Naishi (11th-early 12th centuries):
Her given name was Nakako. The name she is remembered by comes from her father’s position, governor of Saō Province, in what is now the eastern part of Yamaguchi Prefecture. She was handmaiden to four emperors, and thirty-five of her poems appear in imperial anthologies.


84. Fujiwara no Kiyosuke (1104-1177):
Kiyosuke was an important literary figure. He edited an anthology, the Shoku Shinashū, for the Emperor Ninjō. But because the Emperor died before it was complete,  it was never officially recognized as an imperial collection. Ninety-four of Kiyosuke’s poems are in the imperial anthologies.

Original Collection ↓

7. 阿倍仲麻呂



三笠の山に 出でし月かも


ama no hara furisake mireba Kasuga naru 

Mikasa no yama ni ideshi tsuki kamo 



22. 文屋康秀


吹くからに 秋の草木のしおるれば

むべ山風を 嵐といふらむ


fuku kara ni aki no kusaki no shiorureba 

ube yama kaze o arashi to iuran 



30. 壬生忠岑


有明の つれなくみえし別れより

暁ばかり うきものはなし


ariake no tsurenaku mieshi wakare yori 

akatsuki bakari uki mono wa nashi 



35. 紀貫之


人はいさ 心も知らずふるさとは

花ぞむかしの 香に匂ひける


hito wa isa kokoro mo shirazu 

furusato wa hana zo mukashi no ka ni nioi keru 



67. 周防内侍


春の夜の 夢ばかりなる手枕に

かひなく立たむ 名こそ惜しけれ


haru no yo no yume bakari naru tamakura ni 

kainaku tatan na koso oshi kere 



84. 藤原清輔朝臣


ながらへば またこの頃やしのばれむ

憂しと見し世ぞ 今は恋しき


nagaraeba mata konogoro ya shinobaren 

ushi to mishi yo zo ima wa koishiki

Translator's Note

The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is a 13th century collection of one hundred five-phrased poems known as waka. They were written primarily by Japanese aristocrats, many attached to the imperial court. Although the editor, Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), made this selection for himself, it has become a cornerstone of Japanese literature and culture. For centuries it was the waka primer, the collection anyone with an interest in poetry was expected to know. It has also been an inspiration to artists and the subject of constant literary and scholarly study. It entered popular culture in the 17th century when printed illustrated editions became available. It is also the basis of karuta, a traditional New Year's card game which still has devotees. 

The world which produced these poems was a small closed society, highly mannered, with an intricate code of conduct. The sexes were usually segregated, but promiscuity was common. Lovers were obliged to be circumspect and to follow clear (if unwritten) rules. Love poems sent by courier were both a seduction tool and the engine of clandestine relationships.

The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu was one of the very first Japanese books translated into English. New versions appear regularly and differ wildly from one another. The material is difficult. The poems are more archaic, ambiguous, and foreign-sounding to most modern Japanese readers than Chaucer is to today’s English speaker. The poems frequently have place names and allude to both Japanese and Chinese literature. The reader is expected to know these references and understand their significance. Even the writing system can be a source of ambiguity: Japanese is full of homonyms, and while kanji (the Chinese characters used in written Japanese) distinguishes between them, kana (the syllabary) doesn’t. This can lead to confusion, but it is also a source of richness. 

As a result, many translators provide extensive explanatory notes about the poems and their authors. I had hoped to create versions emotionally interesting enough that such apparatus wouldn’t be necessary, and my early drafts contained no notes, only the poets’ names and dates. My readers rebelled. They almost unanimously wanted something more, if only brief biographical sketches. They were right. Some of the poets were prominent historical figures. A few of the poems have references which really did need clarification. And some of the texts have interesting stories behind them. So I complied; my notes contextualizing each poem can be found below the translated text.

In translating, I have set myself two technical constraints. First, I would use the traditional waka form, using English syllable count for the Japanese on (or mora, to use the modern linguistics term). Waka, also known as tanka, with its five uneven phrases, does not lend itself to English without some practice. Most translators don’t try to retain the form, instead writing compressed free verse in five lines. But measuring in syllabics is a regular part of my own poetry practice. I’m intrigued by the possibilities which can come from blending Japanese five-seven measure with English notions of stress and rhythm.  

My second constraint concerns the order of the material within each poem. Arthur Waley, the pioneer translator of Japanese and Chinese, freely shuffles the content of the originals. He demonstrates his practice clearly in the book Japanese Poetry: The ‘Uta. Other translators have followed his lead. But I chose to keep words, images, and ideas in their original order, unless doing so would create something really ugly. I also refrained, for the most part, from using an unusual word when a common term was perfectly serviceable.

John Gribble


In the Classroom