Category Archives: News

New Article – A fine thing for the way: evidence, counter-evidence and argument in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds

For anyone interested in reading more about the poetic and critical practice in Roppyakuban uta’awase, take a look at my new article in Japan Forum, entitled ‘A fine thing for the way: evidence, counter-evidence and argument in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds‘.


This article discusses the types of evidence used to support the critical positions taken by Fujiwara no Shunzei and the monk Kenshō in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds (Roppyakuban uta’awase; 1193–1194). As the largest extant poetry competition judged by a single individual, Shunzei, the Roppyakuban uta’awase illustrates a wide range of compositional practice. It also provides a substantial body of practical waka criticism: by Shunzei in his role as judge, by the participants in their comments on their opponents’ poems, and by Kenshō in his ‘Appeal’ (Chinjō) against Shunzei’s judgements. Analysis of this critical discussion reveals that unusually, both Kenshō and Shunzei use testimonial evidence from informants to support their critical positions, and Kenshō even utilises his own scholarship and poetic writing, in addition to the expected citation of prior poetry and poetic scholarship by poets of previous generations. Though Shunzei limits his testimony to that from members of the court nobility, Kenshō frequently supports his arguments with evidence from members of the peasantry, revealing that the opinions and views of the lower social classes could be given weight in the critical discussions of waka poets at the end of the twelfth century.

Sheffield Book Launch – The Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds

There will be a book launch for my translation of the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds taking place in Sheffield on 10 December 2019. The event is free and open to the public, but prior registration is necessary. To register, please use the link below.

Cover of the Poetry Competition in 600 Rounds book

The monumental ‘Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’ (Roppyakuban uta’awase) (1193-94) is one of the key texts for understanding poetic and critical practice in late twelfth century Japan, and the conflict between conservative and innovative poets which was to play out in the following decades. For the contest, twelve poets each provided one hundred waka poems, fifty on seasonal topics and fifty on love, which were matched, critiqued by the participants and judged by Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204), the premiere poet of his age. The competition’s critical importance is heightened by the addition of a lengthy ‘Appeal’ (chinjō) against Shunzei’s judgements by the conservative poet and monk, Kenshō (1130?-1209?). It is this combination of poetry, criticism, judgements and appeal that made the competition so significant and ensured that it had a lasting influence on the subsequent assessment of poetry in later competitions by other judges and critics.

As the culmination of a ten-year project, the Contest and Appeal are being published for the first time in complete English translation with detailed accompanying commentary and explanatory notes by Dr Thomas E. McAuley, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. (McAuley, T. E. (2020) The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds (2 vols): A Translation and Commentary. Leiden: Brill).

In this Book Launch seminar event, Professor Christina Laffin (University of British Columbia) will set the context of the Contest with a special lecture:

Vernacular, Cosmopolitan, and Poetic Learning in the Age of the Roppyakuban uta’awase
This lecture will consider forms of knowledge and practice that contributed to the late twelfth century production of the Roppyakuban uta’awase (1193-1194), focusing on gender, modes of learning, and literacy. How may we reconstruct the processes of literacy and socialization represented in the writing of vernacular and Sinitic poetry (waka and kanshi) and in what ways did literacy differ based on gender, status, and client-patron relations? New research on Sinitic poetry and prose (kanshi and kanbun) has reimagined the textual terrain of premodern Japan as representing various “entangled modes of literacy” (Guest) which relied on a foundation in kanbun primers and commentaries. But scholars have tended to refrain from considering women as kanbun readers, producers, and annotators based on limited “proof” of such activities in the form of Sinitic texts written by women. I will argue that the problem of women, learning, and literary production in the vernacular and cosmopolitan requires a contextualized approach which accepts plural forms of literacy and considers the particular forms of education and socialization that took place in premodern Japan.

Dr Thomas McAuley will discuss the translation of the Contest and its significance in:

Washed by the waves of Waka Bay: Competitive composition and criticism in early medieval Japan
‘The poems have been so good every round that my brush is drenched with this old man’s tears’. So says Shunzei in his concluding comments to the competition’s poems on the topic of ‘Love and Travel’, but what does this mean in the highly formalised context of a poetry contest (uta’awase), and how should this be conveyed to an audience separated from medieval Japan by a gulf of almost a thousand years? This presentation will commence with a discussion of the key features of waka poetry, the choices confronting the translator in addressing them, and the impact these have on the final product. Informed by this context, it will then move on to outline the bases for the participants’ criticisms of each other’s work, Shunzei’s judgements, and how these were accepted or rejected by Kenshō in his ‘Appeal’. Through this, it will attempt to answer the simple question of what makes a waka ‘good’?

Speaker Biography

Christina Laffin researches classical women’s writings, travel, and social mobility in Japan. At the University of British Columbia she holds the Canada Research Chair in Premodern Japanese Literature and Culture and leads classes on travel and life writing. She has published a book about the medieval poet Nun Abutsu (Rewriting Medieval Japanese Women, Hawai‘i 2013), coedited a bilingual collection on a (Ominameshi, Cornell East Asia Series, 1999), and managed the editing of a multi-volume anthology on Japanese history (Gender and Japanese History, Osaka University Press, 2003). She is currently coediting a textbook on Japanese poetry and translating the world’s first career guide for women, which was completed around the year 1264.

The Power of Translation

Power of Translation Flyer

I’ll be speaking at Waseda University in Tokyo on 15th November 2019 at a workshop on ‘The Power of Translation’. The focus will be on poetry translation, with contributions from me on premodern work, while Janine Beichman will consider approaches to the translation of modern tanka.

There will also be a ‘translation contest’ with yours truly acting as one of the judges!

The event is free and open to the public. All details and contacts are in the flyer, above.

A Visit to Kew

Today, I paid a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in London. My main purpose in going was to visit an exhibition there of Japanese botancical art, Flora Japonica, which has been running at their Shirley Sherwood Gallery. The exhibition ends on 5 March 2017, to be removed to Tokyo, I believe, so it was fortunate timing that I was able to be in London to see it (if you are interested in the contents, I recommend the accompanying catalogue, which is available for sale). Even more fortunate was that today was the day when a guided tour was offered about some of the objects from Kew’s Japanese collection, which are included in the exhibition.

This tour ranged across early accounts of Japan’s botany by the likes of Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) and Philipp von Siebold (1796-1866), pieces of demonstrative lacquerware which were produced in Japan, but exported to Britain to show how the manufacturing process was conducted, and some fascinating illustrated wooden panels – made from the wood of the trees pictured – produced to teach students about botany (if those sound interesting, I’m told that some other examples of them will be included in an upcoming exhibition in Manchester, Object Lessons). The tour was conducted by the knowledgeable Dr Mark Nesbitt, Curator of the Economic Botany Collection, although once it was discovered that I was a Japanese Studies expert, I was asked to add a few comments of my own! I hope that these were interesting to my fellow tour-members – I certainly found it interesting that one of the demonstration lacquer pieces was an illustration of Lady Yūgao from The Tale of Genji, gazing at the flower after which she is named.

As someone interested in Man’yō plants, however, it was a bit disappointing to see so few of them represented, although there were beautiful paintings of the Japanese Snowbell (ego-no-ki) and bush clover (hagi), as well as varieties of maple and wisteria (fuji). It shows, I think, how rare some of these plants have become, or how distant from contemporary Japanese awareness, and just serves to indicate what an important job of preservation the various Man’yō Botanical Gardens across Japan are doing.

After leaving the exhibition and gallery, I went to take a look at Kew’s Japanese Landscape, constructed around its Japanese Gateway. It’s perhaps a bit early in spring to see this at its best, as I noticed the trees were coming into bud, but not bloom yet. Again, as a waka-lover, I felt somewhat mixed feelings on seeing a haiku on display, but no tanka, and again, Man’yō plants in short supply – although its entirely possible I missed some out of ignorance.

Still, that’s not to say there weren’t some beauties present. The blooms here caught my eye, particularly liking the contrast between the white flowers and the brown and green of the bud-cases below them.

Similarly, the tiny splashes of scarlet amongst all the greenery drew my eye to these, although my poor photographic skills do not do them justice.

But for all that, Kew is, of course, a British garden, and it was a pleasure to see the carpets of crocus spread out at the feet of trees, announcing the coming of the new season to all and sundry.

It makes me look forward to seeing the Japanese spring once again, when I visit the country in a few week’s time. While I’m going for work reasons unrelated to poetry, or botany, I’m hoping to spend a few free moments looking at cherry blossom, and thinking of times gone by…

An old and deeply flattering fox

I’ve been reading recently about Imperial Princess Senshi (Nobuko) (964-1035), who was the tenth daughter of Emperor Murakami (926-967; r. 946-967), and his empress Fujiwara no Anshi (Yasuko) (927-964).

Senshi had a tragic start in life in that her mother died giving birth to her, with Eiga monogatari mentioning that as a result ‘the Emperor wept aloud with a frightening lack of restraint, and the Crown Prince grieved in a manner so pathetic that all who saw him were moved to tears’ (McCullough and McCullough, 1980, 86). The death of her father a few years later placed the young princess in a precarious position, too – lacking strong backing from anyone, it was not entirely clear what was supposed to become of her, and so perhaps she may have felt a sense of relief when in 975 the omens indicated that she should be appointed Kamo Virgin, and serve as the emperor’s intermediary at the Kamo Shrine complex in the north of the capital.

The position was a good one for an extraneous imperial princess, as it kept her out of consideration for marriage to a prince or emperor, and there was thus no danger that she might produce a son to challenge the grip on the throne by the offspring of Fujiwara daughters. Senshi seems to have also found it to her liking – so much so that she remained as Kamo Virgin for an unprecedented fifty-seven years, throughout the reigns of five consecutive emperors.

As she grew older, she also developed a reputation for personal sensitivity and cultivation of the literary arts: Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon, the two great chroniclers of life at court in the period, both speak of her respectfully, with Murasaki saying Senshi’s court was ‘a place famous for beautiful moonlit nights, marvellous dawn skies, cherries, and the song of the wood thrush, the High Priestess has always seem most sensitive’, although she describes one of Senshi’s ladies, Chūjō, as ‘odious’ and asks why ‘is it they produce so few poems of any merit?’ (Bowring, 1982, 123). Senshi seems to have taken pains to remain on good terms with members of the leading Fujiwara family, and they, in turn, seem to have warmed to her. Sei Shōnagon describes how she even went so far as to wake her empress, Teishi, up early in the morning so she could have a gift from Senshi as soon as possible, and that when replying, ‘in all her letters and replies to the High Priestess, you could see just how much trouble she took from the number of problems she had with her writing’ (Sei Shōnagon, 2006, 81). Similarly, Ōkagami recounts an occasion when, because Senshi had neglected to bring a gift for a particular young noble, she ‘summoned him before her and having made him stand face to face in front of her, granted him the very overgarment with short sleeves that she was wearing’, something which made Fujiwara no Michinaga remark ‘How very elegant and thoughtful!…Anyone lacking in a sense of elegance would not have been able to think of such a thing!’ (Yamagiwa, 1967, 101). Other nobles, however, were somewhat more cynical, with Fujiwara no Taka’ie saying she was ‘an old and deeply flattering fox! Oh, what cunning!’ (Yamagiwa, 1967, 102). On the other hand, given her potentially precarious social position, perhaps there was nothing wrong with a solitary princess flattering the powerful…


Bowring, Richard (1982), Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McCullough, William H. and McCullough, Helen Craig (1980), A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sei Shōnagon (2006), The Pillow Book, London: Penguin Books.

Yamagiwa, Joseph K. (ed.) (1967), The Ōkagami: A Japanese Historical Tale, London: George, Allen and Unwin.

Seminar: Issues in the Translation of Japanese Poetry

This week, I was invited to contribute to the School of Languages and Cultures Applied Languages Seminar series, which I did with a short talk entitled ‘Issues in the Translation of Japanese poetry’ (you can find a PDF of my PowerPoint here, if you’re interested). It was one of two papers dealing with constraints on translation, but from very different angles – the other looked at constraints on representing repetition in film dialogue in subtitles.

It’s always difficult to know what to say when you have limited time to talk about something complex, to an audience which won’t necessarily know the background, which was why I started by trying to get people to think about what made a good poem in English, and then pointing out how most of the things they came up with were either irrelevant, or actual faults in the type of poetry I was talking about. That allowed a bit of discussion of how to approach the translation of works which are constrained by linguistic, cultural and literary codes for an audience which lacks awareness of any of them.

To make the point accessible, I drew upon my knowledge as a lifelong Star Trek fan to mention the Star Trek The Next Generation episode ‘Darmok‘, where the Enterprise crew encounter a race of people whose language is entirely based on cultural references, making communication – even with the Universal Translator – all but impossible. It’s a similar situation to the frequent use of intertextual references in many premodern Japanese poems: you might understand the words on the surface, but not know why they are being used, or they could be completely opaque – if the poem is referring to a place you know nothing about for instance.

I didn’t come up with any brilliant solutions to the issues, of course, but I hope I gave my audience pause-for-thought. In the Q&A afterwards, I did get asked, ‘Was there any point to them writing these poems, other than to be beautiful?’, though, so at least one person admired the quality!

Kindle books published!

They’ve been a long time in the making, but I now have three books of translated poems available on Amazon Kindle for people who prefer to read their poems offline!

There’s a one thousand poem anthology covering the period from the Man’yōshū in the eighth century to Shinkokinshū at the beginning of the the thirteenth; Fujiwara no Sanekata’s personal collection of three hundred and forty eight poems, and two hyakushu – Hundred Poem Sequences – one by Emperor Gotoba, and one by the monk Keiun.

Check out the details of the books here!

Skylarks, Frogs and River-drenched Robes

I’ll be giving a seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on 22 February 2017. For full details, see below:

Skylarks, Frogs and River-drenched Robes: Reality, Formality and Poetic License in the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds

The ‘Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’ (Roppyakuban uta’awase) (1193-94) is the largest extant Japanese poetry competition judged by a single judge, Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204). Shunzei has been described as the greatest premodern critic of poetry, and  taken together his judgements  in Roppyakuban uta’awase form one of the largest and most detailed statements of critical appreciation of poetry of the time. The value of the competition is increased, however, by the existence of an extensive Chinjō (‘Appeal’) written by one of the participants, Kenshō (?1130-?1209), in which he provides detailed rebuttals of Shunzei’s negative judgements of many of his poems.

Shunzei’s judgements, and Kenshō’s appeals, are based upon differing assessments of the key criteria for uta’awase poetry: adherence to the essential meaning of the set topic, including use of appropriate diction; appropriate formality; and ease of aural apprehension. Consideration these debates, therefore, has much to tell us about the formation of formation of critical opinion, the weight given to different types of evidence, and how aesthetic value was assigned to individual poems.

This paper will consider a number contentious rounds in the competition: Spring II: 18 on Skylarks, Spring III: 22 on Frogs and Love IX: 19 on Love and Clothing. Shunzei, and the opposing team,  are highly critical of Kenshō’s poems in these rounds on the grounds of his understanding of diction, grasp of the topic and resulting lack of formality. Kenshō responds with detailed poetic and real-world evidence to negate these criticisms. Through the interplay between these opposing views we can see the assertion of differing visions of poetic value and quality – visions which would become increasingly entrenched as poetic opinion became increasingly polarised in the thirteenth century.

Date: 22 February 2017

Time: 5:05 PM – 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings
Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

Contact email:

Contact Tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4893