Category Archives: Speaking Engagements

London Lecture – Seeds in the Heart and Leaves of Words

I was in London yesterday at Japan House in Kensington at the invitation of the Japan Foundation to deliver a lecture entitled ‘Seeds in the Heart and Leaves of Words: Traditional Japanese Poetry Beyond the Haiku’.

I enjoy talking about waka, of course, but it’s always nerve-wracking speaking before an unfamiliar audience in public. There were a total of sixty-five attendees, who listened politely to what I had to say, and asked a number of good questions at the end.


Poetry has been a part of Japanese life for more than a millennium, with the first major anthology of waka – poems in Japanese – compiled in the late eighth century. Later, it was to become an essential part of life for the aristocrats of the new capital city of Heian-kyō – modern Kyoto – and through their production and patronage exert a profound influence on almost all aspects of Japan’s cultural life, as warlords, warriors and merchants sought the social status and approval that came with the composition of poetry. Images from waka were used in painting, on clothing, and utensils of various kinds. Waka topics influenced which plants and animals were cherished, and which were not and subtly shaped Japan’s ideas of itself as a nation and people. Indeed, the influence of waka has been so pervasive and enduring that it’s possible to say without an understanding of waka, you don’t really understand Japan.

This lecture traces the development of waka from its early beginnings as a tool for communication and social relationships among the elite nobility, through its role in providing a ritual underpinning to the aristocratic state, and its development into an arena of critical and literary conflict between factions determined to maintain and promote their views of appropriate poetic style, leading eventually to the development of new poetic form such as the haiku. It reveals how and why waka thrived, and how its topics and the emotions associated with them came to express many of the attitudes which are considered quintessentially Japanese.

Los Angeles Book Launch – The Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds

UCLA Guesthouse

The final stop on my short book tour was at the University of California: Los Angeles, where I was able to relax in the pleasant surroundings of the UCLA Guesthouse, before going on to deliver a presentation on the translation process and critical conflict in the Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds.


As with the other talks on this trip, it was a pleasure to meet fellow premodernists, both young and old, and the discussions of the work after I finished speaking were both stimulating and informative. It was great to hear about the exciting research being pursued by graduate students in premodern Japanese Studies at UCLA, and I look forward to hearing more about their research in future conferences and meetings.

Lecture – University of Southern California

USC Campus

As part of my book tour last week, I visited the University of Southern California, and was able to give a lecture to their students about Japanese waka poetry. It’s early in the semester there, and so the students were only two or three weeks in to their module on Heian Japan. I hope I was able to convey the joys of waka to them – it’s nerve wracking to think that if I got it wrong, I could have put them off the subject. On the other hand, I’m envious of them to some extent – as they are just starting off on their engagement with premodern Japan, there are so many wonderful things to read and learn about in their future!

I started off with the wonderful account in Tosa nikki (‘The Tosa Diary’) of a provincial noble’s attempt to recite a self-composed poem to Ki no Tsurayuki and his party, and the way in which the aristocrats from the capital mock his efforts.

Before going on to talk about Heian-kyō (Kyoto) as an imagined literary space for poetic production, among many other things in the course of about an hour’s talk. At the end, at least I did get a round of applause!

And if you want to hear a short clip from my lecture, click on the link below to see a short video!

Prof. Tom McAuley, Lecturer in Japanese Studies from the University of Sheffield

A short clip from Prof. Tom McAuley's (University of Sheffield) talk on "waka," or Japanese poetry.

Posted by USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture on Friday, 31 January 2020

Vancouver Book Launch – The Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds

UBC Asian Studies Department

Last week I was able to visit the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (for less than twenty-four hours) and talk about the translation of Roppyakuban uta’awase. The UBC Asian Studies Department (pictured above) formed an appropriate backdrop to talk about premodern Japanese poetry, and it was a pleasure and a privilege to address an eclectic audience of fellow Asian Studies scholars and students, poets and others merely interested in hearing about the work. The discussions afterward were both stimulating and informative.

I can heartily recommend a visit to the beatiful campus at UBC (despite the rain during my visit), and the department of Asian Studies is fortunate to have the Nitobe Memorial Garden right next door, allowing for an escape from the stresses of scholarly life from time to time to enjoy the beauties of nature. I can certainly say that on stepping through the gates, it’s like taking a step into a formal garden in Japan.

Nitobe Memorial Garden

Research Seminar – University of Southern California

As part of a short book tour to launch the Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds, I’ll be giving a presentation on Thursday, 30th January, between 4:00-5:30 at the University of Southern California.

Confusion over Cathay: Attitudes to Chinese Material in Mediaeval Japanese Poetic Criticism


The complex nature of premodern Japanese literary production, and Japanese writers’ use of a continuum of scripts and languages, ranging from pure Japanese to pure Chinese, depending upon the genre, purpose and audience of their writing, is well known, however, little attention has yet been paid to the critical attitudes displayed by judges and participants to the use of Chinese material in the composition of waka poems presented for competitive consideration in uta’awase (poetry competitions). Given the importance of uta’awase as both arenas for critical discussion and conflict, and also as events which were considered to set the standards for good composition, this means that one of the major influences upon attitudes to the use of Sinitic material in literary production remains unexplored.

Thus, this paper will present preliminary conclusions from an ongoing research project investigating the early mediaeval poetry competition, Roppyakuban uta’awase (‘Poetry Contest in 600 Rounds’, 1193-94) and the conflicting critical attitudes to material of Chinese origin expressed by the judge, Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204), and one of the participants, the monk Kenshō (1130?-1209?), who composed an extensive Chinjō (‘Appeal’) against Shunzei’s criticisms of his work. Roppyakuban uta’awase, its judgements and appeal are significant in this respect as the competition is the largest judged by a single individual, Shunzei, the most significant and influential poet of his age, while Kenshō’s Chinjō, by virtue of its length and complexity, strongly resembles a work of poetics in its own right. Evidence  exists for the competition’s influence on judgements in subsequent poetry competitions, and so it would be logical for its effects to be felt in other areas, too.

This paper will address the two poets’ conflict in the following areas: use of Chinese vocabulary in waka composition; intertextual references to kanshi (Chinese poems) whether composed in Japan or China; and intertextual references to other Chinese literary-historical sources. A preliminary analysis of their statements has revealed that they: vary between criticising the use of Sinitic vocabulary as unsuitable or accepting it; are equivocal about overly Sinitic topics; praise identifiably Sinitic inspiration for waka composition; and alternately praise and criticise reference to Sinitic sources as evidence for critical positions on other waka in the competition.

For further details, see here and you can download a flyer here!

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.