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‘A Mirror it does Seem’

As part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind 2022, I have worked with two local artists on a project entitled A Mirror it does Seem. You can view the artwork produced for this project in the Futurecade exhibition, in Sheffield’s Millenium Gallery, 15-25 September 2022. I’ll also be giving a public talk on it at the Spiegeltent, at 2:00 p.m. on 16 September 2022.

This project is a collaborative artistic response by contemporary artists Alison Churchill and Roanna Wells to the theme of the moon reflected on water as expressed in three premodern Japanese poems, integrating their individual practices to combine both moving light and the stillness of watercolours into a new work. It was inspired by my work on premodern Japanese poetry and poetic criticism. Below, I provide some background on the poetry and the society and culture which produced it, while Roanna and Alison will discuss their collaboration and other work.

The term ‘premodern Japan’ obviously encompasses many centuries, but the period I’m most interested in runs from about 900-1200 when Japan was largely peaceful and its ruling nobility had settled in the city of Heian-kyō (modern day Kyoto) around the court of the emperor.

This was a time of significant cultural development in Japan, not least in literature and in poetry, in particular, because the writing and appreciation of poetry was an integral part of aristocratic life. Everyone in the nobility wrote poetry—in fact, it’s not going too far to say that you couldn’t be a functioning aristocrat without the ability to compose a verse when needed. There’s not really a modern English equivalent, but it would be like being a member of the upper classes in Jane Austen’s time and being unable to dance—you would be a strange figure of fun and ridicule, and not get invited to any parties.

I digress slightly, but there’s an actual example of such an individual mentioned in the writings of the time: Tachibana no Norimitsu (965-?). Norimitsu was by all accounts quite dashing—a number of sources tell the story of how he was able to kill three robbers in a swordfight (you can read my translation of one of these stories here)—but he is also known to have had a relationship with Sei Shōnagon (ca. 966-1017/1025) a court lady and the author of one of the most famous accounts of court life, Makura no sōshi (‘The Pillow Book’). Sei describes the end of their relationship in her book and portrays Norimitsu as a buffoon as he is unable to respond properly to any of her verses, and even refuses to do so!

Nobles used poetry for both describing the natural world and their feelings about it, and also their emotions in response to life events like births, deaths, travelling and, of course, falling in love and out of it. An individual was not free to compose about anything any way he or she liked, however—there were rules about what topics were suitable for poetic composition, about which emotions should be expressed depending upon the topic, and what words could and could not be used in poetry. There was also only one form for acceptable poetry: the waka, a short verse in a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.

The topic of our project, the moon and its reflection in water, was associated with autumn—the best night of the year for viewing it was believed to be the 15th day of the Eighth lunar month (around mid-September)—just when the Festival of the Mind is taking place. At this time of year, aristocrats would gather together, either at their estates, or at places where it was known the moon looked particularly beautiful, and enjoy the sight in each other’s company, composing poems as they did so. One just one such occasion:

When he had first gone to the residence of the former Regent and Rokujō Minister, and people were composing on the conception of long clear pond waters.


kotoshi dani
kagami to miyuru
ikemizu no
chiyo hete sumamu
kage zo yukashiki
Especially this year
A mirror it does seem:
This pond water –
Clear through the passage of a thousand ages,
How I long for its light!

Fujiwara no Norinaga (ca. 993-?)

(Translated by Thomas McAuley © )

Poems were exchanged between friends and lovers, sent to superiors, were written for recitation at functions held at court and the mansions of the senior nobility, and also to accompany artworks on the screens which were used for decorating aristocratic dwellings. So, there has been a long association between waka and artwork, making this project a continuation of this centuries old relationship.

Waka were also collected into anthologies so they could be passed down to individuals’ descendants as a social and cultural inheritance. Of course, in order to decide which poems were worth preserving, critical poetic standards had to be developed, and the formal criticism of poetry became increasingly important from the mid-eleventh century. One of the most important venues in which poetry was criticised was the poetry competition (uta’awase), where poets would present their work and have it criticised and judged by experts (for more information on uta’awase, see here).

Possibly the single most famous such contest, and certainly the largest judged by a single person is Roppyakuban uta’awase (‘Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’; 1193-94), my translation and commentary of which has recently been published (if you want to hear me talk about poetry contests, Roppyakuban uta’awase and the translation, watch the video, below:

One of the one hundred topics covered in this contest was ‘The View over Hirosawa Pond’ (hirosawa no ike no chōbō). This view was, of course, of the moon. The pond is still there in the north-west of Kyoto, and you can see some pictures of it (in spring, not autumn) here.

Two of the poems composed on this topic for the contest were:

Left (Tie)


ato wa hikari ni
tsuki koso furine
hirosawa no ike
Traces of light
Remain, and yet
The moon shows no sign of age
Above Hirosawa Pond.

Fujiwara no Sada’ie (1162-1241)



kuma mo naku
tsuki sumu yowa wa
hirosawa no
ike wa sora ni zo
hitotsu narikeru
Completely full
The moon is clear at midnight:
Pond and the heavens
Have become as one.

Fujiwara no Tsune’ie (1149-1209)

The Right state: we wonder about the appropriateness of ‘light remain’ (hikari ni nokoru) followed by ‘the moon shows no sign of age’ (tsuki koso furine)? These expressions are too similar in meaning to be used so close together. The poem also lacks any conception of a person doing the  ‘Viewing’. The Gentlemen of the Left state: the Right’s poem has no faults.

Shunzei’s judgement: on the Left’s poem, I do not strongly feel that the expressions ‘traces of light’ (ato wa hikari ni) and ‘the moon shows no sign of age’ (tsuki koso furine) are particularly bad, but the gentlemen of the Right have identified them both as faults. As for the Right’s poem, I do not feel that there is much sense of a person viewing the scene in expressions such as, ‘pond and the heavens’ (ike wa sora ni zo), and the frequency of wa in tsuki sumu yowa wa, and ike wa, means the poem’s overall impression is poor; it is truly unfortunate that I cannot declare the Left, which lacks a sense of a View, the winner.

(McAuley, Thomas E. (2020) The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds: A Translation and Commentary. Leiden: Brill: pp.392-93)

Whether or not you agree with Shunzei and the participants’ opinion of the poems, it is these which inspired Roanna and Alison to collaborate in creating the artwork for this exhibition, which they discuss below.

Roanna Wells’ work involves a meditative process of repetitive mark making and often conveys a quiet but deep introspection expressed through simplicity of colour and pattern.  The series created for this project gives a visual sense of the moon being reflected in water, but also touches on the idea of personal reflection and themes of self-exploration, growth and change.

Alison Churchill makes work in response to the mesmerising and constantly changing light patterns and reflections on Sheffield’s ponds, millraces and rivers.  In this project she floods Wells’ meditative moon paintings with water patterns, and suspends the poems in translucent and reflective surfaces.

Gazing at light effects on water is a timeless activity, invoking inner reflection.  This exhibit aims to create a contemplative space dissolving historical and cultural boundaries, inviting viewers to connect with the hearts and minds of the Waka poets — and possibly inspiring them to write poems of their own.

To find out more about Roanna and Alison’s work, see their websites:

See some pictures of the final project here, and see a short video below:

Waka Instagram

I’ve decided to branch out and expand my social media activities with the addition of an Instagram account for selected waka translations, where I have suitable images to go with them. You can find the account under the name @utadokoro – (I went through a whole load of waka-related terms before I found one which wasn’t taken!) – and I’ve embedded the first post below. Check it out and follow it if you’re interested! There are only a few posts so far, but I will add more as the mood takes me.

Exploring Premodern Japan YouTube Video

Here’s an interview I recorded for the Exploring Premodern Japan YouTube channel, on premodern Japanese poetry contests (uta’awase 歌合) and my experience in translating Roppyakuban uta’awase 六百番歌合 (‘The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’). Make sure to watch to the end, where you can hear two of the waka being formally recited to get a sense of how the audience in the competition would have heard them.

New Article: The Power of Translation: issues in the translation of premodern Japanese waka

Waseda RILAS Journal Cover

I have just had a new article published, The Power of Translation: issues in the translation of premodern Japanese waka which is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Waseda University last year.

The abstract of the article is:

This article examines the translation of the premodern Japanese thirty-one syllable poetic form known as waka. Set against the context of current scholarly work in Translation Studies on the practices and processes involved in the translation of poetry, as well as constraints imposed by the current nature of many waka as literary works which have been subject to a centuries-long process of canonization, it analyses the challenges posed by the poems to the translator in the following areas: first, form and identification, covering differing solutions to the lineation of waka translations. Second, the use of poetic diction in multiple poems, and the consequences of different solutions to this issue, considering the identity of many waka as elements in longer poetic sequences. Third, use of poetic metalanguage such as utamakura and makura kotoba; and finally, intertextuality, both in the form of references to earlier poems (honkadori) and to other literary sources. The author’s solutions to these issues in the course of his recent translation of Roppyakuban uta’awase (‘The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds’; 1193-94) is compared with those adopted by other waka translators as a way of demonstrating the consequences which flow from the adoption of particular translation solutions to these issues.

Waseda RILAS Journal is open access, so anyone can read its contents, and I am in good company in this issue, because there are also the following other poetry-related articles, which emerged as a result of the symposium:

Machiko Midorikawa, The Power of Translation (In Japanese)

Janine Beichman, Yosano Akiko’s Princess Saho and its Multiple Speakers

Loren Waller, Echoes of Sight and Sound: Reflections on translation from a Hon’yaku awase

Andrew Houwen, Shasei and Modern Tanka: A Comparison of Masaoka Shiki and Tsukamoto Kunio

Shiho Takai, Students Translate Poetry: Preparing for the Workshop “Translation Contest” (In 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!

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.