At their most simple, poetry competitions (uta’awase 歌合) were events where poems were compared and appreciated. That simple description, however, hides a complex reality stretching over many centuries, meaning that the term is a ‘catch-all’ expression covering a wide range of social, political, cultural and literary events and texts, where poems were sometimes the main focus, and sometimes not.
Some uta’awase involved poetry specifically composed for an event, the public performance of that poetry before an audience, its discussion and criticism, and finally judgement about its quality according to critical criteria. Other uta’awase took place purely on paper, with a poet or literatus selecting poems from the available canon and pitting them against each other for critical and aesthetic effect; sometimes a poet selected these poems solely from amongst (generally) his own work in order to show its breadth. Some uta’awase took part on the sidelines of other types of matches conducted by the court aristocracy, with the poetry simply providing an additional aesthetic element. Some uta’awase took part between poets, while some took part between nobles who presented poems composed by others. Sometimes men and women took part in uta’awase together; some contests took place between single-sex teams. Sometimes uta’awase were very popular and a large number took place; in other periods they were few and far between.
This wide variety makes the poetry contest an excellent medium for understanding and interrogating the social and cultural evolution of premodern Japan, and premodern Japanese poetry, in particular.
From this page you can follow the evolution of premodern poetry competitions through a series of pages (currently under construction) listing uta’awase by name and date. Links will also take you to page providing more detailed information about individual competitions, including the number of extant poems, sponsors, identifiable participants, and the topics covered. To put these together I have relied mainly upon the following two sources:
Hagitani, Boku. (1963). Heian-chō uta’awase taisei. Tokyo, Dōhōsha.
Shinpen kokka taikan henshū iinkai, Ed. (1987). Shinpen kokka taikan: Vol. 5: Uta’awase hen, kagakusho, monogatari, nikki shūrokuka hen, kashū. Tokyo, Kadokawa Shoten.
See the list of uta’awase taking place before 900.
For a more detailed account of uta’awase see McAuley, Thomas E. (2020) The Poetry Contest in Six Hundred Rounds: A Translation and Commentary. Leiden: Brill (pp.7-9); Ito, S. (1982). “The Muse in Competition: Uta-awase Through the Ages.” Monumenta Nipponica 37(2): 201-222; and McAuley, Thomas E. (Forthcoming). “Poetry Competitions” in Waka Culture. G. Heldt, C. Laffin and G. P. Persiani (eds).