Seasons of the Soul: Waka Poetry and the Shaping of Japanese Culture

I recently gave an online lecture as part of Cardiff University’s Japanese Studies lecture series, entitled Seasons of the Soul: Waka Poetry and the Shaping of Japanese Culture.

Cherry blossoms in spring, scarlet maple leaves in autumn, the singing of cicadas in summer and gentle snowfall in winter: all these images have been used and reused countless times in Japanese media ranging from tourist information videos to the latest anime production, to say nothing of how these and similar seasonal symbols appear on menus, in shops and ticket offices throughout Japan to mark the progress of the year. To a great extent, these images define and describe modern Japan, and yet all ultimately derive from the conventional images developed for use in waka poetry in the 8th through 12th centuries by the aristocrats in the early capitals of Nara and Heian-kyō (Kyoto).

This lecture traced the development of waka from its earliest beginnings through its use as an elegant and refined form of social communication between members of the nobility that, nevertheless, could be utilised for nakedly political purposes, and its final maturity as a literary form which was to dominate Japanese high culture, and stimulate low culture, long after the society which produced it had ceased to exist. It will discuss how poetry was produced, critiqued and preserved for later generations in a range of anthologies and other texts, and how, even today, the cultural cachet of waka continues to be leveraged by localities throughout Japan through the establishment and promotion of botanical gardens dedicated to display the plants mentioned in Japan’s earliest waka anthology, Man’yōshū.

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