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The Year’s First Poetry Gathering Ceremony

On January 19th, the “Utakaihajimë no Gi”, or “Year’s First Poetry Gathering Ceremony”, was held at the Imperial Palace. This is an annual event, and while it has changed substantially its roots go back at least seven centuries. The core is that the Tennō sets a topic, people compose traditional 31-syllable waka poems on that topic, and those poems are declaimed in the presence of the Tennō. The details of the topic, who gets to compose, and how the poems are declaimed have changed a great deal, but the basic idea is still the same.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in the early years of the Meiji Period, the event was opened up, so that anyone could submit a poem. After the war, the nature of the topic was changed to make it more accessible. These days, the Tennō chooses a single kanji, and the waka must incorporate that kanji. They can do in any way at all, which means that the barrier is not high. To submit a poem, you must write it out personally, by hand with a brush, on Japanese calligraphy paper. If you can’t write by hand, you can have someone do it for you or use a word processor, and if you are blind you can submit in braille. If you are outside Japan, you do not need to use Japanese calligraphy paper, but the paper must be the right size. The submission deadline is the end of September the previous year.

For this year, over 15,000 people submitted waka, with several dozen from outside Japan. From these, ten waka are chosen to be read out at the gathering, and their authors are invited to attend. The Tennō also invites half a dozen people (I imagine known poets, but that is a cultural area I do not know that well) to submit poems. I should think you could turn these invitations down, but the people who are likely to be asked are very unlikely to do so. Finally, all adult members of the Imperial Family are strongly encouraged to compose poems for the event. Princess Akiko wrote an article about this late last year, and suggested that she couldn’t really decline — although there is support available from poets.

This year, one of the ten selected authors did seriously consider turning down the invitation to attend the event, because she works for a local authority in the Noto Peninsula, the area hit by the January 1st earthquake. However, her boss told her to go, because the area needed some good news, and apparently it did make the local newspapers and radio. One of the other nine lives in California, and I do not know whether she was able to attend. The oldest selected person was 88, the youngest 17, and this is fairly normal — I think they deliberately choose at least one person who is still at school.

So, why am I writing about this? Well, it was the entire front page of the January 29th issue of Jinja Shinpō, and the topic of the editorial on page two. The January 1st issue had a long article about it to mark 150 years since submissions were opened to the entire world. Why did they write about it? There is no deep connection to Shinto, although Princess Akiko’s poem this year was inspired by a Shinto matsuri. The January 1st article concentrated on people with connections to jinja who had been selected, and it was not a large number.

There are, I think, two reasons. One is that it is an important event in the Tennō’s annual calendar, and such events always get articles. The second is that the Shinto community does not see Shinto as clearly distinct from the rest of traditional Japanese culture, particularly parts like waka that are associated with the kami. (Susano’o is the legendary author of the first waka. Warrior-poets go all the way back in Japan.)

The broader interests of the Shinto establishment mean that Jinja Shinpō often carries articles on slightly surprising topics.

I have a Patreon, where people join as paid members to receive an in-depth essay on some aspect of Shinto every month, or as free members to receive notifications of updates to this blog. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

3 thoughts on “The Year’s First Poetry Gathering Ceremony”

  1. At some point in the Meiji period the Utakaihajimë were co-sponsored by the Jingū Hōsankai, although I can’t remember the exact relation off the top of my head. There was definitely a link between poetry writing and kokugaku that persisted as kokugaku was toned down into the daily ritual work of Meiji Shinto.

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