Posts Tagged ‘Peter MacMillan’

A Japanese Poetry “Slam” in English

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Ready to whack a waka?

A new game gets children and adults doing just that!

The waka is a classical poetry form that predates haiku by nearly a thousand years. Poems in the form have a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7 in Japanese.

The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is a centuries-old collection of a hundred waka by different poets, compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). During the Edo Period (1603-1868), this collection begot a popular game in which a reader chants each waka, and two players vie to be the first to slap a card printed with only the waka’s last two lines. The object is to slap and get rid of all the cards on one’s own side; winning requires not only knowing the poems, but also memorizing card placement and avoiding penalties for mis-slaps.

At advanced levels, Hyakunin Isshu karuta—or karuta, cards—is a sport of sharp listening, lightning-fast movement, and “reading” one’s opponent as well as the cards. The official game in Japan features player rankings, mastery levels, and tournaments; the top tournament, held at New Year’s time, decides male and female national champions.

High schools may also field karuta teams for group competition, as dramatized in a teen manga series—and movies, anime and novels—called Chihayafuru. The first 17 volumes of the manga by Yuki Suetsugu are out in English translation by Ko Ransom, published by Kodansha Comics.

A montage of scenes from the Chihayafuru movies (Toho Co., Ltd.)

Now Peter MacMillan, translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Hyakunin Isshu, has developed an English version of the card game, illustrated by Yasushi Yokoiyama and manufactured by Kawada, makers of the Nanoblock®. MacMillan’s game soft-launched at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, which hosted a mini high school tournament in January 2017.

After hearing MacMillan speak this month at Japan Writers Conference 2019, I asked my husband and our daughters, aged 8 and 11, to try the English game at home. It was a hit! (Pun intended.)

Being familiar with the Japanese version of the game thanks to Chihayafuru, my family couldn’t help but notice a few differences. The cards in English are horizontal, not vertical. They feature illustrations of the poems, while the original playing cards show only words. In addition, the Whack a Waka cards feature modern English renderings of poems that we were used to hearing in classical Japanese, which confused us at times.

On the other hand, the translations helped us better understand the meanings of many poems. And as in Japanese, the game provided an active, engaging way to share poetry together. The girls especially loved it when my husband and I squared off in the game and “sent” romantic waka to each other (“sending” happens when a player slaps a card on the other person’s side and then gets to pass away one of their own).

Privately, I enjoyed knowing that the girls were learning aspects of Japanese aesthetics—such as evanescence, exemplified by references to falling cherry blossoms—without us saying a word. MacMillan’s prize-winning literary translations made for a game refreshingly different than Uno, Guess Who? or Yahtzee.

If you’re looking for an unusual gift this holiday season, Whack a Waka may be right! If you’re giving it to a devoted reader, also include the anthology for quiet contemplation. Some poems take on a new life on the page, where they can occupy more than the five lines allowed on the cards.

Peter MacMillan shows his twenty-five line translation of the waka Ashibiki no by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (662-710), which refers to the long tail of the copper pheasant. Japan Writers Conference 2019, Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo.

See also SCBWI Japan at the Japan Writers Conference.