During the Edo period, everyone knew the Hyakunin Isshu (100 Poems by 100 Poets) by heart and was raised to memorize it through exposure to the poems from an early age. Numerous copies of the anthology with illustrations of the poets were published, forming a major subgenre of educational books for young children (ōraimono). Various parodies called Dōke Hyakunin Isshu aimed at children were also published, assuming familiarity with the anthology in their young readers. It became a motif in karuta, a matching card game, as well as Japanese board games (sugoroku) and fortune-telling. Hyakunin Isshu was common knowledge in Edo society.
Students today are surprised by the level of cultural sophistication and people’s eagerness to learn during the Edo period. The society’s widespread knowledge of a classic compiled hundreds of years earlier is certainly impressive. This modern reaction of awe is inevitable in light of students’ bitter high school memories of forced memorization and their vague recollection of the anthology today. In other words, it is rooted in our modern-day association of the Hyakunin Isshu with “study.” During the Edo period, however, the anthology was not hammered into children’s heads as part of their “studies.” It was something each child picked up naturally in the course of everyday life. Education in the Hyakunin Isshu was different from the “reading, writing, and arithmetic” style of education taught in temple schools (teraoka), where students learned skills needed to function in society. If anything, the fact that the anthology was left to natural learning should be taken as a sign of how compelling it was—so compelling that it could not be entrusted to formal instruction.
There have been numerous stories extolling the virtues of poetry since ancient times. In just 31 syllables, couples reunite and servants are forgiven for their mistakes. The kana preface to the Kokin Wakashū (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry) states that “every living creature sings.” In other words, everything born into this world recites poetry (“sings”); our mutual ability to recite poetry and resonate with it is part of what defines us as inhabitants of the earth. This resonance “moves heaven and earth” and “stirs emotions in the invisible spirits and gods.” Once the heaven and earth and the spirits and gods resonate with our poetry, they become part of our world too.
During the Edo period, efforts were made to establish long-lasting peaceful relations at every level of society, from the home to the village, city and nation. Mutual respect and an avoidance of sticking out formed the foundation of these efforts. Compromise was valued over logical argument, and making mutual concessions to avoid friction was considered virtuous. It seems that poetry and its universally familiar rhythm functioned significantly as a device for promoting peace in fairly inconspicuous ways in this age of establishing peace through empathy and agreement. The seven-five syllable pattern was the greatest common factor among the members of society, with their shared capacity for resonance. The Hyakunin Isshu could serve as a convenient model as well as an authority to rely on. The haikai and dodoitsu genres of poetry came into vogue during this time because of how widespread this rhythm was throughout Japanese society.
In our modern era, the classics have long been removed from our everyday world, relegated to the world of “study.” Even so, we remain in the grip of the seven-five syllable pattern. The sensibility and mentality of the Edo period still live deep inside each one of us.
Modern Japanese song lyrics illustrate this point . “A-na-ta ka-wa-ri wa na-i de-su ka / Hi-go-to sa-mu-sa ga tsu-no-ri-ma-su” (How have you been, my dear? / The days are growing colder) (Kita no Yadokara (From an Inn in the North), lyrics by Yu Aku). “O-sa-ke wa nu-ru-me no kan ga i-i / Sa-ka-na wa a-but-ta i-ka de i-i” (I like my sake lukewarm / With grilled squid on the side” (Funauta(Boatman’s Song), lyrics also by Yu Aku). We have a soft spot for the seven-five rhythm. We have no choice but to empathize the repetition of the rhythm. We become emotionally invested in the woman knitting a sweater for a man in the cold (Kita no Yadokara) and want to savor lukewarm sake in silence like the boatman (Funauta). We easily get carried away by rhythm.
Regular, a comedy duo affiliated with Yoshimoto Kogyo, has a signature gag called “Aru-aru Tankentai” (“The ‘It Happens’ Expedition”) in which they arrange snippets from everyday life into seven-five (twelve) syllable lines like “Hi-to ni ha-na-u-ta nu-su-ma-re-ru” (That time when someone steals the song you were humming) or “Kan-de-ta su-ru-me o mi-se-ra-re-ru” (When someone shows you the dried squid they’ve been chewing). The seven-five pattern compels us to empathize with them (I once pointed out elsewhere that this was the shortest form of short-verse literature in history). Sometimes, when I laugh despite the uncomfortable feeling produced by a blatantly far-fetched (“That never happens!”) example thrown into the mix, I realize I have been carried away by the seven-five rhythm (Matsumoto and Nishikawa, sometimes I wonder about you guys…).
If you can empathize with my experience, I think you will agree that the cultural elements cultivated up through the Edo period remain firmly planted within us. The fact that the peace of the Edo period lies at our feet may come as a great sense of relief.
However, our war songs—without exception—also followed the seven-five syllable meter, as did our wartime slogans. We must never forget that this deeply-penetrating, irresistible, resonant device and the things that have preserved it act like a siren call causing people to abandon sound judgment and disregard feelings of discomfort, and have played a role in leading our country to a tragic end in Japan’s recent past. We cannot forget the things we have difficulty remembering.