When the Samurai class was established as the ruling caste in Japan at the beginning of the 18th century the warriors were required to educate themselves in practical administration. This included literary skills, culture in general and some familiarity with law. The Samurai had been, even in the early days of the 13th century, relatively literate, compared to the often unlettered Knights and even Kings of the West.

It was traditional for some of them to take part in poetry competitions, though of a rather special kind. In an ordinary poetry contest there are two or three winners so to say, and some in the second rank, as judged by the expert arbiters. These last were often famous poets, but in any case critics of some standing.

However, such a result would not perhaps be satisfactory in the case of Warriors intensely conscious of what they call their ‘Honour’. The loser in a horse race had been known to attack the winner. Even when passing each other in the street, if the tip of one’s scabbard should happen to touch the scabbard of another Samurai it could be taken as an insult leading to a dual.

The organizers of Samurai poetry contests had to devise some way of giving merit or de-merit to each poem without putting most of the contestants in a relatively low category, with just a few enjoying triumph. They devised a system under which each poet’s verse was either a winner or loser, and yet none of them felt absolutely superior or inferior in the contest.

The poems and the poets were divided into two sides, L and R. The proceedings began with a poem on the assigned theme by a poet of the Left; this was read out by his team leader, who might add a word or two in support of it. Then a poem from the Right was read in similar style. Then each pair of poems was considered by the judges and one was declared superior and one the lesser. The judges gave their reasons in each case.

No Samurai felt humiliated even if his poem lost because there was no absolute judgement about the whole contest. Perhaps his verse had lost to the finest verse in the whole collection. Nothing was stated as to this. He might be the second best poet there. And in the same way the winner could not become too over-bearing because it might be, that he was the second worst poet there. So nobody’s honour was touched by the result – good or bad.

I have looked up the records of one or two of these competitions. The judges’ comments are surprisingly frank: one line which referred to a classical Chinese mountain was criticized as being ‘artificial and a little pedantic’. Another comment was to the effect that a poem had put out leaves, but not flowers. In fact many of the comments by the judges were on the negative side. It is believed that the harshness of criticism did raise the level of poetic achievement. In the 12th century the uta-awase or poetry contest was one of the main forms of entertainment. It is especially noteworthy that the poems were judged by being spoken aloud, and not in written form. This meant that the language had to be kept simple, with few Sino-Japanese compounds that are often ambiguous when spoken. The poems could thus be understood and appreciated by ordinary people, not simply by cultivated courtiers. This strain of elegant simplicity and austerity runs through much of Japanese traditional culture, which is correspondingly inexpensive and could thus percolate down to the relatively poor members of society.

The honour in which a good poet was held is reflected in an historical incident. A castle was under siege and the attackers were going to mount simultaneous assaults on the four gates. But their commander discovered that one of the defenders at the south gate was a famous poet. He gave orders that the attack on the south gate should be only a sham affair so that the poet would not be killed. However it should be added that in a similar case where, an attacker had hinted that a particularly talented Samurai defender should not be killed; the man in question by chance discovered this. Before the battle began he dressed in brilliant colours with his family crest prominent and charged out at the head of his men to meet the attackers. They had to cut him down, but it is good to record that his opposing commander wrote a poem commending his heroism.

© 2000 Trevor Leggett

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