1: Waka box

The first object is a wooden box containing workbooks in an old form of Japanese, gifted by the Emperor Hirohito after his visit to Eton in 1921.


Black lacquer box containing Japanese verse in College Library

This Japanese lacquer wood box contains handwritten books of Japanese poetry with the whole of the Nijuuichidaishuu, or the 21 Great Collections, written on them.

This is the greatest Imperial anthology of waka, which is a type of court poetry written in 5-7-5-7-7 metre. Not only is waka the oldest genre of Japanese poetry, and the only one to be continuously practiced through the last 1200 years, it has also been revered as a unique expression of ‘Japaneseness’ and commands an unmatched historical and cultural relevance, and has influenced other Japanese art forms since 900 AD.


The first Imperially commissioned waka anthology, the Kokinshu, was published in 905 AD in the Heian Period and marked out this native 31 syllable poetic form as a departure from the influence of Chinese poetry. The latter half of the Heian period (794-1185) then saw the production of six Imperial anthologies of waka and two classic texts shaped by waka, The Tale of Ise and The Tale of Genji, both of which contained many waka and depicted court life.

During this era of Imperial Court rule, familiarity with waka was required for anyone with political aspirations as poetry gatherings and competitions were an essential part of the ceremonies and networking at the court.

In the Kamakura period which followed the Heian, the Shogun warrior elite became de facto rulers, and the role of the court was diminished.

The Shoguns also compiled waka anthologies, and even on one occasion demanded the removal of 100 poems from an anthology; not because they were bad poems, but because they were by their enemies!

After the Imperial anthologies stopped being produced, Japan was rocked by civil wars for 130 years. The interplay between old and new was being played out in the spheres of culture (courtly and warrior), politics (the imperial court, the various shogunates, e.g. the Toyotomi, the Tokugawa) and geography (Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo), Urban and regional). Conflict continued until the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu ended up establishing the comparatively peaceful Edo Period in 1603.

The last Imperial anthology was compiled in 1439 and foreshadowed the court’s waning influence. However, the practice of compiling imperial anthologies was replaced by the practice of secret transmissions which had the same result of keeping authority within the aristocracy and reinforced the prestige of waka.

Even after the last anthology, the social network centered in Kyoto which connected the elite courtiers, monks, warriors and townspeople spread waka to regional and rural areas through the use of waka in art.

By Chris Thorn (KS)

Here are some examples of waka:



From when the flowers first bloom,

The world of spring endures,

With its everlasting colours.

By Ki no Tsurayaki Kokinshu XVII: 931



I see a waterfowl on the water from afar,

I too float through this world.

By Murasaki Shikibu Senzaishu VI: 430



I do not await the new year,

Yet it comes;

Winter plants have withered,

And my friend has not come.

By Mitsune Kokinshu VI:338