Uta-awase is a contest in which two teams of poets divided into the right and the left sides. Poets in each team create poems, which are compared every match and see whose work is better.
A judge is called Hanja and his statement is called Hanji. This Hanji gradually started to assume literary values and eventually established itself as poetry criticism. Besides Hanja, the uta-awase contest involves Kataudo (a person who submits a poem), and Omoibito (a role to praise and defend his/her own team member's poems). Omoibitos in the right and the left sides engage in a kind of debate, on which is based Hanja's judgment.
Uta-awase dates back to the Heian period. The oldest uta-awase recorded in a document is the Zaiminbukyo-ke Uta-awase (Uta-awase held at Minbusho, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, during ARIWARA no Yukihira's service as the administrator) held in 885. Other well-known uta-awase contests include Tentoku-dairi Uta-awase in 960, Roppyakuban Uta-awase in 1192 and Sengohyakuban Uta-awase in 1201. Uta-awase is basically a 'game,' but in the Heian period, a talent for poetry was an important factor for promotion and it was not just an entertainment as it is today. Over generations, its literary feature became stronger and, as mentioned above, 'Hanji' came to establish itself as literary/poetry criticism.
In the modern era when the tanka (a form of Japanese poetry, consisting of five lines of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables) became dominant, the uta-awase contest went out of fashion and became obsolete because its entertaining element was shunned,. Since around 1980s, though, uta-awase contests resumed to be held regularly. The competency of Omoibito is assessed based on his/her interpretation skills: how highly he/she evaluates a poem and recognizes its true value. A challenge for a kataudo, then, is to create a poem that allows such skillful interpretations. The revival of uta-awase contests is explained by these functions of omoibito and kataudo that were considered to be useful for tanka as it was establishing itself as literature in and after the modern era.
A kataudo is a person who submits a poem in the uta-awase contest. A poet. During the Heian period, occasionally those from the lower class were allowed to create poems. In such occasions, kataudos did not attend the uta-awase contests. Today in most cases, the same person plays both roles of kataudo and omoibito.
An omoibito praises poems submitted by his/her own team and points out defects in the opponent's works, in order to keep the edge in debates. Omoibitos are often identified with kataudo. More than one omoibitos are divided into two teams, in the right and the left, and engage in a debate.
A hanja determines which poems are better, the right or the left, and decides the winner and the loser. A hanja can also draw a match, which is called "Ji." Usually a heavyweight in the society of poets assumes the role of hanja. During and after the Shinkokin period (transitional period of Japanese literature between the Heian and the Kamakura periods), a style of judgment called shugihan became common, in which participants are all involved in evaluating poems.
A koji is a person who reads aloud poems at the uta-awase contests. Reading aloud the poem at the uta-awase is called "hiko." Hiko starts with the left, or the poem from the left group will be read first. During the Heian period, both right and left sides had their own kojis but in the later period, one koji was in charge for the two teams. In the modern times, it is common that a koji is not particularly assigned.
Hanji means reasons for judgment stated by a hanja.
Dai, or a theme
As criteria in evaluating poems, themes are given even in the modern era for poems to be created at the uta-awase contests.
Major uta-awase contests
Hosts are indicated in ().
Zaiminbukyo-ke Uta-awase: Held in around 885; the oldest uta-awase recorded in the document (ARIWARA no Yukihira)
Kanpyono Ontoki Kisainomiya Uta-awase: Held in 889
Teijiｘin no Uta-awase: Held in 913
Kanna Ninen Dairi Uta-awase: Held in 986 (Emperor Hanayama)
Sengohyakuban Uta-awase: Held in 1201 (Emperor Gotoba)
Minase Koijugoshu Uta-awase: Held in 1202 (Retired Emperor Gotoba)