Utakai Hajime (歌会始)

Utakai Hajime is a poetry reading which is held at the beginning of the New Year.

It originally refers to "Utakai" in which the Imperial Family and the nobility read waka (traditional Japanese poems of thirty-one syllables) at the beginning of the New Year.

Now it mainly refers to Utakai Hajime in the Imperial Court, which is an age-old traditional event of the Imperial Family (mentioned later). Other famous Utakai Hajime include the one held by the Reizei family (descended from a Court noble). In the Reizei family's Utakai Hajime, dozens of people wear costumes of the Heian period such as kariginu (informal clothes worn by Court nobles) and uchigi (ordinary kimono). This is introduced as a special feature of Kyoto in press reports and ancient documents. Another "Utakai Hajime" is a New Year's meeting at ordinary waka schools where teachers and students present waka.
Utakai Hajime in the Imperial Court
Its origin is not exactly known. In "The Diary of Geki" written in the mid Kamakura period, it is recorded that the poetry reading "dairi gokaihajime" was held in the Imperial Court on January 15, 1267 during the era of Emperor Kameyama. But because gokaihajime was considered to consist of a poetry reading, 作文始 and gyoyuhajime (ancient Japanese court music playing), it was thought to be a customary practice that these three events were held in one day. Sometimes gokaihajime was held after the inauguration of an emperor or Chiten no kimi (a retired emperor in power), other than at the beginning of the New Year.
Although Gokaihajime itself ceased to be held in the Muromachi period, Emperor Gokashiwabara held a monthly poetry reading as an independent ceremony on New Year's Day in 1501 on the model of waka gokaihajime during the Eiwa era of the Emperor Goenyu's reign, according to "seiwa utagokai saho kojitsu" (Ancient Practices of New Year Imperial Poetry Reading Party Manner.) (Its author is unknown, but a copy of the book hand written by the Retired Emperor Reigen is possessed by National Museum of Japanese History.)

This is thought to be a direct origin of Utakai Hajime. It has been held almost every year since the Edo period, with some alterations.

In 1874, the public was permitted to present their poems. Since 1882, poems written by the emperor and the public have been published in the newspapers and so on. Formerly, the selection of poems was made by Outadokoro (the Imperial Poetry Bureau) of the Imperial Household Agency. Since 1947, distinguished poets out of office have been commissioned to select not only Imperial Family's poems but also the public's ones.

At the same time, their themes became easier and easier. In this way, the high society event turned into a cultural event in which the general public can participate. Today, Utakai Hajime is broadcast on TV.
The List of Themes

The Meiji Period

The Showa Period
The Heisei Period
Current Summary
Usually each year, poems on a certain theme are invited from the public (for Subject for a Poem Utakai).
(The deadline is around September 30th.)
Writers of "selected poems" are invited to the Imperial Palace and their poems are recited (in the manner of the Ayanokojiryu School) in Matsu no Ma (State Room) at the ceremony of Utakai Hajime.

In addition, "selected poems" are printed in the Imperial Family Matters column of official gazettes, the newspapers and so on. Some poems which are not "selected poems" appear as fine works in the newspapers etc.
At the ceremony of Utakai Hajime, firstly, poems of the crown prince and subsequent people are recited in front of the emperor and empress:
Koji (a presenter of poems) says "at the beginning of the New Year, as usual, poems on the theme of - are presented on the orders of the Emperor," and this starts the recitation of poems.
Selected poems (10 poems are recited beginning with the youngest writer's one. Prior to the recitation of each poem, its writer's prefectural name and his or her own name are called out. Japanese particle "no" is inserted between his or her family name and first name.)
A poem written by a selector (a representative selector of selected poems)

A poem written by Meshudo (a person especially selected by the emperor to compose waka)
A poem written by a member of the Imperial Family (a representative person, who is not the grand empress dowager, the empress dowager, the empress consort, the crown prince or the crown princess) (Prior to the recitation of his or her poem, the Imperial Prince's name "- no miko," his wife's name "- no miko no mime" or his daughter's name "- no hime miko" is called out.)
A poem written by hitsugi no miko no mime (the crown princess)
A poem written by hitsugi no miko (the crown prince)
It is a time-honored practice that a person stands up and makes a bow to the emperor just before his or her poem is recited. Then, "kisai no miyano miuta" (a poem of the empress) is recited twice, and "ohomi uta" (a poem of the emperor) is recited three times.
(While the empress dowager is alive, "ohokisai no miyano miuta" (a poem of the empress dowager) is recited prior to the presentation of kisai no miyano miuta.)

Customarily, just before the recitation of ohomi uta, koji says "ohomi uta on the theme of -" and every participant except the emperor stands up to listen to that poem.

Hikojoyaku consists of dokuji, koji, hassei and kosho: Dokuji is a chairman; firstly, koji reads out all the poems without a tune; then hassei chants them with a tune; kosho (four people) chant the second poem and the followings with hassei. Their functions are entrusted to descendants of the former nobility belonging to the group "Hikokai" by the Board of the Ceremonies of the Imperial Household Agency. Utakai Hajime is broadcast live throughout Japan on NHK Sogo television (NHK General TV) and NHK Satellite 2nd Television of Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Utakai Hajime, ohomi uta, kisai no miyano miuta and other poems are also introduced on the news on the day Utakai Hajime is held. Utakai Hajime is one of the attention-grabbing court functions because of the fact that Hikojoyaku's recitation is attractive in its quality, that people are interested in such a national contest at which poems of people throughout Japan are presented, and that sometimes ohomi uta, ohokisai no miyano miuta and poems of other Imperial Family members suggest feelings and recent situations of the writers.