Research at AIIT

Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 23rd Installment"Learn about Information Transmission from Waka"

by Takeyuki Nagao,
Assistant Professor, Masters Program of Information Systems Architecture

One of the traditional Japanese New Year entertainments played around the country is karutatori. TV news and other media show scenes that waka (traditional Japanese poems) are read aloud while children in kimono listen carefully to them and scramble for the correct card among those lined up on the tatami floor. Even Fujiwarano Sadaie, who compiled Ogura Hyakuninisshu, wouldn’t have dreamed that his compilation would attract widespread popularity in this way. The origin of Ogura Hyakuninisshu is said to be 100 poems for each era selected from a number of poems released in waka compilations by Imperial command such as Kokinwakashu. Some of the poems are more than a thousand years old, while others were written by Sadaie himself. It is incredible how the feelings of people in the distant past have been preserved in the form of waka and handed down to people today.
It is said that Ogura Hyakuninisshu was originally designed for paintings on byobu (traditional Japanese folding screens). It may have originated from mere fun. In the less distant past, from the late Warring States period to the Edo period, the trump card-like design from the West was adapted to the current form of the Hyakuninisshu cards. Developments in wood-block printing in the late Edo period helped advance mass production and made Hyakuninisshu available to the common people. The current form of karuta may have been almost fully established by that time.
If waka poems had not been recorded in Ogura Hyakuninisshu or other waka compilations by Imperial command and had been dotted about discretely, many great waka poems would have been buried in obscurity, and the people of today may not even know that they existed. The same applies to the enormous amount of information exchanged via the Internet. Some parts of this information may probably be worth handing down to future generations. What kinds of ideas or inventions do we need to ensure that valuable information is handed down to the generations to come? What should we keep in mind when disseminating and receiving information and facilitating its transmission? Learning about the transmission of waka gives us clues for answering these questions.
Just like collecting waka poems into a compilation, it is important to gather information, choose the interesting or valuable parts and ensure that they are shown to numerous people. Doing so will ensure that we endure for posterity by enabling people to discover what was popular in our time through referring to the relevant compilation. Simply recording the enormous amount of information that is constantly produced on the Internet in its entirety is not enough to help our descendants understand the precise conditions of our time. Considering the fact that the waka poems included in the Imperial compilation were handed down through Ogura Hyakuninisshu, the value lies in the efforts we make to choose and transmit deserving information.
Another important aspect is to ensure the proper balance between the ease of disseminating information and the ease of storing it. Creating a compilation made it easy to record waka poems. The card format made the poems more accessible to children. Although it may be inferior to book format with respect to storage, it excels in terms of dissemination. In general, information can be known to the people of the age by being disseminated throughout society, and the disseminated information can be handed down to future generations by being recorded. Neither dissemination nor storage is dispensable. Ogura Hyakuninisshu is a good example, where the balance between these two has successfully been kept via karuta cards. Maybe this is why the waka poems included in this compilation have endured until today.
As explained above, the way waka poems have been handed down tells us that deserving information should be organized in a format that makes it easy for us to disseminate, and hand over the organized information for many generations to come in the form that it is easy to be disseminated and stored. Up until now, the Internet appears to be the best means of disseminating information. When it comes to storage, however, nothing could be superior to the printed format for now, in my opinion.

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