Composition of the Masterpiece

The composition of the Minase sangin hyakuin marked the high point in the development of linked-verse, or renga, poetry in Japan.

Summary of Event

Linked verse or renga—a poetic form created by several or many individuals who assembled to share, by alternating turns, the line-by-line composition of a poem constrained by numerous specific topical rules—emerged in the fifteenth century as Japan’s most important form of poetry against a backdrop of social turmoil. TheŌnin War of 1467-1477 Ōnin War (1467-1477)[Onin War (1467-1477)] , which burned the capital and ushered in nearly a century of interstate war, resulted in severe social disarray. Social mobility—unpredictable both upward and downward—was the order of the day, as was increased cultural intercourse between many levels of society. The manner in which linked-verse poems were composed—in gatherings of writers from diverse backgrounds who shared the process of composing a single poem among them—was emblematic of the new social dynamics of the time. Minase sangin hyakuin
Botanka Shōhaku
Saiokuken Sōchō
Botanka Shōhaku
Saiokuken Sōchō

The Minase sangin hyakuin, literally “one hundred lines offered by three poets at Minase” (English translation, 1956), consists, as its title indicates, of one hundred lines of renga composed on the twenty-second day of the first month of the second year of Chōkyō (March 5, 1488). It was presented to a shrine in a village west of Kyōto, Minase, after having been composed there or close to there, as a reverent offering to Emperor Go-Toba, who was respected as a patron deity of poetry because of his outstanding contributions to the art during his lifetime. The exact date of composition was chosen in consideration of the anniversary of the emperor’s death 250 years earlier. Minase was the location of one of his villas, where he had sponsored numerous poetry banquets.

The three poets who collaborated to compose Minase sangin hyakuin were Sōgi, Botanka Shōhaku, and Saiokuken Sōchō. In the year Minase was composed, Sōgi was sixty-seven, and though it is generally believed that he was born of humble origins, by this time he was at the peak of his career and firmly established as the premier poet and literary critic of the day, appearing before the shogun, major military leaders, and nobility. He had studied under the great authorities of his time, receiving instruction in the revered classics Kokin Waka Shū (wr. c. 905, Kokinshu; the first imperially commanded poetry anthology, first full English translation 1984) and Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933), the massive eleventh century classic still highly esteemed today. During the most violent years of theŌnin Wars, he lived in the east of the country, and throughout his life he traveled widely. His travels exposed him to many literary masters and, conversely, extended his own reputation. Sōgi was admired for the verses he composed but above all for his ability to orchestrate verse sequences better than any other living linked-verse poet.

Shōhaku and Sōchō, both some twenty years younger than Sōgi, were his disciples. Shōhaku was a Buddhist monk whose father was a minister with exceptionally high rank. He traveled with Sōgi and helped him with his seminal Shinsen Tsukuba shū
Shinsen Tsukuba shū (Sōgi)[Shinsen Tsukuba shu (Sogi)]> (1495; the newly selected tsukuba linked-verse collection), a work that redefined the aesthetic standards of renga. Sōchō is the better remembered of the two, partly because of his colorful personality, one amply conveyed by the diary he wrote late in his life. More important, however, his reputation stands on the excellence of his work. After Sōgi’s death and Shōhaku’s retirement, Sōchō became the reigning authority on linked verse.

Because it is a one-hundred-verse sequence written as an “offering by linked verse” (hōraku renga), the tone of Minase sangin hyakuin is formal and solemn. This is evident in the first movement, or preface (jo), of the poem, its first eight lines, which over the centuries have been called perfect by more than one literary critic. The opening lines establish this tone with a grandness of scale and reference to a poem written centuries earlier by the emperor the poets wish to honor:

1: yuki nagara yama moto kasumu yūbe kana

  This evening—
  At the base of snow-dotted mountains,
  Spring mist has settled.
2: yuku mizu tōku mume niou sato

  Afar cascades the springmelt;
  At hand, a hamlet glows with the perfume of plums.

The scene is expansive, like a Chinese-style screen painting, with the distant mountains and foregrounded village playing off each other to generate a sense of space. The reference to Emperor Go-Toba lies in the phrase “Spring mist has settled,” which is a line from the emperor’s own poem describing an autumn evening at Minase River.

The special achievement of a linked-verse poem is in how the preconditions of multiple authors and compositional rules establish shifts in scenes and topics as a new verse picks up and alters the line of poetry that preceded it. Such verse-to-verse progressions also work at higher levels to weave overarching patterns of elaborate repetition and diversion. Evolutions of images proceed concurrently at several levels, involving conceptual categories such as transitions between objects near and far, rising and falling, light and dark, one season and another, or, as below, the world of nature and human concerns:

68: usuhana susuki chiramaku mo oshi

  What a loss
  Should they be wind-scattered—
  These burnished plumes of pampas.
69: uzura naku katayama kurete samuki hi ni

  A cold day
  Fades on a hill’s shoulder
  And cries a quail,
70: no to naru sato mo wabitsutsu zo sumu

  While I live with my sorrows
  In a hamlet now a moor.
71: kaerikoba machishi omoi o hito ya mimu

  Should you ever return
  Might you see how I waited,
  Tender in thought?

In this series the predetermined topics are autumn and grass for line 68; autumn, mountains, and birds for line 69; being at home for line 70; and love for line 71. The conceptual flow is from the chill of autumn to the loneliness of living in a desolate location to the very personal question of the state of affairs between two lovers or spouses.


Minase sangin hyakuin is widely considered the preeminent achievement of the linked-verse genre. It succeeded in the linked-verse ideal, that is, to offer an ever-changing, fresh reading experience by orchestrating the many poetic images and topics that must be included at specific points in the poem. Sōgi’s poetic abilities joined in turns with the talents of the other two poets while his exceptional skill in negotiating the rules of linked-verse composition gave the poem in its entirety a subtly complex structure. In many of this era’s arts, aesthetic sensibility took shape around the demanding discipline of formal rules. Minase sangin hyakuin is an excellent example of this strict formalism.

On a broader scale, the manner in which linked verses were composed and patronized, cutting across social groups and levels, affords a window into the dynamics of Japan’s fifteenth century. The Minase sangin hyakuin itself, with its melancholic mood, draws deeply both on the direction of several centuries of poetics that evolved in conjunction with Buddhist reforms and on the more immediate context of a war-torn country. Yet its supreme balance reflects a mastery of the discipline required of the arts as well as the level of sophistication that poetry had achieved from centuries of active critical self-evaluation.

Further Reading

  • Carter, Steve, trans. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. Complete translation with brief introduction and limited notes.
  • Horton, H. Mack. “Renga Unbound: Performative Aspects of Japanese Linked Verse.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 53, no. 2 (December, 1993): 443-512. Discusses the details of the finer points of the rules of linked-verse composition.
  • Horton, H. Mack. Song in an Age of Discord: The Journal of Sōchō and Poetic Life in Late Medieval Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. A thorough examination of Sōchō’s life, with some discussion of the broader historical period.
  • Horton, H. Mack, trans. The Journal of Sōchō. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. A complete translation of Sōchō’s colorful personal diary.
  • Keene, Donald. Seeds of the Heart: Japanese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. Extensive biographical information on all three poets, placing them in the context of Japan’s literary history.
  • Konishi, Jin’ichi. The High Middle Ages. Vol. 3 in A History of Japanese Literature. Translated by Aileen Gatten and Mark Harbison. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. A keen discussion of the Minase sangin hyakuin and the history of linked verse. Konishi is one of the few living individuals who has received traditional training in the art.
  • Konishi, Jin’ichi, Karen Brazell, and Lewis Cook. “The Art of Renga.” Journal of Japanese Studies 2, no. 1 (Autumn, 1975): 29-31, 33-61. Discusses the details of the rules of linked-verse composition.
  • Miner, Earl. Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. The most extensive analysis of linked verse in the English language. Includes a complete translation of the Minase sangin hyakuin with extensive introductory material and thorough notes.
  • Yasuda, Kenneth, trans. Minase Sangin Hyakuin: A Poem of One Hundred Links. Tokyo: Kogakusha, 1956. The first complete translation into English.

1457-1480’s: Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Beginning 1513: Kanō School Flourishes

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

Sept., 1553: First Battle of Kawanakajima

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct., 1596-Feb., 1597:
San Felipe Incident

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara