When the New Year’s holiday spirit has finally receded in mid-January and people suddenly find themselves busy again, an annual ceremony called Utakai Hajime, or New Year Poetry Reading, is held at the Imperial Palace.

Aired live from the palace, the ceremony is most noted for the slow and distinctive melody to which the “waka” Japanese poems are recited.

And who are those sonorous reciters?

“They are all non-regular appointees, commissioned by the Imperial Household Agency,” said Kintake Sonoike, 57, one of the “hikoshoyaku” palace retainers tasked with declaiming the poems.

By profession, Sonoike is a botanist specializing in photosynthesis and a professor at Waseda University.

He was a university student when he began to participate in this ceremony because of his aristocratic descent. He was required, he recalled, to thoroughly familiarize himself not only with the three major imperial anthologies of Japanese poetry--“Kokin Wakashu,” “Gosen Wakashu” and “Shui Wakashu”--but also with the eight major anthologies, including “Shin-Kokin Wakashu” and “Senzaishu.”

The poems’ melodies have been preserved and handed down to the present day in the “Waka Hikofu” musical score.

But unlike Western musical notation that uses a staff of five horizontal lines, the waka score uses only “kanji” characters and bar symbols.

The kanji for “shin” (god) stands for “do,” that for “ichi” (one) stands for “re” and “hyo” (flat) stands for “mi.” This is like a cryptogram.

Each poem starts with a solo recitation, and then a few other voices join in to create an effect similar to a stately male chorus.

At the start, I was rather bewildered by the very slow pace with which the recitation proceeded. But as I immersed myself in the rhythm--which reminded me of waves lapping on the seashore--I experienced this strange sensation of being in the company of poets from many centuries ago.

Waka poems draw upon both Chinese and Japanese elements, describe a scene or an emotion in 31 letters, and are recited to a set rhythm.

In that sense, waka may be defined as a form of composite art that flourished along the borderline between literature and music.

This year’s Imperial Utakai Hajime is slated for Jan. 16.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 7

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.