Reader Collection > Exhibitions > Bird Prints with Japanese Poems














Humans worldwide write poems to express their thoughts and feelings. In Japan, writing poetry was a very popular hobby during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some of the poems written then were more playful than others. The most playful type, called kyōka, often included words with a double meaning or a pun which was intended to amuse readers. A kyōka poem had five lines with 31 syllables arranged as follows: 5-7-5-7-7. A second, usually more serious type of poem was called haikai. It had only three lines with 17 syllables arranged as follows: 5-7-5. Some of these haikai and kyōka poems were added to printed artwork which created a powerful combination of verbal and visual expression.

Twenty-five examples of these pictures-with-poems are presented in this virtual exhibition. Examples were selected from the Reader Collection of Japanese Art which includes a number of pictures-with-poems of bird subjects. Perhaps the most famous of these bird pictures-with-poems are those drawn by two prominent Japanese printmakers of the time, Utamaro Kitagawa and Hiroshige Utagawa. Utamaro’s book entitled Momochidori Kyōka Awase (Birds Compared in Humorous Verses), published in 1790-1, included fifteen pictures. Each picture showed two different bird species with a ky
ōka poem about each. All fifteen pictures are shown below along with English translations of the kyōka poems. Hiroshige drew hundreds of bird pictures, each accompanied by either a kyōka or haikai poem. These pictures-with-poems were sold individually during the 1830-40s. Ten of Hiroshige’s bird pictures are included here, four with kyōka poems and six with haikai poems. An English translation of each poem is provided.


Additional Reading

Bogel, Cynthia J., Goldman, Israel and Marks, Alfred H. 1988. Hiroshige Birds and Flowers. George Braziller, Inc., New York.

Meech-Pekarik, Julia and Kenney, James T. 1981. Utamaro: a chorus of birds. The Viking Press, New York.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Japanese bush-warbler

(Cettia diphone)


Near the eaves

I hear the warbler

sing a song of envy;

he must be watching us,

my lover and me.

Varied tit

(Sittiparus varius)


Not a sign of you

do I find

in your bed tonight;

alone but sad,

I am but a tit in love.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.





(Alauda arvensis)


Conceited skylark

flying high in the sky;

even you

must come down to earth

when night falls.


Japanese quail

(Coturnix japonica)


Although the quail

coos and coos

to be with you,

like the ears of ripe millet

you do not so easily fall.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




White-backed woodpecker

(Dendrocopos leucotos)


True to his name

the woodpecker

pecks and pecks away,

never stopping to listen

to what people are saying.


Japanese grosbeak

(Eophona personata)


Going to meet

his secret love,

the grosbeak

lets out a warble

and gives his name away.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




White wagtail

(Motacilla alba)


My heart

was soothed

when we met at night;

but now, I must suffer

what people may say.


Copper pheasant

(Syrmaticus soemmerringii)


The copper pheasant

cries and cries

and sheds tears to no end;

for too many nights

you have stayed away.









Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Green pheasant

(Phasianus versicolor)


Your words

are like swords

when we meet;

even my open wings

soon shrivel to nothing.


Barn swallow

(Hirundo rustica)


I came dressed

like a swallow;

but now, I untie my sash

looking forward to

the long night ahead.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Japanese white-eye

(Zosterops japonicus)


Pushed out

of his honey-filled nest

following  a fight,

the white-eyed bird

seems not to mind at all.


Long-tailed tit

(Aegithalos caudatus)



and let yourself

be mine;

for us the nights

will be as long as the tit’s tail.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Common snipe

(Gallinago gallinago)


In the night

unable to sleep

waiting for a lover,

loneliness snips away at

the snipe’s empty heart.


Winter wren

(Troglodytes troglodytes)


Since your heart

is as lofty as the great

mythical bird taihō,

how can this wretched wren

ever hope to fly so high.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Meadow bunting

(Emberiza cioides)


Your dimples

like the bunting

so full of charm;

beware the stealthy

birdlime of love.


Domestic fowl

(Gallus gallus)


The mouth of a

perfume bottle

can be capped,

but the cock of the morn

crows without ceasing.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Eurasian bullfinch

(Pyrrhula pyrrhula)


Even uso

the bullfinch

sleeps in the night

but your lies

give me no perch to rest.


Scops owl

(Otus scops)


I laugh

and cry

at the same time

since you ignore me

like an eared owl in the tree.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Little egret

(Egretta garzetta)


More than the chatty

black crow that kisses

and tells,

I dislike the little egret

who is mostly beak.



(Phalacrocorax sp.)


In the river

the cormorant swims

washed by waves;

soon he too

will be drowned in rumors.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Japanese robin

(Erithacus akahige)


My heart

like the robin

is joyful in name only;

I can hardly go on

burdened so with love.


Great tit

(Parus major)


Seeing my feathers

you think of me

only as an old great tit;

your cruel reply

is a little hard for me to take.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Rock dove

(Columba livia)


Colors of the dove

do not fade with age;

we too will not change

no matter the number

of New year’s beans we eat.


Eurasian tree sparrow

(Passer montanus)


Your wandering heart

is like the restless

village sparrow;

before long

rumors begin to fly.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Ural owl

(Strix uralensis)


You must have

the eyes of an owl;

how is it that

you come at night

but never during the day.


Eurasian jay

(Garrulus glandarius)


My pledges

sung in a voice

like that of the jay;

even when I cry

you do not lend an ear.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Common kingfisher

(Alcedo atthis)


When you and I

go into the next life;

let us perch

on lotus leaves

like kingfishers wing to wing.


Mallard duck

(Anas platyrhynchos)


To a man

sending a love note,

even the swift messenger

seems slow as a duck

stuck on birdlime.










Utamaro Kitagawa. 1790-1. Momochidori Kyōka Awase.




Bull-headed shrike

(Lanius bucephalus)


I feel as if

my heart were shrinking,

hung to dry

on a withered branch

by the many-tongued shrike.


Northern goshawk

(Accipiter gentilis)


If I were

a hawk,

I would make a meal

of the little birds

spreading rumors.










16   Scops owl (Otus scops) by Hiroshige Utagawa



The eared-owl

asail for a three-day cruise

on the three-night moon,

longs to hear pine music

float slowly through his ears.










17   Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) by Hiroshige Utagawa



The cock starts to crow;

the time to part has come.

Take me to a town

where the rooster is not heard;

that's the only place for dawn.










18   Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) by Hiroshige Utagawa



The hour of parting,

with all its deep feelings,

in drifts about them,

they hear the melting tones

of the rooster in the snow.










19   Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus)

 by Hiroshige Utagawa



Passing the cold night

watching over little ones

asleep in the nest -

ingratitude is something

only human beings know.










20   Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) by Hiroshige Utagawa



Preening his feathers

in a watery mirror -

kingfisher in flight.










21   Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) by Hiroshige Utagawa



Perhaps for a dream of autumn

the quails











22   Goose (Anser sp.) by Hiroshige Utagawa



Will it come again -

another night like this one?

Wild geese and the moon.










23   Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) by Hiroshige Utagawa



A duck calls softly;

a breeze sets ripples moving

over the water.










24   Golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) by Hiroshige Utagawa



Blundering into

a path where tasty grasses

manage to grow tall.










25   Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) by Hiroshige Utagawa



For mandarin ducks

thin ice is a wedding cup

now and forever.




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