Where a strong guest/host relationship existed among the people gathered to compose renga, the sense of decorum was readily linked to the notion of aisatsu, “salutation” or “greetings,” as an ingredient of the hokku, which was, as you can imagine, based on protocol. In a recent talk to a group of translators in the Bay Area, the famed translator of Japanese literature Edward Seidensticker testily remarked, “Honorics represent a very unpleasant aspect of Japanese culture: everything is up or down.” Without taking issue with the eminent professor, I submit that protocol, of which honorics are merely a linguistic manifestation, is no less important in old European tradition than in the old Asian nation of Japan, and that the English language also has, I believe, a range of expressions indicative of protocol.
What is to be noted for our purpose here is that when protocol was brought into the poetic form of renga, it affected the nature of the hokku, the opening verse, and the second verse, called waki, “flank.” Being the most important part of the sequence, the hokku was usually assigned to the guest of honor, often a master, to compose, and this enhanced the complimentary, celebratory aspects of the hokku. In turn, the composition of the waki was assigned to the host of the occasion, who was expected to say something self-deprecating.
Put this way, and since we are dealing with poetry, which is supposed to be an embodiment of truth and beauty, such an arrangement may strike you as a faked, insincere Japanese style, if you will. But renga was a game, and the situation may be understood by imagining a conversation between guest and host in a more traditional setting.
Let us say you buy a particularly attractive piece of furniture, install it in a prominent spot, and later invite a guest over. The guest arrives, takes due note of it, and obligingly compliments you by saying something like, “It matches the color scheme of your living room perfectly. I love it!” In response, you underplay the furniture’s importance to you by mumbling, “Oh, it’s nothing. I just stumbled upon it at a garage sale.” (This analogy, of course, may not hold water in the United States. Here, as host, you are more likely to say something like, “I spent months finding it. I’m proud of it!”)