Tanka (literally, short poems) is a type of waka poetry, and has a five-line poem with the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure. It developed in the later works of the Kiki kayo period (ballads found in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan)) and the early works of the Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), and has been broadly popular ever since. As choka (literally, long poems) lost popularity, tanka came to be representative of the waka form of poetry.
Definition of tanka
This form of poetry, which has a five-line poem with the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure (thirty-one moras), was given different names in relation to the longer forms of poetry of the period. During the Nara period, it was called 'tanka' with respect to the 'choka,' and was called 'waka' with respect to 'kanshi' (poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets) during and after the Heian period. Since the later Meiji period, the name has been reverted to 'tanka' as a new style of poetry called 'shintaishi' emerged. Tanka has a style that expresses the author's identity so strongly that it is often called the first-person poetry or the self poetry. Although its structure resembles that of kyoka (comic waka), tanka is a completely different form of poetry by definition.
History of tanka
Refer to articles on waka and the history of waka.
The Jodai period
Jodai Kayo (songs of the Jodai period) refers to the songs that were sung at festivals and at work, which evolved from shouts of joy and yells used to time or encourage activity.
The Jodai Kayo selected for the "Kojiki" (Records of Ancient Matters) and "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan) are called Kiki kayo. Songs with the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure can be found among them. It is also suspected that the tanka may have come from the hanka, which is the last verse of choka.
As Japan was in the process of establishing a unified country, the composing of poems expressing individual feelings became popular, part in due to the influx of the Chinese poems into Japan about that time. The "Manyoshu" (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) contains many such poems. In ballads sung in groups, for example, katauta (poem fragment), with its 5-7-7 syllable structure, were sung to and from members of the group in the form a question and answer, which formed sedoka (whirling head poem) with its 5-7-7, 5-7-7 syllable structure. However, the end of the verses for both the question '5-7-7?' and the answer '5-7-7' were often identical.
When sung by an individual, the redundant part was dropped to become '5-7?' and '5-7-7,' which gave rise to the tanka's structure of '5-7-5-7-7.'
This change in poem structure is reflected in the "Manyoshu," where nine out of ten poems are actually tanka poems.
The Chuko period
In the early Heian period, Chinese prose and poetry overwhelmed waka poetry as the official form of literature.
However, during the mid-Heian period, people's interest in Kokufu Bunka (indigenous Japanese culture), combined with the development of the kana characters, brought waka poetry back to official use.
Uta awase (poetry contests) had become popular as well.
In 905, due to an imperial order from the Emperor Daigo, the "Kokin wakashu" (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), which was the first of the Chokusen wakashu (anthologies of Japanese poetry compiled by Imperial command), was compiled and presented to the emperor by four people: KI no Tsurayuki, KI no Tomonori, OSHIKOCHI no Mitsune and MIBU no Tadamine. Its characteristic feature was the intellectual and conceptual poetic style. A half century later, the "Gosen Wakashu" (Later selected collection of Japanese Poetry) was compiled during the reign of the Emperor Murakami, and another half century after that, the "Shui Wakashu" (Collection of Gleanings of Japanese Poetry) was also compiled during the reign of the Emperor Ichijo. Much of the former collection contains exchanges of poems between nobles and prefers to use a narrative style of prose. In comparison, the latter succeeds the tradition of the "Kokin wakashu," which was more elegant and refined. These three collections, the "Kokin wakashu," the "Gosen Wakashu," and the "Shui Wakashu," are together called the Sandaishu (The Three Major Collections).
In the late Heian period, the "Goshui Wakashu" (Later Collection of Gleanings of Japanese Poetry), the "Kinyo wakashu" and the "Shika wakashu" (The Waka Collection of Verbal Flowers) were compiled and presented to the emperor. With changes in the aristocracy rapidly taking place, it was a long half century before a collection surpassing the Sandaishu could be created. After the Genpei War, with an order from Goshirakawain, FUJIWARA no Toshinari compiled the "Senzai Wakashu" (Collection of Japanese Poems of a Thousand Years) and presented it to the retired emperor, and this brought waka poetry of the late Heian period to a culminate. From the "Kokin wakashu" to the "Shin Chokusen wakashu" (New Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry), these eight Chokusen wakashu are collectively called the Hachidaishu (The Eight Waka Collections compiled by Imperial Command).
The Medieval period
During the early Kamakura period, waka poems were ardently composed by nobles who were deprived of their political power and who turned to traditional culture as a source for their emotional support. The "Shin Chokusen wakashu" was compiled by an order from Gotobain, who apparently was an avid waka enthusiast, as a display of contempt towards the Kamakura Government. Poems became more refined, and many were composed not out of actual experiences but out of the vivid imagination of the authors. However, Saigyo, who composed about the love of nature and his view of life, and MINAMOTO no Sanetomo, who had a style of poetry resembling that of the Manyoshu, were also revered. After FUJIWARA no Sadaie, who was the chief composer of the "Shin Chokusen wakashu," and his son FUJIWARA no Tameie died, the Fujiwara lineage and the poetry circles became divided into three schools: the Nijo, the Kyogoku, and the Reizei schools. Since around the period of the Northern and Southern Courts, waka poetry came to be composed mainly by Buddhist monks and warriors. However, waka grew heavy on formalism and ultimately declined in popularity.
The early-modern period
Compared to the haikai (seventeen-syllable verse), changes to the traditional and aristocratic waka were slow. During the Genroku era, criticisms of conventions and traditions led to the appearance of kokugaku (the study of Japanese literature and culture) in order to interpret the essence of ancient literature. A waka reform movement also began in Kyoto during the late early-modern period, and the Keien school was formed. This Keien school was extremely influential among tanka circles until the beginning of the Meiji period.
The Meiji and Taisho periods
Tanka circles in the beginning of the Meiji period were led by traditional men of culture from the aristocracy, with the Outadokoro school (the Palace School), especially the Keien school, at their center. Criticized their overly pompous styles, a new breed of poets seeking to improve on the waka poetry opened up a new age for tanka that embodied freedom and individuality. The Asaka sha (the Asaka Society) was formed to create romantic tanka poetry that emphasized subjectivity, and boasted such new talented poets as Tekkan YOSANO. Tekkan launched the publication called "Myojo" in 1900, and with Akiko YOSANO at his side, he was able to create the golden age of romantic tanka. Between 1908 and 1912, a new concept of individualism was represented by such poets as the poet who gained popularity through "Myojo," Hakushu KITAHARA with his pursuit for beauty, the naturalist, Bokusui WAKAYAMA, and Takuboku ISHIKAWA, who had a tendency of showing flavors of socialism.
In 1898, Shiki MASAOKA published 'Utayomi ni atauru sho' (Letters to The Tanka Poets). He advocated returning to the styles of the Manyoshu and composing tanka through portrayal, and started the Negishi Tanka Society, where new poets such as Sachio ITO and Takashi NAGATSUKA emerged from. The journal from the Negishi Tanka Society, "Araragi," was first published in 1908, and made famous Akahiko SHIMAGI, who established his own unique style of prose and led the Araragi school, and Mokichi SAITO, who looked within himself and composed poems reflecting the power of life. Under the command of Akahiko during the Taisho period, Araragi's reputation had made it very influential among tanka circles. However, opposing views existed to its rigid styles of composition and its closed-society tendencies. In 1924, Chikashi KOIZUMI, Shinobu ORIKUCHI, and Jun ISHIHARA left 'Araragi' to start up a new magazine called 'Nikko' (sunlight), thereby forming a rift within Araragi.
Mokichi interpreted 'shasei' (literally, 'sketching') to mean the 'portrayal of life.'
After the death of Akahiko SHIMAGI in 1926, Mokichi took over the helm as editor and led the Araragi until the early Showa period.
The Showa period
As if a prelude to the Showa period, the tanka magazine 'Nikko' made its first appearance in 1923 by Chikashi KOIZUMI, Shinobu ORIKUCHI, Jun ISHIHARA, Hakushu KITAHARA, Yugure MAEDA and Shoryo YOSHIUE, all who had left Araragi. Nikko was not a tanka society but can be likened to a lounge with a relaxed atmosphere, although it naturally had an anti-Araragi color to it. This was probably the beginning of the definitive split of the pro-Araragi and anti-Araragi sides. Utsubo KUBOTA and Eiichi MATSUMURA were critical of Araragi though their views were bordering realism. Eiichi and his pupil, Tomoichi YAMAMOTO, criticized the awkward literary style of Araragi, and frequently argued with 渋谷嘉次, the pupil of Bunmei TSUCHIYA, who represented Araragi.
It was during the Showa period where movements for the colloquial style, free verse from the Meiji period and for the proletarian tanka styles attributable to Takuboku ISHIKAWA started to gain headway. The colloquial, free verse movement greatly influenced Yugure MAEDA's 'Shiika' (Poetry), while the latter movement placed their tanka among proletarian literature.
After the fixed forms returned to favor among the Yugure school, poets such as Susumu KAGAWA and Toru MAEDA also changed their stances and began to include fixed forms in their prose, which ultimately led to the diminishing influence of the colloquial school.
At the time, the proletarian school was taken by theoretical arguments.
As such, differing views existed such as letting tanka take the form of short verselets or having tanka go far beyond 31 syllables.
Therefore, they had enough problems of their own even before pressure from the government to re-organize.
In 1928, the Shinko Kajin Renmei (literally, the Emerging Poets' League) was established. The colloquial school, the surrealistic school, the proletarian school, and the seikatsu school worked together to make drastic changes to tanka circles. They gained influence with the appearance of the New Ten Poets, including Samio MAEKAWA, Tetsukyu TSUBONO and Kaichi IKADAI.
In 1935, Hakushu KITAHARA started publishing the 'Tama' magazine. It popularized poets who became associated with postwar societies, such as Shuji MIYA's 'Cosmos' and Osamu KIMATA's 'Keisei' (Formation).
Araragi, which had gathered much influence within the tanka circles, produced poets, such as Sataro SATO (Founder of 'Hodo' (The Pavement)) and Mokichi YAMAGUCHI, who were pupils of Mokichi SAITO, and Yasuyoshi GOMI, Yoshimi KONDO (Founder of 'Mirai' (The Future)), Kuniyo TAKAYASU (Founder of 'To' (The Tower; magazine and tanka society)), Tadashi AIZAWA, Kenji HIGUCHI, Kyotaro OCHIAI, Masatoshi YOSHIDA and Minoru SHIBOTA, who were pupils of Bunmei TSUCHIYA.
The postwar period
After Japan lost WWII, opinions that condemned tanaka, such as the "Daini Geijutsu" (Second-Class Art) by Takeo KUWABARA became extremely popular.
However, to counter such opinions, a new movemental organization called Shin Kajin Shudan (The New Poets Group), with the aim of establishing a postwar tanka circle, was formed in 1947. Poets such as Yoshimi KONDO and Shuji MIYA became significant figures among the postwar tanka circles, and created the basis for the modern tanka.
In 1948, Nihon Kajin Kurabu (The Japan Tanka Poets' Society) was formed by the 183 founding members, including Mokichi SAITO, Bunmei TSUCHIYA, Shaku Choku, Saishu ONOE, Nobutsuna SASAKI, Utsubo KUBOTA, Zenmaro TOKI, Yugure MAEDA, and influential, contemporary poets, such as Seikyu OTA, Junzo WATANABE, Yoshimi KONDO, Sataro SATO, Osamu KIMATA, Shuji MIYA, and Susumu KAGAWA.
The Nihon Kajin Kurabu has been the largest tanka society in Japan thus far, and has remained an active group through to this present day.
In 1949, Hideo NAKAI founded the publication called the "Tanka Kenkyu" (The Study of Tanka), and brought forth to the public eye, new poets such as Taeko KUZUHARA, Fumiko NAKAJO, Kunio TSUKAMOTO, and Shuji TERAYAMA.
In 1956, Gendai Kajin Kyokai (The Association of Contemporary Tanka Poets) was formed as something similar to a professional association by 62 founding members, including Tatsue UBUKATA, Tadao OOGIHATA, 尾上紫舟, Susumu KAGAWA, Juzo KAGOSHIMA, Osamu KIMATA, Utsubo KUBOTA, Yoshimi KONDO, Nobutsuna SASAKI, Sataro SATO, 紫生田稔, Bunmei TSUCHIYA, Tetsukyu TSUBONO, Zenmaro TOKI, Eiichi MATSUMURA, Yaichi AIZU, Shuji MIYA, Mokichi YAMAGUCHI and Tomoichi YAMAMOTO.
During the late 1950's and early 1960's, the avant-garde movement for tanka poetry begins. Some believe that modern tanka poetry has its roots in avant-garde tanka poetry. Starting with Kunio TSUKAMOTO's poignant expressions, the avant-garde tanka poetry won the approval of Hideo NAKAI, gathered comrades such as Takashi OKAI and Shuji TERAYAMA, and affected all tanka circles. Avant-garde tanka poetry has many technical features such as the use of metaphors, ku-matagari (verse straddling), and the employing of symbols. The most notable feature is that the main character inside the poem is different from the author and thus the poet is creating fiction. These methods of expression have been often seen in classical literature, though it was lost due to the Westernization influence during the Meiji period. Therefore, it is also referred to as the Tanka Renaissance.
Around 1960, the avant-garde tanka poetry started to lose its impetus, due to the fact that many publishers, fearing the over-reaching influence of the avant-garde tanka poetry into societal matters, distanced themselves from this type of poetry, and also due to the loss of direction. Then came along Hideo KIYOHARA of the West and Daisaku KISHIGAMI of the East-two young men who had participated in the conflict over the Japan-US Security Treaty.
About the time when the conflict subsided, the avant-garde tanka poetry came to a dead end.
Tanka poetry lost its direction and ideals, partly due to the fact that poets could not find new methods of expression. Tanka circles soon became isolated and divided into the "insiders" (professional poets) and the "outsiders" (tanka appearing in newspapers and in seminars by amateurs). About that time, Ken KASUGAI, who was called the second-coming of Teika by Yukio MISHIMA, made his debut and pursued a pure form of expression, which included neither a sense of time (as in, era) nor any society's woes.
From about the late 1960's, finally a new movement since the disappearance of the avant-garde movement started to take hold to deal with the transformation to the modern tanka poetry. Poets such as the naturalist, Toshio MAE, and the classical school's Akiko BABA and Chieko YAMANAKA, who helped pave the way. Other poets also became active in the movement-poets who possessed their own original style of prose. Examples include Yukitsuna SASAKI, who is known for his 'Otoko uta' (masculine poems), Kosaku OKUMURA, who is known for his 'Tadagoto uta' (light-hearted tanka), Kazushi TAKASE, who had an empirical style, and Shigeki ONO, a poet who died young but created a portrayal of the postwar young people. From the mid-70's to the mid-80's, there appeared poets such as Michihiko MURAKI, Hikaru KOIKE, and Ei AKITSU, with their delicate expressions of everyday realities.
During the late 80's, vivid expressions based on urban culture became popular. Poets such as Megumi KINO and Shion MIZUHARA, who were called the neoclassical school, and Shuichi SAKAI became pioneers of the new wave in the Heisei period. After Machi TAWARA's "Salad Anniversary" sold a record million copies, tanka became free from its traditional grave image and came to be read more casually.
The Heisei period
The biggest surprises thus far in the Heisei period were most likely the end of 'Araragi,' which had been continuing the concept of shasei (portrayal) since the days of Shiki MASAOKA (on December 1997), and the break-up of the Araragi school. Around the same time, there appeared poets known as the New Wave that included Jiro KATO, Hiroyuki OGIHARA, and Hiroshi HOMURA. While the traditional tanka poets were perplexed by the "Salad Anniversary"(Machi TAWARA) and the way in which it popularized tanka poetry, the New Wave poets brought about another revolution in poetry expression by their grand imagination and sensitivities. Tanka poems until then bore some questions about universality or about life, even when the works appeared to be of a personal level. The New Wave poets, however, were able to break free from the modern tanka poetry due to the colloquial, urban, and anti-ego culture they experienced through the bubble economy.
With the advent of the internet, there are increasing number of poets who do not associate themselves to any tanka circles with Koichi MASUNO being a famous example.
Since the late Showa period, a tanka contest called the Gendai Gakusei Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Students) has been held periodically. Currently, schools nation-wide have been participating in this event, and it is a form of education taught through tanka and it attempts to have students get in touch with the sensitivities of the modern-day people through tanka compositions.
Tanka rules and techniques
Restriction in the number of syllables and lines
The fixed form of tanka has thirty-one syllables and five lines. This exists other forms which attempts to broaden the capacity for expression by altering this fixed form. Similar techniques are referred to by different names depending on where emphasis is placed in the poem.
A technique employed to emphasize a particular part of the poem by use of a kugire (caesura).
Shokugire (caesura in the first line), Nikugire (the one in the second line), Sankugire (the one in the third line), Yonkugire (the one in the fourth line) and Mukugire (no caesura)
Kuware (split phrase) and kumatagari (line straddling)
Extra or insufficient syllables
The Japanese language used for composing tanka
It is a fundamental rule to use traditional kana orthography (old kana orthography) when composing tanka in the classical literary language. However, as colloquial language is used often in daily life, different types of orthographies have begun to coexist.
Classical literary language and traditional kana orthography
Classical literary language and modern kana orthography
Colloquial language and modern kana orthography
Sino-Japanese words, borrowed words and katakana words, and spoken words
In tanka, techniques available in poetry are used selectively to obtain desired effects.
Repetition, couplets, rhyming, anastrophe and rhetorical questions
Quotations and citations
Taigendome (ending a poem with a noun)
Similes, metaphors, allegories and personification
Onomatopoeia and mimetic words
Makura kotoba (pillow words)
A word that is placed in front of a particular word to emphasize the latter. It helps to improve the flow of the poem and provide a stronger effect. Usually, it is used in a line with five syllables.
Jo kotoba (introductive word)
Though rarely used in contemporary tanka, this is a technique that uses longer words than the Makura kotoba, and is able to depict specific images and to introduce themes in subsequent lines.
A technique using homonyms, a word having the same spelling but different meanings, to achieve two distinct contexts within the same verse. It may be misunderstood as a form of play in verse.
A technique wherein a word associated with a theme word in the verse is used to aide the expression of the latter.
Categorization based on the subject of the poem
Since the appearance of the Manyoshu, tanka has been used to express the inner feelings of the heart through nature, everyday lives, and social trends.
Then, lyricism may be the essence of tanka poetry. However, in the world of tanka poetry, people have divided poems into the following groups: scenic poetry (poems composed on natural scenery), descriptive poetry (poems describing a fact as is), and lyrical poetry (poems express people's feelings and emotions). Descriptive names followed by the 詠 (ei) suffix are used to further categorize tanka based on the theme of the poem.
The following are some of the typical categories. Other categories also follow the same convention of a descriptive name followed by the 詠 (ei) suffix. New and various names for new categories will most likely appear as time goes on.
Poems composed on the beauties of nature, for example, mountains, rivers, grass, trees, flowers, birds, the wind, and the moon.
Poems composed on plants.
Poems composed on events in human society, on human relationships, or individual matters.
Poems composed about life and its meaning.
Shokuba-ei and Shokugyo-ei
Poems composed about workplaces and occupations.
Poems composed on reflecting life.
Poems composed on or after one's sickbed.
Poems composed about family members while being conscious of the family as a whole.
Poems composed about love between a man and a woman.
Poems to mourn for the dead or grieve over their deaths.
Poems composed about things encountered during a trip and the emotions attached to such things.
Poems composed about experiences on climbing mountains.
Poems composed on experiences of a long stay or settling down in a foreign country, and includes poems composed by those who have emigrated before World War II.
Poems composed on society and criticism thereof.
A type of shakai-ei and deals with current issues.
Poems composed on the current state of affairs. This is a subset of the Shakai-ei.
Anpo-ei and Gakuentoso-ei
Poems composed on the conflict over the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960 and the campus disturbances around 1970.
Poems composed on the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Poems composed about the people and society during wartime. This is different from the senso-ei.
Poems composed by soldiers at the frontline of war.
Poems originating from the 'peasant literature movement' and based on rural communities.
Poems composed based on philosophy, ideologies, doctrines, opinions, and on man vs. society.
Poems composed on the social conditions of cities, which are microcosms of human society, and on the way we should live as humans.