Japanese poetry

Japanese poetry

When Japanese poets first encountered Chinese poetry, it was at its peak in the Tang Dynasty. It took them several hundred years to digest the foreign impact, make it a part of their culture and merge it with their literary tradition in their mother tongue, and begin to develop the diversity of their native poetry. For example, in the Tale of Genji both kinds of poetry are frequently mentioned. (Since much poetry in Japan was written in the Chinese language, it is perhaps more accurate to speak of Japanese-language poetry.)

A new trend came in the middle of the 19th Century. Since then the major forms of Japanese poetry have been "tanka" (new name for waka), "haiku" and "shi".

Nowadays the main forms of Japanese poetry can be divided into experimental poetry and poetry that seeks to revive traditional ways. Poets writing in tanka, haiku and shi move in separate planes and seldom write poetry other than in their specific chosen form, although some active poets are eager to collaborate with poets in other genres.

Important collections are the Man'yōshū, Kokin Wakashū and Shin Kokin Wakashū.


Poems in "Kojiki" and "Nihonshoki"

The oldest written work in Japanese literature is "Kojiki" in the 8th century, in which Ō no Yasumaro (太安万侶) recorded Japanese mythology and history as recited by Hieda no Are (稗田阿礼), to whom it was handed down by his ancestors. Many of the poetic pieces recorded by the "Kojiki" were perhaps transmitted from the time the Japanese had no writing. The "Nihonshoki", the oldest history of Japan which was finished two years later than the "Kojiki", also contains many poetic pieces. These were mostly not long and had no fixed forms. The first poem documented in both books was attributed to a kami (god), named Susanoo (須佐之男), the younger brother of Amaterasu. When he married Princess Kushinada in Izumo province, the kami made an "uta", or "waka", a poem.:八雲立つ 出雲八重垣 妻籠みに 八重垣作る その八重垣を:Yakumo tatsu / Izumo yaegaki / Tsuma-gomi ni / Yaegaki tsukuru / Sono yaegaki woThis is the oldest waka (poem written in Japanese) and hence poetry was later praised as having been founded by a kami, a divine creation.

The two books shared many of the same or similar pieces but "Nihonshoki" contained newer ones because it recorded later affairs (up till the reign of Emperor Temmu) than Kojiki. Themes of waka in the books were diverse, covering love, sorrow, satire, war cries, praise of victory, riddles and so on. Many works in Kojiki were anonymous. Some were attributed to kami, emperors and empresses, nobles, generals, commoners and sometimes enemies of the court. Most of these works are considered collectively as 'works of the people', even where attributed to someone, such as the kami Susanoo.Japan

Early Man'yōshū poets (Vol. I-III)

The oldest poetic anthology of waka is the 20 volume "Man'yōshū". Probably finished in the early part of the Heian period, it gathered ancient works. The order of its sections is roughly chronological. Most of the works in the "Man'yōshū" have a fixed form today called choka and tanka. But earlier works, especially in Volume I, lacked such fixed form and were attributed to Emperor Yūryaku.

The "Man'yōshū" begins with a waka without fixed form. It is both a love song for an unknown girl whom the poet met by chance and a ritual song praising the beauty of the land. It is worthy of being attributed to an emperor and today is used in court ritual.

The first three sections contain mostly the works of poets from the middle of the 7th century to the early part of the 8th century. Significant poets among them were Nukata no Ōkimi and Kakinomoto Hitomaro. Kakinomoto Hitomaro was not only the greatest poet in those early days and one of the most significant in the "Man'yōshū", he rightly has a place as one of the most outstanding poets in Japanese literature.

Chinese influence

Chinese literature was introduced into Japan in the 7th century. It took almost a half century before it began to influence Japanese literature. In the court of Emperor Temmu some nobles made attempts to recite Chinese poetry. Chinese literacy was a sign of education and most high courtiers wrote poetry in Chinese. Later these works were collected in the "Kaifūsō", one of the earliest anthologies of poetry in Japan, edited in the early Heian period. Thanks to this book the death poem of Prince Ōtsu is still extant today.

The strong influence of Chinese poetics may be seen in Kakyō Hyōshiki. In the 772 text, Fujiwara no Hamanari attempts to apply phonetic rules for Chinese poetry to Japanese poetry.

Nara period poets

In 710 the Japanese capital moved from Fujiwara (today's Asuka, Nara) to Nara and the Nara period (710-794) began. It was the period when Chinese influence reached its culmination. Todai-ji was established and the Great Buddha was created under the order of Emperor Shōmu. The significant waka poets in this period were Otomo no Tabito, Yamanoue no Okura, and Yamabe no Akahito. The "Man'yōshū" included also many female poets who mainly wrote love poems. The poets of the "Man'yōshū" were aristocrats who were born in Nara but sometimes lived or traveled in other provinces as bureaucrats of the emperor. These poets wrote down their impressions of travel and expressed their emotion for lovers or children. Sometimes their poems criticized the political failure of the government or tyranny of local officials. Yamanoue no Okura wrote a choka, "A Dialogue of two Poormen" (貧窮問答歌, Hinkyū mondōka); in this poem two poor men lamented their severe lives of poverty. One hanka is as follows:

:世の中を 憂しとやさしと おもへども 飛び立ちかねつ 鳥にしあらねば:Yononaka wo / Ushi to yasashi to / Omo(h)e domo / Tobitachi kanetsu / Tori ni shi arane ba:I feel the life is / sorrowful and unbearable / though / I can't flee away / since I am not a bird.

The "Man'yōshū" contains not only poems of aristocrats but also those of nameless ordinary people. These poems are called "Yomibito shirazu", poems whose author is unknown. Among them there is a specific style of waka called "Azuma-uta", waka written in the Eastern dialect. Azuma, meaning the East, designated the eastern provinces roughly corresponding to Kantō and occasionally Tōhoku. Those poems were filled with rural flavors. There was a specific style among Azuma-uta, called "Sakimori uta", soldiers' waka. They were mainly waka by drafted soldiers at leaving home. These soldiers were drafted in the eastern provinces and were forced to work as guards in Kyūshū for several years. Sometimes their poetry expressed nostalgia for their far homeland.

Waka in the early Heian period

It is thought the "Man'yōshū" reached its final form, the one we know today, very early in the Heian period. There are strong grounds for believing that Otomo no Yakamochi was the final editor but some documents claim further editing was done in the later period by other poets including Sugawara no Michizane.

Though there was a strong inclination towards Chinese poetry, some eminent waka poets were active in the early Heian period, including the six best waka poets.

The culmination of "kanshi"

In the early Heian period Chinese poetry or "kanshi" (漢詩, Chinese poetry) was most the popular style of poetry among Japanese aristocrats. Some poets like Kūkai studied in China and were fluent in Chinese. Others like Sugawara no Michizane had grown up in Japan but understood Chinese well. When they hosted foreign diplomats, they communicated not orally but in writing, using kanji or Chinese characters. In that period, Chinese poetry in China had reached one of its greatest flowerings. Major Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Po (李白) were their contemporaries and their works were well known to the Japanese. Some who went to China for study or diplomacy made the acquaintance of these major poets. The most popular styles of kanshi were in 5 or 7 syllables in 4 or 8 lines, with very strict rules of rhyme. Japanese poets became skilled in those rules and produced much good poetry. Some long poems with lines of 5 or 7 syllables were also produced. These, when chanted, were referred to as shigin (詩吟) - a practise which continues today.

Emperor Saga himself was proficient at kanshi. He ordered the compilation of three anthologies of kanshi. These were the first of the imperial anthologies, a tradition which continued till the Muromachi period.

Kokin Wakashū

In the middle of the Heian period Waka revived with the compilation of the Kokin Wakashū or Kokinshū (古今(和歌)集 , "collection of ancient and modern poems"). It was edited on the order of Emperor Daigo. About 1,000 waka, mainly from the late Nara period till the contemporary times, were anthologized by five waka poets in the court including Kino Tsurayuki who wrote the "Preface in Kana" (Kanajo).

The Kana preface to Kokin Wakashū was the second earliest expression of literary theory and criticism in Japan (the earliest was by Kūkai). Kūkai's literary theory was not influential, but Kokin Wakashū set the types of waka and hence other genres which would develop from waka.

The collection is divided into twenty parts, reflecting older models such as the "Man'yōshū" and various Chinese anthologies. The organisation of topics is however different from all earlier models, and was followed by all later official collections, although some collections like the "Kin'yō Wakashū" and "Shika Wakashū" reduced the number of parts to ten. The parts of the Kokin Wakashū are ordered as follows: Parts 1-6 covered the four seasons, followed by congratulatory poems, poetry at partings, and travel poems. The last ten sections included poetry on the 'names of things', love, laments, occasional poems, miscellaneous verse, and finally traditional and ceremonial poems from the Bureau of Poetry.

The compilers included the name of the author of each poem, and the topic (題 "dai") or inspiration of the poem, if known. Major poets of the "Kokin Wakashū" include Ariwara Narihira, Ono no Komachi, Henjō and Fujiwara no Okikaze, apart from the compilers themselves. Inclusion in any imperial collection, and particularly the "Kokin Wakashū", was a great honour.

Influence of Kokin Wakashū

The "Kokin Wakashū" is the first of the "Nijūichidaishū" (二十一代集), the 21 collections of Japanese poetry compiled at Imperial request. It was the most influential realization of the ideas of poetry at the time, dictating the form and format of Japanese poetry until the late nineteenth century. The primacy of poems about the seasons pioneered by the "Kokin Wakashū" continues even today in the "haiku" tradition. The Japanese preface by Ki no Tsurayuki is also the beginning of Japanese criticism as distinct from the far more prevalent Chinese poetics in the literary circles of its day. (The anthology also included a traditional Chinese preface authored by Ki no Tomonori.) The idea of including old as well as new poems was another important innovation, one which was widely adopted in later works, both in prose and verse. The poems of the "Kokin Wakashū" were ordered temporally; the love poems, for instance, depict the progression and fluctuations of a courtly love-affair. This association of one poem to the next marks this anthology as the ancestor of the "renga" and "haikai" traditions.

Imperial anthologies of Waka

After Shin Kokin Wakashū ordered and edited by Emperor Go-Toba, eight waka anthologies were compiled under imperial edict. These anthologies reflected the taste of aristocrats and were considered the ideal of waka in each period.

From the late ancient to Middle

Waka in the life of Kuge

In ancient times, it was a custom to exchange waka instead of letters in prose. Sometimes improvised waka were used in daily conversation in high society. In particular, the exchange of waka was common between lovers. Reflecting this custom, five of the twenty volumes of the "Kokin Wakashū" (or "Kokinshū") gathered waka for love. In the Heian period the lovers would exchange waka in the morning when lovers parted at the woman's home. The exchanged waka were called "Kinuginu" (後朝), because it was thought the man wanted to stay with his lover and when the sun rose he had almost no time to don his clothes which had been laid out in place of a mattress (as was the custom in those days). Soon, writing and reciting Waka became a part of aristocratic culture. People recited a piece of appropriate waka freely to imply something on an occasion. In the "Pillow Book" it is written that a consort of Emperor Murakami memorized over 1,000 waka in "Kokin Wakashū" with their description.

Uta-ai, ceremonial waka recitation contests, developed in the middle of the Heian period. The custom began in the reign of Emperor Uda, the father of Emperor Daigo who ordered the compilation of the "Kokin Wakashū". It was 'team combat' on proposed themes grouped in similar manner to the grouping of poems in the "Kokin Wakashū". Representatives of each team recited a waka according to their theme and the winner of the round won a point. The team with the higher overall score won the contest. Both winning poet and team received a certain prize. Holding Utaai was expensive and possible only for Emperors or very high ranked kuge.

The size of Uta-ai inceased. Uta-ai were recorded with hundreds of rounds. Uta-ai motivated the refinement of waka technique but also made waka formalistic and artificial. Poets were expected to create a spring waka in winter or recite a poem of love or lamentation without real situations.

Roei style

Roei was a favored style of reciting poetical works at that time. It was a way of reciting in voice, with relatively slow and long tones. Not whole poetic pieces but a part of classics were quoted and recited by individuals usually followed by a chorus. Fujiwara no Kinto compiled "Wakan roeishu" (Sino-Japanese Anthology for Roei) from Japanese and Chinese poetry works written for roei. One or two lines were quoted in "Wakan roeishu" and those quotations were grouped into themes like Spring, Travel, Celebration.

Age of Nyobo or court ladies

Emperor Ichijō and courts of his empresses, concubines and other noble ladies were a big pool of poets as well as men of the courts.

"The Pillow Book" and "Tale of Genji", from the early 11th century, provide us with examples of the life of aristocrats in the court of Emperor Ichijō and his empresses. Murasaki Shikibu wrote over 3,000 tanka for her "Tale of Genji" in the form of waka her characters wrote in the story. In the story most of those waka were created as an exchange of letters or a conversation. Many classic works of both waka and kanshi were quoted by the nobles. Among those classic poets, the Chinese Tang-dynasty poet Bai Juyi (Po Chü-i) had a great influence on the culture of the middle Heian period. Bai Juyi was quoted by both "The Pillow Book" and "Tale of Genji", and his "A Song of unending Sorrow" (長恨歌), whose theme was a tragic love between the Chinese Emperor and his concubine, inspired Murasaki Shikibu to imagine tragic love affairs in the Japanese imperial court in her "Tale of Genji".

Poetry in the period of cloistered rule

In the period of cloistered rule, the 12th century, some new movements of poetry appeared. First a new form called Imayō (今様, modern style) emerged. Imayō consists of four lines in 8-5 syllables. Usually it was accompanied by music and dance. Female dancer Shirabyoshi danced to the accompaniment of Imayō. Major works were compiled into the anthology "Ryojinhisho" (梁塵秘抄).

Some new trends appeared in waka. There were two opposite trends: an inclination to the contemporary, modern style and on the other hand a revival of the traditional style. Both trends had their schools and won the honor to compile imperial anthologies of waka. Fujiwara no Shunzei and his son Fujiwara no Teika were the leaders of the latter school.

Also in this period for the first time renga were included in the imperial anthologies of waka. At that time, renga was considered a variant of waka. The renga included were waka created by two persons only, quite unlike the later style which featured many stanzas.

"Shin Kokin Wakashū'

In the late period rule by cloistered Emperors, or the early Kamakura period, Emperor Go-Toba, who had abdicated, ordered the compilation of the eighth imperial anthology of waka, the "Shin Kokin Wakashū". Go-Toba himself joined the team of editors. Other editors included Fujiwara no Teika and Kamo no Chōmei.

Fujiwara no Teika

*Works of Teika as a waka poet, critic, scribe and editor
**Two lines of descendants of Teika - Reizei family
*Other poets in those days
*Poetry in the Kamakura period
*Poetry in the Nanbokucho period - Renga developmentTsukubashu - imperial anthology of rengaRenga poets, critics and theoriesDevelopment of shikimoku (renga rules)
Haikai no renga appears - as a parody of renga "Shinseninutusukbashu"Noh play and poetryInfluence from waka and other poetryNoh play reading as a verse
*Poetry in the Sengoku periodRenga and Waka


In the Pre-modern or Edo period (1602-1869) some new styles of poetry developed. One of greatest and most influential styles was renku, (also known as haikai no renga, or haikai), emerging from renga in the medieval period. Matsuo Bashō was a great haikai master and had a wide influence on his contemporaries and later generations. Bashō was also a prominent writer of haibun, a combination of prose and haiku.

The tradition of collaboration between painters and poets had a beneficial influence on poetry in the middle Edo period. In Kyoto there were some artists who were simultaneously poets and painters. Painters of the Shujo school were known as good poets. Among such poet-painters the most significant was Yosa Buson. Buson began his career as a painter but went on to become a master of renku, too. He left many paintings accompanied by his own haiku poems. Such combination of haiku with painting is known as haiga.

Waka underwent a revival, too, in relation to kokugaku, the study of Japanese classics. Kyōka (mad song), a type of satirical waka was also popular.

In the late Edo period, a master of haikai, Karai Senryū made an anthology. His style became known as senryū, after his pseudonym. Senryū is a style of satirical poetry whose motifs are taken from daily life in 5-7-5 syllables. Originally senryū formed the former part of kyoka whose latter part was provided by a haikai master.Fact|date=June 2008 That was not highly artistic but relied on a sort of wordplay called maekuzuke (adding a former part). Anthologies of senryū in the Edo period collect many 'maeku' or senryū made by ordinary amateur senryū poets adding in front of the latter 7-7 part written by a master. It was a sort of poetry contest and the well written senryū by amateurs were awarded by the master and other participants.


A new wave came from the West when Japan was introduced to European and American poetry. This poetry belonged to a very different tradition and was regarded by Japanese poets as a form without any boundaries. "Shintai-shi" (New form poetry) or "Jiyu-shi" (Freestyle poetry) emerged at this time. They still relied on a traditional pattern of 5-7 syllable patterns, but were strongly influenced by the forms and motifs of Western poetry. Later, in the Taisho era, some poets began to write their poetry in a much looser metric. In contrast with this development, Kanshi slowly went out of fashion and was seldom written. As a result, Japanese men of letters lost the traditional background of Chinese literary knowledge. Originally the word "shi" meant poetry, especially Chinese poetry, but today it means mainly modern-style poetry in Japanese. "Shi" is also known as "kindai-shi" (modern poetry). Since World War II, poets and critics have used the name "gendai-shi" (contemporary poetry). This includes the poets Kusano Shimpei, Tanikawa Shuntaro and Ishigaki Rin.

As for the traditional styles such as "waka" and "haiku," the early modern era was also a time of renovation. Yosano Tekkan and later Masaoka Shiki revived those forms. The words "haiku" and "tanka" were both coined by Shiki. They laid the basis for development of this poetry in the modern world. They introduced new motifs, rejected some old authorities in this field, recovered forgotten classics, and published magazines to express their opinions and lead their disciples. This magazine-based activity by leading poets is a major feature of Japanese poetry even today.

Some poets, including Yosano Akiko, Ishikawa Takuboku, Hagiwara Sakutaro wrote in many styles: they used both traditional forms like waka and haiku and "new style" forms. Most Japanese poets, however, generally write in a single form of poetry.Haikus are very common in Japan.


Important Poets (premodern)

*Kakinomoto no Hitomaro
*Ariwara no Narihira
*Ono no Komachi
*Izumi Shikibu
*Fujiwara no Teika
*Matsuo Bashō
*Yosa no Buson
*Kobayashi Issa

Important poets (Modern)

*Yosano Akiko
*Masaoka Shiki
*Taneda Santōka
*Takamura Kotaro
*Ishikawa Takuboku
*Hagiwara Sakutaro
*Kenji Miyazawa
*Noguchi Yonejiro
*Tanikawa Shuntaro
*Kitahara Hakushu

Important collections and works

For haiku in Japanese, the largest anthology is the 12 volume Bunruihaiku-zenshū (Classified Collection of Haiku) compiled by Masaoka Shiki, but completed after his death, which collects haiku not only by seasonal theme but also by sub-theme. It includes work going back to the 15th century, which is to say a century or two further than is common for contemporary collections.

The largest collection of haiku translated into English on any single subject is "Cherry Blossom Epiphany" by Robin D. Gill, which contains some 3,000 Japanese haiku on the subject of the cherry blossom. [Gill, Robin D. "Cherry Blossom Epiphany", Paraverse Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0-9742618-6-7]


Further reading

*Miner, Earl Roy, Odagiri, Hiroko, and Morrell, Robert E., "The Princeton companion to classical Japanese literature", Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1985. ISBN 0691065993

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