Waka (poetry)

From New World Encyclopedia

Waka (和歌), or Yamato uta, is a genre of Japanese poetry. Waka literally means Japanese poem in Japanese. The word was originally coined during the Heian period to differentiate native poetry from the kanshi (Chinese poems) that all educated Japanese people were also familiar with. For this reason, the word waka encompasses a number of differing styles. The main two are tanka (短歌, "short poem") and chōka (長歌, "long poem"), but there are also bussokusekika, sedoka, and katauta. These last three forms, however, fell into disuse at the beginning of the Heian period, and chōka vanished soon afterward. Thus, in time, the term waka came to signify the one sub-form tanka. Japanese poet and critic, Masaoka Shiki, created the term tanka in the early twentieth century, saying that "waka should be renewed and modernized." Until then, poems of this nature had been referred to as waka or simply uta ("song, poem"). He also invented the term haiku for his revision of the old hokku form, with the same intention.

Traditionally, waka has had no concept of rhyme (certain arrangements of rhymes, even accidental, were considered to be dire faults in a poem), or even of line. Instead of lines, waka has the unit (連) and the phrase (句). (Units or phrases are often turned into lines when poetry is translated or transliterated into Western languages.)

Forms of Waka


Chōka consists of 5-7 syllable phrases repeated at least twice, and concludes with a 5-7-7 ending.

The briefest chōka documented was made by Yamanoue no Okura in the Nara period, and goes:

瓜食めば子ども思ほゆ栗食めばまして思はゆ何処より来りしものそ眼交にもとな懸りて安眠し寝さぬ (Man'yōshū: 0337),

which consists of a pattern 5-7 5-7 5-7 5-7-7:

瓜食めば Uri hameba When I eat melons
子ども思ほゆ Kodomo Omooyu My children come to my mind;
栗食めば Kuri hameba When I eat chestnuts
まして思はゆ Mashite Omowayu The longing is even worse.
何処より Izuko yori Where do they come from,
来りしものそ Kitarishi monoso Flickering before my eyes.
眼交に Manakai ni Making me helpless
もとな懸りて Motona kakarite Incessantly night after night.
安眠し寝さぬ Yasui shi nesanu Not letting me sleep in peace?

(English translation by Edwin A. Cranston, from A Waka Anthology: Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup, Stanford University Press, 1993)


Tanka consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when Romanized or translated) usually with the following mora pattern: :5-7-5 / 7-7.

The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku ("upper phrase"), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku ("lower phrase").

Tanka is a much older form of Japanese poetry than haiku. In ancient times poems of this form were called hanka ("reverse poem"), since the 5-7-5-7-7 form derived from the conclusion (envoi) of a choka. Sometimes a choka had two envois.

The choka above is followed by an envoi; 銀も金も玉も何せむに勝れる宝子にしかめやも, also written by Okura.

銀も Shirogane mo What are they to me,
金も玉も Kogane mo tama mo Silver, or gold, or jewels?
何せんに Nanisen ni How could they ever
まされる宝 Masareru takara Equal the greater treasure
子にしかめやも Koni shikame yamo That is a child?

(English translation by Edwin A. Cranston)

Even in the late Asuka period, waka poets such as Kakinomoto Hitomaro created tanka as independent works. Tanka was suitable for expressing the concerns of their private lives and personal feelings, in comparison with choka, which was solemn enough to express deep, serious emotion when facing a significant event. The Heian period saw many tanka. In the early Heian Period (at the beginning of the tenth century), choka was seldom written and tanka became the main form of waka. Since then, the generic term waka has become almost identical with tanka. The Heian period also saw the invention of a new tanka-based game: One poet recited or created half of a tanka, and the other finished it off. This sequential, collaborative tanka was called renga ("linked poem").

Other forms

There are other forms of waka. In ancient times, its syllabic form was not fixed; it could vary from the standard 5 and 7 to also 3, 4, 6, and longer than 7 syllables in a waka. There were many other forms, including:

  • Bussokusekika: This form is carved on a slab of slate—the Bussokuseki (stone silhouette of Buddha's feet)—at the Yakushi-ji temple in Nara, and is also recorded in Man'yōshū (the earliest anthology of tanka poems, 600-759). The pattern is 5-7-5-7-7-7.
  • Sedoka: Man'yōshū and Kokin Wakashu recorded this form. The pattern is 5-7-7-5-7-7.
  • Katauta: Man'yōshū recorded this form. Katauta means "half song" in Japanese. The pattern is 5-7-7, just same as a half part of Sedoka.

All three of these forms have not been seen since the middle of the Heian period.

Poetic culture

In ancient times, it was a custom for corresponding writers, particularly lovers, to exchange waka instead of prose letters. Reflecting this custom, five of the twenty volumes of the Kokin Wakashu contain waka love poems. During the Heian period, the lovers would exchange waka when they met in the morning 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 as long as possible, and when the sun rose he had almost no time to put on his clothes, which had been laid out and slept on instead of mattress (as was customary in those days). Works of this period, The Pillow Book and Tale of Genji, provide examples from the lives of aristocrats. Murasaki Shikibu wrote around 950 waka for the Tale of Genji, representing them as waka written by the characters in her story. Shortly afterward, making and reciting waka became a part of aristocratic culture. Part of an appropriate waka would be recited freely to imply something about an event or a particular occasion.

Much like with Tea ceremony, there were a number of rituals and events surrounding the composition, presentation, and judgment of waka. There were two types of waka party: Utakai and Utaawase. Utakai was a party in which all participants wrote a waka and recited it. Utakai derived from Shikai, or Kanshi parties and was held on an occasion when people gathered, such as a seasonal party for the New Year, or a celebration for a newborn baby, a birthday, or a newly-built house. Utaawase was a contest between two teams. Themes were determined and a poet chosen from each team wrote a waka for a given theme. The host appointed a judge for each theme and gave points to the winning team. The team which received the largest number of points was the winner. The first recorded Utaawase was held in around 885. At first, Utaawase was simply a playful entertainment, but as the poetic tradition deepened and developed, it turned into a serious aesthetic contest, with considerably more formality.

History of Waka development

Waka has a long history. It was first recorded in the early of the eighth century in the Kojiki and Manyoshu. Under the influence of other genres such as Kanshi, Chinese poetry, novels and stories like Tale of Genji and even Western poetry, it has developed gradually, broadening its repertoire of expression and topics.

Literary critic Donald Keene divides waka into four large categories:

  1. Early and Heian Literature—Kojiki and past ''The Tale of Genji'' to 1185
  2. The Middle Ages—"chūsei" from 1185, including the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods
  3. Pre-Modern Era—1600-1867, then subdivided into 1600-1770 and 1770-1867
  4. Modern Era—post 1867, divided into Meiji (1868-1912), Taishō (1912-1926), and Shōwa (from 1927)


The earliest waka, recorded in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, were not divided into subcategories or strict forms. The waka in the Man'yōshū did not have fixed forms, but poets of the late seventh century, in the time of Empress Saimei began to create Choka and Tanka in the forms extant today.

The most ancient waka were recorded in the twenty volumes of the Man'yōshū, the oldest surviving waka anthology in Japan. The editor is anonymous, but it is believed that the final editor of the Man'yōshū was Otomo no Yakamochi, a waka poet who belonged to the youngest generation represented in the anthology; the last volume is dominated by his poems. The first waka of Volume One was by Emperor Ojin. Nukata no Okimi, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Yamabe no Akahito, Yamanoue no Okura, Otomo no Tabito, and his son, Yakamochi, were the greatest poets in this anthology. The Man'yōshū recorded not only the works of these royals and nobles, but also works of commoners whose name were unrecorded. The main topics of the Man'yōshū were love, sadness (especially in occasion of someone's death), and other miscellaneous topics.

Heian revival

During the Nara period and the early Heian period (710–1185), the court favored Chinese-style poetry (kanshi), and the waka art form stagnated. During the tenth century, Japan stopped sending official envoys to the Tang dynasty. This severing of diplomatic ties with China, and the perilous ocean crossing, essentially forced the court to cultivate native talent and look inward, synthesizing what they had learned from the Chinese with local traditions. The waka form again began to flourish, and Emperor Daigo ordered the creation of an anthology of waka. It was the first waka anthology edited and issued under Imperial auspices, and it initiated a long and distinguished tradition of imperial anthologies of waka that continued up to the Muromachi period. The famous waka poets in those days (including Ki no Tsurayuki) gathered waka of both ancient poets and their contemporaries, giving the anthology its name, Kokin Wakashu, literally, the Ancient-and-Now Anthology.


During the Kamakura period (1192–1333), "Renga," a form of collaborative linked verse, began to develop. In the late Heian period, three of the last great waka poets, Fujiwara no Shunzei and his son, Fujiwara no Teika, and Emperor Go-Toba, appeared. Emperor Go-Toba ordered the creation of a new anthology and joined in editing it. The anthology was named Shin-kokin Wakashu. He edited it over and over until his death in the Oki Islands. Teika made copies of ancient books and wrote on the theory of waka. His descendants, and indeed almost all subsequent poets, such as Shōtetsu, taught his methods and studied his poems. The poetry of the court had been historically dominated by a few noble clans and allies, each of which staked out a position. By the Kamakura period, a number of clans had fallen by the wayside, leaving the Reizei and the Nijo families in the forefront; the Reizei were characterized by a "progressive" approach, the varied use of the "ten styles" and novelty, while the Nijo conservatively adhered to already established norms and the "ujin" (deep feelings) style that dominated court poetry. Eventually, the Nijo family became defunct, leading to the ascension of the "liberal" Rezei family; however, their innovative reign was soon overturned by the Asukai family, aided by the Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshinori.

During the Muromachi period (1333–1573), renga became popular in the court and spread to the priestly classes and then to wealthy commoners. Some renga anthologies were compiled under the Imperial patronage, just the waka anthologies had been. As popular interest shifted to the renga form, the tanka style was left to the Imperial court, whose conservative tendencies exacerbated the tanka’s loss of life and flexibility. A tradition called Kokin-denju, the heritage of Kokin Wakashu, developed. It was a system for analyzing the Kokin Wakashu and included the knowledge of the secret (or lost) meaning of words. The study of waka degenerated into the learning of many intricate rules, allusions, theories, and secrets, so as to produce tanka, which would be accepted by the court.

The Kojiki and the Man'yōshū contained comical waka, but the noble style of waka in the court inhibited and scorned humor. Renga was soon in the same position, with many codes and strictures reflecting literary tradition. Haikai no renga (also called just haikai—playful renga) and kyōka, comical waka, appeared in reaction to this seriousness. During the Edo period, however, waka itself lost almost all of its flexibility and began to echo and repeat old poems and themes.

Tokugawa shogunate

In the early Edo period (1603–1867), waka was not fashionable. Newly created haikai no renga featuring the hokku as the opening verse (of which haiku was a late nineteenth century revision) was the favored genre. This tendency lasted until the late Edo period, when waka began to take new directions outside of the court. Motoori Norinaga, the great reviver of the traditional Japanese literature, attempted to revive waka as a means of articulating "traditional feeling expressed in genuine Japanese way." He wrote waka, and it became an important form to his followers, the Kokugaku scholars. In Echigo province, a Buddhist priest, Ryōkan, composed many waka in a naïve style, intentionally avoiding complex rules and the traditional way of waka. He belonged to another great tradition of waka, waka for expressing religious feeling. His frank expression of his feelings was appreciated by many admirers, then and now.

In the big cities like Edo and Osaka, a comical, ironic, and satiric form of waka, called kyōka (狂歌), or mad poem, emerged among the intellectuals. This was not exactly a new form; satirical waka had been known since ancient times. It was in the Edo period that this aspect of waka developed and reached an artistic peak. Most waka poets, however, continued to adhere to ancient tradition or made innovations in style into new stereotypes, so that waka in general was still not a vibrant genre at the end of this period.


The modern revival of tanka began with several poets who published literary magazines, gathering their friends and disciples as contributors. Yosano Tekkan and the poets associated with his Myōjō magazine were one shot-lived example. A young high school student, Otori You, later known as Yosano Akiko and the wife of Tekkan, and Ishikawa Takuboku were contributors. Masaoka Shiki's poems and writings (as well as the works of his friends and disciples) have had a more lasting influence. The magazine which he founded, Hototogisu (a bird made famous by Basho in a haiku), is still in publication. He was a great poet, both in his new haiku form and tanka, and is sometimes called the Father of Modern Tanka. He invented the term tanka as a replacement for waka. After World War II, waka began to be considered old-fashioned, but since the late 1980s, it has revived under the auspices of contemporary poet Tawara Machi.

During the Meiji period (1868–1912), Masaoka Shiki announced that waka should be modernized, just as many other aspects of Japanese culture were being “modernized.” He praised the style of Man'yōshū, calling it manly, as opposed to the style of ''Kokin Wakashu,'' considered for a thousand years to be the ideal type of waka, which he called feminine and degraded. He also praised Minamoto no Sanetomo, the third Shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate, a disciple of Fujiwara Teika who composed waka in a style much like that in the Man'yōshū. After Shiki died, in the Taishō period (1912–1926), Saito Mokichi and his friends gathered a poetry circle, Araragi, that praised the Man'yōshū. Using their magazine, they spread their influence throughout Japan. In spite of their modernization, in the court the old traditions still prevailed. Today, the court still holds many utakai, both officially and privately. The utakai, which the emperor holds at the first of each year, is called utakai-hajime and is an important event for waka poets; the Emperor himself releases a single tanka for the public's perusal. Anyone can apply to it by submitting a waka on a previously-announced theme, and there are many applicants every year.

Today, there are many circles of waka poets. Many newspapers have a weekly waka column and there are numerous professional and amateur waka poets. As a parting gesture in his weekly email to the nation, outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered a tanka poem as thanks to his supporters.

Tanka written in English

The writing of tanka in English began more slowly than the writing of English-language haiku; the first English-language tanka collections date from 1974. Tanka is still written in English far less often than haiku, but interest in the tanka form in English has been growing.

Unlike Japanese poets, who often write primarily or only one form of poetry, many English-language tanka poets also write other short poetry forms including haiku, senryu, and cinquain. Most early English-language tanka appeared in journals that featured a variety of forms of small poems, although the main American haiku magazines publish only haiku and sometimes senryu.

Only recently have there been journals devoted exclusively to tanka, including American Tanka (1996) in the United States and Tangled Hair in Britain. The first English-language tanka journal, Five Lines Down, began in 1994, edited by Sanford Goldstein and Kenneth Tanemura, but lasted only a few issues. The Tanka Society of America was founded by Michael Dylan Welch in April 2000.

In the late twentieth century, a small group of poets began a revival of pre-Shiki "waka," aiming for a more austere and traditional content akin to that of Saigyo, and going under the group name "Mountain Home," an English translation of the title of the famous collection of Saigyo's waka, the Sanka Shu (Mountain Home Collection).

Famous waka and tanka poets

  • Kakinomoto Hitomaro
  • Yamabe no Akahito
  • Otomo no Yakamochi
  • Henjo
  • Ariwara no Narihira
  • Hun'ya no Yasuhide
  • Kisen
  • Ono no Komachi
  • Otomo no Kuronushi
  • Kukai
  • Kino Tsurayuki
  • Fujiwara no Teika
  • Saigyo Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師) (1118-1190)
  • Emperor Go-Toba
  • Motoori Norinaga
  • Ueda Akinari
  • Ryōkan
  • Masaoka Shiki (正岡 子規) (1867-1902)
  • Yosano Akiko (与謝野 晶子) (1878-1942)
  • Ishikawa Takuboku
  • Saito Mokichi
  • Ito Sachio
  • Nagatsuka Takashi
  • Okamoto Kanoko
  • Wakayama Bokusui
  • Orikuchi Shinobu under the pseudonym Shaku Choku
  • Terayama Shuji

Famous waka collections

Waka collections that Japanese Emperor chose(勅撰和歌集)

  • Kokin-wakashu (古今和歌集)
  • Shin Kokinshū (新古今和歌集)
  • Gyokuyoshu  (玉葉和歌集)

Waka collections that individual chooses(私撰和歌集)

  • Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brower, Robert H. and Earl Miner. Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford University Press, 1961. ISBN 0804715246
  • Carter, Steven D. (trans.). Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford University Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0804722124
  • Carter, Steven D. (trans.). Waiting for the Wind: Thirty-six Poets of Japan's Late Medieval Age. Columbia University Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0231068543
  • Cranston, Edwin (trans.). A Waka Anthology, Volume: The Gem-Glistening Cup. Stanford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0804719225
  • Keene, Donald (ed.). Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Grove Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0802150585
  • McClintock, Michael, Pamela Miller Ness, and Jim Kacian (eds.). The Tanka Anthology: 800 of the Best Tanka in English by 68 of Its Finest Practitioners. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1893959408
  • McCullough, Helen Craig. Brocade by Night: 'Kokin Wakashū' and the Court Style in Japanese Classical Poetry. Stanford University Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0804712460
  • McCullough, Helen Craig. Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, with 'Tosa Nikki' and 'Shinsen Waka'. Stanford University Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0804712583
  • Miner, Earl. An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford University Press, 1968. ISBN 978-0804706360
  • Nakano, Jiro. Outcry from the Inferno: Atomic Bomb Tanka Anthology. Honolulu, HI: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1995. ISBN 0910043388
  • Philippi, Donald (trans.). This Wine of Peace, the Wine of Laughter: A Complete Anthology of Japan's Earliest Songs. New York: Grossman, 1968. ASIN B000I8VPFI
  • Shiffert, Edith, and Yuki Sawa (eds.). Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1972. ISBN 978-0804806725
  • Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology. Columbia University Press, 1996. ISBN 0231104324
  • Welch, Michael Dylan (ed.). Footsteps in the Fog. Foster City, CA: Press Here, 1994. ISBN 187879812X

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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