Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6
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Kaleidoscopic Mandala - Introduction to Renku Performance

Origin of Renku

Renku was originally called renga when it was established in the 14th Century. The origin of Japanese renga goes back to the 8th Century, when Tanka form was popular. Tanka usually consists of 31 syllables with the substructure of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. When the top half, that is 5-7-5, is composed by one poet, and is followed by the bottom half, that is 7-7, made by another, we have a single renga (Tan-Renga).

Development of Renku

Nijo Yoshimoto (1320-1388) compiled the Tsukuba Anthology (Tsukubashu), the first renga anthology in 1356. He is also responsible for sorting renga rules. Shinkei (1406-1475) demonstrated aesthetics that combines Waka, Renga, and Buddhism.

Shinkei's disciples, Sogi (1421-1502) and Kenzai (1452-1510), compiled the New Tsukuba Anthology (Shirisen Taukubashu) in 1495.

Renku took a revolutionary turn in the 17th Century, when Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) combined traditional aesthetics and the culture of common people. Renku spread all over the country.

Fall and Rise of Renku

When the Edo period was over and the Meiji period began in 1868, Japan was flooded with Western cultures. The individualistic literary theory, which was introduced from the West, smothered the spirit of renku. Renku sank in the waves of the cultural revolution.

Renku survived the storm of modernization. In 1985 the Japanese Renku Association was established by a small number of poets and scholars in the hope of reviving renku as literature. The association currently numbers 1500, and is thriving.

Forms of Renku

Renku is basically a chain of images, each of which is projected in a haiku-like verse. When it was first developed in the 14th Century, the standard form was One Hundred Verses (Hyakuin). Many variations of forms have been developed since then. By late 17th Century the Kasen form with 36 verses became popular and most of Basho's renku are in this form. Modern renku tends to get shorter: the Twenty Stanza (Nijuin) consists of 20 verses, and the Twelve Tone (Junicho) 12 verses.

All these forms are used depending on the available time. The One Hundred Verses will usually take 10 hours; the Kasen 4 hours; the Twenty Stanza 2 hours; and the Twelve Tone 1 hour.

Renku and the West

Renku has been written in Europe and the Americas for over thirty years. The Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz and three friends composed a renku in Paris in 1969, which was published as Renga in 1971. This was the first attempt to adopt renku in Western poetry by combining renku and sonnet. In 1976 John Cage published an orchestral piece called renga to celebrate the Bicentennial of the USA. This was the first attempt to combine renku and American literature. In the 80s renku spread among haiku poets in North America, and a new experimental form has been created.

One crucial problem in the West is the adamant spirit of individualism. Renku requires both micro and macro views, which may be called a mandalic view. This means that the collaborating spirit is indispensable in renku.

Renku Performance

A renku party is practically a performance of writing poems with a group of people. Formal Renku (Shoshiki Haikai) was developed during the 18th Century for presentation at various occasions such as an anniversary or a memorial ceremony. It usually takes place at shrines or temples.

Renku Performance on stage is a modern experiment, and it is substantially different from the conventional Formal Renku. The primary difference is that Renku Performance is an inter-arts fusion, with a poetic text being the shared score. Theoretically there are as many combinations as there are art forms in the world; it is a kaleidoscopic mandala with ever-changing interaction among different art forms.


Z*A is a group of artists dedicated to the universal value of renku as a medium to bring people together beyond cultures, and artistic genres. The Earth is the only Utopia we have in the whole universe, and its reality is undeniable. It holds the entire ecosystem including human beings, and maintains its unity all by itself. Our egotistic mind often fails to see this holistic nature of the Earth. The 21st Century demands us to restore the sense of one-ness with the Earth and our original relation with the universe. Z*A is a medium to promote this awareness through exploring the universal value shared among artists with different cultural backgrounds.

Z*A was first formed in 1996 by Tadashi Kondo with Allen LeVines (piano), Arawana Hayashi (dance), and Tiger Okoshi (trumpet). It welcomes artists with different backgrounds and collaborative spirit, and is willing to challenge the conventional combinations of performing arts in search of a new order of harmony.

The name Z*A comes from Japanese Za, which means the place where a renku writing session takes place. It also means the group of poets who are participating in the renku session. The term was first used to characterize the genre of renku by Tsutomu Ogata in his book published in 1973.

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