Being a translator of Japanese poetry, and a resident of Japan off
and on, for over 50 years, I have often been asked, "Do you translate
haiku?" Or just meeting someone for the first time I might be told,
"Oh, I just love haiku. . . ." I merely agree and say, "I love haiku too,
and have translated some." But many people are surprised when I
often add, "The Japanese poetry that I really appreciate, however, is
tanka. It is a thousand years older than haiku!" Sometimes I add with a
chuckle, "Haiku poetry is really pretty modern! I like the older poetry."
Let me explain.
Japanese poetry sprang from the hidden valleys of the mountains and
secluded coves along the rugged shores of the ancient islands of
Japan. Poems were the chants of the rice fields and fishing boats,
the prayers to the deities of earth, sky and sea. Poems were the
love songs, sometimes in wooing contests, in the forests behind
village shrines where boys and girls would gather, away from their
parents, after festivals. Poems were the sounds heard in the songs of
birds, the call of the deer, or the honk of the wild geese migrating
towards one's longed for home. Poems were the songs in praise of
hues of autumn or blossoms in spring. Poetry was the voiced awe of the
world in which we are all born and to which we all die.
Poetry was an important part of a long oral tradition existing long
before the Japanese, under the early influence of the Chinese, devised
a system of writing down their literature. Stories, legends, myths,
and poems were memorized and passed on by kataribe or guilds of
reciters often associated with the families in power. Only later
were these stories and poems actually written down. The oldest
extant book of anything we have appeared in the year ca. 712. It is
the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) that was written down by a
scribe named O no Yasumaro, who was said to have copied down the
memorized words of the woman reciter Hieda no Are. The book
contains familiar stories about the creation of the islands and the
birth of the Sun Goddess and her siblings. It also tells about the
linage of the emperors up to that date, and contains about 500 "uta,"
which means both songs and poems. Poetic form varies in the Kojiki,
but we do see the appearance of the tanka (also called waka) which is
one of the many poetic forms that utilized an alternative 5,7,5
syllable count. In the case of the tanka, however, the poem ends the
31 syllables with a 7, 7 couplet. The tanka became the main stay of
Japanese poetry, in aristocratic circles anyway, for the remainder of
Let me add a comment about the use of the two terms to describe
the 5,7,5,7,7 or 31 syllable poem form. "Tanka" means "short poem,"
as opposed to the "Choka" or "Nagauta" (both terms mean "long poem"
that was popular in 8th century Japan). "Waka" (Japanese Poem) is the
term used to define all kinds of Japanese poems in contrast to the kanshi
or poems written by Japanese poets in the Chinese language. Tanka became
the most popular of the waka poetry and so, now the terms "tanka" and
"waka" are often used as synonyms. Poets now writing these poems in
modern times, anyway, seem to prefer the term "tanka." The
reason for the preference of alternating syllables of 5 and 7 is not
clear. The preference appeared way back in pre historical oral
literature, and the reasons can only now be debated. Some say there is a
Chinese influence. Some say that the line length is related to the
breath. Still others say it is because asymmetrical aesthetics appeal
to the Japanese in nearly everything. No one knows for sure.
The Emperor Meiji, who led in modernizing his country during his
reign from 1868 to 1912, is said to have written between 90,000 and
100,000 of these 31 syllable waka poems. His wife, the Empress Shoken,
was said to have written 30,000. My own translations of a sampling of both
these works can be seen on the Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine) web site or
are available in book form at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. But we just leaped
forward in our discussion more than 1000 years.
Now, returning to the year 712, and the Kojiki, the oldest book,
in which we are told that Susano o Omikami, the brother of Amaterasu
Omikami, the Sun Goddess of Japan, wrote the following poem after he
saved a young woman from being eaten by a great serpent and then
married her. The area in which this is said to have happened is called
Izumo, which means "appearing clouds." It is the site of the second
most important Shinto Shrine in Japan, the Izumo Shrine dedicated to Susano o. Anyway his poem is considered to be the very first 31 syllable poem, or tanka,
in the Japanese language.
sono yaegaki o
Many clouds rise up
clouds appear to form a fence
holding this couple;
They form layers of a fence
Oh, the layers of that fence.
Other than the 31 syllable tanka, as seen above, some of the
oldest poems in the Japanese language have been handed down to us
as folksongs. One of my favorites deals with the difficulty of farming in
stony fields. It appeared in the form of an ancient, probably 9th
century, scroll entitled Kinkafu (Music for Japanese Harp), that was
not even discovered until 1924. But an anonymous farmer probably sang
this song over a thousand years ago. It can be noted that the syllable
count is much freer and we have no idea how it was actually sung.
tsukurishi ta no
ishida wa inae
ishida wa ono o tsukureba
"kawara" to "yura" to naru
ishida wa inae
ishida wa inae
Made by Noblemen!
Damn stony fields!
Planting in stony fields
All I hear is "kuwara" and "yura"
Damn stony fields!
Damn stony fields!
Taketori Monogatari (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter) is one of the
oldest folk legends in Japan to be written down as a story. One of the
characters in the later, but still a thousand year old, Tale of Genji,
the world's first novel, tells us that The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is
the "parent of all tales." The story is ancient and some scholars
believe it originally came from China. Anyway, in the story an old
bamboo cutter finds a tiny beautiful girl in a stalk of bamboo. She
grows up to be the most desirable young woman of the land. She rejects
all suitors. Even the Emperor himself was rejected when the moon princess
chose to return to her home in the land of the sky. To console the sovereign,
he was given a magic medicine that would permit him to live forever. But
he didn't want to live forever without his love. So he had the potion taken to
the top of the highest mountains in Japan to be burned. Because of the undying
fire at the top, the mountain was named "Fuji", which means "no death." The story
ends with the Emperor then composing the 31 syllable tanka poem.:
Au koto mo
namida ni ukabu
waga mi ni wa
shinanu kusuri mo
nani ka wa semu
Now not seeing her
I find myself just floating
in a flood of tears . . .
What could I possibly do
with an "undying" potion.
The first if not the most important anthology of early Japanese
poetry is the Manyoshu (Collection of Ten-Thousand Leaves).
Compiled in its final form sometime during the 8th century, the
anthology contains 4,516 poems arranged in twenty volumes.
Embodying the strengths of feeling, sincerity, and simplicity,
these poems have been honored as the purest expression of the
early Japanese spirit. Later scholars, however, have been able to
discern much in terms of Chinese, and even Korean influence.
Japan in the 8th century was coming under much continental
influence in terms of politics, architecture, Buddhism, and
Much of the Manyoshu's richness is derived from the varied
backgrounds of over 400 known contributors. There are also many
anonymous poets whose work is included in the collection. Aristocratic
sentiments, rustic expressions of frontier guards, folk songs, poems in
praise of sake, longer poems on legends, and even poems of love are
found in great numbers.
Kakinomto Hitomaro (8th century) wrote in one of his well-known poems:
nu ni kagiroi
Kaerimi sure ba
tsuki katabuki nu
Looking to the east
we saw the glow of morning
rising over fields
Then turning to look behind
the moon was just then setting.
Many of the love poems were written on themes of separation
rather than on the praise of one's physical attractions. Poetry was
a basic form of communication between lovers, who were not
always permitted to meet as frequently or as openly as they might
have wished. One of the major themes is the sadness in "longing
In this early period, Japan was growing, under the cultural influence
of China, into a more solidified nation-state in which the family was
becoming a rigid social unit. Once the Imperial Family had established
itself, in terms of divine and secular power, as the central authority
of the island nation, marriage was openly used as a political device to aid
other powerful families or clans to move upward in terms of power.
Having a daughter married to the Emperor or the son of an emperor was
the ambition of many aristocrats, for in this way, an ambitious man may
see his own grandson ascend to the throne. "Marriage Politics" was the major
way for ambitious families to achieve power and prestige. As a result, men
and women often were not permitted to marry or to have open relationships
with those most attractive to them in fear of jeopardizing, not only their
own reputations, but the political unions of the time. Gossip then, was
not merely the idle amusement of the leisure class; it was a weapon. A
scandal could lead to the downfall of the holders of power.
We can read in the love poems themselves that men and women, even
though officially married, were often living separately. Women had their
own homes. Perhaps this system is a remnant of a matriarchal or
matrilineal past, but Japan was moving towards a more patriarchal
society. It would be centuries, however, before the Japanese woman
would be forced to surrender title, name, and inherited home in her
marriage with a man selected by her parents. Aristocratic women of the
Manyoshu, anyway, were still independent enough to retain their own
identities and homes even in marriage. They did not live alone, however;
they were surrounded by extended family members, ladies in waiting,
servants and the like. Prying eyes were everywhere. Confucian morality
put some pressure on women to remain chaste and faithful, but that
confining thought did not influence the Japanese man very much. The
Manyo male, like the later hero of the famed Tale of Genji, was probably
seeing a number of women at the same time. He may even have had several
legal wives, and he certainly did not want any of the ladies to know too
clearly where he spent each night, when they were expected to "pass the
night alone". Gossip was everywhere.
It is believed that the Japanese love poems sprang out of occasional
song fests associated with Shinto fertility rites of the distant past.
Songs were an important part of the wooing ritual. Later, after the
Japanese had developed a written language, these spontaneous love
songs were written down and sent by messengers to one's love. Even
the lower classes of soldiers, or frontier guards, were involved with
the writing of love poems to women back home. One fellow, by the name
of Mononobe Akimochi (8th century), didn't seem too happy about being
drafted for distant duty.
We have received
our Imperial Orders
and from tomorrow
We will sleep among the reeds
while our wives remain behind.
Many of the other Manyoshu poems were written in or around the city of
Nara, which was the imperial capital at the time this anthology was
compiled. It is believed that the editor was Otomo Yakamochi (716-785),
who was able to include as many as 500 of his own poems, as well as
many pieces by those in his circle, in the collection. He even included
many love poems addressed to himself in the work. One Lady Kasa, wrote
him over 20 poems pleading for his attention, but the cad did not have the
manners to reply even once! I think in the end, she gave up on him and wrote:
To love someone
who does not return that love
is like offering prayers
Back behind a starving god
within a Buddhist temple.
Still, the much sought after Otomo Yakamichi was able to write to
someone else perhaps:
I am all alone
and feel the deepest sadness
but for condolence
I have come outside to hear
the crying of cicadas.
Well maybe, but I can guess he spent the rest of the night reading the
love poems from Lady Kasa and others.
The 31 syllable tanka poetic form became the mainstay of Japanese
Imperial poetry, and it has continued right down to the present day as
a viable verse form. It has begun to regain some of its popularity in
the general population, much like the later haiku. Just a few years
ago, a young woman by the name of Tawara Machi wrote a book of
tanka that dealt with contemporary themes like dating and eating
hamburgers. The book, entitled Sarada Kinenbi (Memorial Day of the Salad), sold
upwards of 3 million copies. Let me include one example in translation.
Just like standing up
to leave a seat in some shop
that sells hamburgers . . .
That's the way I'm really
going to get rid of that man.
Now tanka, like haiku, is written the world over in many languages
other than Japanese. I myself started writing English language tanka in
1952, on my first trip to Japan. I had discovered the poetry of the Manyoshu
in translation long before I learned to read or write in Japanese. I
remember having a serious crush on a young Japanese woman in Iwakuni,
Japan. I wrote:
Warm breeze that I breathe
that drifts from yonder mountain
in whose shade you dwell
Has been sweetened, I believe,
by blowing through your hair.
I also remember, sadly, like many Manyoshu lovers 1200 years before me,
of "spending my night alone."
Harold Wright is Professor of Japanese at Antioch College
in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He is the author of Ten Thousand Leaves:
Love Poems From the Manyoshu, Translated From the Japanese.
The poems herein were newly translated for this article.