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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

Social Uses of Tanka Poetry: Passion, Prayer, Peace and Other Pastimes
by Harold Wright

Tanka, 31 syllable verse form that is made up of five phrases 5, 7, 5, and 7, 7 syllables, has been composed longer than recorded history in Japan. In legend the very first tanka was sung by a Shinto deity.

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 sacrificed to a great serpent, and then married her. The area where this is said to have happened is called Izumo, which means "appearing clouds" and is the site of the second most important Shinto Shrine in Japan, the Izumo Shrine dedicated to Susano o and his descendants. This poem is considered to be the very first tanka. It appears in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), that was published in 712 CE and is considered to be Japan's oldest extant book.

Yakumo tatsu
      Izumo yaegaki
            tsumagomi ni
yaegaki tsukuru
      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.

Tanka poetry appears in other places in ancient literature. 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 thousand year old Tale of Genji, the worlds first novel, tells us that The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is the "parent of all tales…" The story is ancient and some scholars believed that 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 girl chose to return to her home in the land of the sky, the moon! 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 mountain 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 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.

Tanka poetry, in early Japan, was used not only to express both winning and losing love, but a lot of other things as well, including imperial pronouncements, laments, sad messages of farewell, poetry games, and even prayers. But tanka was not the only verse form used for such expressions of emotions. There were longer forms including the choka (long poem) that could continue building on the 5 and 7 syllable rhythm for dozens of lines as well as poetry composed, by those so educated, in the Chinese language. Chinese poetry was known as kanshi and the rest of the poems written in Japanese were lumped together as waka (Japanese songs). Tanka ("short song") of course, became the most utilized older poetry form in Japan, and eventually became almost synonymous with the word waka.

It was not until the year 905 CE, however, that many of the themes we now know and appreciate in Japanese poetry became solidified. That is the year Ki no Tsurayuki (868-945), wrote his famous introduction to the Kokinshu, the first of the twenty-one court approved poetry collections. The Kokinshu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, also called Kokin Waka Shu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Waka Poems.) is the one work that set the tone for Japanese poetry for a thousand years. In the introduction to this collection, Ki no Tsurayuki tells us in The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature by Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell Princeton Univ. Press, 1985):

"The poetry of Japan takes the human heart as seed and flourishes in countless leaves of words. Because human beings possess interests of so many kinds, it is in poetry that they give expression to the meditations of their hearts in terms of the sights appearing before their eyes and the sounds coming to their ears. Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog that lives in the water-is there any living thing not given to song? It is poetry which, without exertion, moves heaven and earth, stirs the feelings of gods and spirits invisible to the eye, softens the relations between men and woman, calms the hearts of fierce warriors."

In this important work of criticism, we are told Japanese poetry is lyrical inasmuch as it grows into words from the seed of the human heart. We are further told that we as human beings are touched by many things and we want to express our feelings from what we see or hear: the singing of birds, or croaking of frogs. It is in this essay that we can see how Japanese poetry was an expression of nature in the real world around us.

But then we are given some of the social uses of such poetry. Poetry we are told, stirs the feeling of deities, softens the relations between men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors.

Let me offer a few examples from the long literature of Japan to indicate some of the "social uses" of the tanka poem. I will even add a few uses I myself have observed as an addition to Ki no Tsurayuki's original list from 905 .

Tanka Poetry as Passion

Let's begin by looking at tanka as love poetry in the 8th century Manyoshu (Collection of Ten-thousand), a work that contains thousands of poems on love. This would be one of the "Ancient" works Ki no Tsurayuki referred to in his preface to the Kokinshu.

One of the leading poets of the Manyoshu, Kakinomoto Hitomaro (he died sometime between 708 and 715), is considered one of the four greatest poets in all Japan. He has been deified as a Shinto kami, a god of poetry. The work contains nineteen of his longer choka poems and seventy-five tanka, that can be definitely attributed to him. There is also a group of over 300 poems in the anthology known as the "Hitomaro Collection" that may or may not have been written by him. Here are several of his shorter, well-known tanka. In these early tanka poems, we can see some of the themes of poetry that later became solidified as the themes that influenced nearly all Japanese poetry right up until the modern times: appreciation of nature, allusion to seasons, singing of birds, travel, and of course, love.

Here are three of this poet's love poems. We can see here too that most Manyoshu love poetry was based on the theme of separation. I may add that having one's wife tie your sash before departure on a journey was a sign of hoped for fidelity.


Awaji no
   Nujima-ga-saki no
      Hama kaze ni
Imo ga musubishi
   himo fukikaesu


On Awaji Isle
   the shore wind whips us fiercely
   at Cape of Nujima;
The sash my wife tied tight for me
    is now blowing all around.


Akiyama ni
   Otsuru momijiba
      shimashiku wa
Na chiri midare so
   Imo ga atari min.

         Autumn Leaves

On this fall mountain
   please, oh leaves of autumn
   cease for just a while;
without such swirling all around
   I could see where my wife lives.

   Sasa no Ha

Sasa no ha wa
   Miyama mo sayani
      Sayage domo
Ware wa imo omou
   Wakare kinureba

Leaves of bamboo grass

Leaves of bamboo grass
   are rustling on the mountain,
      rustling as I pass,
But I keep thinking of my wife
now I've left her there behind.

We have seen in the 8th century Manyoshu a few examples of love being expressed in tanka poetry. Let's look now at a few later examples.

Hito ni awamu
       tsuki no naki yo wa
mune hashri hi ni
       kokoro yakeori

Longing to meet him
       on this night of no moonlight
             I wake in desire;
My breast leaps forth in flames,
       my heart consumed by fire,

                   ONO no Komachi
                      (9th century)

The Tale of Genji is considered by most to be the world's first novel. It was written by Lady MURASAKI Shikibu (d.?1014), which is probably not her real name. She was Lady-in-Waiting to one of the wives of Emperor Ichijo (r. 986-1011), and she wrote most of the 1000 page or so novel while serving in the court. In the novel, Lady Murasaki wrote close to 800 tanka poems for her characters. The story deals mostly with the love affairs with court ladies of a fictional Prince Genji, and later with his putative son, Prince Kaoru, and his grandson, Prince Niou. Towards the end of this lengthy tale, Prince Kaoru and Prince Niou are involved in a triangular relationship with the desirable lady known as Ukifune. Kaoru had hidden her away in the village of Uji, near Kyoto. Niou discovers her and spends a passionate twenty-four hours with her. During this first visit with her in Uji they have a poetry exchange. In the poems, we see Ukifune is beginning to doubt the sincerity of Prince Niou. He writes in the first poem:

Though we have promised
   to be in love forever 
      there is still sadness. . .
Since even in these lives of ours
  mere tomorrow is unknown.         


Over human hearts
   I would not be grieving
      if I could just feel
In this fickle world of ours
    it's life alone that is unknown       


On taking his departure, Niou writes:

Before I depart
   for a bewildering world
      I'm already lost,
Tears that form to fill my eyes 
     now haze out the path I'll take.     


Since my narrow sleeves
   cannot even halt flow
      of my own tears,
How is it possible for them
to impede you leaving?   


The tanka poem continues to be written by the thousands, even into the 21st century, every day in Japan. The young school teacher and tanka poet TAWARA Machi sold three million copies of her book Sarada Kinenbi (Memorial Day of the Salad). A few examples presented only in translation:

The blue of the sky
   the blueness of the sea
      and there between them . . .
On a surfboard you're the one
   my eyes are fixed upon.

On a sandy shore
   the lunch we brought still remains
      totally untouched . . .
The egg salad sandwiches 
   really do concern me

On a sandy shore
   we are walking along
      and kissing
While at 5:30 pm
   Mt Fuji is looking on.


For the two hours
   before I turn into
He goes on and on to me
   about a nuclear war.

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.

Well, I am not sure that all "love poetry" can warm the ties between men and women, but tanka has dealt for a long time with such relationships, including the problems.

Tanka as Prayer

The thirty-one syllable tanka continued to be written by religious figures, both Buddhist and Shinto believers, all through Japanese history. One religious leader, Kurozumi Munetada (1780-1850), a Shinto mystic, even used the form to convey his spiritual teachings. He called his tanka "douka" or "poems of the way." He founded the Kurozumi sect of Shinto that has elevated Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, as the primary kami or deity of the universe. Two of his poems are:

   Kami no mitoku wo
      Yo no hito ni
Nokorazu hayaku
     Shirasetaku mono

It is our wish
   To have Amaterasu's
      Goodness be known
To all the world's people
   Soon and without exception.

Kami to iu
   Hotoke to yu mo
      Ametsuchi no
Makoto no uchi ni
   Sumeru ikimono.

Some call it kami
   Some even call it Buddha
      This Living Thing
That dwells in Sincerity
   Of all Heaven and Earth

I might take the liberty of adding here that for a number of years I have been contributing short articles to our local village newspaper the Yellow Springs News. In these pieces I deal with everything from weather, to current events, or local politics. When I can't think of anything important to write about what is going on in town, I often write about myself. In any case I always end my article with one of my translations of a tanka.

One time I was writing about going kayaking and trying to learn to do "the Eskimo Roll." I wrote:

". . . Hanging upside down in the water, surrounded by a coffin-shaped piece of plastic called a kayak, I seriously wondered which way was up and if I had selected the right physical education class for my spring tune-up at the college. . . . Later safe and dry, I remembered the words of the Shinto mystic Kurozumi Munetada:

Umi areba
     Yama mo aritsuru                                           
           Yononaka ni
 Semaki kokoro o
      Motsuna hitobito.

 Since there are oceans
    as well as many mountains
       in this world of ours,
 Oh, people don't keep clinging
    to such narrowness of heart."

As another example, I once wrote about Thanksgiving:

". . . The weather was beautiful and we spent a long time after pumpkin pie and whipped cream, watching squirrels in the woods. We told and retold family stories. Nobody talked about football. The new furnace worked, and our broken window had been replaced to keep out the wind. We all have a lot to be grateful for. We could remember lonelier, colder, and hungrier Thanksgiving Days. I was reminded of a poem by the Shinto mystic, Kurozumi Munetada:

Nanigoto mo
   Arigatai nite
      Yoni sumeba
Mukau mono goto
   Arigatai nari

If for all things
  we possess a gratitude
            as we live our lives,
Then the things we have to face
      will bring us more gratitude."

This article will be continued in Vol. 5, No. 3 of Simply Haiku.

Harold Wright Harold Wright is Professor Emeritus of Antioch College, Visiting Professor of Foreign Civilizations and Language (Japanese), and Director of AEA's Japan Field Studies.

He is currently teaching a variety of courses dealing with Japanese culture, history, literature, poetry translation, and language. A recipient of numerous grants and scholarships, including a 1985 NEA Fellowship for Translators Award, he is also the author of eight books, including The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa, a critically acclaimed volume published by North Point Press, and his second book of Tanikawa’s poems, Map of Days, published by Katydid Press in 1997. Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems from the Manyoshu, published by the Overlook Press, has been translated from 8th century Japanese. His current work is editing two more books of modern Japanese poetry he has translated, as well as editing a collection of his own original poetry written in Kyoto and Ohio. He is also an active storyteller in Ohio and other parts of the USA.