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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

Notes on the Tanka and Tawara Machi
By Eiji Sekine, Purdue University

In Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes talks about haiku.1 He thinks that the haiku is essentially the same as Zen's k˘an and that it exercises freedom from clinging to meaning. As "the West moistens everything with meaning," reading of the haiku by the Western commentator tends to be automatically "with a symbolic charge." He quotes Bash˘'s haiku:

The old pond:
A frog jumps in:
Oh! the sound of the water.
(Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto/)

And he comments that Westerners want to read in this poem "a syllogical design in three tenses (rise, suspension, conclusion)" and other metaphorical interpretations and cannot imagine that the poem may invite the reader to stop commenting and to "purely and simply repeat it" (70-72). In short, the haiku for Barthes is not "the illuminative descent of God, but 'awakening to the fact,' apprehension of the thing as event and not as substance" (78).

I think Barthes' understanding of haiku as snapshots of a thing as "event" is important and correct. In order to extend his line of thought in my own way, let me examine the above quoted haiku by Bash˘, by contrasting it with Western poetic descriptions of nature:

For instance, Arthur Rimbaud's description of a gorgeous sunset may go this way:

She is rediscovered.
What? The eternity,
It's the sea mixed into the sun. (Une saison en enfer)

As for Wordsworth, he describes a beautiful sunrise in the following way:

We walked along, while bright and red
Uprose the morning sun;
And Matthew stopped, he looked, and said,
"The will of God be done!" ("The Two April Mornings")

Both Rimbaud and Wordsworth assume that the described moments are special because they reveal life's ultimate meanings (eternity, divine intervention). In other words, nature is worthy to talk about insofar as it symbolizes something deep and metaphysical that transcends reality's physical surface. In Bash˘'s poem, the described moment is not connected with life's conclusive meaning. Instead, it stresses that something has happened at the described moment and he reconstructs the moment as interactions among articulately simplified components of the happening: a sleepy late afternoon quietness in the spring (the old pond), a small living being's swift movement (the jump of a frog), and a short and small break of the silence (sound of the water). The moment is special because this quiet happening surprises and refreshes the poet in a familiar yet renewing fashion. The haiku thus shows appreciation for small mysteries, which one is constantly exposed to as a series of small yet inspiring incidents in everyday reality.

The origin of the tanka tradition implies this type of haiku's approach to nature. See, for instance, Yamabe no Akahito's nature poem in Man'y˘shű:

Nubatama no yo no fukeyukeba hisagi ouru kiyoki kawara ni chidori shiba naku (The jet black night deepens. On the beautiful river beach, where grow the oak trees, the sanderlings cry ceaselessly.) (Man'y˘shű 925)

A pure and tranquil image of nature is articulately expressed here. The "makurakotoba" or "pillow word" (nubatamano) is here more than decorative; the word visualizes the depth of the night's darkness. In this pure black background, the images of the tall trees and the flow of water are posited; the cleanliness of their images are amplified when they are mixed with sharp sounds of the birds' songs. Etymology of the tree (久木 lit. "long lasting tree") and the bird (千鳥 lit. "thousand birds") seems to indicate that they are chosen partly because they can generically stand for the strength of life force in nature. The awe-inspiring quality of nature is thus verbalized in this ancient tanka poem as a vivid moment of interactions among nature's basic components (water, tree, and bird). In contrast to the Western poetic tradition, the tanka and haiku share the Japanese poetic tradition in which nature and outside reality are captured as fluid events elusively freeing from fixed and conclusive interpretations.

Ueda Miyoji, a devoted tanka poet and literary critic, discusses the nature of the tanka in opposition to the haiku in Tanka issh˘ (The tanka life), a book of his collected essays on the tanka.2 According to Ueda, the tanka's primary charm comes from its musicality, while it often lacks the type of cognizant "eye" that allows haiku poets to observe and grab hold of the depth of reality. He quotes the following two poems for comparison:

Aki kinu to me ni wa sayakani mienedomo kaze no oto ni zo odorokarenuru (Though my eyes cannot clearly see the autumn's arrival, the sound of the wind has surprised me; Fujiwara no Toshiyuki.

Aki tatsuya kawase ni majiru kaze no oto (Autumn has arrived; the sound of the wind that is mixed in the shallows of the river; Iida Dakotsu).

Ueda argues that Dakotsu's contemporary haiku looks picturesque thanks to haiku's image orientation, while Toshiyuki's well-known tanka in Kokinshű does not give readers a clear picture of outside reality, which the poet has exposed himself to as an inspirational source of his emotion. This tanka solely foregrounds the poet's sensitively introverted emotion, which is effectively conveyed through tanka's musical mold of expression (76-79). Ueda thinks that even from Kokinshű on, the tanka genre traditionally tends to focus on the poet's inner emotion without openly conversing with outer reality.

According to Ueda, the mainstream poets of modern tanka have tried to reform the tradition's subjective emotionalism by putting special emphasis on the importance of "shasei" or "realistic sketch of reality"–from Masaoka Shiki to the present via Ito Sachio and Sait˘ Mokichi. Ueda believes that contemporary tanka poets still have room to explore their "mono ni itaru kokoro" or their "mind's eye to penetrate the secret reality of things" in order to make a better balance with the tanka genre's musical strength. What particularly interests me in Ueda's argument is his understanding of outside reality as something that materially challenges the poet's sense of existential security. Let me quote his early poem, with which he claims he successfully made a balanced connection, for the first time, between "mono" and "kokoro":

Kanj˘ no naka o yuku gotoki ayausa no shundei fukaki tokoro o ayumu (As if stepping into someone's feeling, I insecurely trudge into the depth of muddy spring road.)

When the poet was a young doctor, he walked along an unpaved road to work. The road, muddy in the spring with melting snow and rain, gave him a continuous slippery and uncertain sensation. One day, he intuitively realized it was the same insecure sensation he sensed in his "kokoro" when he involved himself with a serious relationship (118). This is a good example to show the relationship Ueda sees between "mono" and "kokoro": grasping reality as a material resistance to his ordinary stable self leads him to connect his reaction to the dynamic outside reality with a personal love experience.

Let me add another discussion about the tanka–this time, from the reader's standpoint. In 2002, I organized a Japanese literature conference at my institution of Purdue University. One of the keynote speakers for that conference was Yoshimasu G˘z˘, a gendaishi (contemporary free-verse) poet, whose dynamic linguistic adventures in his younger writing days are well known. He gave us a fascinating lecture on how he started to appreciate modern tanka poems, using poetry reading tapes recited by different poets. His use of tapes was unique: He attentively listens to each chosen tape over and over again to the point of rearranging the order of appearances of the included poems; he thus makes his own tape that compiles the poems in such a way that sounds most attractive to him. In his address, he stressed not to copy textbook type of commentary on any poet; instead, one should discover his/her favorite poets and poems in his/her own personal way. He recommended the audience develop careful and patient conversations with the poets' voices, as they recited their own work, which he concluded was an effective starting method for learning the way of tanka poetry in a vivid and delightful manner.

Let me introduce you to Yoshimasu's reading of Terayama Shűji's tanka as an example. In his article recounting this lecture, Yoshimasu characterizes Terayama as a "genius plagiarist, so to speak" (40).3 He picks up and steals words and passages from diverse sources, and with "a thief's swiftness and roughness," Terayama "devours various people's ideas all at once and transforms them into his own" (40). Yoshimasu pictures Terayama's way of tanka composition as something similar to the flower arrangement technique of "nageire"–that is, to throw a group of flowers into a vase in an intuitive and swift way so as to create a free and perfect arrangement. By referring to some of Terayama's poems recited by the poet himself (which he played for the audience during his talk), Yoshimasu comments, in particular, on Terayama's swift yet subtle attention to enunciation during an alliterative series of "to" sound in the following poem:

Atarashiki butsudan kai ni yukishi mama yukuefumei no ot˘to to tori (after going out to buy a new family Buddhist altar, my little brother and his bird have lost their traces.)

Yoshimasu calls attention to an irregular aperture of the poet's recitation: "[Terayama] recites very carefully by creating a subtle space between 'to' at the end of 'ot˘to' and 'to' in the beginning of 'tori'". He then develops his understanding of Terayama's tanka as expressions of his fundamental "gamblerness," which deeply "determines his world visions and his artistic creativity" (42). Conclusively, he quotes the following poem as the most vivid self-portrait of Terayama as a born gambler:

Uri ni yuku hashiradokei ga fuini naru yokodaki ni shite kareno yuku toki (I was on my way to sell my wall clock; It chimed all of a sudden, when I was walking through a desolate field by holding it under my arm).

Yoshimasu stresses that the images evoked by this poem charm him immensely and he falls in love with Terayama and his tanka poems. We can see here a dramatic relation between the poet's mind and reality; it is reality that challenges the poet's motion: a bulky clock he carries scares him with a sudden sound when he is walking through a lonely, empty field. His gambler's mind, however, drives him hastily forward. It is probably this dynamic picture of the relationship between the poet's insecure gambler mind and outer reality's resistance that attracts Yoshimasu so deeply.

Yoshimasu takes the same approach when reading other poets' works–he seeks the juxtaposition between the poet's sketch of reality and the poet's heart as it relates to this discovered reality. Thanks to his method of listening to tapes, he pinpoints the spot where the poet's emotional energy is concentrated: a subtle aperture where the musical flow of the poets' reading is interrupted or prolonged. Thus, he reads in Sait˘ Mokichi a "primitive man," who opens himself up to outer reality with "animal-like" blatant curiosity and innocent "child-like," tenderness: Yoshimasu claims he discovers this quality in Mokichi when he listens to the particular "softness" with which Mokichi recites the line "shukoshi tamerai (with a small hesitant pause)" in the following poem:

Garŕji e torakku hitotsu irantosu sukoshi tamerai irite yukitari (A pickup truck was being put into a garage. After a small hesitant pause, it went on to be put in.)

This tender, primitive child in Mokichi, who captures and highlights a subtle hesitation in the flow of things, charms Yoshimasu: he believes that it is the true core of Mokichi's heart, which is hidden behind the "solemn look of his official portrait photo" we are familiar with through high school textbooks in Japan.

Yoshimasu's way of reading tanka resonates the characterization of the tanka as discussed by Ueda. Thanks to the intuition of a professional poet, he chooses to literally expose himself to the "music" of tanka reading. He appreciates musicality of the poems specifically when he finds some key spots that subtly break the smooth flow of recitation. By intimately examining these openings, he attentively reads the relationship between the poet's heart and his/her particular grasp of reality.

In this line of understanding the tanka, let me add some comments on Tawara Machi's poems.4 Her Sarada kinenbi sold 2 million copies in 1987. It was a cultural phenomenon, and Tawara can be analyzed as a fashion commodity of the time (1987 was the beginning of Japan's bubble economy). Sait˘ Minako does a good job analyzing Tawara as a media idol of the late 80s in Bundan aidoru ron (literary journalism idols).5 In terms of Tawara's tanka form, her colloquial conversational style refreshingly impresses a number of readers; her newness of speech is coupled by her faithful conformism to the tanka's five-seven-five-seven-seven fixed format. Her modernness does not challenge the tradition; rather, rejuvenates the tradition with contemporary cosmetics. In term of contents, Sait˘ stresses again Tawara's conservatism. Love and emotions, which the book explores most extensively, are not presented with traditional heavy and wet sentimentalism; Tawara's tanka show a pop and light sentimentality, which reflects the sensibility of the so-called "new species" generation. We see, however, in the book's sketches of love relationships, the picture of an old-fashioned girl who loves to cook and wants to build her home as a cozy and safe haven. She likes a surfer boy, whose inarticulate communication style is rather cherished as a symbol of manliness; she enjoys playing a submissive feminine role to his masculinity. Tawara's conservatism–the socio-political apathy, the mild materialism (with particular interest in things simple and cute), and the private and minimalist life style–is welcomed by a large number of female readers of her generation as it represents the sensitivity of the girls' sub-cultures of the 80s. This picture of the old-fashioned girl is also refreshing for men, who have felt threatened by post-WW II women's constantly progressive charge for self-empowerment: Woman lib's criticism of male chauvinism in the 60s morphed into young women's explicit expression of sexuality and their openly materialistic brand-name snobbism in the 80s, all via career women's fierce search for independence in the 70s. In this context, men, especially older men, enthusiastically welcomed this sudden appearance of a conservative soul mixed with young sensitivity (casual, playful yet honest, lightly sentimental, etc.). Tawara as a cultural phenomenon can be explained this way: her explosive hit indicates that on the one hand, she successfully gives form to the milder feminine voices sought for by a large number of young women from the post-feminist generation and that on the other hand, it reversely suggests the depth of men's accumulative frustration vis-Ó-vis contemporary images of Japanese women throughout the post-WW II period.

In terms of the discussion I am following regarding the tanka's musicality and the modern tanka's outreaching to reality, what can we say about Tawara? First of all, Tawara's poems are musical in the refreshingness of a pop song. Her colloquial and often conversational language, expressed through the tanka's rhythmically fixed mold, sounds catchy, smooth and easy on the ear. Her use of proper nouns (those including katakana words, in particular) creates poems that often jingle like ad slogans:

Kono kyoku to kimete kaiganzoi no michi tobasu kimi nari "hoteru kariforunia" (Always playing this song/you race along the seacoast road–/"Hotel California") "August Morning,"

ďkikereba iyoiyo yutakanaru kibun T˘kyű Hanzu no kaimonobukuro (So huge/it gladdens my heart–/Tokyu Hands' shopping bag) "August Morning."

"Kono aji ga iine" to kimi ga itta kara shichigatsu muika wa sarada kinenbi ("This tastes great" you said and so/the sixth of July/our Salad Anniversary) Salad Anniversary.

The third poem (the book's signature poem) especially delineates the nature of the type of emotion Tawara often celebrates because the proper noun here–Salad Anniversary–is one the poet arbitrarily makes up. What is amusingly yet forcefully celebrated is a subjective emotional world that confines the couple from outside reality. Quite a number of Tawara's poems straightly affirm and beautify the domestic daily world, in which everything is familiar and predictable. With her smooth and contemporary expressive skills and with little critical interactions with reality's rough and hostile aspects, she can produce poems that sound good but lack an obvious thought-provoking message. With both praise and criticism, this aspect of Tawara's poetic skill has been fairly extensively examined.

I would like to add here a new aspect to examine Tawara's (potential) strength as a poet.
Note first that love poems, examined as continuous dialogue between two strangers, necessarily imply the poet's openness toward the unknown of outside reality. Tawara's "I" narrator is constantly passive and essentially dialogical: she fluidly molds herself in response to her boyfriend's words. Conversational style poems clearly show this characteristic. See, for instance, the following poem:

"Omae ore ni iitai koto ga arudar˘" kimetsukerarete sonna ki mo suru ("You have a bone to pick with me, don't you?"/ arbitrarily you say–/maybe I do, at that) "I am the Wind."

Thus, her passivity makes her an attentive listener and observer, who responds to a delicately changing "air" she senses in each different moment of interaction with her boyfriend and outer reality in general. Poems with strong images can be created when she focuses on particular details she is attracted to in a sort of passive aggressive manner. The following two are good examples:

Ware no tame namagaki no kara akeru yubi usuku nijimeru chi no iro yo hashi (I cherish the bit of crimson/staining your finger/as you open a raw oyster for me) "Baseball Game."

Ochitekita ame o miagete sonomama no katachi de fuini, kuchibiru ga hoshi (Glancing up at the falling rain, /suddenly I want/ your lips) "August Morning."

The first poem shows the strength of Tawara's observing eye. The narrator's eye swiftly zooms in on the small stain of blood she sees on her boyfriend's finger and captures that moment with a fetishist sensation. The second poem shows the type of slight distance, from which she observes her own self. Noticing the image ("katachi") of herself as a girl looking up at the sky as if yearning for love, the rain hits her as if punishing and/or purifying her; in this, to her own surprise, she is hit by a sensuous desire.

The particular distance she maintains both from her boyfriend/outside reality and from her own self allows Tawara to sketch the "air" of a particular moment from different points. See the following three poems that appear consecutively in "August Morning":

Yose kaesu nami no shigusa no yasashisa ni itsu iwaretemo ii say˘nara (The gentleness of lapping waves/makes me unafraid/to hear you say good-bye)

Mukiaite mugon no warera sunahama ni senk˘ hanabi potori to ochinu (You and I on the night beach/face to face in silence–/a sparkler softly sputters)

Chinmoku no nochi no kotoba o erabi oru kimi no tamerai o tanoshinde ori (Enjoying your hesitation, /I watch you hunt for words/to break the silence)

They all sketch approximately the same particular moment and express the same appreciation for the precious air of this particular moment. Thanks to her play with distance, Tawara gives a multi-layered picture to this scene. The first poem sketches the moment through her subjective inner emotion. Outside reality (waves) is personified ("shigusa" (gesture) usually applies to human gesture), and the close unity with reality makes her ecstatically happy–an ecstasy, however, expressed in a paradoxical mention of impending farewell. The second one sketches the moment through the snapshot of what the couple did: a short, subtle, private festival that celebrates the couple's growing closeness. The third one highlights the moment of a hesitant pause the boy displays: Tawara's passively watchful eye loves to capture signs of vulnerability, which the man delicately reveals. The three poems as a whole show the dynamic way in which Tawara caresses aspects of a cherished moment.

As a playful performer with distance, Tawara's narrator keeps her cool particularly well when she realizes that the distance with her boyfriend widens. See the critical tone and casual frankness in these conversational poems that end with question marks:

"Yomesan ni nare yo" da nante kanchűhai nihon de itte shimatte ii no ("Marry me,"/after two canned cocktails–/are you sure you want to say that?) "Baseball Game."

Wakaranai keredo tanoshii naraba ii tomo omoe nai dÔre anata wa (I can't believe you mean/all that counts is a good time–/do I know you?) "August Morning."

This observing narrator, who carefully views changes in the relationship between her and her love, does not cling to the deteriorating romance:

HanbÔgÔ shoppu no seki o tachiagaru y˘ni otoko o suttee shima˘ (Like getting up to leave a hamburger place–/ that's how I'll leave/ that man) "August Morning."

Aisareta kioku wa dokoka t˘mei de itsudemo hitori itsudatte hitori (Memories of being loved, /somehow transparent–/always alone, forever alone) "Always American."

She does not completely fall apart when her love ends. She seems genuinely independent, thanks to the soft distance she constantly maintains from outside reality. Thus, she can express the end of her love in a playfully sarcastic way (like in the first poem), and in a lightly sentimental manner (like in the second one).

Tawara's lost love poems are, however, not only cool and light-hearted. They are sometimes made more complex because of her distant observation of her own self. In the poems depicting her younger days in her hometown. She articulates her ambivalent self-image in terms of her college choice–oscillating between a college at her hometown of Fukui and a college in Tokyo:

Sentakushi futatsu kakaete dai no ji ni nareba sayűtaish˘ no ware (Caught between two choices/ I lie spread-eagled–/in perfect bilateral symmetry: "My Bisymmetrical Self")

Her ambivalently split self-image, inserted from time to time, adds a certain obscurity and depth to the flow of her poems of lost love. The image of her self, who positively encourages her to move on, dominates the direction in which she handles her sad and frustrated emotion (the self leaving the "hamburger shop" is a typical example). But there is another self in her, who wants to continue to mourn her loss and resists moving on. See the following consecutive poems in Salad Anniversary:

Yuku kawa no nagare o nani ni tatoetemo tatoekirenai minasoko no ishi (The flow of the river–/whatever I compare it to leaves out the stones at the bottom)

Kakuzat˘ namete owatte yuku haru ni nijűni sai no shatsu nugi suten (Sucking on a sugar cube/ at the wane of spring./I strip off my T-shirt of my twenty-third year)

The way the second poem deals with sadness and stagnation is typically a Tawara narrator's way: she wants to overcome the negative feeling and move on. The first poem suggests, however, a different approach. It sketches the simple truth of the thing: the flow of the water goes on but the stones remain immobile at the bottom. The way in which the poem is worded implicitly suggests the narrator's resistance to convention, according to which one should follow the flow of life that goes on like the flowing river. The narrator's desire to live with the leftover emotions from the past, which remain at the depth of her heart, is given an indirect expression through her gaze at natural scenery. Sadness is similarly expressed in the following:

Saku koto mo chiru koto mo naku ten ni muku denshinbashira ni fuku haru no kaze (The telephone pole stands straight towards the sky, /with no buds to bloom or flowers to scatter. /Spring wind breathes around) "Baseball Game."

The telephone pole is defamiliarized here and viewed as a barren plant, which does not bloom nor play with the wind. It stands still, stiff, and indifferent to the arrival of the spring. The narrator's emptiness is thus expressed by identifying with this lifeless flower.

I have been examining the strength of Tawara's gaze at events in reality, a type of critical gaze through which she can learn about renewed layers of her heart's truth. I believe she is an in-born observer, who continuously dialogues with outside reality in a uniquely passive aggressive fashion. By stressing this point, I am questioning the validity of Sait˘'s criticism of Tawara as a new pop-style tanka singer who lacks an original understanding of emotion and the human heart. I see in Tawara a rare combination of a new ear for musicality and a strong eye for observing reality. This combination assures her a rich potential as a tanka poet. Following Ueda's characterization of the tanka as a genre that is strong in musicality but out of touch with reality, Tawara not only inherits the genre's strength but also possesses at times the "eye" to overcome its weakness. Her musicality and her dialogical openness to reality are, however, not fully cooperating in Salad Anniversary. Her observing eye always allows her to capture reality as a thrilling and refreshing event. In certain poems, she is overwhelmed by the thrilling uncertainty of real events; life exposed in its randomness shakes her sense of balanced distance from reality. She then oscillates–between the desire to further expose herself to this reality and the desire to reestablish a safe distance from it. See again the book's signature poem as the best example in which the latter desire suppresses the former:

"Kono aji ga iine" to kimi ga itta kara shichigatsu muika wa sarada kinenbi ("This tastes great" you said and so/the sixth of July/our Salad Anniversary)

The thrill of what happened on July 6th is viewed here as something already finished. With a safely established distance, the narrator celebrates this particular thrill by giving a catchy name to it. What is beautified is not the thrill itself but its memory. Tawara's skill as a playfully creative lyricist helps her create a poster-like fantasy world. On the other extremity, Tawara's narrator can show her desire to come closer to reality in a fairly aggressive way. Let me quote the following poem again as the best example:

Ware no tame namagaki no kara akeru yubi usuku nijimeru chi no iro yo hashi (I cherish the bit of crimson/staining your finger/as you open a raw oyster for me)

Tawara's narrator finds a small opening in reality and vividly responds to it. Her eye focuses on the slight stain of blood on her boyfriend's finger in an intensely near-sighted manner, and a strong emotion explodes through the condensed two-syllable word at the very end of the poem ("hashi"; an old poetic word meaning to "love"). Here, Tawara's gaze encourages her to lose her cool and to relive the very thrills of reality.

Behind the rather monotonously pop and light-hearted surface of her poems, Tawara dramatically oscillates between contradictory approaches to reality. The talented pop musician and the fine observer in her often entangle in Salad Anniversary, preventing the poet from consistently and extensively conversing with reality's mysterious eventfulness. Still, Tawara's gazing power is constantly present in the book, assuring her a promising potential to further explore the modern tanka's orthodox pursuit–that is, an adventure pursuing the dynamic relationship between the depth of reality and the secrets of human hearts.



1 Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

2 Ueda Miyoji, Tanka issh˘, Tokyo: Kodansha, 1987.

3 Yoshimasu G˘z˘, "Rewalking along the Way of Poetry," Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies, vol. 4 (summer, 2003): 39-52.

4 Tawara Machi, Sarada kinenbi, Tokyo: Kawade shob˘ shinsha, 1989. English translations are quoted from Salad Anniversary, trans. By Juliet Winters Carpenter, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1990. The last quoted poem on the telephone pole is my translation.

5 Sait˘ Minako, "Tawara Machi," Bundan aidoruron, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 2002: 32-59.


Eiji Sekine Eiji Sekine is Associate Professor of Japanese in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Purdue University. He received a PhD in 1988 from Indiana University at Bloomington, an MA in 1977 from the University of New Sorbonne in Paris, France, and a BA in 1973 from The University of Tokyo, Japan.