Waka (和歌 literally "Japanese poem") or Yamato uta is a genre of classical Japanese verse and one of the major genres of Japanese literature. The term was coined during the Heian period, and was used to distinguish Japanese-language poetry from kanshi (poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets), and later from renga.
The term waka originally encompassed a number of differing forms, principally tanka (短歌, "short poem") and chōka (長歌, "long poem"), but also including bussokusekika, sedōka (旋頭歌, "whirling head poem") and katauta (片歌, "poem fragment"). These last three forms, however, fell into disuse at the beginning of the Heian period, and chōka vanished soon afterwards. Thus, the term waka came in time to refer only to tanka.
Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki created the term tanka in the early twentieth century for his statement that waka should be renewed and modernized. Until then, poems of this nature had been referred to as waka or simply uta ("song, poem"). Haiku is also a term of his invention, used for his revision of standalone hokku, with the same idea.
Traditionally waka in general has had no concept of rhyme (indeed, certain arrangements of rhymes, even accidental, were considered 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, however.)
Chōka consists of 5-7 Japanese sound units phrases repeated at least twice, and concludes with a 5-7-7 ending.
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 Omohoyu||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||Izuku 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||Endlessly night after night.|
|安眠し寝さぬ||Yasui shi nesanu||Not letting me sleep in peace?|
Tanka consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when Romanized or translated) usually with the following mora pattern:
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. The chōka above is followed by an envoi, also written by Okura:
|銀も||Shirokane mo||What are they to me,|
|金も玉も||Kugane mo tama mo||Silver, or gold, or jewels?|
|何せむに||Nanisemu 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? They can not.|
[English translation by Edwin Cranston]
Even in the late Asuka period, waka poets such as Kakinomoto no Hitomaro made hanka as an independent work. It was suitable to express their private interest in life and expression, in comparison with chōka, which was solemn enough to express serious and deep emotion when facing a significant event.
In the early Heian period (at the beginning of the 10th century), chōka was seldom written and tanka became the main form of waka. Since then, the generic term waka came to be almost synonymous with tanka. Side by side with the new prominence of tanka came the development of forms of tanka prose, the melding of tanka and prose in single literary compositions. Famous examples of such works are the diaries of Ki no Tsurayuki and Izumi Shikibu, as well as such collections of poem tales as The Tales of Ise and The Tales of Yamato.
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"). (The form and rules of renga developed further during medieval times; see the renga article for more details.)
Various forms of wordplay were commonly employed in tanka, including standardized descriptive words called makurakotoba, puns that functioned to unite two different images called kakekotoba, and kutsukaburi (沓冠) in which the beginning and ending syllables of a poem spelled out a significant word.
There are still other forms of waka. In ancient times its moraic form was not fixed - it could vary from the standard 5 and 7 to also 3, 4, 6, longer than 7 morae part in a waka. Besides that, there were many other forms like:
In ancient times, it was a custom between two writers to exchange waka instead of letters in prose. In particular, it was common between lovers. Reflecting this custom, five of the twenty volumes of the Kokin Wakashū gathered waka for love. In the Heian period the lovers would exchange waka in the morning when lovers met 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 and when the sun rose he had almost no time to put on his clothes on which he had lain instead of a mattress (it being the custom in those days). Works of this period, The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji provide us with such examples in the life of aristocrats. Murasaki Shikibu uses 795 waka in her The Tale of Genji as waka her characters made in the story. Some of these are her own, although most are taken from existing sources. Shortly, making and reciting waka became a part of aristocratic culture. They recited a part of appropriate waka freely to imply something on an occasion.
Much like with tea, there were a number of rituals and events surrounding the composition, presentation, and judgment of waka. There were two types of waka party that produced occasional poetry: Utakai and Utaawase. Utakai was a party in which all participants wrote a waka and recited them. Utakai derived from Shikai, Kanshi party and was held in occasion people gathered like seasonal party for the New Year, some celebrations for a newborn baby, a birthday, or a newly-built house. Utaawase was a contest in two teams. Themes were determined and a chosen poet from each team wrote a waka for a given theme. The judge appointed a judge for each theme and gave points to the winning team. The team which received the largest sum was the winner. The first recorded Utaawase was held in around 885. At first, Utaawase was playful and mere entertainment, but as the poetic tradition deepened and grew, it turned into a serious aesthetic contest, with considerably more formality.
Waka has a long history. It was first recorded in the early 8th century in the Kojiki and Man'yōshū. Under influence from other genres such as kanshi, Chinese poetry, novels and stories such as Tale of Genji and even Western poetry, it has developed gradually, broadening its repertoire of expression and topics.
In literary critic Donald Keene's books, he uses four large categories:
The earliest waka recorded in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, were not divided into subcategories of strict forms. Nor did the waka in the Man'yōshū have fixed forms, but poets in the late 7th century, in the time of Empress Saimei began to create chōka and tanka in the forms extant today.
The most ancient waka were recorded in the 20 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 Ōtomo no Yakamochi. He was a waka poet who belonged to the youngest generation represented in the anthology; indeed, the last volume is dominated by his poems. The first waka of volume 1 was by Emperor Ōjin. Nukata no Ōkimi, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Yamabe no Akahito, Yamanoue no Okura, Ōtomo no Tabito and his son Yakamochi were the greatest poets in this anthology. The Man'yōshū recorded not only the works of those royal and noble men, but also works of women and commoners whose names were not recorded. The main topics of the Man'yōshū were love, sadness (especially on the occasion of someone's death), and other miscellaneous topics.
During the Nara period and the early Heian period, the court favored Chinese-style poetry (kanshi) and the waka art form stagnated. But in the 9th century, Japan stopped sending official envoys to Tang dynasty China. This severing of ties, combined with Japan's geographic isolation, essentially forced the court to cultivate native talent and look inward, synthesizing Chinese poetic styles and techniques with local traditions. The waka form again began flourishing, and in 905, Emperor Daigo ordered the creation of an anthology of waka. The famous waka poets of the day (including Ki no Tsurayuki) gathered the waka of ancient poets and their contemporaries and named the anthology "Kokin Wakashū", meaning Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems. This was the first waka anthology edited and issued under imperial auspices, and it commenced a long and distinguished tradition of imperial anthologies of waka that continued up to the Muromachi period.
After the Heian period, during the Kamakura period and later, renga, a form of collaborative linked poetry, began to develop. In the late Heian period, three of the last great waka poets appeared: Fujiwara no Shunzei, his son Fujiwara no Teika, and Emperor Go-Toba. Emperor Go-Toba ordered the creation of a new anthology and joined in editing it. The anthology was named Shin Kokin Wakashū. He edited it again and again until he died in 1239. 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 courtly poetry scenes were historically dominated by a few noble clans and allies, each of which staked out a position.
By this period, a number of clans had fallen by the wayside, leaving the Reizei and the Nijo family; the former stood for "progressive" approaches, the varied use of the "ten styles" and novelty, while the latter conservatively hewed to already established norms and the "ushin" (deep feelings) style that dominated courtly poetry. Eventually, the Nijo family became defunct, leading to the ascendancy of the "liberal" Reizei family. Their innovative reign was soon deposed by the Asukai family, aided by the Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshinori.
In the Muromachi period, renga began to be popular in the court and people around it. It spread to the priestly classes and thence to wealthy commoners. In much the same way as waka, renga anthologies were produced under the imperial aegis.
As momentum and popular interest shifted to the renga form, the tanka style was left to the Imperial court. Conservative tendencies exacerbated the loss of life and flexibility. A tradition named Kokin-denju, the heritage of Kokin Wakashū, was developed. It was a system on how to analyze the Kokin Wakashū and included the secret (or precisely lost) meaning of words. Studying waka degenerated into learning the many intricate rules, allusions, theories, and secrets, so as to produce tanka that would be accepted by the court.
There were comical waka already in the Kojiki and the Man'yōshū, but the noble style of waka in the court inhibited and scorned such aspects of waka. 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, were a reaction to this seriousness. But in the Edo-period waka itself lost almost all of its flexibility and began to echo and repeat old poems and themes.
In the early Edo period, waka was not a fashionable genre. Newly created haikai no renga (of whose hokku, or opening verse, haiku was a late 19th-century revision) was the favored genre. This tendency was kept during this period, but in the late Edo period waka faced new trends from beyond the court. Motoori Norinaga, the great reviver of the traditional Japanese literature, attempted to revive waka as a way of providing "traditional feeling expressed in genuine Japanese way". He wrote waka, and waka 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 feeling found many admirers, then and now. In the cities, a comical, ironic and satiric form of waka emerged. It was called kyōka (狂歌), mad poem, and was loved by intellectual people in big cities like Edo and Osaka. It was not precisely a new form; satirical waka was a style known since ancient times. But it was in the Edo period that this aspect of waka developed and reached an artistic peak. Still, most waka poets kept to ancient tradition or made those reformation another stereotype, and waka was not a vibrant genre in general at the end of this period.
The modern revival of tanka began with several poets who began to publish literary magazines, gathering their friends and disciples as contributors. Yosano Tekkan and the poets that were associated with his Myōjō magazine were one example, but that magazine was fairly short-lived. A young high school student, Otori You, later known as Akiko Yosano, and Ishikawa Takuboku contributed to Myōjō. In 1980, the New York Times published a representative work:
Masaoka Shiki's poems and writing (as well as the work of his friends and disciples) have had a more lasting influence. The magazine Hototogisu, which he founded, still publishes. He is sometimes called the Father of Modern Tanka. He coined the term tanka as a replacement for waka.
In the Meiji period, Shiki claimed the situation with waka should be rectified, and waka should be modernized in the same way as other things in the country. He praised the style of Man'yōshū, calling it manly, as opposed to the style of Kokin Wakashū, which was the ideal type of waka during a thousand-year period, which he denigrated and called feminine. He praised Minamoto no Sanetomo, the third Shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate, who was a disciple of Fujiwara Teika and composed waka in a style much like that in the Man'yōshū.
Following Shiki's death, in the Taishō period Saito Mokichi and his friends formed a poetry circle, Araragi, that praised the Man'yōshū. Using their magazine they spread their influence throughout the country. Their modernization aside, in the court the old traditions still prevailed. The court continues to hold many utakai both officially and privately. The utakai that the emperor holds on the first of the year is called utakai-hajime and it is an important event for waka poets; the Emperor himself releases a single tanka for the public's perusal.
After World War II, waka began to be considered out-of-date, but since the late 1980s has revived under the example of contemporary poets, such as Tawara Machi. With her 1987 bestselling collection Salad Anniversary, the poet has been credited with revitalizing the tanka for modern Japanese audiences; the book's popularity soared to such a level that she became a national celebrity and was responsible for a surge of average citizens writing tanka.
Today there are many circles of tanka poets. Many newspapers have a weekly tanka column, and there are many professional and amateur tanka poets; Makoto Ooka's poetry column was published seven days a week for more than 20 years on the front page of Asahi Shimbun. More recently, 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.
The writing of tanka in English has been less famous than the writing of English-language haiku, but the earliest known English-language tanka collection was Ida Henrietta Bean's Tanka, in London, 1899. The first North American tanka collection was Jun Fujita's Tanka : Poems in Exile, in 1923. Tanka had been previously published in English by other authors, including Sadakichi Hartmann, who was better known as an art critic than poet.
Tanka publication in English was sporadic until after WWII when various Japanese North American tanka poets began publishing anthologies and collections in Japanese, English translation, and bi-lingual editions. These efforts apparently began immediately after the poets were released from internment camps in Canada and the United States, but the oldest anthology known to survive intact is Tana and Nixon's Sounds from the Unknown, 1963, and the Kisaragi Poem Study Group's Maple : poetry by Japanese Canadians with English translation, 1975. Similar works continue to be published sporadically.
Tanka came to the attention of poets writing English-language haiku in the 1980s, and during the 1990s some of the better known names in tanka and haiku publication, including Jane Reichhold, Michael McClintock, Sanford Goldstein, Janice Bostok, Pat Shelley, Father Neal Lawrence, and George Swede, published tanka collections, or mixed collections containing tanka, haiku and other forms. Though some tanka had been published in haiku magazines, with the out-pouring of tanka in Mirrors and the beginning of the Tanka Splendor Awards and resulting yearly anthologies by AHA Books, the interest in English tanka began to blossom. A Gift of Tanka by Jane Reichhold and the publication of Stanford Goldstein's Hut of the Small Mind,and Father Lawrence's Shining Moments by AHA Books opened the way for more tanka books. Kenneth Rexroth's The Love Poems of Marichiko was also published. Originally presented as a translation from the Japanese, they were later shown to have been a hoax - the poems were Rexroth's own work.
Unlike Japanese poets who often write primarily or only in one poetry form, many English-language tanka poets also write other short poetry forms including haiku, senryū, and cinquain. Most early English-language tanka appeared in journals that featured a variety of small poem forms (although the main American haiku magazines published only haiku and sometimes senryu). Lynx, (co-editors Jane and Werner Reichhold)has since 1992 been an outlet for tanka and tanka sequences in print and now online.
Only recently have there been journals devoted exclusively to tanka, including American Tanka (1996) in the United States, edited by Laura Maffei and Tangled Hair in Britain, edited by John Barlow. 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. This society now publishes the tanka journal Ribbons. Tanka Canada also publishes a journal titled Gusts, and the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society (UK) hosts a web site with tanka and articles.
Tanka publication expanded through the 1990s with the establishment of additional journals, online forums, and contests such as the Tanka Splendor Awards, but exploded in the early 21st century with the establishment of several tanka organizations working in English, and a proliferation of international sources. Various special-interest tanka groups have also sprouted, such as "Mountain Home," named for the English translation of the title of the famous collection of Saigyo's waka, the Sanka Shu ("Mountain Home Collection"). The number of literary journals (print and web) that regularly publish tanka in English now numbers in excess of twenty. Noteworthy journals not mentioned elsewhere include Modern English Tanka, Eucalypt, The Tanka Journal, Atlas Poetica, and more.
AHApoetry.com and LYNX.