menu Language Is A Virus

Poetry Guide: Japanese Poetry

Grave of the Japanese poet Yosa Buson Grave of the Japanese poet Yosa Buson

The best-known forms of Japanese poetry (outside Japan) are haiku and senryu. The classic traditional form is in fact waka. Much poetry in Japan was written in the Chinese language, so it is more accurate to speak of Japanese-language poetry. For example, in the Tale of Genji both kinds of poetry are frequently mentioned. When Japanese poets first encountered Chinese poetry, it was at its peak in the Tang dynasty and Japanese poets were totally fascinated. It took them several hundred years to digest the foreign impact, make it a part of their culture and merge it with their literary tradition in their mother tongue, and begin to develop the diversity of their native poetry. Waka and Kanshi, Chinese poetry including Japanese works written in (sometimes corrupted) Chinese, were the two greatest pillars of Japanese poetry. From them many other forms, such as renga, haiku or senryu, arose.

A new trend came in the middle of the 19th Century. Since then the major forms of Japanese poetry have been tanka (new name for waka), haiku and shi.

Nowadays the main forms of Japanese poetry can be divided into experimental poetry and poetry that seeks to revive traditional ways. Poets writing in tanka, haiku and shi move in separate planes and seldom write poetry other than in their specific chosen form, although some active poets are eager to collaborate with poets in other genres.

Important collections are the Man'yōshu, Kokin-wakashu and Shin-kokin-wakashu.


Poems in Kojiki and Nihonshoki

Until Korean scholars brought Chinese classical texts to Japan in the 6th century, Japanese was an unwritten language. The oldest written work in Japanese literature is Kojiki in the 8th century, in which Ota Yasumaro recorded Japanese mythology and history as recited by Hieda no Are, to whom it was handed down by his ancestors. Many of the poetic pieces recorded by the Kojiki were perhaps transmitted from the time the Japanese had no writing. The Nihonshoki, the oldest history of Japan which was finished two years later than the Kojiki, also contains many poetic pieces. These were mostly not long and had no fixed forms. The first poem documented in both books was attributed to a kami (god), named Susaono, the younger brother of Amaterasu. When he married Princess Kushinada in Izumo province, the kami made an uta, or waka, a poem.

Yakumo tatsu / Izumo yagegaki / Tsuma-gomini / Yaegaki tsukuro / Sono yaegaki wo

This is the oldest waka (poem written in Japanese) and hence poetry was later praised as having been founded by a kami, a divine creation.

The two books shared many of the same or similar pieces but Nihonshoki contained newer ones because it recorded later affairs (up till the reign of Emperor Temmu) than Kojiki. Themes of waka in the books were diverse, covering love, sorrow, satire, war cries, praise of victory, riddles and so on. Most of these works are considered collectively as 'works of the people', even where attributed to someone, such as the kami Susaono. Many works in Kojiki were anonymous. Some were attributed to kami, emperors and empresses, nobles, generals, commoners and sometimes enemies of the court.

Early Manyoshu poets (Vol. I-III)

The oldest poetic anthology of waka is the 20 volume Manyoshu. Probably finished in the early part of the Heian period, it gathered ancient works. The order of its sections is roughly chronological. Most of the works in the Manyoshu have a fixed form today called choka and tanka. But earlier works, especially in Volume I, lacked such fixed form and were attributed to Emperor Yūryaku.

The Manyoshu begins with a waka without fixed form. It is both a love song for an unknown girl whom the poet met by chance and a ritual song praising the beauty of the land. It is worthy of being attributed to an emperor and today is used in court ritual.

The first three sections contain mostly the works of poets from the middle of the 7th century to the early part of the 8th century. Significant poets among them were Nukata no Okimi and Kakinomoto Hitomaro. Kakinomoto Hitomaro was not only the greatest poet in those early days and one of most significant in the Manyoshu, he rightly has a place as one of the most outstanding poets in Japanese literature.

Chinese influence

Chinese literature was introduced into Japan in the 7th Century. It took almost a half century before it began to influence Japanese literature. In the court of Emperor Temmu some nobles made attempts to recite Chinese poetry. Chinese literacy was a sign of education and most high courtiers wrote poetry in Chinese. Later these works were collected in the Kaifuso, one of the earliest anthologies of poetry in Japan, edited in the early Heian period. Thanks to this book the death poem of Prince Otsu is still extant today.

Nara period poets

In 710 the Japanese capital moved from Fujiwara (today's Asuka, Nara) to Nara and the Nara period (710-794) began. It was the period when Chinese influence reached its culmination. Todai-ji was established and the Great Buddha was created under the order of Emperor Shōmu. The significant waka poets in this period were Otomo no Tabito, Yamanoue no Okura, and Yamabe no Akahito. The Manyoshu included also many female poets who mainly wrote love poems. The poets of the Manyoshu were aristocrats who were born in Nara but sometimes lived or traveled in other provinces as bureaucrats of the emperor. These poets wrote down their impressions of travel and expressed their emotion for lovers or children. Sometimes their poems criticized the political failure of the government or tyranny of local officials. Yamanoue no Okura wrote a choka, A Dialogue of two Poormen (貧窮問答歌, Hinkyū mondōka); in this poem two poor men lamented their severe lives of poverty. One hanka is as follows:

Yononaka wo / Ushi to yasashi to / Omoe domo / Tobitachi kanetsu / Tori ni shi arane ba
I feel the life is / sorrowful and unbearable / though / I can't flee away / since I am not a bird.

The Manyoshu contains not only poems of aristocrats but also those of nameless ordinary people. These poems are called Yomibito shirazu, poems whose author is unknown. Among them there is a specific style of waka called Azuma-uta, waka written in the Eastern dialect. Azuka, meaning the East, designated the eastern provinces roughly corresponding to Kanto and occasionally Tōhoku. Those poems were filled with rural flavors. There was a specific style among Azuma-uta, called Sakimori uta, soldiers' waka. They were mainly waka by drafted soldiers at leaving home. These soldiers were drafted in the eastern provinces and were forced to work as guards in Kyushu for several years. Sometimes their poetry expressed nostalgia for their far homeland.

Waka in the early Heian period

It is thought the Manyoshu reached its final form, the one we know today, very early in the Heian period. There are strong grounds for believing that Otomo no Yakamochi was the final editor but some documents claim further editing was done in the later period by other poets including Sugawara no Michizane.

Though there was a strong inclination towards Chinese poetry, some eminent waka poets were active in the early Heian period, including the six best waka poets.

The culmination of Kanshi

Sugawara no Michizane is revered as the god of learning, as seen on this ema at a Shinto shrine. Sugawara no Michizane is revered as the god of learning, as seen on this ema at a Shinto shrine.

In the early Heian period Chinese poetry or Kanshi (漢詩, Chinese poetry) was most the popular style of poetry among Japanese aristocrats. Some poets like Kukai studied in China and were fluent in Chinese. Other poets like Sugawara no Michizane had grown up in Japan but understood Chinese well. When they hosted foreign diplomats, they communicated not orally but in writing, using Kanji or Chinese characters. In that period, Chinese poetry in China had reached one of its culminations. Great Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Po were their contemporaries. These Chinese poets' works were known very well. Some people who went to China for study or diplomacy made the acquaintance of these major poets. The most popular styles of Kanshi were in 5 or 7 syllables in 4 or 8 lines. The rules of rhyme were very strict. Japanese poets became skilled in those rules and wrote many good poems. Sometimes they made long poems with lines of 5 or 7 syllables. These, when chanted, were refered to as Shigin (詩吟) - a practise which continues today.

Emperor Saga himself was good at Kanshi. He ordered the compilation of three anthologies of Kanshi. These were the first of the imperial anthologies, a tradition which continued till the Muromachi period.


In the middle of the Heian period Waka revived with the compilation of the Kokin- wakashu (古今(和歌)集 kokin (waka)shū, "collection of ancient and modern poems"). It was edited on the order of Emperor Daigo. About 1,000 waka, mainly from the late Nara period till the contemporary times, were anthologized by five waka poets in the court including Kino Tsurayuki who wrote the "Preface in Kana" (Kanajo).

The Kana preface to Kokinshu was the second earliest expression of literary theory and criticism in Japan (the earliest was by Kukai). Kukai's literary theory was not influential, but Kokinshu set the types of waka and hence other genres which would develop from waka.

The collection is divided into twenty parts, reflecting older models such as the man'yōshū and various Chinese anthologies. The organisation of topics is however different from all earlier models, and was followed by all later official collections, although some collections like the kin'yōshū and shikashū reduced the number of parts to ten. The parts of the kokinshū are ordered as follows: Parts 1-6 covered the four seasons, followed by congratulatory poems, poetry at partings, and travel poems. The last ten sections included poetry on the 'names of things', love, laments, occasional poems, miscellaneous verse, and finally traditional and ceremonial poems from the Bureau of Poetry.

The compilers included the name of the author of each poem, and the topic (第 dai) or inspiration of the poem, if known. Major poets of the kokinshū include Ariwara Narihira, Ono no Komachi, Henjō and Fujiwara no Okikaze, apart from the compilers themselves. Inclusion in any imperial collection, and particularly the kokinshū, was a great honour.

Influence of Kokin-wakashu

The kokinshū is the first of the nijūichidaishū (二十一大集), the twenty one collections of Japanese poetry compiled at Imperial request. It was the most influential realization of the ideas of poetry at the time, dictating the form and format of Japanese poetry until the late nineteenth century. The primacy of poems about the seasons pioneered by the kokinshū continues even today in the haiku tradition. The Japanese preface by Ki no Tsurayuki is also the beginning of Japanese criticism as distinct from the far more prevalent Chinese poetics in the literary circles of its day. (The anthology also included a traditional Chinese preface authored by Ki no Tomonori.) The idea of including old as well as new poems was another important innovation, one which was widely adopted in later works, both in prose and verse. The poems of the kokinshū were ordered temporally; the love poems, for instance, depict the progression and fluctuations of a courtly love-affair. This association of one poem to the next marks this anthology as the ancestor of the renga and haikai traditions.

Imperial anthologies of Waka

After Shinkokinshu ordered and edited by Emperor Go-Toba, eight waka anthologies were compiled under imperial edict. These anthologies reflected the taste of aristocrats and were considered the ideal of waka in each period.

From the late ancient to Middle

Waka in the life of Kuge

In ancient times, it was a custom to exchange waka instead of letters in prose. Sometimes improvised waka were used in daily conversation in high society. In particular, the exchange of waka was common between lovers. Reflecting this custom, five of the twenty volumes of the Kokin Wakashu (or Kokinshu) gathered waka for love. In the Heian period the lovers would exchange waka in the morning when lovers parted 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 don his clothes which had been laid out in place of a mattress (as was the custom in those days). Soon, writing and reciting Waka became a part of aristocratic culture. People recited a piece of appropriate waka freely to imply something on an occasion. In the Pillow Book it is written that a consort of Emperor Murakami memorized over 1,000 waka in Kokinshu with their description.

Uta-ai, ceremonial waka recitation contests, developed in the middle of the Heian period. The custom began in the reign of Emperor Uda, the father of Emperor Daigo who ordered the compilation of the Kokin Wakashu. It was 'team combat' on proposed themes grouped in similar manner to the grouping of poems in the Kokin Wakashu. Representives of each team recited a waka according to their theme and the winner of the round won a point. The team with the higher overall score won the contest. Both winning poet and team received a certain prize. Holding Utaai was expensive and possible only for Emperors or very high ranked kuge.

The size of Uta-ai inceased. Uta-ai were recorded with hundreds of rounds. Uta-ai motivated the refinement of waka technique but also made waka formalistic and artificial. Poets were expected to create a spring waka in winter or recite a poem of love or lamentation without real situations.

Roei style

Roei was a favored style of reciting poetical works at that time. It was a way of reciting in voice, with relatively slow and long tones. Not whole poetic pieces but a part of classics were quoted and recited by individuals usually followed by a chorus. Fujiwara no Kinto compiled Wakan roeishu (Sino-Japanese Anthology for Roei) from Japanese and Chinese poetry works written for roei. One or two lines were quoted in Wakan roeishu and those quotations were grouped into themes like Spring, Travel, Celebration.

Age of Nyobo or court ladies

Emperor Ichijō and courts of his empresses, concubines and other noble ladies were a big pool of poets as well as men of the courts.

The Pillow Book and Tale of Genji, from the early 11th century, provide us with examples of the life of aristocrats in the court of Emperor Ichijō and his empresses. Murasaki Shikibu wrote over 3,000 tanka for her Tale of Genji in the form of waka her characters wrote in the story. In the story most of those waka were created as an exchange of letters or a conversation. Many classic works of both waka and kanshi were quoted by the nobles. Among those classic poets, the Chinese Tang-dynasty poet Bai Juyi had a great influence on the culture of the middle Heian period. Bai Juyi was quoted by both The Pillow Book and Tale of Genji, and his A Song of unending Sorrow (長恨歌), whose theme was a tragic love between the Chinese Emperor and his concubine, inspired Murasaki Shikibu to imagine tragic love affairs in the Japanese imperial court in her Tale of Genji.

Poetry in the period of cloistered rule

In the period of cloistered rule, the 12th century, some new movements of poetry appeared. First a new form called Imayo (今様, modern style) emerged. Imayo consists of four lines in 8-5 syllables. Usually it was accompanied by music and dance. Female dancer Shirabyoshi danced to the accompaniment of Imayo. Major works were compiled into the anthology Ryojinhisho (梁塵秘抄).

Some new trends appeared in waka. There were two opposite trends: an inclination to the contemporary, modern style and on the other hand a revival of the traditional style. Both trends had their schools and won the honor to compile imperial anthologies of waka. Fujiwara no Shunzei and his son Fujiwara no Teika were the leaders of the latter school.

Also in this period for the first time renga were included in the imperial anthologies of waka. At that time, renga was considered a variant of waka. The renga included were waka created by two persons only, quite unlike the later style which featured many stanzas.

Shinkokin Wakashu

In the late period rule by cloistered Emperors, or the early Kamakura period, Emperor Go-Toba, who had abdicated, ordered the compilation of the eighth imperial anthology of waka, the Shinkokin Wakashu. Go-Toba himself joined the team of editors. Other editors included Fujiwara no Teika and Kamo no Chomei.

Fujiwara no Teika


Tsukubashu - imperial anthology of renga Renga poets, critics and theories Development of shikimoku (renga rules) Io Sogi Haikai renga appears - as a parody of renga Shinseninutusukbashu Noh play and poetry Influence from waka and other poetry Noh play reading as a verse

Renga and Waka


In the Pre-modern or Edo period (1602-1869) some new styles of poetry developed. One of greatest and most influential styles was haikai, emerging from haikai-renga in the medieval period. Matsuo Basho was a great haikai renga master and had a wide influence on his contemporaries and later generations. Besides haikai, another new style emerged from renga, known as senryu.

Waka underwent a revival, too, in relation to kokugaku, the study of Japanese classics. The tradition of collaboration between painters and poets had a beneficial influence on poetry in the middle Edo period. In Kyoto there were some artists who were simultaneously poets and painters. Painters of the Shujo school were known as good poets. Among such poet-cum-painters the most significant was Yosa Buson. Buson began his career as an artist as a painter but learned renga and became a master of renga, too. He left many paintings accompanied by his own poems (haikai).

Kyoka (mad song), a type of satirical waka was also popular.

In the late Edo period, a master of haikai, Karai Senryu made an anthology. His style became known as Senryu named after his pseudonym. Senryu is a style of satirical poetry whose motifs are taken from daily life in 5-7-5 syllables. Originally senryu formed the former part of kyoka whose latter part was provided by a haikai master. That was not highly artistic but relied on a sort of wordplay called maekuzuke (adding a former part). Anthologies of senryu in the Edo period collect many 'maeku' or senryu made by ordinary amateur senryu poets adding in front of the latter 7-7 part written by a master. It was a sort of poetry contest and the well written senryu by amateurs were awarded by the master and other participants.


A new wave came from the West when Japan was introduced to European and American poetry. This poetry belonged to a very different tradition and was regarded by Japanese poets as a form without any boundaries. Shintai-shi (New form poetry) or Jiyu-shi (Freestyle poetry) emerged at this time. They still relied on a traditional pattern of 5-7 syllable patterns, but were strongly influenced by the forms and motifs of Western poetry. Later, in the Taisho era, some poets began to write their poetry in a much looser metric. In contrast with this development, Kanshi slowly went out of fashion and was seldom written. As a result, Japanese men of letters lost the traditional background of Chinese literary knowledge. Originally the word shi meant poetry, especially Chinese poetry, but today it means mainly modern-style poetry in Japanese. Shi is also known as kindai-shi (modern poetry). Since World War II, poets and critics have used the name gendai-shi (contemporary poetry). This includes the poets Kusano Shimpei, Tanikawa Shuntaro and Ishigaki Rin.

As for the traditional styles such as waka and haiku, the early modern era was also a time of renovation. Yosano Tekkan and later Masaoka Shiki revived those forms. The words haiku and tanka were both coined by Shiki. They laid the basis for development of this poetry in the modern world. They introduced new motifs, rejected some old authorities in this field, recovered forgotten classics, and published magazines to express their opinions and lead their disciples. This magazine-based activity by leading poets is a major feature of Japanese poetry even today.

Some poets, including Yosano Akiko, Ishikawa Takuboku, Hagiwara Sakutaro wrote in many styles: they used both traditional forms like waka and haiku and new style forms. Most Japanese poets, however, generally write in a single form of poetry.


Important Poets (premodern)

Ariwara no Narihira
Ono no Komachi
Basho Matsuo
Kobayashi Issa

Important poets (Modern)

Yosano Akiko
Masaoka Shiki
Takamura Kotaro
Ishikawa Takuboku
Hagiwara Sakataro
Miyazawa Kenji
Noguchi Yonejiro
Tanikawa Shuntaro

Important collections and works

For haiku in Japanese, the largest anthology is the 12 volume Bunruihaiku-zenshū (Classified Collection of Haiku) compiled by Masaoka Shiki, but completed after his death, which collects haiku not only by seasonal theme but also by sub-theme. It includes work going back to the 15th century, which is to say a century or two further than is common for contemporary collections.

The largest collection of haiku translated into English on any single subject is "Rise, Ye Sea Slugs" by Robin D. Gill, which contains 900 or so poems, all about the sea cucumber (namako), going back to the 17th century. It is an original work, not a translated piece of Japanese literature, but reading it will give you a grasp of the scope of Japanese poetry and more insight into the problems of translation than may be found in less transparent books.