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Poetry Guide: Waka

Waka (和歌) or Yamato uta is a genre of Japanese poetry. Waka literally means Japanese poem in Japanese. The word was originally coined during the Heian period to differentiate native poetry from the kanshi (Chinese poems) that all educated Japanese people were also familiar with.

For this reason, the word waka encompasses a number of differing styles. The main two are tanka (短歌 lit. "short poem") and chōka (長歌 lit. "long poem"), but there are others: bussokusekika, sedoka and katauta. 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 simply imply the one sub-form tanka.

The term tanka itself has only a recent history. Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki created this term 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 the old hokku form, with the same idea. For economy of thought, we will use here the term tanka for further description.

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.)

Forms of Waka


Chōka consists of 5-7 syllable phrases repeated at least twice, and concludes with a 5-7-7 ending.

The briefest chōka documented was made by Yamanoue no Okura in the Nara period, and goes:

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 Omooyu 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 Izuko yori Where do they come from,
来りしものそ Kitarishi monozo Flickering before my eyes.
眼交に Manakai ni Making me helpless
もとな懸りて Motona kakarite Incessantly night after night.
安眠し寝さぬ Yasui shi nesanu Not letting me sleep in peace?

[English translation by Edwin A. Cranston, from A Waka Anthology: Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup, Stanford University Press © 1993]


Tanka consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when Romanized or translated) usually with the following mora pattern:

5-7-5 / 7-7.

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. In ancient times poems of this form were called hanka ("reverse poem"), since the 5-7-5-7-7 form derived from the conclusion (envoi ) of a choka. Sometimes a choka had two envois.

The choka above is followed by an envoi; 銀も金も玉も何せむに勝れる宝子にしかめやも, also written by Okura.

銀も Shirogane mo What are they to me,
金も玉も Kogane mo tama mo Silver, or gold, or jewels?
何せんに Nanisen 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?

[English translation by Edwin A. Cranston]

Even in the late Asuka period, waka poets such as Kakinomoto Hitomaro made hanka as an independent work. It was suitable to express their private interest in life and expression, in comparison with choka, which was solemn enough to express serious and deep emotion when facing a significant event. The Heian period saw many tanka. In the early Heian Period (at the beginning of the 10th century), choka was seldom written and tanka became the main form of waka. Since then, the generic term waka became almost identical with tanka. 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.)

Other forms

There are still other forms of waka. In ancient times its syllabic form was not fixed- it could vary from the standard 5 and 7 to also 3, 4, 6, longer than 7 syllables part in a waka. Besides that, there were many other forms like:

Poetic culture

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 Wakashu gathered waka for love. In the Heian period the lovers would exchange waka in the morning when lovers met at 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 wear his clothes which had been laid instead of mattress (it was a custom in those days). Works of this period, The Pillow Book and Tale of Genji provide us with such examples in life of aristocrats. Murasaki Shikibu wrote around 950 waka for her Tale of Genji as waka her characters made in the story. Shortly, making and reciting Waka became an 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: 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.

History of Waka development

Waka has a long history. It was first recorded in the early of the 8th century in the Kojiki and Manyoshu. Under influence from other genres like Kanshi, Chinese poetry, novels and stories like Tale of Genji or even Western poetry, it has developed gradually, broadening its repertoire of expression and topics.

In literary critic's Donald Keene's books, He uses four large categories:

Early and Heian Literature (Kojiki to past 'The Tale of Genji' to 1185)
The Middle Ages ('chūsei' from 1185, including the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods)
Pre-Modern Era (1600-1867, then subdivided into 1600-1770 and 1770-1867)
Modern Era (post 1867, divided into Meiji (1868-1912), Taishō (1912-1926) and Shōwa (from 1927)).


The earliest waka recorded in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, were not divided into subcategories of strict forms. Nor did the waka in the Man'yōshū had fixed forms, but poets in the late 7th century, in the time of Empress Saimei began to create Choka 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 Otomo no Yakamochi. He was one of waka poets 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 Ojin. Nukata no Okimi, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Yamabe no Akahito, Yamanoue no Okura, Otomo no Tabito and his son Yakamochi were the greatest poets in this anthology. But the Man'yōshū recorded not only the works of those royals and nobles, but also works of commoners whose name were unrecorded. The main topics of the Man'yōshū were love, sadness specially in occasion of someone's death, and other miscellaneous topics.

Heian revival

During the Nara period and the early Heian period, the court was in favor of the Chinese-style poetry (kanshi) and the waka artform stagnated. But in the 10th century, Japan stopped sending official messengers to the Tang dynasty. The cutting off of ties, and the perilous ocean crossing essentially forced the court to cultivate native talent and look inward, synthesizing what they had learned from the Chinese with local traditions; the localisation of culture proceeded rapidly. The waka form again began flourishing, and Emperor Daigo ordered the creation of an anthology of waka. It was the first waka anthology edited and issued under Imperial auspices; it commenced a long and distinguished tradition of imperial anthologies of waka that continued up to the Muromachi period. The famous waka poets in those days (including Kino Tsurayuki) gathered waka of ancient poets and their contemporaries. This antique focus gave the anthology its name of "Kokin Wakashu", literily meaning the Ancient-and-Now Anthology.


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 and 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 Wakashu. He edited it again and again until he died in Oki island. Teika made copies of ancient books and wrote on the theory of waka. His descendants, and indeed almost all subsequent poets, such as Shotetsu, taught his methods and studied his poems. The courtly poetry scene were historically dominated by a few noble clans and allies, each of which staked out a position. By this peiod, a number of clans had fallen by the wayside, leaving the Reizei and the Nijo family; the former stood for "progressive" approachs, the varied use of the "ten styles" and novelty, while the latter conservatively hewed to already established norms and the "ujin" (deep feelings) style that dominated courtly poetry. Eventually, the Nijo family became defunct, leading to the ascendance of the 'liberal' Rezei 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 spread to the priestly classes and thence to wealthy commoners. Much the same as waka, some renga anthologies under the Imperial aegis were produced.

As momentum and popular interest shifted to the renga-form, the tanka style was left to the Imperial court. Conservative tendencies exacberated the loss of life and flexibility. A tradition named Kokin-denju, the heritage of Kokin Wakashu, was developed. It was a system on how to analyze the Kokin Wakashu 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 which 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 itself began to echo and repeat old poems and themes.

Tokugawa shogunate period

In the early Edo period, waka was not a fashionable genre. Newly created haikai no renga featuring the hokku as the opening verse (of which 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 out of 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 Ryokan 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. But 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. But most waka poets kept to ancient tradition or made those reformation another stereotype, and waka was still 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 several literary magazines, gathering their friends and disciples to them as contributors. Yosano Tekkan and the poets that were associated with his Myōjō magazine were one example, but that magazine was fairly short-lived. To Myojo a young high school student Otori You, later known Yosano Akiko as the wife Tekkan and Ishikawa Takuboku contributed. 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 (a bird made famous by Basho in a haiku) he founded still publishes. He was a great poet both in his new haiku form and tanka, being sometimes called the Father of Modern Tanka. Actually the term tanka was one of his invented words as a replacement for waka. After the World War Two waka began to be considered rather out-of-date but since the late of 1980s has revived under the example of contemporary poet Tawara Machi.

In the Meiji period, Masaoka Shiki claimed the situation with waka should be rectified, and waka should be modernized just the as same as with other things in the country. He praised the style of Man'yōshū, calling it manly, as opposed to the style of Kokin Wakashu which was the ideal type of waka during a thousand year, which he called feminine and denigrated. He also 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. After Shiki died, in the Taisho period, Saito Mokichi and his friends gathered a poetry circle Araragi that praised the Man'yōshū. Using their magazine they spread their influence throughout the country. Besides their modernization, in the court the old traditions still prevailed. The court holds many utakai even today both officially and privately. The utakai which the emperor holds at the first in a 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. Anyone can apply to it with a waka according to an announced theme before the year, and many people apply in every year.

Today there are many circles of waka poets. Many newspapers have a weekly waka column and there are many professional and amateur waka poets.

Tanka written in English

The writing of tanka in English started more slowly than the writing of English-language haiku, with the first English-language tanka collections dating from 1974. There is still vastly less tanka written than haiku, but interest in the tanka form in English is growing. The most popular form of present-day tanka in English frequently preserves only the outer form of tanka, with content much like other contemporary Western romantic poetry.

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, senryu, and cinquain, and most early English-language tanka appeared in journals that featured a variety of small poem forms (the main American Haiku magazines publishing only haiku and sometimes senryu). Only recently have there been journals devoted exclusively to tanka, including American Tanka (1996) and Tangled Hair in Britain. It was in April 2000 that the Tanka Society of America was formed.

In the late 20th century, a new group of poets began a revival of pre-Shiki waka, aiming for a more austere and traditional content akin to that of Saigyo, and going under the group name "Mountain Home," an English translation of the title of the famous collection of Saigyo's waka, the Sanka Shu ("Mountain Home Collection"). The movement is recent, and their ultimate achievements and influence.

Famous Waka and Tanka Poets

Kakinomoto Hitomaro
Yamabe no Akahito
Otomo no Yakamochi
Six best Waka poets Henjo
Ariwara no Narihira
Hun'ya no Yasuhide
Ono no Komachi
Otomo no Kuronushi
Thirty-six best Waka poets: including Six best Waka poets and added poets until the middle of Heian period.
Kino Tsurayuki
Fujiwara no Teika
Saigyo Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師) (1118 - 1190)
Emperor Go-Toba
Motoori Norinaga
Ueda Akinari
Masaoka Shiki (正岡 子規) (1867- -1902)
Yosano Akiko (与謝野 晶子) (1878 - 1942)
Ishikawa Takuboku
Saito Mokichi
Ito Sachio
Nagatsuka Takashi
Okamoto Kanoko
Wakayama Bokusui
Orikuchi Shinobu under the pseudonym Shaku Choku
Terayama Shuji
Tawara Machi (俵万智) (born 1962)


Waka anthologies

Modern tanka anthologies

Tanka written in English

External links