About Tanka and Its History
by Amelia Fielden

Tanka, meaning ‘short song’, is the modern name for waka, ‘Japanese song’, the traditional form of lyric poetry which has been composed in Japan for over 1300 years.

Originally intended to be chanted aloud to musical accompaniment, waka are believed to have existed already in the oral literature of the seventh century. The earliest Japanese anthology is the mid eighth century Man’yōshū (Collection of Myriad Leaves), compiled of some 4,496 individual poems on subjects such as the beauty and evanescence of the natural world, human love, laments for the dead, and the affairs of ordinary people. Of them 4,173 are written in waka form.

The waka or tanka is an unrhymed verse form of thirty-one syllables or sound units1 most often written in one continuous unpunctuated line. Nearly all Japanese syllables consist of a single vowel, or consonant plus vowel. As the language has only five vowels, rhyming is too simple to be interesting, hence Japanese poetry does not depend on rhyme. There are no poetic stress accents, so metre based on stress is not possible, either. Instead, traditional Japanese poetry is given rhythm by writing to a pattern of 5/7/5/7/7 sub-units or sound sets, with varying breath pauses being made when read aloud. Japanese is an agglutinative language which strings together shorter elements to create long, sometimes complex, word and phrase formations. Rhythmically and semantically, 5/7/5 combines unevenness with alternation, thus providing a natural balance to offset its inherent fluidity.

After the Man’yōshū, whose contributors ranged from fishermen and frontier-guards to emperors, waka gradually evolved into the poetry of the Imperial Court. The topics of such poetry were, among other things, praise for the Imperial reign, nature and the natural rotation of the seasons, love and the progress of love affairs, celebrations, mourning, travel and parting, and combinations of these. Between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, numbers of anthologies of court poetry were compiled both under imperial auspices and privately among the aristocracy. They were normally ordered in sections devoted to related themes, by far the most prominent of which were the four seasons, and love. The most important of these anthologies in Japanese literary history are the Kokinshū (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), begun around 905AD, (in which all but 9 of 1,111 poems are waka), and the Shinkokinshū (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), compiled from 1205 exclusively of waka.

The Shinkokinshū is said to represent the high point of classical waka. Towards the end of the twelfth century, poets composing in the thirty-one syllable form had begun to explore slightly different techniques, such as dividing the poems and their images into two parts of 5/7/5 and 7/7 syllables. By the fourteenth century this had made dominant a variant poetic form called renga, or ‘connecting lyric’, in which two or more poets working together to complex rules, wrote alternate parts of the waka, usually in a sequence of one hundred. Greater length and multiple authorship brought some versatility. In content there were two types of renga: the formal type which stressed elegance in the courtly tradition of love, longing and loss, in human life and in nature – and a lighter, sometimes humorous, more realistic type.

In the sixteenth century the opening verse, the hokku, written in only three sets of 5/7/5 syllables, branched off from the latter more down-to-earth type of renga. As it moved away from court poetry, the broadening subject matter attracted the interest of a wider spectrum of society. While this shorter verse form became increasingly popular, especially during the eighteenth century, the quality and quantity of waka writing steadily declined.

Then in the late 1880s, a time when existing schools of hokku and of waka had apparently failed to reflect the social changes which occurred subsequent to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Western poetry was introduced into Japan through translation. Its perceived greater freedom to express all manner of situations and emotions, compared to the rule-bound waka form, seemed to flag the eventual demise of the latter.

That waka did not die out, was paradoxically in part due to the stimulus given to the Japanese literary world by the introduction of Western forms of poetry. For this led to modernist experiments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by a group of young poets centred around Yosano (Hiroshi) Tekkan (1873-1935), and his wife Akiko (1878-1942), who were looking for forms of expression responsive to the emotional needs of those living in the new era. At the age of twenty, Tekkan had become a pupil of the first distinctly new poet of the Meiji period, Ochiai Naobumi (1861-1903). The latter was not a great writer himself, but the time was ripe for the reform of the principles and practice of traditional Japanese poetry, that he advocated. Ochiai was a waka poet determined to create a new poetry for a new age. He influenced and encouraged younger, more iconoclastic poets, the most radical of whom was Tekkan.

‘Yosano Tekkan’s revolutionary vision encompassed all genres of poetry.’2 Tekkan wrote and published a mixture of traditional Japanese and Western verse; he also used a number of different terms in his critical writings, including jiga no shi (the poetry of self), shintaishi (new style poetry, or free verse), and tanka, which he renamed tanshi (short poetry).

The picture is too complex for this summary introduction, but basically the waka was rescued through experimentations and reforms which effectively turned it into the modern tanka.3 Emphasizing originality and individuality Tekkan, with Akiko and with other members of his Tokyo Shinshisha (New Poets’ Society), began in 1900 the publication of a journal called Myōjō (Morning Star) to popularise his poetic views. Associated with the Shinshinsha and Myōjō was the shinpa waka (new style waka) movement which sought to reform the traditional Japanese genre in which these poets still mostly wrote.

Akiko, with her uninhibited compositions about sexual passion and love, blazed the trails for a new romantic poetry and the ‘new woman’ in Japanese literature. The core of Akiko’s poetic was jikkan, the emotions the writer is actually experiencing. Nonetheless, all of the 399 tanka poems in Akiko’s lyrical new-age collection Midaregami (Tangled Hair), published in 1901, were written in the old classical language.

In parallel to the jiga no shi poems about the ego, espoused by the Yosano group, was the shasei (sketch from life), movement which was started by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), a poet reformer of both hokku, (which he re-named haiku), and waka. The sketch from life form of waka or tanka was further developed by Saitō Mokichi (1882-1953) into a kind of selective realism. The original thirty-one syllable form was still retained as waka were reformed in various ways, and by various groups of poets, who united to decide on giving it the name of ‘tanka’.

The most popular tanka poet of all time, Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912), a frequenter of the Yosano salon, called this new poetry ‘poems to eat’. According to Takuboku:

‘the name means poems made with both feet upon the ground. It means poems written without putting any distance from actual life. They are not delicacies, or dainty dishes, but food indispensable for us in our daily meal. To define poetry in this way may be to pull it down from its established position, but to me it means to make poetry, which has added nothing or detracted nothing from actual life, into something which cannot be dispensed with’.4

Tanka was soon recognized as a new genre, although the nomenclature waka and tanka continues to be used loosely, even now, a century later. Fundamentally, waka is the correct term for traditional Japanese poetry written prior to the reforms which were started in the late nineteenth century. Then from the twentieth century, especially after reform had been continued by Shiki and Takuboku, the name tanka came into general usage. Under this name, traditional Japanese poetry enjoyed a fresh flowering, with writer after writer proving that even specifically modern ideas could be conveyed effectively through a traditional form. Thus the combination of old and new, together with the simple lyrical impulse of the tanka, enabled it to flourish despite the influx of Western poetry and the more flexible forms of free verse which followed it in Japan.

However, poetry, like all forms of literary activity, fell increasingly under governmental supervision in the 1930s, with the start of Japanese incursions into China. For some ten years or more, until the end of the Pacific War, freedom of speech was severely curtailed in Japan. As one of the oldest and therefore ‘purest’, Japanese verse forms, tanka were permitted to be published – but only as vehicles for nationalistic and pro-war sentiments. Then, immediately after the War, the traditional poetry came under attack for its perceived close association with ultra-nationalistic activities and militarism.

Post-war recovery brought a revival of ‘free tanka’, with a new generation of poets to challenge and expand earlier theories and practices. Although, as Morton wrote:

‘... of all Japanese literary genres, tanka was the most conservative. Even when the reforms begun by Tekkan and Akiko had been taken up by later poets like Masaoka Shiki, Ishikawa Takuboku, and a mass of avant-garde tanka poets, rarely was the diction of traditional waka (the old name for tanka) challenged. It took nearly half a century of literary experimentation before tanka poets could write freely using colloquial rather than classical grammar. And even then many traditionalists sought refuge in archaic diction’.5

            In the Japan of today, tanka composition thrives. This is all the more remarkable in view of predictions that the traditional form might not survive first the introduction of Western poetry, and then the anti-traditionalist feelings of some sixty years later. Tanka has maintained a mass market, as can be seen in the poetry of Tawara Machi (b. 1962), who has been dubbed the Akiko of the modern era.

Newspapers carry weekly tanka (and haiku) columns edited by well-known poets, who select for publication from among the thousands of poems submitted by a nation-wide readership. Specialist tanka journals sponsored by major media organs and publishers appear monthly and sell well. Additionally, most writers, amateur, professional, and in-between, belong to some association of tankaists which holds regular study meetings, and publishes magazines featuring members’ compositions – such magazines numbering in the hundreds.

Moreover, ‘some practitioners of traditional genres of verse do not aspire, except in the most abstract sense, to art, but, rather, view their work as fulfilling a social, or in some cases private, function or purpose, but the majority of professionals engaged in traditional verse see themselves as artists first and as artisans or teachers second’.6

In the 1911 free-style “My Poems”, “Waga Uta”, Yosano Akiko had explained why she wrote the short tanka:


‘Because my songs are brief,

People think I hoarded words.

I have spared nothing in my songs,

There is nothing I can add.

Unlike a fish, my soul swims without gills.

I sing on one breath.’ 7


A swimmer’s period of submersion in the sea is physiologically limited, and so is a poet’s period of submersion in the powerful feeling, jikkan, which Akiko believed to be the only true material for poetry.

There are many and varied explanations given for the continuing charm of tanka. As Akiko wrote, perhaps heightened lyrical moments cannot last very long. There is no way of knowing whether the reason for its endurance lies in a Japanese predilection for shortness in poetry, or whether the attraction is to a form which serves to concentrate poetic conceptions.

Ueda theorises that:

‘Perhaps this very lack of consensus is the best answer explaining why the ancient verse form is still strong. The tanka form is fixed and yet flexible. It provides a ready-made form so that poets need not worry about the shape of their verbal utterance, and yet the form is so pliant that they can bend it almost in any way they like. Furthermore, the form is rich in its cultural legacy: it has absorbed the essentials of Japanese civilization for the past 1,300 years and has established itself as the archetypal mode of emotional expression for those who speak Japanese. Because it is the archetypal mode, it touches and moves the Japanese heart at the deepest level. Tanka will continue to be written as long as Japanese culture continues to survive.'8

Although content has, in modern times, become a matter of free choice – and ranges widely from the erotic to the political – the tanka form continues to be used primarily to convey personal emotion.  However, as mentioned earlier, in addition to such jiga no shi, poems about oneself, there exists an equally valid style of tanka called in Japanese shasei, meaning ‘sketch from nature / life’ or ‘word painting’. Broadly speaking, most contemporary tanka, in Japanese and in English, fall into one of these two categories. Japanese tankaists – who tend to be more prolific than their overseas counterparts, perhaps because they concentrate almost exclusively on writing only tanka – regularly compose pieces infused with personal emotion and also the more objectively descriptive shasei. My impression is that tanka which include a clear statement of the poet’s feelings are, on the other hand, more popular amongst non-Japanese, both readers and writers.

Tanka has enjoyed a phenomenally long history, and its future appears to be equally exciting.




1 I am conversant with the theory held by some linguists that, while English has syllables, Japanese has ‘mora’.

  However, not being a linguistic specialist, I prefer to use the conventional general terms ‘syllables’ or ‘sound

  units’ for the purpose of my thesis. For a detailed discussion of the mora proposition, see Richard Gilbert and  Judy

  Yoneoka (2000). “From 5-7-5 to 8-8-8: An Investigation of Japanese Haiku Metrics and Implications for English

  Haiku”. This is available on the internet at http://www.worldhaiku.net/index.html and has also been published in

  Language Issues: Journal of the Foreign Language Center, no.1, March 2000. Kumamoto, Japan: Prefectural

  University of Kumamoto.

  Also relevant is Appendix I: “The Japanese Mora”, in Kawamoto Kōji, The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery,

  Structure, Meter, translated by Stephen Collington, Kevin Collins, and Gustav Heldt, Tokyo: University of Tokyo

  Press, 2002, pp.293-297.

2Leith Morton, Modernism in Practice: An Introduction to Postwar Japanese Poetry, Honolulu: University of

  Hawaii Press, 2004, p.33. See also p.17-18 in the same chapter 1, “The Birth of the Modern: Yosano Akiko and

  Tekkan’s Verse Revolution” p.11-33.

3For a much more comprehensive coverage, see Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the

   Modern Era, Volume 2, Poetry, Drama, Criticism, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, p.3-87.

4In his article “Poems to Eat”, which appeared in instalments in the Tokyo Mainichi Newspaper from November

  30th to December 7th 1909, translated by Sanford Goldstein and Shinoda Seishi in Romaji Diary and Sad Toys,

  Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1985, p.44. In Japan, famous poets are frequently referred to by other than their family

  names. Takuboku was Ishikawa’s pen-name, as Tekkan was Yosano’s.

5 Morton, Modernism in Practice, p.32.

6 Ibid., p.184.

7 Translated by Sakanishi Shio in Donald Keene (ed.) Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Rutland,

  Vermont and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, p.202.


8 Ueda Makoto (ed. and trans.). Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology, New York: Columbia University Press,

   1996, p. xxxvi.


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