School of Tanka 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson One
Early Japanese Tanka History

Tanka, a Japanese poetry form, is one of the oldest that still enjoys current popularity has its beginning in time before remembering. When the first legends and accompanying songs were first given written words this poetry form was already in evidence.

First called uta (song), the form was later named waka, and only after one of its dips in popularity, was the term tanka (tan =short; ka, for ga, = elegance) given to it. Though both tanka and waka are now used interchangeably, waka refers to all Japanese poetry and tanka to the five-part poem classically composed in Japan with sets of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 sound units.

Though the very first poems were written down and saved because they were part of the past of Japan, in the book called Kojiki – Record of Ancient Matters – finished in 712 C.E. only thirty-nine years later the first actual book of poetry, Kaifuusoo – Fond Recollections of Poetry appeared. While the Kaifuusoo has been dismissed because many of the poems were kanshi – Chinese poems written by Japanese, some of the tanka-like poems were deemed good enough to be included in the most-highly esteemed book, Man’yooshuu.
The Man’yooshuu – A Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, written out in 759 C.E. has become known as the finest collection of Japanese poetry. Its importance over the years has only become more noticeable for it richness in variety of poetic forms and subjects as well as work from all social classes. The apparent level of accomplishment, higher than that of the Kojiki, partially resulted from poets making the selection of included work instead of preserving only the song poems associated with legends. The songs were surely older and the poems in Man’yooshuu showed the influence of Chinese culture which had flooded into Japan one hundred years before. Still this cannot deny the excellence of the Japanese poets as they abandoned the over whelming Chinese use of parallelism for their very methods of juxtaposition. The poems in the Man’yooshuu are still studied for inspiration and example.
Over the years various scholars have attempted to translate various parts of the Man’yooshuu culminating in Edwin A. Cranston’s outstanding work in The Glistening Cup.

When one thinks of the journey these poems have made from tongue to our eyes one can only be amazed that any of the poetry has survived.
In the beginning, the Japanese had no written symbols for their language. They were introduced to writing by the Chinese whose language was built on (what we would call) single syllable words. Each of these words had a pictograph – a character drawing that stood for a sound and for an object. The Japanese language was built differently. Their words had two or more sound units. If they adopted the written character for ‘horse’ the sound indication was wrong for the Japanese. In order to retain the sound unit flow of speech, it was decided that the Chinese characters used to indicate a Japanese would be chosen for their sound and not their meaning.

I have often thought of this being like one of those tests where the word ‘blue’ is printed in pink, and can only shake my head in amazement. It took the Japanese about another one hundred years to realize this was not working and developed the kana system still in use. This meant that within another one hundred years not even a scholar could read the Man’yooshuu with its Chinese sounding Japanese. Again and again the poems were translated into the language of the current times. Imagine the possibility of errors over 4000 poems in twenty books of poetry that was written by all social classes, on subjects of another culture. Imagine the work. And then the realization the tanka poems have finally made a leap into English leaves me limp with gratitude.

Naturally the work of developing a writing system and the writing of books was in the realm of the Imperial Household. It was the members of the court who learned the new way to write, as well as read and write Chinese poetry. For the next century it seemed the little native poetry form would be over-taken by the popularity of writing poems in Chinese, kanshi (KAHN- SHE).  if it had not been for two waka poets: Ariwara no Narihira and Ono no Komachi. Both became famous for their exploits in love, but not with each other, so that  the waka became even more firmly embedded in the use of lovers.

In an effort to distance themselves from the Chinese, the court poets turned from writing the longer Chinese-styled poems using parallelism to the native waka form, but with a new vigor and skill. The efforts in the foreign form had taught them much about poetry thinking and writing. Thus it was at the end of the 9th century that the court began sponsoring waka competitions, that revived the form enough for the first Imperially decreed anthology, the Kokin Waka Shuu – KO-KEEN  WAH-KAH SHOE – Collection of Waka Old and New, sometimes called simply Kokinshuu which is now considered the acme of Japanese poetry.
The book had two prefaces – one in Chinese and the other in Japanese which took the place of the first documents of Japanese poetic criticism with its declaration of the nature of Japanese poetry. It begins: “Japanese poetry has its seed in the human heart and burgeons into many different kinds of leaves of words. We who live in this world are constantly affected by different experiences, and we express our thoughts in words, in terms of what we have seen and heard. . .”

The compilers not only showcase the current  crop of waka poems but also go back to the first books of Japanese history to pick out the best examples of the genre.

[Aside: I know the scholarly thing to do would be to bring examples of these early waka sprinkled in the prose here but instead I am going to encourage you to get books of translation so you discover the poems you admire. Also since these are lessons on the form, I do not want to present translations which I have not made. While the works of Levy, Stephen Carter and Edwin A Cranston are marvelously helpful in bringing the Japanese into English, none of them really understood the tanka form and took the care to translate line for line so it is not a good idea to base one’s idea of what a tanka is  or how it works on their poems.]

The Kokinshuu consists of twenty books with the first six given to seasonal poems. It is not known exactly why this done, but it set the pattern for poetry anthologies up until the present day. Two were given to spring and to autumn but summer and winter only had one book each. There were 145 autumn poems compared to 34 summer poems which could indicate the fact that in Kyoto, then the capital, the summers were very hot and winters very cold.

In the Man’yoshuu poems were clustered according to author, but in the Kokinshuu the poems were placed temporally beginning with the first haze of spring. Many of the poems have headers describing the situation in which the poem was written; information not available to Man’yoshuu compilers. The poems in the Man’yoshuu were from people in all classes but the Kokinshuu contained only the work of members of the court. Thus many of the poems feel contrived or overly restrained. Even the sections of love poems seemed based on some ideal of love or situations but still the poems managed to fill the stifling form with deep feelings.

Altogether there were six anthologies decreed by imperial command that, like most government projects, had widely varying poetic quality. The last, in 1205 signaled a dip in tanka popularity. In recent years the renga (REIN-GAH) a collaborative linked poetry form, based on the tanka, had become extremely fashionable. Still the tanka clung on in its use for poems between lovers and in diaries.
Even the advent of hokku or haikai poems, now called haiku, in the 17th century could not completely still the flow of tanka from the people.

Yet today there are over one thousand tanka groups in Japan, most with their own journals for publishing their members’ poems, and though less popular and well-known as haiku, tanka is creating a growing group of admirers and writers.

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The Japanese used the form before they began to write (ca 700 C.E.). One of their oldest short poems was supposedly spoken by Susano-o no mikoto, the elder brother of the divine Amateru. As he was building his palace on the island of Izumo, he saw what probably was a cumulus cloud over the spot:

yakumo tatsu
izumo yaegaki
tsumagome ni
yaegaki tsukuru
sono yaegaki o

many-layered cloud builder
Izumo’s many fences
to enclose a wife
setting up many fences
ah, these many fences

Tanka, at that time, in honor of this poem, was called yakumo (YAH-COO-MOE) – many-layered cloud –which is very fitting for a poem form that builds images on images much like billowing clouds. The form has also been called uta (yOU-TAH) – song – and waka (WAH-KAH) which later came to be used for all the Japanese genres because at that time wa = Japanese and ka = poetry to differentiate it from the Chinese poetry being read and imitated. Then the term tanka – short poem or elegance –was given to indicate just this one poem form out of the many other forms and is the most common


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