School of Tanka 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Three
Japanese Tanka in the 20th Century

As evidence of tanka’s popularity in the last century one can look at the fame tanka brought to five women.
The startlingly fresh and erotic tanka of Akiko Yosano were in her book Midaregami – Tangled Hair published in 1901. A sample would be:

nushi iwazu
torena no fude no
mizu no yuu
soyo sumi taranu
nadeshiko gasane


it doesn’t matter who
takes up a brush by the water
yes I do lack the ink
in pink layered clothes

Her work took the country by storm and assured her a lasting place in the roster of famous tanka poets. Her life was dedicated to literature while bearing 13 children and earning the family’s bread – an interesting story you might enjoy reading.

Translation from Machiko Kobayashi and Jane Reichhold. work in progress.

Fumi Saito (1909-1997) began publishing her tanka in 1932 and book for book her popularity rose. In her old age she was finally given the great honor of Poet Laureate by the Emperor.
My favorite poem from her book Gyo ka - Fish Song is:

 shiroi tegami ga
todoite asu wa
 haru to naru
 usui garasu mo
migaite matoo                                               - -

a white letter                                                  
arriving tomorrow                                            
spring comes                                                    
a thin glass also                                               
waiting to be polished                                      

See how much harder it is to separate out the ideas here? This is where you want to go.
Fumi (which also means “letter”) begins with a letter arriving tomorrow. This already sets up a paradox: how can she know a letter will arrive tomorrow? She answers the question by showing her metaphor, (she is comparing a letter with spring) in the next line. Ah, so! it is spring that begins or comes tomorrow. Then she elaborates and extends the letter metaphor to a thin glass, also. So one can think of a letter being the glass (in a window) that allows use to see into someone else or something else. A sheet of paper is similar to a sheet of glass. Then she combines the image of spring with spring house cleaning (polishing the window glass) to the idea of the work it will take to polish up her letter in reply to the coming letter. See how she mixes time with “arriving tomorrow” and “comes” (present) and “waiting to be”? The “waiting to be polished” is also her subjective part as this is how she emotionally sees the glass and the letter – as both needing the work of polishing.

By not using punctuation one can read the poem in various ways:

a white letter
arriving tomorrow
arriving tomorrow
spring comes

and when you read:

spring comes
a thin glass also

the mind tries to find a relationship between spring and a thin glass.

By her putting “spring comes” in the middle line, where it functions as a perfect pivot.

This translation is from White Letter Poems translated by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold.AHA Books, 1998.



Next to appear was Fumiko Nakajo (1922-54). Her tanka and her life were so interesting a couple of books and films were made about her. Part of that interest came because she so bravely lived with and wrote about breast cancer. She only found out that a series of  her poems had been given the highest prize as she lay dying.

shujutsu shitsu izuru     
sono toki yori 
mizumizu togaru
chibusa wo netamu

carried on a stretcher
from the operating room
since that time
I envy breasts that are
young and sharp-pointed

Again, this poem, too, has become famous because of the sexually stimulating description in the last two lines. 

kare hana no   
hanawa wo amite            
mune ni kaken                       
chibusa kaerazaru           
ware no tame ni             


withered and bare
a braided wreath of flowers
hangs down my chest
to honor myself and
the loss of my breasts

These are from Breasts of Snow translated by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. The Japan Times, 2004


In 1988, Machi Tawara, who had just begun to teach school after completing her college studies, had a book of her tanka published as Sarada kinenbi, [Salad Anniversary]. Tawara's fresh use of language (instead of reusing acceptable "poetical phrases" of the beauties of nature and confessions of emotion), her ability to speak directly and yet shyly of her own "swayings of the heart" rocketed this first book to fame with sales of over seven million copies. The book has been the basis for a couple of television serial dramas, a musical revue, and a full-length movie. It is hailed as "the literary sensation that swept Japan." "August Morning," the book's opening 50 poem sequence, was awarded the Kadokawa Tanka Prize. The entire book was named as the Outstanding Poetry Collection of 1989 by the Association of Modern Poets, Tokyo, Japan.

There were two English translations of Salad Anniversary. Juliet Winters Carpenter (Kodansha: 1989) translated all the poems into three lines with very short almost haiku-like phrasing. Jack Stamm translated about two-thirds of the poems into five-liners with a more melodic style that fits with the idea most Westerners have of how a tanka looks and feels. A comparison shows:

Late afternoon
you and I gaze at the same thing
as between us something ends
trs. Juliet Winters Carpenter

Both of us staring
at the identical spot.
Yet something reaches
its end between you and me
this lengthening afternoon.
trs. Jack Stamm

Jack Stamm, a haiku writer, who died in 1992, understood the comparison between the afternoon ending and the termination of the love affair and made it more clear in his translation (Kawade bunko: 1990), though he admitted personally during a visit with us that he "had to pad some of the poems out" to make five English lines from the very concise Japanese.


Last, and still living is Akiko Baba (b. 1928). Not only is she well-known for her tanka but she has also written several Noh plays and is considered an expert in both fields.

haha wo shiraneba
haha to narazarishi
hinata nite
kao naki mono to
hohoemi kawasu

at my back
so many folds sway
like heat haze
in autumn all the spirits
of my family are women

Translation for Heavenly Maiden Tanka by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. AHA Books, 1999. 

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