Waka ~ Japanese Poetry


If you’re like me and have read a lot of books, essays, blogs, etc on haiku and still find yourself confused about the interchangeability of the terms Waka and Tanka, then this post is for you. While I’m at it, I’ll also discuss other types of Japanese poetry.

Waka (literally “Japanese Poem”) originally encompassed a number of differing forms, principally tanka (“short poem”) and chōka (“long poem”), but also including bussokusekika (“Buddha Footprint poem)sedōka (“memorized poem”) and katauta (“poem fragment”). 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 refer only to tanka.

Name Form Description
Katauta 5-7-7 One half of an exchange of two poems; the shortest type of waka
Chōka 5-7-5-7-5-7…5-7-7 Repetition of 5 and 7 on phrases, with a last phrase containing 7 on. Mainly composed to commemorate public events, and often followed by a hanka or envoi.
Numerous chōka appear prominently in the Man’yōshū, but only 5 in the Kokinshū.
Tanka 5-7-5-7-7 The most widely-composed type of waka throughout history
Sedōka 5-7-7-5-7-7 Composed of two sets of 5-7-7 (similar to two katauta). Frequently in the form of mondōka (“dialogue poem”?) or an exchange between lovers
Bussokusekika 5-7-5-7-7-7 A tanka with an extra phrase of 7 on added to the end; 21 of these “Buddha Footprint” poems are inscribed on a monument at Nara, Japan.

It is also interesting to note that before the introduction of kanji from China, the Japanese had no writing system. At first, Chinese characters were used in Japanese syntactical formats, and the result was sentences that look like Chinese but were read phonetically as Japanese. Chinese characters were further adapted, creating what is known as man’yōgana, the earliest form of kana, or syllabic writing. So, in some of the older Japanese haiku, some poets (such as Bashō, Buson, & Issa) used Chinese characters in lieu of their Japanese counterparts to add more subtleties and, perhaps double-meanings or cultural references.

Kanshi literally means “Han poetry” and it is the Japanese term for Chinese poetry in general as well as the poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets. Kanshi from the early Heian period exists in the Kaifūsō anthology, compiled in 751.

Waka (and it’s forms) is described above.

Renga (collaborative poetry) is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry. A renga consists of at least two ku or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku, became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry.

Renku (“linked verses”), or haikai no renga (“comic linked verse”), is a Japanese form of popular collaborative linked verse poetry. It is a development of the older Japanese poetic tradition of ushin renga, or orthodox collaborative linked verse. At renku gatherings participating poets take turns providing alternating verses of 17 and 14 morae. Initially haikai no renga distinguished itself through vulgarity and coarseness of wit, before growing into a legitimate artistic tradition, and eventually giving birth to the haiku form of Japanese poetry. The term renku gained currency after 1904, when Kyoshi Takahama started to use it.

Utaawase (poetry contests or waka matches) are a distinctive feature of the Japanese literary landscape from the Heian period. Significant to the development of Japanese poetics, the origin of group composition such as renga, and a stimulus to approaching waka as a unified sequence and not only as individual units, the lasting importance of the poetic output of these occasions may be measured also from their contribution to the imperial anthologies: 92 poems of the Kokinshū and 373 of the Shin Kokinshū were drawn from utaawase.

And, of course, Haiku.

Thank you for reading.


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