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See Waka (disambiguation) and Tanka (disambiguation) for other usages.

Waka (和歌) or Yamato uta is a genre of Japanese poetry.

Waka literally means Japanese poem in Japanese. The word was originally coined 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 styles. The main two are tanka (短歌, "short poem") and chōka (長歌, "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 imply 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, 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, 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'yoshu: 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 other forms of waka than the above two. In ancient times its syllabic form was not fixed, but used not only 5 and 7 but also 3, 4, 6, longer than 7 syllables part in a waka. Besides that, there were many other forms like:

  • Bussokusekika: This form carved on a slab of slate - the Bussokuseki (silhouette of Buddha's feet stone) - at the Yakushi-ji temple in Nara. Also recorded in Man'yōshū. The pattern is 5-7-5-7-7-7.
  • Sedoka: Man'yōshū and Kokin Wakashu recorded this form. The pattern is 5-7-7-5-7-7.
  • Katauta: Man'yōshū recorded this form. Katauta means 'Half song' in Japanese. The pattern is 5-7-7, just same as a half part of Sedoka.

All of those three forms hasn't been shown in the middle of Heian period.

History of Waka development

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

In Donald Keene's books, He uses four large categories: 1) Early and Heian Literature (Kojiki to past 'The Tale of Genji' to 1185) 2) The Middle Ages ('chūsei' from 1185, including the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods) 3) Pre-Modern Era (1600-1867, then subdivided into 1600-1770 and 1770-1867) 4) Modern Era (post 1867, divided into Meiji (1868-1912), Taishō (1912-1926) and Shōwa (from 1927)).


In ancient times waka had no fixed form. The earliest waka were recorded in Kojiki and Nihonshoki. The waka in the Man'yōshū had no fixed form, but already poets in the late 7th century, in the time of the empress Saimei began to create Choka and Tanka in the form we know today.

The ancient waka ancient were recorded in the 20 volumes of the Man'yōshū, the oldest 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 latest generation in this anthology and the last volume of the Man'yōshū is mostly an anthology of his poems. The first waka of volume 1 was by the 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.

During Nara period and the early Heian period the court was in favor of the Chinese style poetry (kanshi) and waka wasn't pursued in eagerness. In 10th century when Japan stopped sending official messangers to the Tang dynasty of China, the localisation of culture developed rapidly. The ancient poetry form in their mother tongue received interest again, and the Emperor Daigo ordered the creation of an anthology of waka. It was the first waka anthology edited under the imperial order and it founded a long tradition of imperial anthologies of waka that continued to the Muromachi period. The famous waka poets in those days including Kino Tsurayuki gathered waka of ancient poets and their contemporaries, hence the anthology named Kokin Wakashu, literarly meaning the Ancient-and-Now Anthology. In those day a party for waka application were held frequently. The age of waka had arrived.

There were two types of waka party: Utakai and Utaawase. Utakai was a party in which all participants made a waka and recited them in order. Utakai derived from Shikai, Kanshi party and was held in occasion people gathered like seasonal party for the New Year, some celebrations for a newly borned baby, birthday or a newly building house. Utaawase was a contest in two teams. There were determined themes and a chosen poet from each team made a waka for a given theme. The judge made a judge for each theme and gave points to winning team. The team which got bigger points in the sum was the winner. The first recorded Utaawase was held in around 885. First Utaawase was playful but in the medieval it turned into a serious contest of literature and its size was grown.

In ancient times, it was a custom between two 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). 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. 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.


In the late of Heian period, Renga, a form collaborated linked poetry developed. In the late of Heian period, great waka poets appeared. the father Fujiwara no Shunzei and his son Fujiwara no Teika, and the Emperor Go-Toba. Emperor Go-Toba ordered the creation of a new anthology and joined in editing it as an editor. 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 taught his method and were considered as waka masters.

In the Muromachi period, renga had developed. It began to be popular in the court and people around it and spread to the priest monk who and then to the wealthy commoners. As same as waka, renga anthology under the imperial order was edited.

Waka style lost flexibility because of the conventions of the court, but still remains an important part in their culture. 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. Study of waka became to learn such theory.

There were comical waka already in the Kojiki and the Man'yōshū, but the noble style of waka in the court reduced such aspects of waka. Renga was in the same atmosphere with many codes reflecting literature 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 turned to refrain the old style in general.


In the early Edo period waka was not fashionable genre. Newly created Haikai renga from which haiku had developed was the most favorite genre. This tendency was kept during this period, but in the late Edo period waka faces some new trends out of the court. Motoori Norinaga, the great reviver of the traditional Japanese literature attempted to revive waka as a way of expression of traditional feeling expressed in genuine Japanese way. He made waka and it became an important part of practices of his followers, Kokugaku scholars. In Echigo province a Buddhist priest Ryokan made many waka in a nave style intentionally avoiding complex rules and traditional way of waka. He belonged to another great tradition of waka, waka for expressing religious feeling from the ancient. But his frank expression of his feeling has fans even today. In the cities a comical, ironic and satiric form of waka emerged. It was called kyoka (狂歌) mad poem and was loved by intellectual people in big cities like Edo and Osaka. It was precisely not a new form, satirical waka was made even in the ancient times. But it was the Edo period that this aspect of waka developed and reached to an artistic expression. But most of waka poets kept to ancient tradition or made those reformation another stereotype and waka was not a vivid genre in general in the end of this period.


The modern-era revival of tanka started with some poets who published the literature magazines and gathered their friends and disciples on them as contributors. Yosano Tekkan and the poets that were associated with his Myōjō magazine, 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 he founded has been issued even today. He was a great poet both in haiku and tanka and critic and 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 had been 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 improved and waka should be modernized just the as same as with other things in the country. He praised the style of Man'yōshū and called it manly. In opposition to that, he denied the style of Kokin Wakashu which was the ideal type of waka during a thousand year, and called it feminine. He also praised Minamoto no Sanetomo, the third Shogun of Kamakura Shogunate, who was a disciple of Fujiwara Teika and made waka in a style much like that in the Man'yōshū. After Shiki died, in the Taisho period, Saito Mokichi and his friends who 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 remind. 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. 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 much less tanka written than haiku, but interest in tanka in English is growing.

Different from Japan, where poets 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 publish only haiku and sometimes senryu). It has only been recently that there have 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.

Famous Waka and Tanka Poets


Waka anthologies

  • Brower, Robert H., and Earl Miner, Japanese Court Poetry, Stanford University Press, 1961 ISBN 0-8047-1524-6 pbk [527 pp. a standard academic study]
  • Carter, Steven D., editor and translator, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford University Press, 1991 [waka, tanka, linked poetry, haiku and senryu with translations and annotations]
  • Carter, Steven D., editor and translator, Waiting for the Wind: Thirty-six Poets of Japan's Late Medieval Age, Columbia University Press, 1989
  • Cranston, Edwin, editor and translator, A Waka Anthology, Volume: The Gem-Glistening Cup, Stanford University Press, 1993 ISBN 0-8047-1922-5 cloth ISBN 0-80470315708 pbk [988 pp. includes almost all waka from the Kokiji (Record of Ancient Matters completed 712) through the Man'yōshū (Collection for Ten Thousand Generations c.759) and also includes the Buddha's Footstone Poems (21 Bussokuseki poems carved in stone at the Yakushiji temple in Nara, c. 753). Part of a four-volume project.]
  • Keene, Donald, compiled and edited, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Grove Press, 1955
  • McCullough, Helen Craig, Brocade by Night: 'Kokin Wakashū' and the Court Style in Japanese Classical Poetry, Stanford University Press, 1985
  • McCullough, Helen Craig, Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, with 'Tosa Nikki' and 'Shinsen Waka', Stanford University Press 1985
  • Miner, Earl, An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, Stanford University Press 1968 [based on Brower and Miner]
  • Philippi, Donald, translator, This Wine of Peace, the Wine of Laughter: A Complete Anthology of Japan's Earliest Songs, New York, Grossman, 1968
  • Sato, Hiroaki, and Burton Watson, editors and translators, From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry (multiple editions available)

Modern tanka anthologies

  • Nakano, Jiro, Outcry from the Inferno: Atomic Bomb Tanka Anthology, Honolulu, Hawaii, Bamboo Ridge Press 1995 ISBN 0-910043-38-8 [104 pp. 103 tanka by 103 poets]
  • Shiffert, Edith, and Yuki Sawa, editors and translators, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry, Rutland, Vermont, Tuttle, 1972
  • Ueda, Makoto, Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology, Columbia University Press, 1996 ISBN 0-231-10432-4 cloth ISBN 0-231-10433-2 pbk [257 pp. 400 tanka by 20 poets]

Tanka written in English

  • McClintock, Michael, Pamela Miller Ness and Jim Kacian, the tanka anthology: 800 of the best tanka in English by 68 of its finest practitioners, Winchester, VA, Red Moon Press 2003 ISBN 1-89359-40-6
  • Welch, Michael Dylan, footsteps in the fog, Foster City, CA USA, Press Here 1994 ISBN 1-878798-12-X [an early anthology of tanka in English 48 pp. 115 tanka by 7 poets]

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