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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

Social Uses of Tanka Poetry: Passion, Prayer, Peace and Other Pastimes
by Harold Wright

[Part I of this Feature appeared in v5n2 of Simply Haiku. Ed.]

Part II: Peace and Other Pastimes

Tanka as Poems of Peace

In looking at tanka poetry "calming the heart of the fierce warrior," one may immediately think of the Shinkokinshu (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), as well as one of the leading poets in that collection, Priest Saigyo (1118-1190).

The Shinkokinshu, the eighth of the anthologies edited under imperial command, was compiled in 1205. The collection contains favorites of many Japanese including Kawabata Yasunari, the Nobel Prize winner who referred to the collection in his Stockholm acceptance speech in 1968, by saying, "…there was added elements of the mysterious, the suggestive, evocative and inferential elements of sensuous fantasy . . ."

I have often tried to describe the effect of such poetry as the ringing of a great bronze bell in a Buddhist temple. These bells go "gongggggggggggngngngngngngang" and it is the "ngngngng" that is most appreciated by the Japanese, not the initial "GONK". And so, in Shinkokinshu poetry, it is the lingering suggestion of the poem that is the most important aspect of the work, not necessarily the initial meaning.

My favorite poet of the Shinkokinshu is the poet priest SAIGYO. Born in a military house, he left home at an early age, took Buddhist vows, and then traveled Japan writing poetry. He often lived as a hermit in huts in the mountains and wrote about nature. Many readers know him for his poems about cherry blossoms. He was a deep inspiration for many poets who followed him, especially the later haiku poets, such as MATSUO Basho (1644-1694) who also traveled about Japan and wrote about nature.

Hana mo chiri
    hito mo miyako e
         kaeri na ba
yama sabishiku ya
   naramu tosu ramu

With the cherry blooms
   scattered and the viewers
      back home in Kyoto
will mountain loneliness come again?
   Ah, I see that it has returned.

Yoshino yama
    kozo no shiori no
      michi kaet
mada minu kata no
   hana o tazune mu

On Yoshino Mountain
   I'll not take the trail I blazed
      just a year ago
Rather I'll walk another path
   to see other cherries in bloom..

Fuki suguru
    kaze sae koto ni
      mi ni zo shimu
yamada no iori
   aki no yugure

Blowing through rice fields
    the wind pierces fiercely
      my whole body
in a little farmer's shed
   on an evening in autumn.

Aware tote
    nadotou hito no
mono omou yado no
   hagi no ue kaze

It is so forlorn
    when no one comes to visit
      this small hermit's hut
filled with all these memories
   and sound of bush clover breeze.

Iwama toji
    shi kori mo kesa wa
      toke somete
koke no shitamizu
   michi moto muramu

Trapped between the rocks
    ice that just this morning
      has started to thaw
now forms patterns of water
   in growing paths beneath the moss.

Much later, at the time of Japan's modernization, the Emperor Meiji reigned from 1868-1912. He ascended the throne as a teenager, but led Japan out of centuries of isolation. He also wrote thousands of tanka.

In contemporary Japan, the name of the Emperor Meiji brings up strong feelings. Some elderly Japanese I know still worship him as a living god. Some of my more pacifist friends criticize him as a military dictator largely because of Japan's war with both China and Russia and the colonization of Korea during his reign. Serious questions can be asked by historians about the Emperor Meiji's real role in the military conquests, but the answers are not clear. Still few people now read his tanka and those who do, often recall the few patriotic pieces that were published in school books during the war. Few Japanese I know have ever read his private poems.

I, myself, highly respect the Emperor Meiji as a tanka poet, whose poems reflect a leader, I believe, whose "fierce" heart has been calmed by poetry. I was once asked to translate some of the Emperor Meiji's poems of peace so that they could be passed out to all the international guests at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Emperor Meiji wrote tanka by the thousands. I once saw a photograph of a stack of his books that were purported to contain 100,000 tanka. Apparently he did write several poems every day. I was also told by the Chief Priest, Takazawa of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, that he had "read them all!" One of the emperor's most famous tanka was written at the outbreak of the war with Russia in 1905.

Yomo no umi
    Mina harakara to
      Omou yo ni
Nado namikaze no
   Tachi-sawagu ran?

It was our hope
    That all the world's oceans
      Be joined in peace
So why do the winds and waves
   Now rise up in angry rage?

Another one of his more international "peace" poems goes:

Hisakata no
    Sora wa hedate mo
Tsuchi naru kuni wa
   Sakai aredomo

No lines exist
    Which sector off the sky
      So high above
Though the nations of this earth
   Are all bound by borders.

One of his well known poems deals with Japan's joining the leading nations of the world in accepting standard time.

    Kakeshi tokei no
Kuruwanu oto no
   Kokochi yoki kana

In endless numbers
    Clocks are wound up everywhere
      And then together
They, in perfect harmony,
   Bring all of us such joy.

He also wrote some delightful poems about taking his first train ride, and such things as looking through a telescope, or getting a coal oil lamp so he could do "paperwork at night." Actually, the modernization of Japan can be seen reflected in the personal poetry of the Meiji Emperor.

The Emperor Meiji's wife, the Empress Shoken (1850-1914), also wrote poems by the thousands. Two examples:

Moto wa mina
    Onaji nezashi no
      Hitogusa mo
Kotoba no hana ya
   Chiji ni saku ran.

In the beginning
    People, like all of our plants,
      Sprang from one root;
And the flowers of language
   Bloom forth by the thousands!

    Ubara karatachi
Fumu beki michi wa
   Yuku bekarikeri.

Though overgrown
    With a dense thicket
      Of briers and brambles
A path needing tread upon
   Is one that must be followed.

The long history of Japanese poetry could well be read by looking at the theme of "calming the heart of the fierce warrior" in us all. My college students in Japanese literature classes used to gripe at me for making them read "all these poems about cherry blossoms! Didn't those aristocrats have anything better to do?"

My smart ass reply was often, "Well they could have been feeding folks like us to the lions!"

Tanka Poetry as Pastime

We have seen some of the social uses of tanka poetry as suggested by Ki no Tsusrayuki. His influence on poetry continued for well over a millennium. We have seen examples of tanka that stir the feeling of deities, makes warm the ties between men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors. But there are other social uses of tanka poetry that have appeared over the centuries and should at least be mentioned in passing.

Tanka poetry has been utilized, not only as a form of social communication, but in games of all kinds. One of the most ancient was the utagaki, or mating ritual, in which a poetry or song contest was used to compete for the affections of a mate. There have also been utaawase or poetry writing contests that were often held in the Imperial court with the players receiving or losing important social recognitions.

Probably the most famous Japanese tanka game is karuta, the card game version of the Hyakunin Isshu, the model collection of One Hundred Poems by One-hundred Poets that was believed to have been compiled by the famed Kamakura poet, Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241). The game is played with a "reader" reading the 5,7,5 opening of a tanka, one at a time. The "players" then scramble to find the matching 7,7 that ends the poem. The game and its variants are often played at New Years in Japan, but one family I knew played it throughout the year. It can be a frantic game, with many players memorizing all the poems. Often, only the first syllable needs to be heard before the ending is guessed. There is a lot of slapping at the right cards that are spread out over the tatami floor. The women, in one family I knew, used to trim their fingernails, and removed rings, before a match to keep from injuring one another!

Tanka has been used to create heightened emotions in novels and travel journals, as far back as the earliest recorded literature. In some of these literary works we have dialogue being carried out via co-composed tanka. I recently discovered a tanka written by two people in an ancient folk tale. The practice of joint composition of tanka led to renga (linked tanka), and this then led to haikai and renku, a development that is now well known to all readers and writers of haiku.

Anyway, back to the ancient folk tale I found that uses tanka in its plot. The anonymous old tale is about a poet who dies before he could complete his tanka. The images of the poem involved the word "oki" which means both "embers" or "live coals" and "the offing" or the "open sea" due to the use of a kakekotoba or "literary pun". So we have both fire and water images, due to the pun, in this one poem. In the story, the poet, looking into his hearth of burning charcoal, wrote:

         Hai-wa Hamabe-no

Stirred all around
         ashes do appear to be
                    sand on the seashore

But then the poet died, and could find no rest, even in death, due to the unfinished poem. He became a haunting ghost that terrified his family.

However, another poet friend was called in to help with the problem of the unfinished poem. A sort of tanka inspired exorcism was decided upon.

In the story, the second poet wrote the final seven and seven syllables so that the tortured poet might eventually rest in peace.

Irori-wa umi-yo
         Oki-ga miyuru-ni

The hearth is seen as the sea
         and embers as the ocean.

Thus making a complete tanka poem:

Stirred all around
   ashes do appear to be
       sand on the seashore

The hearth is seen as the sea
and embers as the ocean.

After that the ghost was exorcised and all, except the dead poet, of course, could live happily ever after.

Even more examples of social uses of poetry come to my mind as I approach the end of these jottings: imperial pronouncements, death poems, political and philosophical statements, tests of poetic literacy, feminist declarations, a focused discipline to help survive in prison or in war, as an educational experience for both youth and elders. In Japan there are now classes being offered in tanka writing and appreciation in cultural centers, in facilities for senior citizens, in temples and shrines, and even department stores.

When I am in Kyoto, and for decades my work took me there almost every year, I myself take tanka writing lessons in Japanese with a renowned tanka poet by the name of Kakegawa Toshio. I have written about that experience elsewhere and would merely like to add at this time, that during WW II Kakegawa Sensei, as a young tanka poet, was selected to accompany a group of young people to go to Manchuria to build a city like the ancient capital of Kyoto in that new colony. His work involved helping to create in that new city, all the traditional cultural values of ancient Japan. But the end of the war arrived before the task was completed, and Japan surrendered. His unit was then captured by the advancing members of the Russian Army.

Kakegawa Sensei told me the story of his spending years in a Siberian slave camp. Forbidden to own writing instruments he wrote his tanka over and over in the snow with a stick so that he could memorize them. But then due to blindness caused by poor diet, he was sent back to Japan where he recovered his sight and continued the writing and teaching of tanka.

Often he is asked by people, "What is the use of learning to write tanka?"

He merely replies: "It may save your life someday!"

Let me end by sharing a few of my own tanka attempts, written on observing the thousand years old or more of kyokusui no en (or kyokusui no utage), a poetry and sake-drinking party held on the banks of a meandering stream. I had only read about the event in ancient Japanese literature.

Once day in spring of 1987, my tanka teacher invited me to attend one of the kyokusui no utage, as he called it, where he was going to participate. Thinking it to be another small, but quaint, Kyoto event, I was amazed to see that thousands of people showed up. There were even newspaper reporters and TV cameras. It was good to see my old teacher and others dressed in 10th century Heian Period Court robes. The tanka poets looked like they had stepped out of the Tale of Genji Scroll.

The purpose of the poetry game is for the poets, both men and women, to sit beside a stream and wait until a cup of sake is floated to them in a little bird-looking hand-carved boat. Then, before the cup reaches the poet, he or she must compose a tanka. Next, after completing the task of writing, the poet drinks the sake. A child, also dressed in court robes, is sent to take the poem to the officials seated up stream.

At the end of the day, all the poems are recited. I no longer have a copy of the poems written by the real tanka poets that day. But standing in the same spot mentioned in thousand year old literature, I was inspired to try my own hand at jotting something! My own attempt is a series of little tanka type poems I wrote in English. The event took place in a Buddhist temple called Jonanji. I later called my little piece, Jonanji: Floating Sake Cups.

Jonanji: Floating Sake Cups

From the Genji Scrolls
    they walk down a Kyoto path
      towards a small stream. . .
Then receiving floating cups,
   they will compose poetry.

Dressed in ancient silk
    and the high crowned court caps,
      men sit on straw mats. . .
Listening to the sounds of flute,
   they watch sleeves and fans in dance.

Dressed in twelve layers
    of bright hues of ancient silk
      women kneel on mats
grinding ink sticks for brushes
   to the rhythm of those flutes.

Wearing straw sandals
    and court robes of old brocades
      children walk with sticks
to prod on the wooden birds
   that carry cups of sake.

Finishing a poem,
    she takes a sip of sake,
      then into the cup
she places a yellow flower
   and floats it down the stream

Dressed in red silk robes
    one small girl goes around
      bowing to poets,
she then collects the poem cards
   and hands them to the readers.

Dressed in formal robes
    of a holy Shinto priest,
      the reader reads poems. . .
Echoing through a day in spring
   his voice resounds with time.

Reading the poems once,
    the reader is then joined
      by six other priests.
They then chant in harmony
   the score of spring time poems.

Listening to the poems
    the poets sit in silk and sun
      listening to their words,
One old noble of the court
   watches water in a dream.

Near these sleeves of silk,
    fluttering in the breeze of spring
      by a flowering stream,
a butterfly flits here and there
   in total confusion.

Now a nobleman
    tiring maybe of writing
      just sits with a grin. . .
Having downed another cup
   he glows for some posed pictures.

Where else in the world
    would hundreds of journalists
      be recording news
that for now a thousand years
   poets drink and sing of spring?

And so, the kyokusui no utage, and the reaction of this tourist, are more examples of Tanka as Pastime.


Harold Wright Harold Wright is Professor Emeritus of Antioch College, Visiting Professor of Foreign Civilizations and Language (Japanese), and Director of AEA's Japan Field Studies.

He is currently teaching a variety of courses dealing with Japanese culture, history, literature, poetry translation, and language. A recipient of numerous grants and scholarships, including a 1985 NEA Fellowship for Translators Award, he is also the author of eight books, including The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa, a critically acclaimed volume published by North Point Press, and his second book of Tanikawa’s poems, Map of Days, published by Katydid Press in 1997. Ten Thousand Leaves: Love Poems from the Manyoshu, published by the Overlook Press, has been translated from 8th century Japanese. His current work is editing two more books of modern Japanese poetry he has translated, as well as editing a collection of his own original poetry written in Kyoto and Ohio. He is also an active storyteller in Ohio and other parts of the USA.