Poetry of Japan

Brief Overview of Japanese Poetry

Poetry of Heian Period

Worldwide Famous Japanese Poetry
Japanese poetry is a poetry written or spoken in Japanese language. Japanese lyric poetry such as Haiku, Senryu and Tanka are now widespread to the world and enjoyed by many non-Japanese practitioners. As Japanese poetry became popular around the world, Haiku, Senryu, and Tanka are now written and spoken in English and other languages. It is not too much to say that Japanese poetry became already an art for everyone in the world.

Japanese Poetry was originated from Human Emotions
The beginning of Japanese poetry is said to be some kind of screaming or crying which express the human emotions. Those expressions evolved into the songs for the ceremonial gathering and religious rituals. However, those songs are lost due to non-existence of written language in ancient Japan.
In early 7th century, the oldest history book written in Japanese “Kojiki” recorded the old style poems in those days, and these were already refined similar to the poems of today. Therefore, it is impossible to trace the change of ancient Japanese poetry.

Love was brought by Poetry in Old Japan
In the “Manyoshu”, the oldest collection of Japanese poems from 8th century, more than 4,500 poems were recorded. In the collection, there are varied poems from the emperors to commons, and you can see the lifestyles of the day. In those days, poetry is not just an art, but practical tool to express ones emotion and feelings. For example, sending a poem of love to someone is very common way of confessing love. Also, instead of dating with lover, exchanging the poems of love is the most common way of nurturing relationship. On the other hand, poetry played very important role in a world of politics. It was necessary to have an ability to make a good poem in the aristocratic society, otherwise it was impossible to get a social success. Good taste of poetry was one of the most important elements of show the people’s capability.

Haiku of Japan

History of Japanese LanguageMost Famous Poetry Form in Japan
Haiku (俳句) is a very short form of Japanese poetry. It is consist of three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Haiku was originally part of “Renka” (series of poems), which was a style of Japanese poetry that certain number of persons making one long poem in combination. Haiku was the first part of a long Renka poem, but people started to enjoy the Haiku part independently. During the Meiji period, faimous poet Shiki Masaoka defined the rules of Haiku and it became widespread across the country.

Three Main Principles of Haiku

Haiku rhythm
Haiku is comprised of 3 phrases. First phrase is with 5syllables, second phrase is with 7 syllables, and last phrase is with again 5 syllables. These phrases with certain numbers of syllables produce distinctive and attractive rhythm of Haiku poetry.

Seasonal word
In Haiku poem, it is necessary to put the seasonal references called Kigo (seasonal word) or Kidai (seasonal topic). It is said that seasonal references is one of the most important elements of Haiku poetry. The seasonal word is usually extracted from the “Saijiki” which is the extensive dictionary of seasonal words.

Cutting word
Kireji (cutting word) is also an essence of Haiku. Kireji expresses the moment of separation of two images or ideas in the poem. By inserting Kireji in the Haiku, you can feel a rest and that leads the imagination of hidden emotion and background of the poem.

Haiku of JapanHaiku became Widespread to the Western World
Nowadays, Haiku is spread to the world and became widely popular in many countries. Although there were further attempts outside Japan to imitate the "Haiku" in the early 20th century, there was little understanding of its principles. One of the first advocates of English-language Haiku was the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. In "A Proposal to American Poets," published in the Reader magazine in 1904, Noguchi gave a brief outline of the Haiku and some of his own English efforts, ending with the exhortation, "Pray, you try Japanese Haiku, my American poets!" At about the same time the poet Sadakichi Hartmann was publishing original English-language Haiku, as well as other Japanese forms in both English and French.

In France, Haiku was introduced by Paul-Louis Couchoud around 1906. Couchoud's articles were read by early Imagist theoretician F. S. Flint, who passed on Couchoud's ideas to other members of the proto-Imagist Poets' Club such as Ezra Pound. Amy Lowell made a trip to London to meet Pound and find out about haiku. She returned to the United States where she worked to interest others in this "new" form. Haiku subsequently had a considerable influence on Imagists in the 1910s, notably Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" of 1913, but, notwithstanding several efforts by Yone Noguchi to explain "the haiku spirit," there was as yet little understanding of the form and its history.

  • An old pond
    A frog jumps in-
    The sound of water.
  • In the cicada's cry
    No sign can foretell
    How soon it must die.
  • Clouds appear
    and bring to men a chance to rest
    from looking at the moon.
  • No sky
    no earth - but still
    snowflakes fall
  • A lovely thing to see:
    through the paper window's hole,
    the Galaxy.
  • A sudden shower falls -
    and naked I am riding
    on a naked horse!
  • Night, and the moon!
    My neighbor, playing on his flute -
    out of tune!
  • First autumn morning:
    the mirror I stare into
    shows my father's face.
  • The crow has flown away:
    swaying in the evening sun,
    a leafless tree.
  • A mountain village
    under the pilled-up snow
    the sound of water.
  • The summer river:
    although there is a bridge, my horse
    goes through the water.
  • The winds that blows -
    ask them, which leaf on the tree
    will be next to go.
  • A lightning flash:
    between the forest trees
    I have seen water.
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Senryu of Japan

Japanee SenryuPortrays the Emotions of Human Beings with Humour
Senryu (川柳) is a very short form of Japanese poetry similar to Haiku. It is also consist of three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 syllables in the same manners as Haiku. However, Senryu tend to be about human foibles while Haiku tend to be about nature, and Senryu are often cynical or darkly humorous while Haiku are more serious. It portrays the characteristics of human beings and psychology of the human mind. There's another side of senryu, a more serious side that express the misfortunes, the hardships and woe of humanity. Senryu that are serious in tone about romance, sex, family, friendship, marriage, and divorce — Senryu that express other moods and human emotions such as love, hate, anger, jealousy, sorrow, sadness, and fear — Senryu that portray the stark reality of the human condition — the facts, fashions, sports, social issues and life-styles of popular culture — Senryu that express passion and fullness of heart.
Unlike Haiku, Senryu does not include a Kireji (cutting word), and does not generally include a Kigo (seasonal word) or Kidai (seasonal topic).
Senryu is named after Edo period Haiku poet Senryu Karai (1718-1790), whose collection Haifūyanagidaru (誹風柳多留) launched the genre into the public consciousness.

  • The robber,
    when I catch,
    my own son.
  • Hide and seek
    Count to three
    Winter comes.
  • In the beautiful woman,
    The wife
    Finds some defect.
  • In this world,
    Tied by parents,
    And by money.
  • Laughing loudly
    To forget
    My loneliness.
  • Gruesome
    Is the age of forty
    Of a beautiful woman.
  • The staffer I trained,
    With whom I have never lost patience,
    Screams at me.
  • “Yes Sir!”
    Just once I want to hear this,
    From my wife.
  • To my child
    I have to yet again teach
    the name of our Prime Minister.
  • My wife
    is made in Japan
    but she is poisonous.
  • Arguing downstairs
    she shuts the windows
    in her dollhouse

Tanka (Waka) of Japan

Waka of Japan

The Oldest Form of Japanese Poetry
Tanka (短歌) is a long form of Japanese poetry. It is consists of five phrases of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables. This 31-syllable poem has been a popular form of poetry in Japan for more than 1300 years. As a form of poetry, Tanka is much older than Haiku and Senryu, and Tanka evokes a moment with concision and musicality. In Japanese, Tanka is often written in one straight line, while they are usually divided into the five phrases: 5-7-5-7-7 in English and other languages. Normally, each phrase encloses one image or idea. As Tanka is a lyrical in nature, it provides room to the poet to share his feelings.

Up to and during the compilation of the Manyoshu in the 8th century, Waka (Poetry of Japan) was a general term for poetry composed in Japanese, and included several genres such as Tanka (短歌, "short poem"), Choka (長歌, "long poem"), Bussokusekika (仏足石歌, "Buddha footprint poem") and Sedoka (旋頭歌, "repeating-the-first-part poem"). However, by the time of the “Kokinshu” collection at the beginning of the 10th century, all of these forms except for the Tanka and Choka had effectively gone extinct, and Choka had significantly diminished in prominence. As a result, the word Waka became effectively synonymous with Tanka, and the word Tanka fell out of use until it was revived at the end of the 19th century.

  • A cool wind blows in
    With a blanket of silence.
    Straining to listen
    For those first few drops of rain,
    The storm begins in earnest.
  • Peaceful solitude
    intrinsic to our spirit
    lost in pensive thought
    standing on the edge of time
    the road to nowhere special.
  • In the spring of joy,
    when even the mud chuckles,
    my soul runs rabid,
    snaps at its own bleeding heels,
    and barks: “What is happiness?”
  • wondering if this is what
    my parents felt,
    in their own time
    seeing a better past slip
    ever further behind
  • all these years
    in one house, one job
    one town and in me―
    too many changes to fathom
    as I sweep away autumn leaves
  • closing my book --
    I note how the clock has moved
    remorselessly away
    from the time the day was whole
    and I was immortal
  • from my palm
    she takes the apple . . .
    and it's understood
    our time is not
  • wondering whether
    further along this gentle curve
    are life and death,
    I see nothing but empty plains
    in the train window
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Encyclopedia of Japan