The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Culture and Education


Culture and Education

Japanese tanka poetry, retaining history and evolving with the times

Akira Naito
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

July 6

Do you know what day July 6 is? The answer is Salad Anniversary.

“I like this salad,” you said, and therefore July 6 is Salad Anniversary Day - Machi Tawara

July 6 is the Anniversary Day for a collection of poems written by Machi Tawara and published in 1987. Tawara's Salad Anniversary quickly sold a million copies, a rare occurrence for an anthology of tanka poems, and was awarded the Contemporary Tanka Poets Association Award in 1988. Tawara's poems captured scenes from the daily life of a young woman in love in contemporary society. Witty and colloquial, her poems made Japanese tanka poetry, previously regarded as classic and old-fashioned, familiar to young generations. Salad Anniversary received praise and scorn, causing a boom in tanka poetry among a wide range of people. A movie was even made under the title Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo Torajiro Salad Anniversary. Today, tanka poems from Salad Anniversary are included in Japanese textbooks for high school students.

Twentieth-century tanka poetry

Tanka (or waka) poetry, a form of lyric poetry based on the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern, has a long history and tradition and therefore tends to succumb to mannerism. Japan's modernization following the Meiji period often produced stereotypes of the tanka tradition. There were also many predictions foreseeing the end of the tradition. However, there were and continue to be many attempts at innovating the tradition in defiance of such trends.

*Tanka translations are not official and do not follow the established 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern.

Her hair at twenty / Flowing long and black / Through the teeth of her comb /
Oh beautiful spring / Extravagant spring! (Akiko Yosano)

On the day / When all my friends / Seem more eminent than me /
I bring flowers home / To enjoy with my wife (Takuboku Ishikawa)

A self-portrait / of Gauguin / Makes me recall the day /
When I killed wild silkworms / In the mountains of the north (Mokichi Saito)

Akiko's poem praises almost provocatively, a young woman's freedom in body and soul, while Takuboku's poem captures his own sense of failure in a scene of urban daily life. Mokichi's poem expresses an unidentifiable urge from his childhood stirred by a western painting. Against the background of changes in Japanese society and language, modern tanka poetry of the early 20th century brought about radical changes to the history of traditional Japanese poetry, which primarily focused on themes such as the natural beauty of the four seasons and romance. During the modern period after the Meiji Restoration, traditional Japanese waka poetry came back to life as modern tanka poetry.
Following World War II, a movement of avant-garde poetry arose as if to challenge modern tanka poetry.

In a sudden gust of wind / An egg breaks / Reminding me /
Of the eyes of a soldier / Shot by a gun (Kunio Tsukamoto)

Through a metaphor captured in an image, this poem provides a realistic description of the gruesome reality of war. By even threatening to alter the fundamental style of tanka poetry, the poem unlocked tanka poetry's potential as a vehicle for social criticism. Based on traditional waka poetry, 20th-century tanka poetry was full of tension and paved the way for new possibilities.

Widespread colloquialism in poetry

Rather than an innovation supported by the denial of tradition, Tawara's Salad Anniversary reflects changes in atmosphere, feelings and lifestyles that occur over time. In the background is the bubble economy (Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood was published in the same year). Tawara's monumental work, Salad Anniversary, reflects changes occurring in Japanese language and post-war Japanese society. Colloquialism in tanka poetry, commonly referred to as “light verses” at the time, captures the virtual aspects of contemporary society, providing a basis for the younger generations' tanka poetry.

Let's make / A syndicate / Rather than a child /
“Raise your hands / Toward the wall” (Hiroshi Homura)

What I'm doing / Is not fashionable / I just take photos /
Of local community life / Using a camera phone (Yu Nagai)

There is a twenty-two year difference between Hiroshi Homura (Syndicate, 1990) and Yu Nagai (Enjoying Life in Japan, 2012). As seen in their poetry, the colloquial style became increasingly casual over time, providing new perspectives for criticism. During this period around the turn of the century, some traditional tanka poetes began using colloquial styles and expressions, which broadened the scope of tanka poetry in various ways.

Future of tanka poetry

The Great East Japan Earthquake hit Japan in 2011. Machi Tawara, who lived in Sendai at the time, moved to Ishigaki Island with her young son after the earthquake. Tawara's Ore ga Mario published in 2013 is a collection of her poems written about her life on the island after the earthquake.

“I am myself Mario now” / My son has lost interest / In computer games /
Since we moved / To this island (Machi Tawara)

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear accident posed fundamental questions regarding nature and the civilization of Japan. The post-earthquake reality directly and indirectly affected tanka poetry. Whether positive or not, tanka and waka poetry have over a thousand year history. How will this fixed-form of poetry influence contemporary society, which faces numerous contradictions and where memories of World War II are fading? How will the Japanese tanka tradition delve into the depths of nature and human existence and commit itself to contemporary, globalizing society? Tanka poetry is facing many of these kinds of issues.

Presently, there is no wave of enthusiasm for tanka poetry such as the one created by Salad Anniversary. Nevertheless, a wide range of people appreciate tanka poetry, and new poets are emerging from several university tanka clubs. This year’s Contemporary Tanka Poets Association Award was awarded to Into the Open by Mariko Hattori, a former member of the Waseda University Tanka Club. Many praise her for her attempts to create diverse styles and worlds that open up new possibilities for colloquial tanka poetry. In the contemporary world where humankind and civilization risk annihilation, we must give our attention to the possibilities opened up by tanka poetry, which has continued to evolve throughout the history of words.

Snow falling / Silently on the street / Eye sockets are /
Said to be cavities / Created by God's thumbs (Mariko Hattori)

Akira Naito
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Akira Naito was born in Tokyo in 1954 and graduated from the Waseda University School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I. Naito specializes in Japanese literature and served as Associate Professor at Kanto Gakuin Women's Junior College before accepting his current position. Professor Naito's publications include Origin and Future of Japanese Tanka Poetry (Seibundoh) and The Ax and the Beads, an anthology of tanka poems (Sunagoya Shobo).