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Japanese poetry in its modern form began when Japanese first encountered Chinese poetry, when it was at its peak in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It took them several hundred years to digest the foreign impact, make it a part of their culture merged with their own literary tradition in their mother tongue, and begin to develop the diversity of their native poetry. For example, in the Tale of Genji both kinds of poetry are frequently mentioned. (Since much poetry in Japan was written in the Chinese language, it is perhaps more accurate to speak of Japanese-language poetry.)

A new trend came in the middle of the 19th century. Since then, the major forms of Japanese poetry have been tanka (new name for waka), haiku and shi.

Nowadays the main forms of Japanese poetry can be divided into experimental poetry and poetry that seeks to revive traditional ways. Poets writing in tanka, haiku and shi move in separate planes and seldom write poetry other than in their specific chosen form, although some active poets are eager to collaborate with poets in other genres.

Important collections are the Man'yōshū, Kokin Wakashū and Shin Kokin Wakashū.

Ancient Edit

Poems in Kojiki and Nihonshoki Edit

The oldest written work in Japanese literature is Kojiki in 712, in which Ō no Yasumaro recorded Japanese mythology and history as recited by Hieda no Are, to whom it was handed down by his ancestors. Many of the poetic pieces recorded by the Kojiki were perhaps transmitted from the time the Japanese had no writing. The Nihonshoki, the oldest history of Japan which was finished eight years later than the Kojiki, also contains many poetic pieces. These were mostly not long and had no fixed forms. The first poem documented in both books was attributed to a kami (god), named Susanoo, the younger brother of Amaterasu. When he married Princess Kushinada in Izumo province, the kami made an uta, or waka, a poem.

八雲立つ 出雲八重垣 妻籠みに 八重垣作る その八重垣を
Yakumo tatsu / Izumo yaegaki / Tsuma-gomi ni / Yaegaki tsukuru / Sono yaegaki wo

This is the oldest waka (poem written in Japanese) and hence poetry was later praised as having been founded by a kami, a divine creation.

The two books shared many of the same or similar pieces but Nihonshoki contained newer ones because it recorded later affairs (up till the reign of Emperor Temmu) than Kojiki. Themes of waka in the books were diverse, covering love, sorrow, satire, war cries, praise of victory, riddles and so on. Many works in Kojiki were anonymous. Some were attributed to kami, emperors and empresses, nobles, generals, commoners and sometimes enemies of the court. Most of these works are considered collectively as 'works of the people', even where attributed to someone, such as the kami Susanoo.

Early Man'yōshū poets (Vol. I-III) Edit

The oldest poetic anthology of waka is the 20 volume Man'yōshū. Probably finished in the early part of the Heian period, it gathered ancient works. The order of its sections is roughly chronological. Most of the works in the Man'yōshū have a fixed form today called choka and tanka. But earlier works, especially in Volume I, lacked such fixed form and were attributed to Emperor Yūryaku.

The Man'yōshū begins with a waka without fixed form. It is both a love song for an unknown girl whom the poet met by chance and a ritual song praising the beauty of the land. It is worthy of being attributed to an emperor and today is used in court ritual.

The first three sections contain mostly the works of poets from the middle of the 7th century to the early part of the 8th century. Significant poets among them were Nukata no Ōkimi and Kakinomoto Hitomaro. Kakinomoto Hitomaro was not only the greatest poet in those early days and one of the most significant in the Man'yōshū, he rightly has a place as one of the most outstanding poets in Japanese literature.

Chinese influence Edit

Chinese literature was introduced into Japan ca the 6th century C.E, mostly through the Korean peninsula. Just as the Chinese writing itself, Chinese literature, historical writings, religious scriptures and poetry laid the foundation for Japanese literature proper. Such influence is somewhat comparable to the influence of Latin on the European languages and literature.

In the court of Emperor Temmu some nobles made attempts to recite Chinese poetry. Chinese literacy was a sign of education and most high courtiers wrote poetry in Chinese. Later these works were collected in the Kaifūsō, one of the earliest anthologies of poetry in Japan, edited in the early Heian period. Thanks to this book the death poem of Prince Ōtsu is still extant today.[1]

The strong influence of Chinese poetics may be seen in Kakyō Hyōshiki. In the 772 text, Fujiwara no Hamanari attempts to apply phonetic rules for Chinese poetry to Japanese poetry.

Nara period poets Edit

In 710 the Japanese capital moved from Fujiwara (today's Asuka, Nara) to Nara and the Nara period (710-794) began. It was the period when Chinese influence reached its culmination. Todai-ji was established and the Great Buddha was created under the order of Emperor Shōmu. The significant waka poets in this period were Ōtomo no Tabito, Yamanoue no Okura, and Yamabe no Akahito. The Man'yōshū included also many female poets who mainly wrote love poems. The poets of the Man'yōshū were aristocrats who were born in Nara but sometimes lived or traveled in other provinces as bureaucrats of the emperor. These poets wrote down their impressions of travel and expressed their emotion for lovers or children. Sometimes their poems criticized the political failure of the government or tyranny of local officials. Yamanoue no Okura wrote a choka, A Dialogue of two Poormen (貧窮問答歌, Hinkyū mondōka); in this poem two poor men lamented their severe lives of poverty. One hanka is as follows:

世の中を 憂しとやさしと おもへども 飛び立ちかねつ 鳥にしあらねば
Yononaka wo / Ushi to yasashi to / Omo(h)e domo / Tobitachi kanetsu / Tori ni shi arane ba
I feel the life is / sorrowful and unbearable / though / I can't flee away / since I am not a bird.

The Man'yōshū contains not only poems of aristocrats but also those of nameless ordinary people. These poems are called Yomibito shirazu, poems whose author is unknown. Among them there is a specific style of waka called Azuma-uta, waka written in the Eastern dialect. Azuma, meaning the East, designated the eastern provinces roughly corresponding to Kantō and occasionally Tōhoku. Those poems were filled with rural flavors. There was a specific style among Azuma-uta, called Sakimori uta, soldiers' waka. They were mainly waka by drafted soldiers at leaving home. These soldiers were drafted in the eastern provinces and were forced to work as guards in Kyūshū for several years. Sometimes their poetry expressed nostalgia for their far homeland.

Waka in the early Heian period Edit

It is thought the Man'yōshū reached its final form, the one we know today, very early in the Heian period. There are strong grounds for believing that Ōtomo no Yakamochi was the final editor but some documents claim further editing was done in the later period by other poets including Sugawara no Michizane.

Though there was a strong inclination towards Chinese poetry, some eminent waka poets were active in the early Heian period, including the six best waka poets.

The culmination of kanshi Edit


In the early Heian period kanshi--poetry written in Chinese by Japanese—was most the popular style of poetry among Japanese aristocrats. Some poets like Kūkai studied in China and were fluent in Chinese. Others like Sugawara no Michizane had grown up in Japan but understood Chinese well. When they hosted foreign diplomats, they communicated not orally but in writing, using kanji or Chinese characters. In that period, Chinese poetry in China had reached one of its greatest flowerings. Major Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Po were their contemporaries and their works were well known to the Japanese. Some who went to China for study or diplomacy made the acquaintance of these major poets. The most popular styles of kanshi were in 5 or 7 syllables (onji) in 4 or 8 lines, with very strict rules of rhyme. Japanese poets became skilled in those rules and produced much good poetry. Some long poems with lines of 5 or 7 syllables were also produced. These, when chanted, were referred to as shigin - a practice which continues today.

Emperor Saga himself was proficient at kanshi. He ordered the compilation of three anthologies of kanshi. These were the first of the imperial anthologies, a tradition which continued till the Muromachi period.

Kokin Wakashū Edit

In the middle of the Heian period Waka revived with the compilation of the Kokin Wakashū. It was edited on the order of Emperor Daigo. About 1,000 waka, mainly from the late Nara period till the contemporary times, were anthologized by five waka poets in the court including Ki no Tsurayuki who wrote the kana preface (仮名序 kanajo?)

The Kana preface to Kokin Wakashū was the second earliest expression of literary theory and criticism in Japan (the earliest was by Kūkai). Kūkai's literary theory was not influential, but Kokin Wakashū set the types of waka and hence other genres which would develop from waka.

The collection is divided into twenty parts, reflecting older models such as the Man'yōshū and various Chinese anthologies. The organisation of topics is however different from all earlier models, and was followed by all later official collections, although some collections like the Kin'yō Wakashū and Shika Wakashū reduced the number of parts to ten. The parts of the Kokin Wakashū are ordered as follows: Parts 1-6 covered the four seasons, followed by congratulatory poems, poetry at partings, and travel poems. The last ten sections included poetry on the 'names of things', love, laments, occasional poems, miscellaneous verse, and finally traditional and ceremonial poems from the Bureau of Poetry.

The compilers included the name of the author of each poem, and the topic (題 dai) or inspiration of the poem, if known. Major poets of the Kokin Wakashū include Ariwara Narihira, Ono no Komachi, Henjō and Fujiwara no Okikaze, apart from the compilers themselves. Inclusion in any imperial collection, and particularly the Kokin Wakashū, was a great honour.

Influence of Kokin Wakashū Edit

The Kokin Wakashū is the first of the Nijūichidaishū, the 21 collections of Japanese poetry compiled at Imperial request. It was the most influential realization of the ideas of poetry at the time, dictating the form and format of Japanese poetry until the late nineteenth century. The primacy of poems about the seasons pioneered by the Kokin Wakashū continues even today in the haiku tradition. The Japanese preface by Ki no Tsurayuki is also the beginning of Japanese criticism as distinct from the far more prevalent Chinese poetics in the literary circles of its day. (The anthology also included a traditional Chinese preface authored by Ki no Tomonori.) The idea of including old as well as new poems was another important innovation, one which was widely adopted in later works, both in prose and verse. The poems of the Kokin Wakashū were ordered temporally; the love poems, for instance, depict the progression and fluctuations of a courtly love-affair. This association of one poem to the next marks this anthology as the ancestor of the renga and haikai traditions.

From the late ancient to Middle Edit

Waka in the life of Kuge Edit

In ancient times, it was a custom to exchange waka instead of letters in prose. Sometimes improvised waka were used in daily conversation in high society. In particular, the exchange of waka was common between lovers. Reflecting this custom, five of the twenty volumes of the Kokin Wakashū (or Kokinshū) gathered waka for love. In the Heian period the lovers would exchange waka in the morning when lovers parted at the 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 don his clothes which had been laid out in place of a mattress (as was the custom in those days). Soon, writing and reciting Waka became a part of aristocratic culture. People recited a piece of appropriate waka freely to imply something on an occasion. In the Pillow Book it is written that a consort of Emperor Murakami memorized over 1,000 waka in Kokin Wakashū with their description.

Uta-ai, ceremonial waka recitation contests, developed in the middle of the Heian period. The custom began in the reign of Emperor Uda, the father of Emperor Daigo who ordered the compilation of the Kokin Wakashū. It was 'team combat' on proposed themes grouped in similar manner to the grouping of poems in the Kokin Wakashū. Representatives of each team recited a waka according to their theme and the winner of the round won a point. The team with the higher overall score won the contest. Both winning poet and team received a certain prize. Holding Utaai was expensive and possible only for Emperors or very high ranked kuge.

The size of Uta-ai increased. Uta-ai were recorded with hundreds of rounds. Uta-ai motivated the refinement of waka technique but also made waka formalistic and artificial. Poets were expected to create a spring waka in winter or recite a poem of love or lamentation without real situations.

Roei style Edit

Roei was a favored style of reciting poetical works at that time. It was a way of reciting in voice, with relatively slow and long tones. Not whole poetic pieces but a part of classics were quoted and recited by individuals usually followed by a chorus. Fujiwara no Kinto compiled Wakan roeishu (Sino-Japanese Anthology for Roei) from Japanese and Chinese poetry works written for roei. One or two lines were quoted in Wakan roeishu and those quotations were grouped into themes like Spring, Travel, Celebration.

Age of Nyobo or court ladies Edit

Emperor Ichijō and courts of his empresses, concubines and other noble ladies were a big pool of poets as well as men of the courts.

The Pillow Book and Tale of Genji, from the early 11th century, provide us with examples of the life of aristocrats in the court of Emperor Ichijō and his empresses. Murasaki Shikibu wrote over 3,000 tanka for her Tale of Genji in the form of waka her characters wrote in the story. In the story most of those waka were created as an exchange of letters or a conversation. Many classic works of both waka and kanshi were quoted by the nobles. Among those classic poets, the Chinese Tang-dynasty poet Bai Juyi (Po Chü-i) had a great influence on the culture of the middle Heian period. Bai Juyi was quoted by both The Pillow Book and Tale of Genji, and his A Song of unending Sorrow (長恨歌), whose theme was a tragic love between the Chinese Emperor and his concubine, inspired Murasaki Shikibu to imagine tragic love affairs in the Japanese imperial court in her Tale of Genji.

Poetry in the period of cloistered ruleEdit

In the period of cloistered rule, the 12th century, some new movements of poetry appeared. First a new form called Imayō (今様, modern style) emerged. Imayō consists of four lines in 8-5 (or 7-5) syllables. Usually it was accompanied by music and dance. Female dancers, known as the shirabyōshi danced to the accompaniment of Imayō. Major works were compiled into the Ryōjin Hishō (梁塵秘抄) anthology. Although originally women and commoners are thought to be proponents of the genre, Emperor Go-Shirakawa was famed for his mastery of imayo.

Some new trends appeared in waka. There were two opposite trends: an inclination to the contemporary, modern style and on the other hand a revival of the traditional style. Both trends had their schools and won the honor to compile imperial anthologies of waka. Fujiwara no Shunzei and his son Fujiwara no Teika were the leaders of the latter school.

Also in this period for the first time renga were included in the imperial anthologies of waka. At that time, renga was considered a variant of waka. The renga included were waka created by two persons only, quite unlike the later style which featured many stanzas.

Shin Kokin Wakashū Edit

In the late period rule by cloistered Emperors, or the early Kamakura period, Emperor Go-Toba, who had abdicated, ordered the compilation of the eighth imperial anthology of waka, the Shin Kokin Wakashū. Go-Toba himself joined the team of editors. Other editors included Fujiwara no Teika and Kamo no Chōmei.

Later Imperial anthologies of Waka Edit

After the Shin Kokin Wakashū, fourteen waka anthologies were compiled under imperial edict: the 13 Jūsandaishū (十三代集?) and the Shin'yō Wakashū (新葉和歌集). These anthologies reflected the taste of aristocrats (and later, warriors) and were considered the ideal of waka in each period. Moreover, anthologizing served as a proof of cultural legitimacy of the patrons and often had political connotations.[2]

Fujiwara no Teika Edit

Main article: Fujiwara no Teika
  • Works of Teika as a waka poet, critic, scribe and editor
  • Other poets in those days
  • Poetry in the Kamakura period
  • Poetry in the Nanbokucho period - Renga development

Tsukubashu - imperial anthology of renga Renga poets, critics and theories Development of shikimoku (renga rules) Sōgi Haikai no renga appears - as a parody of renga Shinseninutusukbashu Noh play and poetry Influence from waka and other poetry Noh play reading as a verse

  • Poetry in the Sengoku period

Renga and Waka

Pre-modern Edit

In the Pre-modern or Edo period (1602–1869) some new styles of poetry developed. One of greatest and most influential styles was renku, (also known as haikai no renga, or haikai), emerging from renga in the medieval period. Matsuo Bashō was a great haikai master and had a wide influence on his contemporaries and later generations. Bashō was also a prominent writer of haibun, a combination of prose and haiku.

The tradition of collaboration between painters and poets had a beneficial influence on poetry in the middle Edo period. In Kyoto there were some artists who were simultaneously poets and painters. Painters of the Shujo school were known as good poets. Among such poet-painters the most significant was Yosa Buson. Buson began his career as a painter but went on to become a master of renku, too. He left many paintings accompanied by his own haiku poems. Such combination of haiku with painting is known as haiga.

Waka underwent a revival, too, in relation to kokugaku, the study of Japanese classics. Kyōka (mad song), a type of satirical waka was also popular.

In the late Edo period, a master of haikai, Karai Senryū made an anthology. His style became known as senryū, after his pseudonym. Senryū is a style of satirical poetry whose motifs are taken from daily life in 5-7-5 syllables. Anthologies of senryū in the Edo period collect many 'maeku' or senryū made by ordinary amateur senryū poets adding in front of the latter 7-7 part written by a master. It was a sort of poetry contest and the well written senryū by amateurs were awarded by the master and other participants.

Modern Edit

A new wave came from the West when Japan was introduced to European and American poetry. This poetry belonged to a very different tradition and was regarded by Japanese poets as a form without any boundaries. Shintai-shi (New form poetry) or Jiyu-shi (Freestyle poetry) emerged at this time. They still relied on a traditional pattern of 5-7 syllable patterns, but were strongly influenced by the forms and motifs of Western poetry. Later, in the Taishō period, some poets began to write their poetry in a much looser metric. In contrast with this development, Kanshi slowly went out of fashion and was seldom written. As a result, Japanese men of letters lost the traditional background of Chinese literary knowledge. Originally the word shi meant poetry, especially Chinese poetry, but today it means mainly modern-style poetry in Japanese. Shi is also known as kindai-shi (modern poetry). Since World War II, poets and critics have used the name gendai-shi (contemporary poetry). This includes the poets Kusano Shimpei, Tanikawa Shuntaro and Ishigaki Rin.

As for the traditional styles such as waka and haiku, the early modern era was also a time of renovation. Yosano Tekkan and later Masaoka Shiki revived those forms. The words haiku and tanka were both coined by Shiki. They laid the basis for development of this poetry in the modern world. They introduced new motifs, rejected some old authorities in this field, recovered forgotten classics, and published magazines to express their opinions and lead their disciples. This magazine-based activity by leading poets is a major feature of Japanese poetry even today.

Some poets, including Yosano Akiko, Ishikawa Takuboku, Hagiwara Sakutaro wrote in many styles: they used both traditional forms like waka and haiku and new style forms. Most Japanese poets, however, generally write in a single form of poetry.

Contemporary Poetry

Japanese Contemporary Poetry consists of poetic verses of today, mainly after the 1900s. It includes vast styles and genres of prose including experimental, sensual, dramatic, erotic, and many contemporary poets today are female. Japanese contemporary poetry like most regional contemporary poem seem to either stray away from the traditional style or fuse it with new forms. Because of a great foreign influence Japanese contemporary poetry adopted more of a western style of poet style where the verse is more free and absent of such rules as fixed syllable numeration per line or a fixed set of lines.

In 1989 the death of Emperor Hirohito officially brought Japan’s postwar period to an end. The category of “postwar”, born out of the cataclysmic events of 1945, had until that time been the major defining image of what contemporary Japanese poetry was all about (The New Modernism,2010). For poets standing at that border, poetry had to be reinvented just as Japan as a nation began reinventing itself. But while this was essentially a sense of creativity and liberation from militarist oppression, reopening the gates to new form and experimentation, this new boundary crossed in 1989 presented quite a different problem, and in a sense cut just as deeply into the sense of poetic and national identity. The basic grounding “postwar”, with its dependence on the stark differentiation between a Japan before and after the atomic bomb, was no longer available. Identity was no longer so clearly defined (The New Modernism, 2010) In 1990, a most loved and respected member of Japan’s avant-garde and a bridge between Modernist and Post-Modern practice unexpectedly died. Yoshioka Minoru, the very embodiment of what the postwar period meant to Japanese poetry, had influenced virtually all of the younger experimental poets, and received the admiration even of those outside the bounds of that genre (The New Modernism, 2010). The event shocked and dazed Japan’s poetry community, rendering the confusion and loss of direction all the more graphic and painful. Already the limits of “postwar” were being exceeded in the work of Hiraide Takashi and Inagawa Masato. These two poets were blurring the boundary between poetry and criticism, poetry and prose, and questioning conventional ideas of what comprised the modern in Japan (The New Modernism, 2010). Statistically there are about two thousand poets and more than two hundred poetry magazines in Japan today. The poets are divided into five groups: (1) a group publishing the magazine, Vou, under the flag of new humanism; (2) Jikon or time, with neo-realism as their motto, trying to depict the gap between reality and the socialistic ideal as simply as possible; (3) the Communist group; (4) Rekitei or progress, mixing Chinese Han poetry and the traditional Japanese lyric, and (5) Arechi or waste land (Sugiyama, 254).

The Western poets who appeal to the taste of poetry lovers in Japan are principally French(Verlaine), Valery, Rimbaud, Baudelaire; and Rilke is also a favorite (Sugiyama, 255). English poetry is not very popular except among students of English literature in the universities, although Wordsworth, Shelley, and Browning inspired many of the Japanese poets in the quickening period of modern Japanese poetry freeing themselves from the traditional tanka form into a free verse styel only half a century ago (Sugiyama, 256). In more recent women’s poetry, one finds an exploration of the natural rhythms of speech, often in a specifically feminine language rather than a high, literary form, as well as the language of local dialects (The New Modernism, 2010). All of these strategies are expressions of difference, whether sexual or regional, and map out shifting fields of identity in modern Japan against a backdrop of mass culture where these identities might otherwise be lost or overlooked.

Japanese Contemporary Poets

Fujiwara Akiko Takashi Hiraide Toshiko Hirata Iijima Koichi Inagawa Masato Park Kyong-MI Sagawa Chika Ito Hiromi Wago Ryoichi Yagawa Sumiko Yoshioka Minoru Takagai Hiroya


Sugiyama, Yoko. "The Waste Land and Contemporary Japanese Poetry". Comparative Literature. Vol 13, No. 3 Summer, 1961 Oregon, Duke University Presspp. 254–256 Found at <> May 20, 2011

Selland, Eric. "The Landscape of Identity: Poetry and the Modern in Japan". The New Modern. Ed. 2004. Litmus Press. Found at <> May 19, 2011

Nakayasu, Sawako. "Contemporary Japanese Poetry in English Translation". Ed. Factorial Press. Found at <> May 20, 2011

Important poets (premodern) Edit

Important poets (modern)Edit

Important collections and works Edit

The largest anthology of haiku in Japanese is the 12-volume Bunruihaiku-zenshū (Classified Collection of Haiku) compiled by Masaoka Shiki, completed after his death, which collected haiku by seasonal theme and sub-theme. It includes work dating back to the 15th century.

The largest collection of haiku translated into English on any single subject is Cherry Blossom Epiphany by Robin D. Gill, which contains some 3,000 Japanese haiku on the subject of the cherry blossom.[3]

H. Mack Horton's translation of the 16th century Journal of Sōchō, by a pre-eminent renga poet of the time, won the 2002 Stanford University Press Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.[4]

See alsoEdit



  1. Konishi Jin'ichi. A History of Japanese Literature: The Archaic and Ancient Ages. Princeton, NJ : Princeton Univ. Pr., 1984, pp. 310-23. ISBN 9780691101460
  2. Huey, Robert. (1997: 170-92) "Warriors and the Imperial Anthology" in The Origins of Japan's Medieval World: courtiers, clerics, warriors, and peasants in the fourteenth century. Ed. by Jeffrey P Mass, Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, ISBN 9780804728942. For the list of the Jūsandaishū, see the Nijūichidaishū article.
  3. Gill, Robin D. Cherry Blossom Epiphany, Paraverse Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0-9742618-6-7
  4. Stanford University Press Awards

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