Arts & Culture

Poetry From the Land of the Rising Sun

From manga to sushi, from Harajuku to the cult of “kawaii” (cute), modern Japanese pop culture has fascinated the world. But what was this culture like a few hundred years ago? Back then, the epitome of Japanese culture was the poem. As admirers of the Chinese, Japan’s elite decided to take up one of the most accessible Chinese art forms, poetry. At first, they wrote solely Chinese-style poems, called “kanshi,” which means “Han poetry.”

Flowering peach trees soaked with dew bearing the chill of spring.
The water clock dripping on and on, the shades of night grow deep.
So very melancholy the moon shining beyond the crystal blinds.
She gazes at it all alone, from her coral pillow.
~ Priest Toteki

In 19th century Japan, kanshi were casually written and exchanged among loved ones, similar to how we send picture postcards to our friends and family today. Like most Chinese poetry, the kanshi largely focused on nature, particularly how it was experienced by a human subject. In Toteki’s poem, for instance, a spring evening is described from the point of view of an unnamed “she,” who is watching the moon while filled with melancholy. The poem reminds me of the September Harvest Moon, which is large, round, and beautiful.

Interestingly, kanshi were only written by men, because only men were taught how to write in Chinese characters. This didn’t mean that Japanese women never wrote poetry! In fact, they had a whole genre of poetry: the waka, poetry written in Japanese.

瓜食めばUri hameba   When I eat melons
子ども思ほゆKodomo omohoyuMy children come to my mind;
栗食めばKuri hameba   When I eat chestnuts
まして偲はゆMashite shinowayuThe longing is even worse.
何処よりIzuku yori   Where do they come from,
来りしものそKitarishi monosoFlickering before my eyes.
眼交にManakai ni   Making me helpless
もとな懸りてMotona kakariteEndlessly night after night.
安眠し寝さぬYasui shi nasanuNot letting me sleep in peace?

– Yamanoue no Okura

Although in the past there were many types of waka, ranging from short to long forms, most have become obsolete except for the tanka. The syllable pattern in the above poem is 5-7 5-7 5-7 5-7-7, making it one of the longer and older forms of waka, whereas tanka has the syllable pattern of 5-7 5-7-7. Unlike the kanshi, the topic of this poem is the author’s own experience, not natural sights, reflecting the fact that waka tended to explore a wider variety of subjects. Often, waka were written in multiple parts, or stanzas. In fact, Okura’s poem in its entirety includes a second portion comparing children to something more valuable than even silver or gold. This multi-stanza structure lent itself well to collaboration. Poems written in collaboration with another poet were given yet another term: renga.

A Hundred Stanzas by Three Poets at Minase

Despite some snow
the base of the hills spreads with haze
the twilight scene

where the waters flow afar
the village glows with sweet plum flowers

In the river wind
a single stand of willow trees
show spring color

day break comes on distinctly
with sounds of punted boat
… (see more here)

Unfortunately, I could not find a complete translation of this renga. However, this particular poem was a traditional cho-renga, which means it was one hundred stanzas long and composed by multiple poets (in this case, three). There are two kinds of renga: the original tan-renga, and the cho-renga. Tan-renga (tan, meaning short) are composed of a three-line stanza with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern (hokku) and a two-line stanza with a 7-7 syllable pattern (waki). Cho-renga (cho, meaning long) are simply alternating hokku and waki for many stanzas, usually a hundred.

The renga is not only the dominion of ancient Japanese poets!  A group of my friends and I wrote a renga together. Read it here.

Many people only know of a single type of Japanese poetry, the haiku, despite being aware of myriads of English poetry forms, such as sonnets and villanelles. Hopefully, you now have a greater awareness of the diversity of Japanese poetry forms. Now go out there, compose some kanshi, waka, or renga, and show off your newly acquired knowledge!

3 Comments

  1. This was very interesting! I especially liked your pictures. They are very fitting. I would definitely want to learn more about the poetry.

  2. Hmmm I’ve been learning Japanese, and these are really interesting to learn! I really like your art style too! They’re so unique and colorful!

  3. Love your column Rachel!