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Ie no Yoshikuri
Introduction to Japanese Poetry



By Yoshikuri Nagayori

When most people think of Japanese poetry, they think of Haiku. There are, however, quite a number of different kinds of Japanese poetry and it is quite evident that they are the predecessors of modern Haiku.

The first thing to note, however, is that the Japanese measure their poems in a different way than we in the West, do. They measure in "mora" comprised of "ku." The closest we have to that are lines comprised of syllables. Because of the written language of Japanese, it is impossible to measure in the same manner that we are used to. Since most people dont know how to speak or write Japanese, however, lines and syllables will suffice.

The oldest known form of Japanese poetry is Katauta. It is a 5-7-7 or a 5-7-5 count. It was used to ask a poignant question in one breath. The response would be in the same form and would be in one breath. This is the basis for all Japanese poetry.

How happy am I! I have met a handsome man!

How happy am I! I have met a lovely maid!

-Izanagi and Izanami at their first meeting

Sedoka was a simple pair of katauta, but it wasnt necessarily a question-answer and could be written by a single person.

Choka follows a repeating 5-7 pattern and ends in a 7.

Honour, courtesy

Humility and justice

Defense of the weak

All are aspects of greatness

Hanging in the air

The perfume of Bushido

Keeping such standards

May rust the most iron will

Passion overcomes

The fires of rage may burn

Life may prevail

And wear our souls to dust

We must keep keen minds

Bathe ourselves with gentleness

Stalwart as an oak

Winds of adversity blow

We may bend but we must not break

-Brendan Smith






Tanka became the most popular poetry form throughout Japan. It followed a 5-7-5 7-7 pattern. The 7-7 part of the poem was thematically different from the first part, but the two remained related. Skilled poets soon realized that a slight pause between the two parts could create some dramatic effects.

Even a goddess

Can love the ugliest boar

Can such luck be mine?

Will tomorrow be joyous

Or will its poems be sad

-Brendan Smith

The popularity of the Tanka soon developed another poetic form known as Renga. This was popular in the Heian era as a game. One person would recite a 5-7-5 and another would reply with a 7-7 then another with a 5-7-5 and so on. It soon became a great honour to be the one to give the Hokku; the initial 5-7-5 stanza. In groups, the most competent poet was the one to start the poem, again, a great honour. Up to this point, there had been many anthologies published of Tanka and soon poets started writing collections of hokku only. It was understood that these were meant for starting Renga off, but soon became a poetic form themselves.

From Hokku, we get Haikai. Again a 5-7-5 count, but these are humorous in nature. They would often be satirical and full of puns.

From this, we can see the obvious development of the Haiku. It did take time, however. Tanka and Renga were popular for the entire Middle Ages in Japan.