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Japanese poems have a long and rich history that dates back well over a thousand years. From the famous haiku to the lesser-known katauta, there are many varieties of Japanese poetry that have evolved over the centuries.



A Brief History of Japanese Poetry

Written Japanese poetry has existed as an art form since the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), a rich cultural period across Asia. Poetry flourished in China during this time, and its influence extended to Japanese culture. For example, Kojiki (written in 712 CE) and Nihon Shoki (720 CE) are the oldest known Japanese books. These collections of mythology, history, and poetry from the Nara period were written primarily in Chinese.

Traditional Japanese poetry is known as waka. In Japan, poetry has often been gathered into anthologies, and the oldest known book is a 20-volume compendium of waka called Man'yōsh (or Manyoshu) printed in the seventh century. The collection includes 265 chōka, which are long poems, and 4,207 tanka, or short poems. Other famous poetry collections include The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, both completed in the early eleventh century.

10 Types of Japanese Poetry

Over the centuries, there have been many different forms of poetry in the Japanese language, all differentiated by themes and kana—syllabic meters in Japanese poetry. Modern Japanese poetry—post–World War II—is known as gendai-shi, or contemporary poetry. Here are 10 of the most well-known types of Japanese poetry from history:

  1. Haiku: Haikus are the most well-known form of Japanese poetry. The haiku once functioned the opening stanza of another form of poetry known as renga. Originally called hokku, the haiku became its own standalone poetic form in the nineteenth century when it was renamed haiku by famous haiku poet Masaoka Shiki. Shiki was one of four famous haiku masters—along with Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828), Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), and Yosa Buson (1716–1784). Buson, of Kyoto prefecture, was a poet-painter and would incorporate his haikus into his art—a combination known as haiga. Traditionally, haiku poems are non-rhyming and have 17 syllables, broken up into a 5-7-5 formation. Modern haiku is more flexible; some are written with a 5-3-5 pattern and some are simply comprised of three non-rhyming lines. Japanese haiku poetry centers around themes of nature and the seasons. In English, a haiku is printed in three lines while in Japanese it is written as one vertical line.
  2. Kanshi: Kanshi the Japanese word for Chinese poetry, and it includes Japanese poetry written in Chinese. Kanshi was a popular genre of poetry in the Heian period (794–1185), and a favorite among Japanese aristocrats.
  3. Renga: In the twelfth century, the poetic style renga came about. Renga is a collaborative form of poetry. It involves two or more stanzas, and the opening stanza is called a hokku—a portion of the form that was eventually separated into its own poetic form known as haiku. One poet writes the opening stanza of a renga which has 17 syllables divided into three lines. The next poet writes the second stanza, which is a couplet with seven syllables in each line. This stanza pattern is repeated. Matsuo Basho was known for renga poetry, as was a Buddhist priest by the name of Sōgi (1421–1502).
  4. Renku: Renku is another type of collaborative poetry and linked verse—alternating three-line and two-line stanzas written by different poets. Renku often had comical themes that sometimes bordered on the vulgar. Writing renku was often a form of entertainment, as poets would gather to write these poems together.
  5. Waka: The earliest Japanese poetry form is known as waka, which refers to any genre of poetry written in Japanese. In ancient times, the aristocratic class, known as kuge, would often exchange waka instead of letters. During the Heian period, women were the primary waka poets since men traditionally wrote in Chinese during this time. One of the most famous waka poets was Kakinomoto Hitomaro (c.653-c.710). Some of the most famous collections of Japanese poetry are waka. Kokin Wakashū (or Kokinshu) was published in 902 and was a 20-volume anthology of waka poems. It included works by famous poet Ono no Komachi (825–900) and Heian waka poet Fujiwara no Okikaze.
  6. Tanka: Tanka is the modern name for classic Japanese poetry, meaning “short poems.” Tanka poetry is non-rhyming. There are five lines in a tanka with a meter pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. The first three lines of a tanka (5-7-5) are called kami-no-ku, or “upper phrase.” The last two lines are called shimo-no-ku, or “lower phrase.”
  7. Haikai: Haikai is a form of linked verse that incorporates satire or puns. Matsuo Basho was the best-known poet of the Edo period and of this genre. Haikai poems contain over 100 verses.
  8. Haibun: In the seventeenth century, Matsuo Basho popularized this form of poetry which is a combination of haiku and prose.
  9. Katauta: This three-line poem has a syllabic meter of either 5-7-5 or 5-7-7. A katauta is often called an incomplete poem. The form is written as one lover addressing another. When paired with the response from the other lover, the two katauta become a sedoka.
  10. Sedoka: A sedoka poem is a call and response poem. These love poems are made up of two katauta verses. The first verse is a katauta in which one lover poses a question to another. The second verse is the partner’s reply, also written is a katauta. Each verse has a 5-7-5 or 5-7-7 pattern.
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