History of Japanese Poetry

History of Japanese Poetry

Most people are familiar with the Haiku, but Japanese poetry has a much longer history then this simple and endlessly complicated just-barely-period poetry form.  The Chôka, the Tanka and the Renga are all poetry forms that existed during the centuries in which the SCA plays and are as equally fascinating as their descendant, the Haiku.

The earliest known Japanese poetry can be found within the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) published in 712.  This record was published using Chinese characters; Japanese did not develop its own distinct characters until the late eight century.  In both cases, the written languages are syllabaries in which each symbol represents a syllable rather than a letter.  This might help one to understand why their poetry is syllable base rather than rhyme and meter base like the Western World.

The poems found in the Kojiki were primarily ballads.  This book was the compilation of prose, politics and poetry, a true record of ancient matters.  But it is the Manyô-shû (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), published shortly after 759 that defines poetry in Japan.  This is the book to study the ancient poetry of Japan.  It contains two important poetry forms which are unique to Japanese culture.  The Chôka (long poem) consists of alternate lines of five and seven syllables and is often concluded with a final line of seven syllables.  Hanka (envoys) may be appended to a Chôka.  The long poem form waned as time went on.

The other unique poetic form in the Manyô-shû is the Tanka.  This short form consists of 31 syllables written in lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven – basically a five-line Chôka.  Tanka were often used in parallel with Chôka, summing up the longer poem.  The Tanka is the preeminent verse form in Japan; its remains popular throughout SCA period and continues to be written in modern times with magazines devoted just to it and the Haiku.

Two more major anthologies of poetry were collected, the Kokinshû (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems) which was published in 905 and the Shin kokinshû (The New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems) which was published around 1205.  These defining milestones of Japanese poetry not only give a snapshot of the poetry found by the author and the patron to be the best poetry of the period, but also gives a overview of the mood and belief systems of the people of the period.  Good poetry is characterized by capturing and capsulizing profound thought and intense feelings.  The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves has the mood of personal sincerity, the emphasis on the full involvement of the individual.  By 905, the emphasis centers on the bond between humans and nature, an empathy with everything around them.  And during the New Collection, which was published in a nation living with the grim aftermath of the collapse of the manorial system, the poetry centered on gloom and solitude.  Only as the wars became “routine” did a new poetry form develop.

The Renga (linked verse) developed in the early fourteenth century, and continued to evolve through the eighteenth century.  It required three or more poets to work together to compose a long poem, alternating who creates each verse.  One type of verse would be three lines of five, seven and five syllables, and this would be followed by the other type of verse composed of two lines of seven syllables each.  After a century or two, Renga made it way into the general populous and Renga parties began.

A good host was measured on the excellence of his hokku (the opening three lines to start a Renga).  Some enterprising poets created hokku for patrons until this became so specialized that a new poetry form, the Haiku, was born.  The Haiku was honed during the 17th to 19th centuries (post-SCA period) until it has become the premier poetry form of today.  Haiku may be written as three separate lines or as one seventeen syllable line poem.

If you are interested in writing Japanese poetry, the Tanka would be the best form to start with as it existed throughout SCA period.  For a challenge, you might wish to assemble a group of friends and have a Renga party.  During period such parties created poems with 100 verses, sometime high ceremonial occasions had Renga 10,000 verses long.  But don’t limit yourself, remember that the poetry forms listed are not the only forms practiced in Japan, ballads and other forms were also produced.


Microsoft Encarta Encylopedia 2001.  Entries on “Japanese Literature”, “Japan”, “Haiku” and “Poetry”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *