Modern Tanka in Japan

First published as “Personal Choice: Tanka Cluster #7” in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:1, March 2002, on pages 6–7, and as “Personal Choice: Tanka Cluster #8” in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:2, June 2002, on pages 9–11. I’ve combined both essays into one here, with minor revisions to refine transitional references. The essay presents all twenty poets featured in Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Tanka anthology. My thanks to Ueda, professor emeritus at Stanford University, for his permission to publish his translations.


[Part 1]

The best way to learn how to write tanka is by writing them, of course, and the next best way is by reading them. In English, we have a growing body of individual tanka collections, as well as a few anthologies. It will never be possible for us to catch up to the Japanese, however—after all, they do have a 1,300-year head start on tanka! But we can still learn from our fellow Japanese poets, and one of the absolute best books for that is Makoto Ueda’s anthology, Modern Japanese Tanka (Columbia University Press, 1996). This book presents the tanka of twenty poets who flourished in the twentieth century, ranging from Shiki, Akiko Yosano, and Takuboku at the start of the century to Machi Tawara at the end of it. I’d like to present the poetry of the first ten of these poets in Part 1, with the following ten to come in Part 2.

        Modern tanka in Japan is chiefly characterized by its reformation and revitalization of the established waka tradition. Fittingly to start, then, Tekkan Yosano (1873–1935) was a tireless tanka reformer. Born in Kyoto, in his twenty-seventh year he founded the influential tanka magazine Myōjō (Morning Star), and a year later married one of the gifted poets he first published, Akiko, who eventually surpassed him as a tanka poet. Here are two of Tekkan’s tanka:


it cries and cries

loud, long and shamelessly

not knowing

the art of the shorter poem

a cicada


I’ll forget I saw you

standing with a stupified look

hands holding your breasts

when an earthquake shook this morning

so bring me a drink, my dear


Shiki Masaoka (1867–1902) not only reformed haiku, but tanka also. Hailing from Matsuyama, he began to reform haiku with his newspaper essays, later doing the same for tanka. His energetic success at reforming traditional Japanese poetry was no doubt influenced by tuberculosis, which greatly shortened his life. Of the 2,500 tanka he wrote, this is but one of them, prefaced by the headnote of “My room”—a room that may sound familiar to many haiku and tanka poets today:



blooming in a small pot


volumes of haiku, tanka

dictionaries strewn about


Ōgai Mori (1862–1922) was born in Shimane, and became a doctor, but also excelled as a novelist, critic, translator, and tanka poet. Here are two of his tanka that speak clearly to us a century later across a vast ocean:


let a poem be

like a crystal bowl

filled with ice

delightfully transparent

leaving no spot invisible


the large temple bell

struck by an American

has something

strange and funny in its ring

yet what prodigious sound!


Akiko Yosano (1878–1942) is best known for her seminal tanka collection, Midaregami (Tangled Hair). Born near Osaka, she is said to have written 40,000 tanka in her sixty-four years (that’s two to three tanka every day for her entire adult life). Here’s a sample poem:


into a pair of stars

we will turn—till then

let us never recall

autumn’s voice

we heard in the same bed


Along with Shiki and Akiko, Ishikawa Takuboku (1886–1912), born in Iwate prefecture, is among the best-known tanka poets of the beginning of the century, though his full poetic diaries were not published until 1954. His life was even briefer than Shiki’s, and surely the honest intensity of his poetry resulted from the intensity of his life and personality. Here is a selection of Takuboku’s tanka:


I close my eyes


yet nothing whatever

floats up in my mind


     out of sheer loneliness

     I reopen them


Mokichi Saitō (1882–1953) was a scientist and doctor, like Ōgai. Born in Yamagata, a prefecture in northeastern Japan, Mokichi is best known for his tanka collection Shakkō (Red Lights), and his poetry exhibits a reverance for nature. Here is one sample:


what on the other shore

tugs at its heart so?

in the evening dusk

over the Mogami River

a lone firefly


Born in northern Kyushu, Hakushū Kitahara (1885–1942) was a mysterious character with a troubled childhood. The strength of his tanka, however, brought friendship from the Yosanos, Takuboku, and Mokichi. He was a prolific writer, of which the following is but one taste:


after letting my wife

leave me because of our poverty

I put together

a trellis for my morning glory

with bamboos and a rope


Chōkū Shaku (1887–1953) was born in Osaka. He won many awards for his tanka, also serving as a judge for the Imperial Household’s New Year Tanka Contest. One of the highest honors a tanka poet can receive in Japan was named after this poet—the Shaku Chōkū Prize. Here is one of his tanka, this first part of which has an objective haiku feel (and perhaps the conclusion drawn in the second part illustrates how tanka can differ from haiku):


arrowroot flowers

lie trampled on the ground

their colors fresh


someone has climbed ahead of me

along this mountain path


Zenmaro Toki (1885–1980) was unique in his practice of poetry for advocating that Japanese be written in the Roman alphabet. Moreover, he wrote more than thirty books of tanka, the first of which, in 1910, shocked readers when it was entirely written in Roman letters. Born in Tokyo and professionally employed by several publishers, his poetry, like his life, exhibits an indomitable spirit. The second of the following two poems is forty-one Japanese syllables, an example of the free-form tanka Zenmaro espoused:


an old soldier

lodged in our house

tells a war story

that says nothing

about killing an enemy


work on the impossible

and change it into the possible

preached our past militarist leaders

our government today

works on the possible

and changes it into the impossible


Also born in Tokyo, Kanoko Okamoto (1889–1939) led a privileged life, but battled depression and guilt. Best known in Japan for her fiction, she also wrote four books of tanka. Here is one of her poems:


cherry blossoms

blooming with all the strength

they possess

oblige me to view them

with all the strength I possess


Not all of these poets in the early part of the twentieth century were active reformers of the waka genre, but all of them contributed to its revitalization as tanka. Just as “haiku” is a modern term for “hokku,” “tanka” is a modern term for “waka.” The early reformers thought waka was in a sad state, and thus sought to revamp it. As Makoto Ueda says, “there was a shared feeling that the new type of waka was so markedly different from the traditional one that a new name was needed for it” (page x). The new name was “tanka,” and by 1910, Ueda reports, “tanka had established itself as a viable genre of modern Japanese literature” (page x). I hope the poets whose work I’ve been able to share here in Makoto Ueda’s venerable translations give a good sense of that vitality.


[Part 2]


In his anthology Modern Japanese Tanka (Columbia University Press, 1996), Makoto Ueda says that “renga became virtually extinct in the early twentieth century,” and that “Waka, bound by all kinds of conventional rules, seemed about to follow suit unless drastic measures were taken to modernize it” (page xv). Fortunately, waka was modernized—by reformers such as Tekkan, Shiki, and Mokichi—and the revitalized poetry was renamed “tanka.” The genre was then driven to new heights of quality and innovation by poets such as Akiko Yosano, Takuboku, and Chōkū Shaku. Others, such as Zenmaro Toki, advocated free-style tanka and even presenting Japanese tanka in Roman letters. Poets came to tanka from fiction and longer poetry, and tanka evolved through these influences as well as socialism, modernism, and two world wars to reach extremes that reflected the new society of post-war Japan and even the avant-garde. “In today’s Japan,” Ueda reports, “tanka seems to be thriving as ever” (page xxxii). From 1979 to 1981, 50,000 tanka written during the reign of Emperor Shōwa were published in the twenty-volume Shōwa Man’yōshū, and a fifteen-volume set entitled Gendai Tanka Zenshū (The Grand Collection of Modern Tanka) was also published comprising virtually all major tanka books published in the previous hundred years. This was followed, in 1987, by the publication of the runaway bestseller tanka book, Sarada Kinenbi (Salad Anniversary). Its young author, Machi Tawara, brought a new wave of writers into tanka poetry. A hundred years ago, waka faced extinction, but it thrives today as tanka—thanks largely to the influence of key poets, critics, and innovators over the century.

        Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Tanka presents the poetry of twenty of the twentieth century’s leading tanka poets in Japan. In Part 1 of this essay, I introduced the first ten of these poets and their work, and continue now with the remaining ten. These ten poets connect the beginning of the twentieth century to today, and indicate a bright future for tanka that is increasingly spilling from Japan into other cultures and languages.

        The first poet is Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1932), an accomplished fiction writer and poet. Born in Iwate prefecture, he strove to help local farmers through agricultural education, but also penned free verse and stories for children as well as a thousand tanka during his brief life. Here are two of the tanka:


at dawn

on a mountain pass

in the drifting fog

almost imperceptible

the smell of green tomatoes


a head

severed from the body

grits its teeth

as it floats away

across the white stream


Nobuyuki Ōkuma (1893–1977) distinguished himself as an outspoken social critic, yet he also excelled at tanka in his younger days. Born in Yonezawa, he wrote a sort of Marxist, proletarian tanka, advocating a free approach to form. His extra-long tanka also included titles in imitation of Western poetry, and became indistinguisable from ordinary free verse. Here is one poem of forty-eight Japanese syllables, the first of three tanka under the title of “Third-Class Car on a Night Train”:


crumpled handkerchief

in one hand

with no baggage

slender legs exposed

standing near the door


and sighing from time to time


Born to a wealthy family in Nara prefecture, Samio Maekawa (1903–1990) was a nationalistic tanka writer before and during the second world war, and faced severe depression after government appropriation of his family’s land after the war. After his recovery, he wrote tanka with renewed energy, but with more realistic anger and grief. This is one of his tanka:


with each quiver

it is laying an egg

a white moth

why did it enter my mind

this frosty night?


Known for abstraction in her tanka, Fumi Saitō was born in Tokyo in 1909, and faced a life of frequent change. Eventually settling in Nagano, she published nine tanka books, plus a book about tanka writing. Here are two of her tanka, one less abstract than the other:


don’t resemble me

please don’t—I tell the woman

I am painting

who has the beautiful

smile of an adultress


when neither a man

nor a horse is seen passing

over a bridge

only then it begins to show

what a true bridge is like


Shūji Miya (1911–1986) was born in Niigata, the son of a bookstore owner who published a literary magazine. He dealt with illness in much of his later life, but was able to retire before he was fifty to dedicate himself to poetry. Here are two sample tanka:


slowly inside me

a thought has hardened

into a belief

world peace will never

be nature’s gift


on the way home

from where I work for a living

I stop to watch

vegetables at a grocer’s

being sprayed with water


Though born in Korea in 1913, Yoshimi Kondō lived as a teenager in Hiroshima. Like many Japanese students, he learned tanka in school, and continued writing all his life. An engineering degree brought him work in construction. Because of the war, his first book was not published until 1948, and he has now published sixteen tanka books. Here is one taste of his tanka:


casting shadows

on the white riverbed

heavy bombers descend

each looking as though

not a soul were on board


Unlike most tanka poets in Japan who learn the art and craft under a master, Kunio Tsukamoto did not. Born in 1922 in Shiga prefecture, he pursued a business education, but preferred the arts. A prolific writer, his books number more than a hundred, and include short stories, fiction, and criticism. These two tanka show the diversity of his style:



like the barrel of a gun

I keep loading her

with liquid explosive

till the night is gone


a casket on display

at the mortuary


rests in peace

exactly matching my size


Fumiko Nakajō (1922–1954) led a brief but full life, cut short by breast cancer. Born on Hokkaido, she tried tanka as a student, but only took it seriously after her marriage disintegrated. Her fame as a tanka poet came barely before she died. This is a sample poem:


in search of a shore

where I might spot my breast

drifting along

with white jellyfish

I’ll go to sleep again


Being born to parents who were both tanka poets stood Yukitsuna Sasaki in good stead for his own poetry career. Born in Tokyo in 1938, his first poems were published in his father’s tanka magazine when he was just six or seven years old. He later published seven books of tanka, one of which includes this observation:


the bloom finished

trees stand above the petals

fallen on the ground

contemporary tanka

starts from that sight


The style of Machi Tawara’s tanka is somewhat like that of Yukitsuna Sasaki. This is not a surprise because Tawara attended a class from Sasaki at Waseda University, and quickly took to tanka, even writing her senior thesis on tanka sequencing. Her first book, Sarada Kinenbi (Salad Anniversary), came out in 1987 and sold millions of copies, launching her into celebrity status at age twenty-five. Born in Osaka on the last day of 1962, Tawara published a second book of tanka in 1991. Her work is popular for its honest depiction of everyday emotion, as in this example:


freezing my smile

for half a second

I look

toward your camera

that can’t photograph my heart


Throughout the twentieth century, tanka has seen many changes, and Japanese poets have been attracted to it for a variety of reasons. Makoto Ueda reports that tanka, over its 1,300-year history, “has established itself as the archetypal mode of emotional expression for those who speak Japanese” and that “it touches and moves the Japanese heart at the deepest level” (page xxxvi). For those of us writing in English, tanka touches us at a very deep level also.