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Japanese poem

Guide to Japanese Poem

By Roungnak Praem| February 26, 2021

Everybody knows about Haikus, but did you know that a Japanese poem is more than Haiku only? There are actually many more different forms of Japanese poems. Other popular forms are senryū, tanka, renga, and haiga, and they are all beautiful in their own unique ways. Keep on reading to see some famous examples and how you can start writing them yourself!

In this guide, we will explore the history of Japanese poems, the popular forms, and their characteristics, how poetry can be helpful while learning a new language, and a couple of popular poetry sites across Japan. 

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    History of Japanese Poems

    Japanese poem

    Chinese Influence

    Japan had no writing system of its own. They sort of “borrowed” the Kanji (漢字)  from China which was introduced via Korea in the 5th century. This was the time where people started writing Japanese text in Chinese characters. A lot of nobles in this period were writing Chinese poetry also known as Kanshi (漢詩) in Japanese. Writing in Kanshi was a sign that you were educated and well-to-do which is why a lot of high-ranking nobles wrote Kanshi.

    The Man’yōshū (万葉集)is the oldest and most comprehensive anthology in Japanese poetry which emerged sometime around the 8th century. A good translation for Man’yōshū would be “A Collection of 10,000 Leaves”.

    In the Man’yōshū, we find more than 4,500 verses in almost all different forms of poems (with tanka, which I’ll explain a little later, being the most common form). It is not only the size of this collection that makes it so special but the fact that it was created through public push giving it another dimension. In the past, an anthology was usually commissioned at the request of the emperor, but in the case of the Man’yōshū, it was an aristocratic patron who commissioned the collection of the best poems in one volume. A few poems from different poets were included in the anthology e.g. Yamanoue no Okura, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Ōtomo no Yakamochi, etc.

    Most of the poems are situated around the period after the year 650, but this is not to say that there aren’t many older poems in there or even more recent works. Another interesting thing to note is that the poems we find in the Man’yōshū are not only written by men. There are several women whose poems are included in addition to the many male poets. What we should not forget is, in this era, the difference in status between men and women. At the time of its creation, men wrote poems in Chinese, but this language was forbidden for women. Therefore, they wrote poems in Japanese. This was the beginning of one of the Japanese writing systems which is known (and still used) today as Hiragana (平仮名).

    Since this is such a large collection of poetry, the Man’yōshū has been translated into several languages. Now the whole world can enjoy ancient Japanese poetry.

    If you are interested in the Man’yōshū I would suggest reading here.

    Classic poetry (AD 712- AD 1867)

    In a classic Japanese poem, it was a rule that a natural element known as Kigo (季語) is always introduced, which stands for "season word". The Kigo refers to the season in question, for example, snow represents winter.

    Kireji (切れ字) or "cutting word" was also something that needed to be present in a classic Japanese poem. A few examples would be ka (か) which would indicate that it is a question, kana (哉) which indicates a wonder in the poem. The Kireji would give Japanese poems more punctuation.

    Modern poetry (AD 1867-....)

    In a modern Japanese poem, you don't have to write mainly about nature anymore. Now, one can take on completely different subjects that sometimes cannot be linked to nature at all. For example, you can write about fashion, what it is like in a bar, etc. Although we usually still find the deeper meaning, we sometimes find examples of Haikus that become too trivial. Fortunately, there are still those who follow the traditional standards or directions. Yet, if one sticks to the classical rules then we still see people following other themes.

    Another kind of modern form is what we might call the religious poems. Here we are referring to people who write about certain events, persons, important artifacts, etc. This is not limited to only Buddhism but also various other religions.

    Popular Forms of Japanese Poems

    Japanese poem

    Japanese poem: Haiku

    As we all know, Haikus ((俳句) are the most popular form of Japanese poetry. It is a short Japanese poem with no particular subject, though, as mentioned before, it is common for them to be about elements of nature.

    The structure of a Haiku is quite simple. It consists of:

    - 5 syllables

    - 7 syllables

    - 5 syllables

    As a true Haiku writer, these little rules are fundamental to Haiku composition. The content of a Haiku is just like the content of any other poem, it is determined by the writer himself, and so it can be about basically any subject that you would like.

    The Haiku is a folk poem and therefore it usually uses simple words that everyone can understand. We should definitely not look at this form of poetry as something philosophical. However, almost every Haiku is inspired by the concept of Zen, which comes from Buddhism. Zen is a spiritual practice that involves being aware of each moment. So we have to be mindful that a Haiku almost always contains a deeper meaning as well.

    Here is an example of a Haiku:

    Mono ieba / Kuchibiru samushi / Aki no kaze

    物言えば唇寒し秋の風

    Translation:

    When you say something

    The lips feel cold

    The Autumn wind

    As you can see when reading the Haiku in Japanese, it does follow the 5-7-5 rule, but when translating it to English, it… well, doesn’t.

    This Haiku was written by a man called Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉). Matsuo Basho (who lived from AD 1644 - AD 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period (AD 1603- AD 1869) in Japan. Basho is known for his works of collaborative poetry called Haikai no Renga which translates to comic-linked poems. He is also considered the greatest master of Haiku. His Haikus are known all over the world and in Japan. Many of his poems have been reproduced on monuments .e.g. in Tokyo more specifically in Ueno, there is a stone with his Haiku engraved. His poems were inspired by what he experienced on his travels and after identifying himself with the intellectual scenes of Edo.

    Japanese poem: Senryū

    Senryū (川柳) is a particular form of Haiku, but this form is known as the more humorous form of Haiku. This type of poetry tends to focus more on man, man’s doings, man’s actions, man’s thinking, etc.

    The structure of the Senryū is the same as that of the Haiku.

    Senryū too consists of:

    - 5 syllables

    - 7 syllables

    - 5 syllables

    Unlike the Haiku, the Senryū does not include a cutting word (Kireji) and it does not need to include a Kigo either. 

    Example of a Senryū:

    Kimeru no wa / Itsumo genba / Ni inai hito

    決めるのはいつも現場にいない人

    Translation:

    Decisions are made by people who aren't always there.

    A notable Senryū poet is Karai Hachiemon (柄井 川柳), also known as Karai Senryu, born in AD 1719 and lived until AD 1790. He was the person that made Senryū popular. He was a government official during the Edo period and was a position he inherited from his father. It was said that he collected almost a hundred thousand Maekuzuke poems each year. Maekuzuke was a form of Japanese poem that was very popular in his time. In this form, you would add your own verse to an already existing verse.  He would grade these poems and in AD 1765 his disciple would bundle these and publish them in an anthology that is known as Yanagidaru.

    Japanese poem: Tanka

    Tanka (短歌) means short poem in Japanese. It is also one of the oldest forms of Japanese poetry. Tanka is a form that falls under the Waka (和歌) and means poetry in Japanese. Tanka is the most used form of Japanese poetry. The other forms that the Japanese used were not used as often after the beginning of the Heian Period which was almost 1000 years ago. Now the Tanka being commonly used and it has become synonymous with the Waka. You can call it either Tanka or Waka.

    The structure of the Tanka is almost the same as the Haiku. It is also a short poem, usually written on one straight line, and has an additional two lines of poetry.

    The Tanka structure is as follows:

    5 syllables / 7 syllables / 5 syllables / 7 syllables / 7 syllables

    Tanka adds 14 more syllables which is great if you think that Haiku is too short to express yourself. Just like in the Senryū you do not have to include a Kigo in the Tanka either.

    Example of a Tanka:

    Ichi hatsu no / Hana saki idete / Waga me ni wa / Kotoshi bakari no / Haru yukan to su

    いちはつの 花咲きいでて 我目には  今年ばかりの 春行かんとす

    Translation:

    The flowers of icicles are blooming, and in my eyes, only this year, spring will come.

    This is a Tanka written by Masaoka Shiki (正岡 子規,  AD 1867 - AD 1902) who is considered one of the best, if not the best Tanka poet. Just as Basho, Shiki was born into a low-ranking samurai family. It was expected that he would be trained into a samurai too. Shiki was able to further develop freely in literature after the death of his father, Tsunenao. Shiki’s grandfather, Ohara Kanzhan, had taken on the task of educating him. Early in his adulthood, he was infected with tuberculosis, and shortly after he began coughing up blood for the first time. After this, he took on the name Shiki from the Chinese language. It was said he compared himself to a cuckoo (bird). Apparently, a cuckoo also coughs up blood when it sings.

    Japanese poem: Renga

    You might consider the Renga (連歌) as a kind of collaborative Japanese poem because it is actually written by several poets. This type of poetry feels as though it is a kind of dialogue between the members. Renga originated during the Nara period (AD 710 - AD 794) but became especially popular during the Heian (AD 794 - AD 1185) period. In royal Japanese courts, in particular, this form of poetry was popular. Later during the same time period, it got very popular among the common people. Renga gained a lot of its popularity during the Muromachi period (AD 1336 - AD 1573).

    The structure of the poem remains the same as a Tanka, but you can put several of them under each other to create a larger poem or a composite poem. Each of these verses is connected in some way to the preceding verse but not to the one before it.

    Renga structured is like this:

    - 5 syllables

    - 7 Syllables

    - 5 syllables

    - 7 syllables

    - 7 syllables

    Example Renga:

    Ura no haru to ya nami ni hana saku

    Tōyama wa kasumi nimo nari yuki ni mie 

    Translation:

    spring on the shore as they say

    on waves flowers bloom

    distant mountains

    turn into haze too

    though looking like snow

     Source translation

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    Poetry can be Helpful While Learning a New Language

    Learning Japanese

    How can poetry help improve my Japanese?

    Reason one: Poetry builds understanding and builds communities

    Poetry can help people outline their lives using metaphors, imagery, and symbolic language when it comes to painful experiences or describing parts of themselves if they are not yet ready to share those ideas with the people around them. In poetry, you can often anonymously express these feelings. Poetry can also give you a voice through grammar, punctuation, and use of Kanji which expresses ideas that we do not have words for in English. Writing poetry can perhaps help you find out a little more about yourself and give you an opportunity to open yourself up to the world around you (which can be difficult when you have just arrived in Japan).

    Reason two: Rhythm and music

    Even if you can’t understand all the words of meaning in poetry, you can always still feel the rhythm and cadence of a poem. You don’t always have to know the full meaning of a poem to enjoy it. Poetry is physical and full of flavor; it can literally and figuratively set you in motion.

    Reason three: Poetry can give people who are learning a new language space to practice

    Because poems defy rules, poetry can be very accessible to people who are still limited in their vocabulary. Besides, poetry is universal. Reading poetry in another language or in one’s own language can help act as a bridge between worlds and languages.

    Reason four: Poetry can help you build up resilience

    Reading and writing poetry promotes social and emotional learning. A well-written line in a poem can help you see or experience something in a different and new way. This way, the things that we experience can give us new insights and strengths.

    Poetry can help you with Japanese

    There are benefits when writing a Japanese poem in that being creative with Japanese can make acquiring new vocabulary and learning more of a personal experience and help with retention. Poems can help non-native Japanese see the Japanese language a little more differently - you might even start to feel that it is in some ways more expressive than your own language. There are often images and words that cannot be translated accurately. Non-native speakers first learn a functional language in school that helps them lead their daily lives in a new country. Thus, the vocabulary of school, feelings, home, and introducing themselves come first. Most of the time this is what you learn when learning a new language. Poems, of course, go beyond the mere learning of new words. Through imagery, poems do not only want to name feelings but also let readers feel the feeling.

    To be clear, I am convinced that reading and writing poetry can be beneficial to us as people who are trying to find our way in the world. In the case of non-native speakers, I would like to add that it is an excellent opportunity to explore sides of the Japanese language that you might otherwise never encounter. The insights you will gain from poetry might help you grow not only as an individual but help you develop an appreciation of the history behind the beautiful country that is Japan. 

    Poems are an ideal way to create space for those important stories. There is the linguistic pleasure of finding a beautiful phrase or colorful image. But more often than not, it is beautiful to see how in sharing their poems and thus their feelings, they better understand each other and this new world they are living in or the world that they left behind. The deepening of their feelings creates a connection.

    Japanese Poem Related Sites Across Japan

    Yamadera

    Here are some places across Japan that can inspire you to write a nice Japanese poem.

    Museum of Haiku Literature

    It’s not really a museum but more of a library that is for collecting and preserving Haikus for the future. Their collection contains Haikus of all periods from famous poets like Basho and Shiki.

    The museum is a study center, where you can research or just read haikus in reading rooms.

    Admission is ¥100 per person.

    Opening hours are from 10:00 a.m.  – 16:00 p.m. and they are closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

    You can visit their website for more information.

    Location:

    Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum

    The museum was opened in AD 1989 celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city Yamadera. The museum displays a lot of items that Basho made himself, works related to the Oku no Osomichi journey, a journey Basho took to visit all the places that inspired old Japanese poets. It also showcases calligraphic works and paintings of Basho’s disciples. The museum is also located in a park that has many facilities like traditional Japanese-style meeting rooms and team rooms. It is also located near the Yamadera, you could retrace the steps Basho took and get inspired by the scenery just like he did!

    Admission to the Basho Memorial Museum is ¥400.

    Opening hours are from 09:00 a.m.  – 16:30 p.m., closing days are varied, check the website when visiting.

    You can visit their website for more information.

    Location:

    Drunk Poets Tokyo

    This is a bar in Setagaya called bar Gari Gari that hosts an open mic called Drunk Poets See God once a month. This is a kind of open-mic night where each month there is a different theme. Speakers can take the stage and recite their poems for up to 20 minutes!  You can join their Facebook group and see what date they are holding their open-mic nights. Beware though they only accept people living in Tokyo because they want to limit their memberships to those who will actually attend!

    Check out their Facebook page for more information regarding open mic nights.

    Location:

    Ito En Oi Ocha Shinhaiku Contest

    Each year Ito En (tea maker) holds the En Oi Ocha Shinhaiku. It is a competition with a different theme each year. Everyone of all ages and nationalities can enter and the rules are quite simple. You have to express your own feelings and thoughts in a 3-line poem. It has to be a poem you have written yourself and it can’t be published anywhere else.  There are different kinds of awards to win with the Grand Award which is the highest place giving ¥200,000 in prize money.

    You can visit their website for more information.

    Setouchi-Matsyuama International Photo-Haiku Contest

    This is a yearly competition where people can submit their photo-haiku. You take a picture of something and then you write your Haiku based on the picture you have taken. Contestants from 47 countries are competing in this contest every year. You can write a Haiku in English or in Japanese the grand winner gets rewarded ¥30,000.

     You can visit their website for more information regarding the contest.

    Haiku Box 365

    You can submit weekly Haikus on this website. Every week a new theme is presented. Do note though that this is only in Japanese so you should have a more compact understanding of the Japanese language. The best Haikus get picked out and read on Youtube by the ambassador from Matsuyama, Itsuki Natsui.

    You can visit their website for more information.

    Final remarks

    Writing a Japanese poem is something that I would recommend when you are learning Japanese. Not only will it broaden your vocabulary but it will also teach you more about the Japanese culture. You can write Haikus about anything you like so why not try writing one for fun? Who knows what kind of world you will enter? Who knows what you might learn about yourself? The possibilities are endless!

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