What Is a Waka?

The form of Japanese poetry most familiar to Americans is the haiku, the 17-syllable poem that reached the height of its development in the seventeenth century. But the haiku derived from an older, but still popular poetic form, the waka, which had been used for a thousand years before the haiku. The word waka means "Japanese poem," and it is a form so basic to Japanese literature that Japanese still study and write it today. It is also known by the name tanka, which means "short poem."

About a thousand years ago, a poet named Ki no Tsurayuki wrote:

"The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart and flourishes in the countless leaves of words. Because human beings possess interests of so many kinds it is in poetry that they give expression to the meditations of their hearts in terms of the sights appearing before their eyes and the sounds coming to their ears. Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters — is there any living being not given to song!"

The "song" he meant (uta) was a waka. It is a poem in thirty-one syllables, arranged in five lines, of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables respectively. For example, here is a poem written by a famous Heian-period woman, Ono no Komachi:

The flowers withered, (5)
Their color faded away, (7)
While meaninglessly (5)
I spent my days in the world (7)
And the long rains were falling. (7) (1)

The waka is often said to have an "upper verse," which refers to the first three lines, and a "lower verse," the last two. The haiku form is based on the "upper verse"; another form, called a renga, is made from alternating the two — first a three-line, seventeen syllable verse, then a two-line, fourteen syllable one, each by a different poet for up to a hundred verses!

Often when we read Japanese poetry in translation the syllable count seems wrong. One reason is that Japanese words often cannot be translated by a single equivalent word in English. More important, however, is the fact that English poetic forms are not usually based on syllables, but on stress. Where Japanese poems rely on internal rhythms and sounds for their effects, English poems often use rhyme. Each language uses its special characteristics to form poetry — but all poetry "has its roots in the human heart."

Traditionally, it was the heart responding to nature that was most sung about: Ki no Tsurayuki asked, "Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters — is there any living being not given to song?" Even in modern times, nature — and our response to it — is a frequent topic, as in this poem by Saitô Mokichi (1882-1953):

Is this what
quietude is like?
On a winter night
the sounds of the air
which surrounds me. (2)

Modern poets are less likely to write exclusively about the "beauties of nature" than their ancestors were, however. At one time the topics to be treated by a waka, and even the words a poet was allowed to use, were subject to strict regulations. In modern times, however, any topic is acceptable, and any of the "countless leaves of words" may be used. A good example is this poem by Ishikawa Takuboku (1885-1912):

give me
the creeps
some memories
like putting on
dirty socks. (3)

These "short poems" have been important to the Japanese throughout their history. These have been used to celebrate special occasions since ancient times, and indeed, still are. The Imperial family still runs an annual poetry-writing contest open to all, and many Japanese are amateur poets. In the Heian period especially, waka were a most important form of communication between lovers, and a person's skill in poetry was a major criterion in determining his or her standing in society, even influencing political positions. Throughout its history, the waka has had an importance in Japanese society unparalleled in the West.

What is a waka, then? It is a short poem, with specific structural requirements, written to express feelings. It differs from poetry in our own tradition both in form and in influence. There is yet another general difference: Over the centuries, waka were written more to capture emotions than to explain or define them. Ono no Komachi, in the poem above, did not mention why her days seemed meaningless; Takuboku did not tell us what those memories were that made him feel so awful. In contrast, much Western poetry has been concerned with the reasons for a particular feeling, as well as the emotion itself; it has told stories, created allegories, and even discussed theology. But the "Japanese poem" has traditionally treated the "what" rather than the "why" of experience, and opens a wealth of subtle emotions to us. It is an especially rich source for increasing our understanding of the Japanese experience, in reading poetry and, as in the exercises that follow, trying to write some ourselves.

(1) Poem translated in Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 81.
(2) Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Fragments of Rainbows: The Life and Poetry of Saitô Mokichi, 1882-1953 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
(3) Carl Sesar, trans., Poems to Eat, by Ishikawa Takuboku (Tokyo, Palo Alto, CA: Kodansha International, 1966).

Essay written by Dr. Amy Vladeck Heinrich, director, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University.

Classroom Exercises and Discussion Questions

  1. Japanese poetry is often written in groups — for instance, people will gather together and write poems on a chosen topic, or they will write poems to commemorate a special occasion. The topic might be something like rain on a spring evening, or the waning autumn moon. The occasion might be New Year's, or an excursion to view the cherry blossoms. Form small groups and decide on a topic — anything, not just nature images, will do. Each student in the group should try to write one waka poem, without being too concerned about the number of syllables. But keep in mind that the waka is a short form, so each word is especially important. Then discuss the poems you have written in terms of form and content — the difficulty of writing within a particular structure, and on a set topic.

  2. Work in pairs, with one student writing the "upper verse," and the other finishing the poem with the "lower verse." Compare the results, and discuss the ways the two parts work to form a whole. How was writing a poem alone different from writing in response to another person?

  3. Choose an English poem — perhaps one used in an English class — and a waka for comparison. Consider how they are alike and how they are different, treating both form and content. Do these poems illustrate the differences between English and Japanese poems as discussed in the text? If so, how? If not, why not?

  4. The same word, uta, is used to mean both "song" and "poem." What do you think are reasons for this? Is there anything in our own tradition that relates songs and poems?