Waka (和歌)

Waka is a fixed form of poem that has been created since Jodai (mainly the Nara period). The people who compose Waka are called Kajin poets.


Waka is a name in contrast to the Chinese poetry, and it is also called Yamatouta (大和歌・倭歌) or just Uta. In the Nara period it was called Waka (倭歌) or Washi (倭詩).

In a broad sense, Waka means Choka (long poem), Tanka (short poem), Sedoka (head-repeated poem), Katauta (half poem), and Bussokusekika (Buddha's footprint stone poem), but in a narrow sense it designates only Tanka of 31 syllables.
Therefore, it is also called Misohitomoji (31 syllables.)

Also, it is called Yakumo, the name of which is based on the first word of the poem Susanoo (a deity in Japanese mythology) composed, and the poem is considered the first Waka in Japanese mythology: 'Clouds (Yakumo), actively upwelling covered the eightfold fence.It makes the eightfold fence to have my new wife stay in the house.Great eightfold fence.'
Yakumo-no-michi' means 'Kado (the art of Waka poetry).'

Just like 'Yakumo-no-michi,' 'Shikishima-no-michi (Roads in Japan)' means Kado.
Shikishima means Yamato or Japan, so it literally means 'roads in Japan.'
It suggests that to compose poems was the Japanese traditional culture.

Also, there is a unique form of poem called Ryuka (Ryukyu poetry) in Okinawa Prefecture.

Definition of Waka

Waka means Uta (song) and fixed-form poetry consisting of five and seven syllables and written in Yamato-kotoba (a word of purely Japanese origin). Waka is considered to be both literature and music, but generally it is taken as one genre of Japanese literature, so the element of 'Uta' has been excluded in Japanese education.

Form of Waka

Tercets of five, seven and seven syllables
It is a half-poem that is sung by one of the two people, and it is the shortest poem.

Two tercets of five, seven and seven syllables each
It is a repeated form of Katauta, and most of the Sedoka is Mondoka (dialogue poem).

It consists of alternating lines of five and seven syllables, and ends with an extra seven-syllable line. The five and seven syllables are repeated more than three times, and then seven-syllable line is added at the end. Choka had been seen a lot in Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), but it was not composed any more when Kokinshu (Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern) was compiled. Choka was mainly composed in public, and was followed by Hanka (envoi).

It consists of five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven syllables. Later the form was divided into two parts (the first part of five, seven and seven syllables, and the latter part of seven and seven syllables), and then Renga (linked verse) and Haikai (17-syllable verse) were generated.

Bussokusekika form
It consists of six lines of five, seven, five, seven, seven and seven syllables.

Imayo (an ancient verse form)
It consists of eight lines of seven, five, seven, five, seven, five, seven and five syllables. It was created in the middle of the Heian period.

Jinku poetry (Dodoitsu)
It consists of four lines of seven, seven, seven and five syllables. It was created in the Edo period. It is often seen in Minyo (folk songs) of all areas in Japan. Hayashikotoba (a meaningless refrain used to maintain the rhythm of a song) is often inserted into it. It is also said that the name of Dodoitsu appeared after the last days of the Tokugawa government.

Rhetoric of Waka

Makura kotoba (pillow word)
Jo kotoba (introductive word)
Kake kotoba (pivot word)
Engo (related word)
Honkatori (adaptation of a famous poem)
Taigendome (noun appearing at the end of Waka)
Tsuiku (couplet)
Kugire (caesura)

Hiko (public recitation of a poem) of Waka

Hiko is to recite Waka to a tune, and there are some schools of reciting such as the AYANOKOJI School and the REIZEI School. Today it is seen at the New Year Imperial Poetry Reading Party, certain events in shrines, etc.

Jodai Kayo (songs and ballads in Jodai)

Before the fixed form of Waka was established, it had been called Jodai Kayo. It is also said that the screams and cheers let out with excitement increasingly grew to be songs sung in groups at festivals and during laborious work. Most of them are considered to have been lost without being written down, but about 300 poems have survived in the books of "Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters)," "Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan)," "Fudoki (notes on local legends and geography)," "Manyoshu," "Kogoshui (commentaries on ancient words and practices)," "Kinkafu (poetry collection)" and "Bussokusekika hi (stele)." There was a group event called Utagaki (dancing and singing feast of young men and women) as one of the customs in those days.

Jodai Kayo came to be an origin of ceremonial songs such as Kagurauta (songs) and Saibara (folk songs), which were accompanied with instruments, and its form and poetic devices became progenitors of the later Waka.

Kiki kayo (ballads found in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki)

Jodai Kayo in "Kojiki" and "Nihon shoki" were especially called Kiki kayo. They are not independent ballads but used to enhance an effect of narrative, and some of them are said to have been creative songs or ceremonial songs made by court people. Poetic devices such as Tsuiku, Kurikaeshi (repetition), Makura kotoba, Jo kotoba, etc., were used for a verse form of basic lines of five and seven syllables, like Katauta, Sedoka, Tanka and Choka.

The other ballads in the same period were of the kind inscribed on the monument of Bussokusekika in Yakushi-ji Temple in Nara and "Kinkafu," which was a book on the Wagon (a Japanese string instrument, also called the Yamatogoto, that consisted of a flat, shallow sound box with six strings, much like a zither), was copied in the middle of the Heian period.


In the process of giving unification to Japan, Chinese poetry was introduced to Japan from the Chinese Continent, and under its influence poems to express individual feelings were energetically composed. Those poems were compiled into "Manyoshu." According to the notes in Manyoshu, there had been some other anthologies before Manyoshu, such as "Kokashu (Collection of Old Poetry)," "KAKINOMOTO no Hitomaro's Collection," "Kasanokanamura Collection," "TAKAHASHI no Mushimaro's Collection of Poetry," "Book of poetry of TANABE no Sakimaro," "Ruiju-karin (Collection of Poetry)," etc., but none of them has survived. It is said that Manyoshu was compiled by many people over a long period of time, but it was OTOMO no Yakamochi who in the end edited and made a 20-volume anthology as it is. Manyoshu contains about 4500 poems, the earliest of which was composed in the reign of Emperor Nintoku, but most of them were being made during the period of less than 100 years from the Asuka period to the middle of the Nara period. Most of the poems have realistic and objective styles, and there are some poems made by people in general, such as Azumauta poetry and Sakimori-no-uta (frontier guards' poems) besides the poems of court nobles.

Kokufu bunka (aristocratic culture)

During the early Heian period, Chinese poetry overwhelmed Waka as a public literature. Zotoka (poems exchanged between a man and a woman) became the leading style of Waka, and the number of Waka composed in the Imperial Court decreased compared with that of the Nara period. However, in the middle of the Heian period the decline of Tang and abolishment of Kentoshi (the embassy to the Tang dynasty) lessened the influence of Chinese culture, and Kokufu bunka was developed. In its process, Waka gradually regained its position as an official culture along with the development of Kana characters (the Japanese syllabaries), and Uta awase (poetry match) came to be held. In the book of "Shinsen Manyoshu (Newly Selected Manyoshu)," Japanese poems were put beside the Chinese poems, which suggested that the Japanese poetry was regaining its status as an official literature. Under such circumstances, "Kokin wakashu (Collection from Ancient and Modern Times)," the first anthology of Japanese poetry compiled by Imperial command, was made and offered to the emperor. Subsequently, Waka became a synonym for Tanka.

Sandai shu (three major collections)

"Kokin wakashu" was compiled by Imperial command of Emperor Daigo in 905; the compilers were KI no Tsurayuki, KI no Tomonori, OSHIKOCHI no Mitsune and MIBU no Tadamine. It contains about 1000 poems in 20 volumes, which were composed after "Manyoshu." Intellectual and ideal styles of poetry are characteristic of this collection. Fifty years later, in the reign of Emperor Murakami, Wakadokoro (Bureau of Poetry) was established, where Nashitsubo no Gonin (Five Men of the Pear Chamber) read the Chinese characters in "Manyoshu," which was already difficult to read at that time, in the Japanese pronunciation, and compiled and dedicated "Gosen wakashu (Later Collection of Japanese Poetry)" to the Emperor. Most of the poems are Zotoka written by court nobles, and there is a tendency toward narrative poems. More 50 years later, around the reign of Emperor Ichijo, "Shui wakashu (Collection of Gleanings)" was compiled and dedicated to the emperor. It followed a tradition of "Kokin wakashu," which had elegant, refined styles.

Hachidai shu (the first eight collections of Waka compiled by imperial command)

During the late Heian period, the Sekkan (regent and chief councilor) government began to decline, and a change occurred in the aristocratic culture. "Go shui wakashu (Later Collection of Gleanings)" was compiled around this time and was dedicated to the Emperor. Compared with the conservative "Go shui wakashu," the following "Kinyo wakashu (A Collection of Golden Leaves)" was innovative and focused on fresh descriptive poems; however, the subsequent "Shika wakashu (A Collection of Verbal Flowers of Japanese Poetry)" marked a return to the conservative style.

After the Genpei War (the final struggle between the Taira and Genji (Minamoto) clans), the Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawain ordered FUJIWARA no Toshinari to compile "Senzai wakashu (Collection of a Thousand Years)." It shows a tendency toward the principle of art for art's sake in the destruction of the aristocracy and the rise of samurai warriors, elevating the status of waka in the late Heian period. The following "Shin kokin wakashu (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry)" was compiled and dedicated to the emperor by Toshinari's disciple.

The middle ages

In the Kamakura period, court nobles who had been deprived of their power came to depend on the traditional culture, so they composed waka energetically. Bearing feelings of rivalry toward Kamakura, the Retired Emperor Go-Tobain who showed much enthusiasm for Waka ordered the compilation of "Shin kokin wakashu." Most of the poems were not based on real experiences but on a fictional world. The principle of art for art's sake, as seen in Senzai wakashu, was further refined, and poetic devices reached their culmination. On the other hand, the following two people were respected: Saigyo, who made poems on love toward nature and his view of life, and MINAMOTO no Sanetomo, who composed poems in the Manyo style.

After the death of FUJIWARA no Sadaie, who had been a central figure in the compilation of "Shin kokin wakashu," his son Tameie became a mentor of the Tanka Composers' Society, but after Tameie passed away, both the Fujiwara family and the Tanka Composers' Society were divided into three schools: the NIJO, KYOGOKU and REIZEI. The three schools struggled to attain leadership, and both the NIJO and KYOGOKU schools compiled collections of poems one after another by imperial command.

Since around the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan), waka came to be composed mainly by monks and samurai, while the composition of waka spread to local samurai, and some of the waka that lapsed into formalism declined.

Early modern times

In the early modern times, traditional studies of waka were compiled into a book, and many kajin poets appeared, but waka had already been perfected as 'kado,' so a new style did not emerge. Compared with haikai, which had been just generated, waka was traditional Japanese culture that had continued since Jodai (ancient times); therefore, its degree of innovation was suppressed.

At the end of the early modern times, a new movement of waka arose in Kyoto, and there appeared the Keien school of jigenin (a court official who has not obtained the imperial ordinance of promotion) derived from the NIJO school of dojo (a family who is allowed to be promoted to court noble). The Keien school had been a leading school in the Tanka Composers' Society until the early Meiji period.

Modern times

Highly educated people of the early Meiji period played important roles in the Tanka Composers' Society, as represented by the Outadokoro School and Keien School, but people who intended waka reform (Shiki MASAOKA, Tekkan YOSANO, and so on) criticized both the style and elegant poetic devices of daiei (poetry composed on a given theme), and thus there emerged a new style of waka suitable for the new era. However, in order to discern the new Waka from the traditional one, these new poems came to be commonly called 'Tanka' (see also Tanka).

Kajin poet

People who compose waka are called kajin poets. They are also called Utabito.

See also the list of kajin poets.

Kasei (great poet) is an honorific title given to a master of Waka. It not only shows respect to the Kajin poet but also indicates those who are treated as gods in Kado, such as KAKINOMOTO no Hitomaro and YAMABE no Akahito.

Collection of poems

Kashu is a book in which Waka are collected.

Chokusen wakashu (Chokusen shu)
The collection was compiled by imperial order.

Shisen wakashu (personal collection of poetry), or Shisen shu
A collection of poems compiled by individuals or nongovernmental circles
Above all, Ogura Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets), compiled by FUJIWARA no Sadaie, is familiar to everyone, and it has had great influence on the Japanese people's appreciation of waka.

Shikashu (personal collection)
A collection of poems written by a single author.

Interpretation of Waka through Western music

Because waka began as accompaniment to a tune, the number of letters (the number of syllables, or mora) is not strictly confined if it is read in a singsong manner. Therefore, as long as it is read in a singsong manner the poem doesn't essentially seem to have 'extra syllables or insufficient syllables,' even if it doesn't consist of lines with five and seven syllables. The idea of 'extra or insufficient syllables' arose from a sense of beauty for a fixed form of verse to write down instead of reciting it.

In the context of Western music, waka has a slow quadruple time that establishes its rhythm in sets of two bars. Five syllables consists of five crotchets and three crotchet rests in one rhythm (two bars), while seven syllables consists of seven crotchets and one crotchet rest in one rhythm, but if the total number of crotchets and crotchet rests is eight in one rhythm (two bars), then it is acceptable (nine syllables includes a triplet part).

A verse form depends on the combination and number of the rhythm. For example, a Tanka is made up of five sets of two bars, giving a total number of ten bars. The Tanka, that 'temporary hermitage, with straw mat on the roof, in autumn rice field.My cloth would be getting wet with rain" is said to be divided into two parts of 'five, seven, six and seven, seven,' having an extra syllable, but if the poem is divided by a set of two bars, 'Akinota (autumn rice field)' is used more.

An example of applying Western-style harmony to tanka and deserting the manner of reciting waka (rhythm) is 'Kimigayo (the Japanese national anthem),' and in this case the rhythm of tanka, as stated above, was abandoned in the adjustment to the Western system of harmony. On the other hand, 'Kojo no tsuki (The Moon Over the Deserted Castle)' is an excellent piece of music that has been applied to Western-style harmony without destroying the waka rhythm of seven and five syllables.

[Original Japanese]