Poetry plays an important part in the culture and history of Japan. Unlike conventional Western poetry relying on meter and rhyme, Japanese poetry relies on a melodic syllable count and ignores rhyme. While we speak of “lines” of poetry, that is actually not what the Japanese count. Rather, they count “morae” (akin to syllables, singular being “mora”) that make up ku (phrases) in the poem. Traditionally, Japanese poetry is also written on one line. Despite this, we in the West refer to each ku as a line and when we print Japanese poetry we tend to break it down into one ku per line, this being a sort of half-way meeting of two totally different poetic traditions.

The length of ku is either five morae or seven. In English, the name “Bandō” (an ancient term for the region where Tōkyō is today) is two syllables (Ban·dō), but in Japanese count, it is four morae (Ba·n·do·u), so counting syllables for writing poetry depends on what language you are working in.

So important is the metric five or seven mora pattern that several times in Japanese literary history famous passages of prose break down into poetic pattern. Consider the opening lines of the Heike Monogatari, a tale which was, after all, written to be chanted to the accompaniment of a biwa

Gion shôja no kane no koe, shogyô mujô no hibiki ari.

The bell of the Gion Temple echoes the impermanence of all things.

Let’s look at this in terms of morae and ku:

Gi·o·n sho·u·ja no — 7 morae
ka·ne no ko·e, — 5 morae
sho·gyo·u mu·jo·u no — 7 morae
hi·bi·ki ari. — 5 mora

It’s practically a poem! (Of course, that was the idea.)

Given the large number of homonyms in Japanese, it should come as no surprise that puns play an important role in a great percentage of Japanese poetry. Also, common references that appear frequently (such as wet or damp sleeves being an indicator of the spending of copious tears) allow for the short poems to say more with fewer words than they normally would were the readings taken literally. The use of several literary devices make poetry more expressive:

  • Makurakotoba (pillow words) are words which, in a shorthand manner, always refer to (and bring to mind) other things, and so may be considered code words. By convention, they were either five or seven syllables so as to take up one line of the poem. For example, “chihayaburu” (= mighty are they) always is a reference to the kami, and “shirotae no” (= of white bark cloth [hemp]) identifies “sleeves.”

  • Utamakura (in English often called “pillow word,” conflating with the device above) are place names. Like makurakotoba, these are also “code words” of a sort. Also like makurakotoba, they were either five or seven syllables long, although it often takes the application of a preposition or genitive marker to make the count work. They were set phrases that either referred to (or otherwise identified) places, emotions, things, seasons, etc. Mentioning Yoshinoyama brought to mind cherry blossoms; Tatsutagawa, the golden leaves of autumn.

  • Kakekotoba (pivot words) are the puns, where one set of sounds holds more than one meaning. For example, akashi is both a place name, and can mean “dawn,” so the phrase “Honobono to / akashi no ura no” can mean, essentially, “Faintly, faintly dawn / breaks Akashi bay.”

Poetry Forms

When one speaks of Japanese poetry, invariably the first thing that comes to mind is of course the haiku. In fact, the haiku, as we know it, was a post-period development of an actual period form. Period Japanese poetry is typified by waka (“Japanese songs”), which consist of the tanka, the chōka, and the sedōka.


The tanka (short song) was — and is — the most prevalent form of poem in Japan. So prevalent, in fact, was it that today when one says “waka” one invariably means “tanka.”  Of the poems in the earliest Japanese poetry anthology, the Man'yōshū, 4,207 of them are tanka.

Their syllable count pattern is 5-7-5-7-7, or as it is sometimes rendered, 5-7-5, 7-7, as the first part and second part often make up thematically separate elements. The first part is called kami-no-ku (“upper poem”) while the 7-7 syllable “stanza” is called the waki. (The haiku’s 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, almost a cliché today, has roots in the kami-no-ku of the tanka.)

Hodo mo naku
kumo to narinuru
kimi nareba
mukashi no yume no
kokochi koso sure.

You are gone,
transformed in an instant
into clouds,
and I feel as though
in a dream of old.

— Anonymous, trans. by Helen Craig McCullough

Agakimi no
owasu tokoro wa
totsukuni ni
hi wa medetaku mo
sode o nuretsutsu.

Though the day is auspicious,
as you, my lady,
are in a foreign land,
I ceaselessly dampen my sleeves
(with my tears).

— A.J. Bryant

In the past decade or so, tanka have experienced and incredible resurgence in popularity in Japan, in large part a renaissance owed to school teacher Tawara Machi whose collection of tanka on common topics like love, dating, movies, and so on (widely poo-pooed by the intelligentsia), called Sarada Kinenbi (”Salad Anniversary”), became an incredible smash bestseller and was issued with two different English language translations.

Waga Kaapu no
pinchi mo
nanika shiawase na
Kibun de miori
kimi ni motarete.

Happy somehow
having you to lean against
I watch my team
my own Hiroshima Carp
blowing the ball game.

— Tawara Machi, trans. by the late Jack Stamm


The chōka (which is also called nagauta or “long song”, but I have not done so here to avoid confusion with the other type of nagauta, which is a song from kabuki) is a poem of undetermined length, alternating 5-7 syllable count, and concluding in a “couplet” with a count of 7-7 syllables. The longest chōka seems to be one from the Man'yōshū, which is 149 lines long.

Sometimes, hanka (literally, “opposing song,” also called kaeshiuta or “returning song”), or envoys, of normal tanka form, were placed inside chōka.

The chōka don’t really seem to have been very popular after the early Heian period. In fact, they were at their peak of popularity when the Man'yōshū was compiled in the late eighth century. There were 265 chôka in the Man'yōshū.


Sedōka (= head-repeating poems) are ancient, and appear most commonly in the Man’yōshu, Kojiki, and Nihon Shoki. It is six lines long, patterned 5-7-7, 5-7-7, and repeats the last three lines of a tanka (which is 5-7-5, 7-7). This was the least common form of poetry, apparently. There are only 62 sedōka in the Man'yōshū. Mercifully, as a poetry form, it is pretty much dead and long-since buried with a stake in its heart and garlic in its mouth. 


Haikai are the forerunner of the modern haiku, and in terms of syllabic structure (a 5-7-5 count) are identical with haiku.

The most famous poet in Japanese history must be Matsuo Bashō, whose vast output of haiku have made him a celebrity around the world. Bashō, and his nineteenth-century journey along The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi), are totally post-period, but his most famous poem of all bears repeating just because of its notoriety and idiosyncrasy:

Furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

An old pond.
A frog jumps in.
The sound of water.

This poem is the subject of the bizarre book, One-hundred Frogs, which is nothing more than a collection of some of the odd ways these three lines have been translated into English. (Some of them are rather out there!)


Renga is linked verse, with alternating poets taking turns with “stanzas” of 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllables. Each two stanzas create a poem, whether of 5-7-5 , 7-7, or of 7-7, 5-7-5. Such linked verse contests became very popular pastimes both in court and in other intellectual circles. This connecting of separate waki and kami-no-ku into an integral poem is called tsukeai, or “joining.”

While renga can be beautiful and sensitive in the original, given their structure and the nature of Japanese grammar, they are nigh unto impossible to translate into English and maintain the proper flow of the original.

Given the difficulty of renga, I typically play a form using the haikai of 5-7-5 syllables, a linking poetry “game” called renku. The last line of one haikai becomes the first line of the next. The following three verses give an example of how this is done.

They show every spring
beauty in their life and death.
Cherry blossoms fall.

Cherry blossoms fall,
and where once we saw deep snow
we now see all pink.

We now see all pink
in the distant western sky.
Twilight at springtime.

 Collections of Japanese poetry

One of the most available collections is the Hyakunin-isshu (”One hundred poems from one hundred poets”), which has been translated many times over the years. It is a compilation of, as the name implies, one hundred poems (and therefore is actually a rather small collection), and they are incredibly famous. This collection was the origin of the card game bearing the same name. In fact, the game may have come first, as the poems are all of ancient provenance and appear in other collections.

Imperial anthologies exist in great number, and several have been translated into English.

  • The oldest of the anthologies is the ancient Man'yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), which is notoriously difficult to read owing to the eccentric written form of Japanese used, and was compiled sometime around the late eighth century.

  • The Kokinshū — more properly the Kokinwakashū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poems) — was the first of twenty-one imperially decreed anthologies, and was completed c. 920 and has 1,111 poems. (Trivia note: the words for Japanese national anthem, “Kimi ga yo” [”Your Majesty’s Reign”] are those of an anonymous tanka in the Kokinwakashū.)

  • The Shinkokinshū (New Kokinshū) is probably the third most famous of its ilk and the longest to its date (1216), with 1,978 poems; some literary historians consider it the best of the twenty-one imperial anthologies.

The table below is a full list of the famous anthologies, their dates, and their compilers.

Japanese poetry anthologies
Ancient collection
Title Date Emperor Compiler(s) Number of poems
(Collection of Ten-thousand Leaves)
completed c.760 Unclear who ordered it Ôtomo no Yakamochi (?)  4,562 
The 21 Imperial Anthologies
Title Date Emperor Compiler(s) Number of poems
(Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry
c.905 – 920 Daigo Ki no Tsurayuki
Ki no Tomonori
Oshikôchi no Mitsune
Mibu no Tadamine
(Later Collection of Poetry)
951 Murakami Ônakatomi no Yoshinobu
Kiyowara no Motosuke
Ki no Tokibumi
Sakanoue no Mochiki
(Collection of Gleanings)
1005 – 1011 Kazan Kazan Tennô
Fujiwara no Kintô
(Later Collection of Gleanings)
1086 Shirakawa Fujiwara no Michitoshi 1,200
(Collection of Golden Leaves)
1127 Shirakawa Minamoto no Shunrai 716
(Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems)
1188 Sutoku Fujiwara no Akisuke 411
(Collection of a Thousand Years)
1188 Go-Shirakawa Fujiwara no Shunzei 1,287
(New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry)
1216 Go-Toba Fujiwara no Teika
Fujiwara no Ietaka
Fujiwara no Ariie
Minamoto no Michitomo
Fujiwara no Masatsune
(New Royally-Ordered Poetry Collection)
1235 Go-Horikawa Fujiwara no Teika 1,374
(Later Collection of Poetry, Continued)
1251 Go-Saga Fujiwara no Tameie 1,368
(Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry, Continued)
1265 Go-Saga Fujiwara no Tamefuji
Fujiwara no Tamesada
(Collection of Gleanings, Continued)
1278 Kameyama Fujiwara no Tameuji 1,461
(New Later Collection of Gleanings)
1303 Go-Uda Kyôgoku no Tameyo 1,606
(Collection of Jeweled Leaves)
1312 – 1313 Fushimi Kyôgoku no Tamekane 2,801
(Collection of a Thousand Years, Continued)
1320 Go-Uda Fujiwara no Tameyo 2,159
(Collection of a Thousand Years, Continued)
1325 Go-Daigo Fujiwara no Tamefuji
Fujiwara no Tamesada
(Later Collection of Gleanings, Continued)
completed c.760 Unclear who ordered it Ôtomo no Yakamochi (?)  4,562 
(Collection of Elegance)
1349 Kôgon Hanazono-In
Kôgon Tennô
(New Collection of a Thousand Years)
1359 Go-Kôgon Fujiwara no Tamesada 2,364
(New Collection of Gleanings)
1364 Go-Kôgon Fujiwara no Tameaki
(New Later Collection of Gleanings)
1383 Go-En’yû Fujiwara no Tametô
Fujiwara no Tameshige
(New Continued Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry)
1439 Go-Hanazono Asuki no Masayo 2,144

Reading these anthologies, or just historical Japanese literature like the Eiga monogatari (A Tale of Flowering Fortunes) or Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), rife as they are with waka, will give the reader considerable exposure to the various motifs and ideas that go into Japanese poetry.

Fun with poetry

Poetry matches were called “uta awase.”  These could be renga competitions, poetry marathons, or even just “best poem” contests. The judge is called a tenja (lit. “point person”).

Renga or linked haikai competitions can be pleasant pastimes. Although these competitions might have a true winner (whoever the referee feels does the best poem), they can just be pleasant ways to pass the time as well. If this is to be a competition, it is best to have a standard set beforehand, such as “all poems must have a spring reference” (as in the example in the linked haikai above).

Themed competitions were popular, and still work well. A group of people can write a poem (tanka or haikai) on a theme supplied beforehand. These are then judged by a referee, and the prize goes to the one who best composed a poem on the theme. Alternately, the referee can supply the 7-7 header, and the competitors have to come up with a suitable 5-7-5 return.

Officially, one would write down his poem/entry on a strip of paper and pass it to the referee or a reader, who would then intone or chant the poem aloud. In classical Japanese, “utau” (the verb which now means “to sing”) was often taken as “to chant,” as in “uta o utau” (modern Japanese, “sing a song” — classical Japanese, “chant a poem.”)

Oriku (= sent phrases) are tanka or haikai with hidden meanings. They might be riddles (similar to the old Anglo-Saxon riddle-rhyme model), acrostics, etc., and are a bit more difficult to write. In a game, a sort of poetic version of the game charades, one is given a topic or subject and then writes the poem, and the others must guess what the poem represents.

Online Resources

  • Tanka page.

  • American tanka. These folks like tanka, but don’t feel that it should be constrained to 5-7-5-7-7. So… it’s not really a tanka then, is it? Personally, I abhore this kind of thing; is it still a sonnet if you write ten lines of rhyme royal instead of fourteen of iambic pentameter? What makes ruled poetry a specific art form — in my mind — is that you can communicate your ideas within the constraints of the defining rules, not that you can totally flout them and still say it’s a tanka.

  • Kokinwakashū essay. A brief essay on the first imperial poetry anthology.

  • Hyakunin-Isshū. Doorway to several sites, including Japnaese texts, and parallel texts with Japanese and English side by side.