Japanese Poetry Forms: Haiku, Senryu, Haiga and Tanka
The Chinese contribution in the development of Japanese script and literature is immense. Even though the history of Japanese literature goes beyond 7th century AD, much of the Japanese literature took inspiration from Chinese literature during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China.
Kojiki (712) and Nihonshoki (720) are the earliest records of Japanese literature. Kojiki and Nihonshoki are the books of Japanese mythology, history and poems. Mythology and history in these books were recorded from the oral tradition by Hieda no Are and credited to Yasumaro. The poems in these books are said to be composed by Japanese God Susanoo.
In the beginning, Japanese poets used Chinese language to express their emotions, observations and insights. After the hundred years of writing in foreign language and form, Japanese poets developed a native style, which became integral to Japanese culture.
History of Japanese Poetry
The classical Japanese poetry is referred as waka. Man’yoshu, dating back to the middle of 7th century, is the oldest book of Japanese poetry. Man’yoshu contains 20 volumes of waka. The authors of most of these poems are unknown, but they ranged from aristocrats to the general public, women as well as eminent poets of the time such as Nukata no Okimi and Kakinomoto Hitomaro.
During the period of Chinese influence, Chinese poets recited poems in the courts of the Japanese royals and the aristocrats. Japanese poets even went to China to study poetry. Poetry tradition was so much ingrained in Japanese culture that waka (poetry) was used to write letters and community.
During the Heian period (794 and 1185), Japanese royals and aristocrats organized waka recitation contest. Notable works in this period is Wakan Roeishu, which was compiled by Fujiwara no Kinto, Tale of Genji by Poetess Murasaki Shikibu, and The Pillow Book, whose author is unknown.
In the 12th century, new poetry forms Imayo and Renga developed. Recitation of Imayo was accompanied with music and dance, and Renga was written in a communication form between two person.
Haikai (also called Renku) developed during the Edo period (1602–1869). Matsuo Basho was the great haikai poet of this era. He also developed haibun, a poetry style that combined haiku with prose. During Edo period, poets collaborated with painters and blended poetry with paintings, which gave birth to new visual poetry form called haiga. Notable amongst poet-painters is Yosa Buson. He wrote haiku poems in his paintings. Senryu, a satirical poem in haikai form, developed in the late Edo period.
By the 19th century, major Japanese poetry forms were already developed. With the Western influence, freeform poetry style developed in Japan. This poetry style was called Jiyu-shi, literally freestyle poetry, or Shintai-shi, new form poetry. Shi is the Japanese word for Chinese poetry, but today it is used for modern Japanese poetry style.
Japan was heavily influenced by Chinese poetry, Japanese poets composed poems in Chinese language. The Japanese poems following the classical Chinese poetry are called kanshi. Classical Japanese poets also wrote poetry in Japanese language. All the poems written in Japanese language were referred as waka. Waka is a Japanese word for poetry. The Kokin-shu (905) Man’yoshu (7th century) are two books of Japanese poetry that contain waka in different patterns.
Man’yoshu, which as 20 volumes, contain waka of different forms such as tanka (short poem), choka (long poem), bussokusekika (Buddha footprint poem), sedoka (repeating-the-first-part poem) and katauta (half poem). By the time Kokin-shu was compiled, most of these poetry forms, except tanka, had vanished. Therefore, waka was used to refer tanka poetry. Tanka also gave birth to renga and haiku. Choka and sedoka are early poetry forms whereas renga, haikai, and haiku are later poetry forms.
Waka: The Classical Japanese Poetry Forms
Buddha Footprint Poem
When renga is composed in humorous and comic themes, it is called haikai. Haikai is referred as mushin renga or comic renga. Haikai poetry, sometimes also called hokku, is composed in three lines with nature and season as the dominant theme. Hokku or haikai poetry form gained prominence in the 17th century. Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) was one of the early poets to perfect the art of hokku/haikai poetry.
Renga is a linked-verse Japanese poetry from composed in tanka pattern. Renga was originally composed by two or more poets. Renga developed when poets tried to communicate through poetry. The first three lines of renga, in 5-7-5 syllables format, were composed by a poet and the remaining 7-7 syllables were composed by another. In ancient Japan, composing renga was a favorite pastime affairs of poets, aristocrats, even general public. The earliest record of renga poems is found in Kin'yo-shu, an anthology of poems compiled in about 1125.
In the beginning, renga were based on light topic, however, by 15th century, there was a distinction drawn between ushin renga (serious renga) and mushin renga (comic renga).
Renga poetry contains at least 100 verses. The first stanza (the first three lines), of renga is called hokku. Hokku of a renga later developed into haiku poetry.
When the Japanese poets composed haiku and senryu, they used words in terms of sound effect. This was not possible when these Japanese poetry forms were adapted in other languages. The 5-7-5 pattern called kana (17 kana in total) in Japanese language was translated as 17 syllables in 5-7-5 format. Haiku were/are also written in 3-5-7, 3-5-3 and 5-8-5 pattern.
Today haiku are mostly written in three lines, in 17 or less syllables.
Haiku is not a sentence in three fragments.
The best haiku are open ended.
Haiku is about nature and season as experienced or observed by the poet.
Haiku uses minimal punctuation.
Metaphors, similes and other poetry elements are unnecessary in haiku.
Haiku does not tell but shows the emotions as experienced by the poet.
Haiku present specific moments rather than extensive picture.
Haiku, senryu, haiga and tanka are used in both, singular as well as plural form.
The word haiku combines two different words haikai and hokku. Haikai is a linked-verse Japanese poem in renga poetry style and hokku is the name given to the first stanza of renga poetry. Haikai, a type of renga poetry, consists of at least 100 verses in 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. Haiku poetry form developed from hokku of haikai and became an independent poetry form in the 17th century; however, the word haiku was not used until 19th century. Haiku was named by Japanese poet Masaoka Shik.
Haiku is non-rhyming Japanese poetry form. It is composed in three lines, in 5-7-5 format, 17 syllables in total. Haiku is about nature and plays with the imagery, metaphors and emotions of seasons.
Japanese characters were developed from Chinese and Korean alphabets, which are basically pictograms. The style of haiku was perfectly compatible with the language because a single character could say many things. However, in other language such as English, an alphabet is just a letter that cannot evoke feelings and emotions, or even sensible meaning. Therefore, when haiku entered into English and other languages, there were few modifications. The three lines form was maintained in haiku, but the strictness of 17 syllables could not always be retained.
The modern haiku does not strictly follow 17 syllables in 5-7-5 format. Some haiku poets follow 5-3-5 format, whereas some do not even follow the uniform pattern of syllables. The most common haiku format is unrhymed three lines poetry.
Haiku poetry form was incorporated in the Western languages in the 19th century. Imagists popularized English haiku poetry in the early 20th century.
In the 18th century, Karai Senryu (1718-1790) composed short non-rhyming poems, about human foibles and ironies, in 5-7-5 form. His poems were called Senryu. Later, all the poems that followed the tradition of Karai Senryu were called senryu. Karai Senryu is the pen name of Karai Hachiemon.
Senryu – a Japanese poetry form composed in 17 syllables, in 5-7-5 format – is similar to haiku. Like haiku, there have been some modifications in senryu pattern, in modern times. The basic difference between haiku and senryu is, haiku is written about season and nature, whereas senryu is about the ironies of life. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate senryu with haiku because senryu can also be a commentary on nature or season. To differentiate a senryu with haiku you have to consider the tone. Thematic treatment in haiku is serious whereas senryu are humorous or cynical.
Normally, senryu presents setting, subject and action. It is a commentary on human nature in satirical or humorous tone.
Haiga (hai=poem/haiku; ga=painting) is a visual poetry form, which originated in China in the 7th century, and was perfected in Japan the 17th century. Painting, poetry and calligraphy were called ‘Three Perfections’ in ancient China. The Three Perfections was first practiced during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Three Perfections of Tang Dynasty heavily influenced Japanese art and literature.
Calligraphy, the art of handwriting, was highly regarded in ancient China. Artists wrote deep and profound lines, in beautiful script, over the painting. Japanese artists emulated the tradition of writing beautiful lines over a painting. Painting and poetry became complimentary art forms. Poets with painting ability, or the painters who were poets, created visual poetry.
During the Edo period (1602–1869) haiku and senryu were combined with painting and calligraphy. Thus, a new visual poetry form was born, it was called Haiga. Haiga is a haiku/senryu poem written over a painting or photograph.
Haiga is a poetry blended with picture that tells about profound observation of life, living and the world. Thematically the poetry in the haiga is similar to the picture. Haiga was initially painted over wooden blocks, stones, cloths, and paper and used as room decoration. Haiga is highly regarded in Zen Buddhism. Creating haiga is thought to be a type of Buddhist meditation.
Modern haiga poet/artist combines haiku/senryu with digital pictures. The modern haiga normally presents a haiku or senryu written on painting or photograph.
Given a choice between different Japanese poetry forms, what do you choose?
In the beginning, when Japanese poetry forms were not developed, waka was used to denote all kinds of poem. Waka literally means classical Japanese poetry. Man’yoshu, which dates back to the middle of 7th century, is the oldest book of Japanese poetry. Man’yoshu contains long and short poems. Man’yoshu categorizes short poems as waka and long poems as choka. The word waka was later replaced with tanka. Tanka is the modern name for waka. It is one of the oldest Japanese poetry styles.
Tanka is non-rhyming Japanese poetry form composed in five lines, in 5-7-5-7-7 format, 31 syllables in total. It consists of two elements. The first three lines (5-7-5) is called kami-no-ku (literally upper phrase) and the last two lines (7-7) is called shimo-no-ku (literally lower phrase).
In the ninth and tenth centuries, short poems dominated Japanese poetry styles. Kokinshu is one of the earliest collections of tanka. However, tanka poetry form was almost lost for one thousand years. Japanese poet, essayist, and critic Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) is credited for the revival of tanka poetry, and the invention of haiku from hokku (haikai). Masaoka lived during the reign of Japanese emperor Meiji Tenno (1852-1912). Meiji is credited for the development of modern Japan. Masaoka tried to do the same thing in Japanese poetry.
Kokin-shu, an anthology of poetry, was compiled by a court noble Ki Tsurayuki in 905. Kokin-shu styles of poetry ruled Japan for about one thousand years. However, Masaoka praised the poetry styles in Man’yoshu (7th century) and degraded Kokin-shu. Man’yoshu contains long and short poetry forms. Tanka is a short poetry form in Man’yoshu.
The modern tanka poetry form was revived in the late 1980s by Japanese poetess Tawara Machi.
Questions & Answers
Is haiga considered literature or fine art?
Hagia originated when the artists began writing haiku over their paintings. The artists experimented with typography. The basic intention of writing haiku was to showcase calligraphy that also explained the painting. Thus, haiga became an art form. In the modern time, when people began creating haiga on photographs, it lost the meaning of art, and it became more of literary form.Helpful 12
What is the most used form of Japanese poetry?
Haiku is the most used form of Japanese poetry.Helpful 11
© 2013 Vinaya Ghimire