Japanese PoetryThis is a featured page

Grave of the Japanese poet, Yosa BusonThe best-known forms of Japanese poetry (outside Japan) are Haiku and Senryu. The classic traditional form is in fact Waka. Much poetry in Japan was written in the Chinese language, so it is more accurate to speak of Japanese-language poetry. For example, in the Tale of Genji both kinds of poetry are frequently mentioned. When Japanese poets first encountered Chinese poetry, it was at its peak in the Tang dynasty and Japanese poets were completely fascinated. It took them several hundred years to digest the foreign impact, make it a part of their culture and merge it with their literary tradition in their mother tongue, and begin to develop the diversity of their native poetry. Waka and Kanshi, Chinese poetry including Japanese works written in (sometimes corrupted) Chinese, were the two greatest pillars of Japanese poetry. From them many other forms, such as Renga, Haiku or Senryu, arose.
A new trend came in the middle of the 19th Century. Since then the major forms of Japanese poetry have been Tanka (new name for Waka), Haiku and Shi.
Nowadays the main forms of Japanese poetry can be divided into experimental poetry and poetry that seeks to revive traditional ways. Poets writing in Tanka, Haiku and Shi move in separate planes and seldom write poetry other than in their specific chosen form, although some active poets are eager to collaborate with poets in other genres.
Important collections are the Man'yoshi, Kokin-Wakashu and Shin-kokin-Wakashu.


Ancient

Poems in Kojiki and Nihonshoki

The oldest written work in Japanese literature is Kojiki in the 8th century, in which Ota Yasumaro recorded Japanese mythology and history as recited by Hieda no Are, to whom it was handed down by his ancestors. Many of the poetic pieces recorded by the Kojiki were perhaps transmitted from the time the Japanese had no writing. The Nihonshoki, the oldest history of Japan which was finished two years later than the Kojiki, also contains many poetic pieces. These were mostly not long and had no fixed forms. The first poem documented in both books was attributed to a Kami (god), named Susaono, the younger brother of Amaterasu. When he married Princess Kushinada in Izumo province, the Kami made an Uta, or Waka, a poem.Yakumo tatsu / Izumo yagegaki / Tsuma-gomini / Yaegaki tsukuro / Sono yaegaki wo This is the oldest Waka (poem written in Japanese) and hence poetry was later praised as having been founded by a Kami, a divine creation.
The two books shared many of the same or similar pieces but Nihonshoki contained newer ones because it recorded later affairs (up till the reign of Emperor Temmu) than Kojiki. Themes of Waka in the books were diverse, covering love, sorrow, satire, war cries, praise of victory, riddles and so on. Most of these works are considered collectively as 'works of the people', even where attributed to someone, such as the Kami Susaono. Many works in Kojiki were anonymous. Some were attributed to Kami, emperors and empresses, nobles, generals, commoners and sometimes enemies of the court.


Early Man'yoshi Poets (Vol. I-III)

The oldest poetic anthology of Waka is the 20 volume Man'yoshi. Probably finished in the early part of the Heian period, it gathered ancient works. The order of its sections is roughly chronological. Most of the works in the Manyoshu have a fixed form today called choka and Tanka. But earlier works, especially in Volume I, lacked such fixed form and were attributed to Emperor Yuryaku.
The Manyoshu begins with a Waka without fixed form. It is both a love song for an unknown girl whom the poet met by chance and a ritual song praising the beauty of the land. It is worthy of being attributed to an emperor and today is used in court ritual.
The first three sections contain mostly the works of poets from the middle of the 7th century to the early part of the 8th century. Significant poets among them were Nukata no Okimi and Kakinomoto Hitomaro. Kakinomoto Hitomaro was not only the greatest poet in those early days and one of the most significant in the Manyoshu, he rightly has a place as one of the most outstanding poets in Japanese literature.


Chinese influences

Literature was introduced into Japan in the 7th Century. It took almost a half century before it began to influence Japanese literature. In the court of Emperor Temmu some nobles made attempts to recite Chinese poetry. Chinese literacy was a sign of education and most high courtiers wrote poetry in Chinese. Later these works were collected in the Kaifuso, one of the earliest anthologies of poetry in Japan, edited in the early Heian period. Thanks to this book the death poem of Prince Otsu is still extant today.


Nara Period Poets

In 710 the Japanese capital moved from Fujiwara (today's Asuka, Nara) to Nara and the Nara period (710-794) began. It was the period when Chinese influence reached its culmination. Todai-ji was established and the Great Buddha was created under the order of Emperor Shomu. The significant Waka poets in this period were Otomo no Tabito, Yamanoue no Okura, and Yamabe no Akahito. The Manyoshu included also many female poets who mainly wrote love poems. The poets of the Manyoshu were aristocrats who were born in Nara but sometimes lived or traveled in other provinces as bureaucrats of the emperor. These poets wrote down their impressions of travel and expressed their emotion for lovers or children. Sometimes their poems criticized the political failure of the government or tyranny of local officials. Yamanoue no Okura wrote a choka, A Dialogue of two Poormen (貧窮問答歌, Hinkyū mondōka); in this poem two poor men lamented their severe lives of poverty. One hanka is as follows:世の中を憂しとやさしとおもへども飛び立ちかねつ鳥にしあらねば Yononaka wo / Ushi to yasashi to / Omoe domo / Tobitachi Kanetsu / Tori Ni Shi Arane Ba; I feel the life is / sorrowful and unbearable / though / I can't flee away / since I am not a bird. The Manyoshu contains not only poems of aristocrats but also those of nameless ordinary people. These poems are called Yomibito shirazu, poems whose author is unknown. Among them there is a specific style of Waka called Azuma-uta, Waka written in the Eastern dialect. Azuka, meaning the East, designated the eastern provinces roughly corresponding to Kanto and occasionally Tohoku. Those poems were filled with rural flavors. There was a specific style among Azuma-uta, called Sakimori uta, soldiers' Waka. They were mainly Waka by drafted soldiers at leaving home. These soldiers were drafted in the eastern provinces and were forced to work as guards in Kyushu for several years. Sometimes their poetry expressed nostalgia for their far homeland.


Waka in the Early Heian Period

It is thought the Man'yoshi reached its final form, the one we know today, very early in the Heian period. There are strong grounds for believing that Otomo no Yakamochi was the final editor but some documents claim further editing was done in the later period by other poets including Sugawara no Michizane.
Though there was a strong inclination towards Chinese poetry, some eminent Waka poets were active in the early Heian period, including the six best Waka poets.


The Culmination of Kanshi

Sugawara no Michizane is reverred as the God of learning, as seen on this ema at a Shinto Shrine In the early Heian period Chinese poetry or Kanshi (漢詩, Chinese poetry) was most the popular style of poetry among Japanese aristocrats. Some poets like Kukai studied in China and were fluent in Chinese. Other poets like Sugawara no Michizane had grown up in Japan but understood Chinese well. When they hosted foreign diplomats, they communicated not orally but in writing, using Kanji or Chinese characters. In that period, Chinese poetry in China had reached one of its culminations. Great Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Po (李白) were their contemporaries. These Chinese poets' works were known very well. Some people who went to China for study or diplomacy made the acquaintance of these major poets. The most popular styles of Kanshi were in 5 or 7 syllables in 4 or 8 lines. The rules of rhyme were very strict. Japanese poets became skilled in those rules and wrote many good poems. Sometimes they made long poems with lines of 5 or 7 syllables. These, when chanted, were referred to as Shigin (詩吟) - a practice which continues today.
Emperor Saga himself was good at Kanshi. He ordered the compilation of three anthologies of Kanshi. These were the first of the imperial anthologies, a tradition which continued till the Muromachi period.


Kokinshu

In the middle of the Heian period Waka revived with the compilation of the Kokin-Wakashu (古今(和歌)集 Kokin (Waka)shū, "collection of ancient and modern poems"). It was edited on the order of Emperor Daigo. About 1,000 Waka, mainly from the late Nara period till the contemporary times, were anthologized by five Waka poets in the court including Kino Tsurayaki who wrote the "Preface in Kana" (Kanajo).
The Kana preface to Kokinshu was the second earliest expression of literary theory and criticism in Japan (the earliest was by Kukai). Kukai's literary theory was not influential, but Kokinshu set the types of Waka and hence other genres which would develop from Waka.
The collection is divided into twenty parts, reflecting older models such as the Man'yoshi and various Chinese anthologies. The organisation of topics is however different from all earlier models, and was followed by all later official collections, although some collections like the \Kin'yoshu and Shikashu reduced the number of parts to ten. The parts of the Kokinshū are ordered as follows: Parts 1-6 covered the four seasons, followed by congratulatory poems, poetry at partings, and travel poems. The last ten sections included poetry on the 'Names Of Things', love, laments, occasional poems, miscellaneous verse, and finally traditional and ceremonial poems from the Bureau of Poetry.
The compilers included the name of the author of each poem, and the topic (題 Dai) or inspiration of the poem, if known. Major poets of the Kokinshū include Ariwara Narihira, Ono no Komachi, Henjo and Fujiwara no Okikaze, apart from the compilers themselves. Inclusion in any imperial collection, and particularly the Kokinshū, was a great honor.


Influence of Kokin-Wakashu

The Kokinshū is the first of the Nijuichidaishu (二十一大集), the twenty one collections of Japanese poetry compiled at Imperial request. It was the most influential realization of the ideas of poetry at the time, dictating the form and format of Japanese poetry until the late nineteenth century. The primacy of poems about the seasons pioneered by the Kokinshū continues even today in the Haiku tradition. The Japanese preface by Ki no Tsurayuki is also the beginning of Japanese criticism as distinct from the far more prevalent Chinese poetics in the literary circles of its day. (The anthology also included a traditional Chinese preface authored by Ki no Tomonori.) The idea of including old as well as new poems was another important innovation, one which was widely adopted in later works, both in prose and verse. The poems of the Kokinshū were ordered temporally; the love poems, for instance, depict the progression and fluctuations of a courtly love-affair. This association of one poem to the next marks this anthology as the ancestor of the Renga and Haikai traditions.


Imperial Anthologies of Waka

After Shinkokinshu ordered and edited by Emperor Go-Toba, eight Waka anthologies were compiled under imperial edict. These anthologies reflected the taste of aristocrats and were considered the ideal of Waka in each period.


Important Poets (Pre-Modern)

  • Kakinomoto no Hitomaro: He was the most prominent of the Man'yoshi poets.
  • Ariwara no Narihira: He was one of six Waka poets referred in the preface in kana.
  • Ono no Komachi: She was noted as a rare beauty
  • Saigyo: He was a famous Japanese poet.
  • Fujiwara no Teika: He was a Japanese Waka poet, critic, calligrapher, novelist, anthologist, scribe, and scholar.
  • Basho Matsuo: He was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan..
  • Yosa no Buson: He was a Japanese poet and painter of the Edo period.
  • Kobayashi Issa: He was a Japanese writer of haikai known for his hokku verses.


Important Poets (Modern)

  • Yosano Akiko: She was a Japanese author and poet.
  • Masaoka Shiki: He was a Japanese author, poet, critic, and journalist.
  • Santoka: He was a Japanese author and Haiku poet.
  • Takamura Kotaro: He was a Japanese poet and sculptor.
  • Ishikawa Takuboku: He was well known as both a Tanka (genre of Japanese poetry) and a modern style or free style poet.
  • Hagiwara Sakutaro: He was a Japanese author.
  • Kenji Miyazawa: He was a Japanese poet and author of children's literature.
  • Yonejiro Noguchi: He was an influential writer of poetry, fiction, essays, and literary criticism.
  • Tanikawa Shuntaro.
  • Masato Tomobe: He is a Japanese singer and poet.



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