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What is Waka?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 August 2016
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Waka translates simply to "Japanese poem," but for most of us with a passing acquaintance with Japanese poetry, we’re more likely to think of haiku as the true poetry of Japan. While it is true haiku was the predominant form of Japanese culture, and certainly most recognized by non-Japanese, waka inspired it. It was an art form, first begun in the 8th century CE, which continued in popularity through the modern era.

Like haiku, waka depends upon syllabic structure for each verse line. The two main types that remained popular are Choka and Renga. In Choka, the waka poem begins with two lines of five and seven syllables. It ends with three more lines that are 5-7-7.

The Tanka form of waka completely inspired the syllabic form of haiku. The first three lines are 5-7-5, and the poem ends with two 7-7 lines. By merely cutting off the ending lines, we arrive at haiku.

Waka was often written by two writers and in a question and comment or answer format. In fact within the nobility, the ability to make up waka beginnings and endings extemporaneously was a highly prized skill.

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One famous writer in the early waka period was Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the majority of her work at the end of the 10th century. Her novel or collection of short stories about Prince Genji, features numerous waka examples. Independently of her story, Lady Murasaki wrote or extemporaneously composed numerous waka. The following is one of her pieces, and note that translation into English doesn’t exhibit the appropriate syllabic form exhibited in the original:

    yo no naka wo
    nani nagekamasi
    yamazakura
    Fana mira fodo no
    Kokoro nariseba

An English translation is the following:

    My place in the world
    Why should it bring me grief?
    Mountain cherry
    Blossom in my sight
    Were it ever so

It’s sometimes difficult to read waka without understanding the writer and the circumstances under which it was written. This is also complicated by the fact that many waka represent the work of two writers. Yet even in English translation, waka remains beautiful and mysterious, often evoking deep feelings in the reader.

For western poets, waka can be a style easily learned but hardly ever mastered. New anthologies of Japanese poetry can prove inspiring. Waka can also be a fun poetic form to teach children, who may enjoy the cooperative effort produced if two writers take on a question and answer format. It is certainly a productive and enjoyable way to teach introduction to Japanese poetry or simply to poetry, which at the same time emphasizes teamwork and cooperation in creative endeavors.

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