Originally, in the time of the Man'yōshū (latter half of the eighth century AD), the term tanka was used to distinguish "short poems" from the longer chōka (長歌, "long poems"). In the ninth and tenth centuries, however, notably with the compilation of the Kokinshū, the short poem became the dominant form of poetry in Japan, and the originally general word waka became the standard name for this form. Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki revived the term tanka in the early twentieth century for his statement that waka should be renewed and modernized. Haiku is also a term of his invention, used for his revision of standalone hokku, with the same idea.
Tanka consist of five units (often treated as separate lines when romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern of on (often treated as, roughly, the number of syllables per unit or line):
The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (上の句, "upper phrase"), and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (下の句, "lower phrase").
During the Kojiki and Nihonshoki periods the tanka retained a well defined form, but the history of the mutations of the tanka itself forms an important chapter in haiku history, until the modern revival of tanka began with several poets who began to publish literary magazines, gathering their friends and disciples as contributors.
Yosano Tekkan and the poets that were associated with his Myōjō magazine were one example, but that magazine was fairly short-lived (Feb. 1900 – Nov. 1908). A young high school student, Otori You (later known as Akiko Yosano), and Ishikawa Takuboku contributed to Myōjō. In 1980 the New York Times published a representative work:
東海の Tōkai no
On the white sand
In the Meiji period (1868–1912), Shiki claimed the situation with waka should be rectified, and waka should be modernized in the same way as other things in the country. He praised the style of Man'yōshū as manly, as opposed to the style of Kokin Wakashū, the model for waka for a thousand years, which he denigrated and called feminine. He praised Minamoto no Sanetomo, the third shōgun of the Kamakura shogunate, who was a disciple of Fujiwara no Teika and composed waka in a style much like that in the Man'yōshū.
Following Shiki's death, in the Taishō period (1912–26), Mokichi Saitō and his friends began publishing a magazine, Araragi, which praised the Man'yōshū. Using their magazine they spread their influence throughout the country. Their modernization aside, in the court the old traditions still prevailed. The court continues to hold many utakai (waka reading parties) both officially and privately. The utakai that the Emperor holds on the first of the year is called Utakai Hajime and it is an important event for waka poets; the Emperor himself releases a single tanka for the public's perusal.
After World War II, waka began to be considered out-of-date, but since the late 1980s it has revived under the example of contemporary poets, such as Tawara Machi. With her 1987 bestselling collection Salad Anniversary, the poet has been credited with revitalizing the tanka for modern audiences.
Today there are many circles of tanka poets. Many newspapers have a weekly tanka column, and there are many professional and amateur tanka poets; Makoto Ōoka's poetry column was published seven days a week for more than 20 years on the front page of Asahi Shimbun. As a parting gesture, outgoing PM Jun'ichirō Koizumi wrote a tanka to thank his supporters.
In ancient times, it was a custom between two writers to exchange waka instead of letters in prose. In particular, it was common between lovers. Reflecting this custom, five of the twenty volumes of the Kokin Wakashū gathered waka for love. In the Heian period the lovers would exchange waka in the morning when lovers met at the woman's home. The exchanged waka were called Kinuginu (後朝), because it was thought the man wanted to stay with his lover and when the sun rose he had almost no time to put on his clothes on which he had lain instead of a mattress (it being the custom in those days). Works of this period, The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji provide us with such examples in the life of aristocrats. Murasaki Shikibu uses 795 waka in her The Tale of Genji as waka her characters made in the story. Some of these are her own, although most are taken from existing sources. Shortly, making and reciting waka became a part of aristocratic culture. They recited a part of appropriate waka freely to imply something on an occasion.
Much like with tea, there were a number of rituals and events surrounding the composition, presentation, and judgment of waka. There were two types of waka party that produced occasional poetry: Utakai and Uta-awase. Utakai was a party in which all participants wrote a waka and recited them. Utakai derived from Shikai, Kanshi party and was held in occasion people gathered like seasonal party for the New Year, some celebrations for a newborn baby, a birthday, or a newly built house. Utaawase was a contest in two teams. Themes were determined and a chosen poet from each team wrote a waka for a given theme. The judge appointed a winner for each theme and gave points to the winning team. The team which received the largest sum was the winner. The first recorded Utaawase was held in around 885. At first, Utaawase was playful and mere entertainment, but as the poetic tradition deepened and grew, it turned into a serious aesthetic contest, with considerably more formality.
- Ochiai Naobumi (1861-1903)
- Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902)
- Yosano Akiko (1878–1942)
- Ishikawa Takuboku (1886–1912)
- Saitō Mokichi (1882–1953)
- Itō Sachio (1864–1913)
- Kitahara Hakushū (1885–1942)
- Nagatsuka Takashi (1879–1915)
- Okamoto Kanoko (1889–1939)
- Wakayama Bokusui (1885–1928)
- Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953) under the pseudonym Shaku Choku
- Jun Fujita (1888-1963)
- Terayama Shuji (1935–1983)
- Tawara Machi (born 1962)
- Yukio Mishima (1925–1970)
- Akiko Baba
- Fumiko Nakajō
- Saitō Fumi [ 斎藤文 ]
- Nakajima Utako (1844–1903)
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- Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. 100 Poems by 100 Poets. Trans. Clay Maccauley. Appendix
- Baba, Akiko. Heavenly Maiden Tanka. Trans. Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. Gualala CA:AHA Books, 1999
- Nakajō, Fumiko. Breasts of Snow. Trans. Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. Tokyo:The Japan Times Press, 2004
- Saito, Fumi. White Letter Poems. Trans. Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. Gualala CA: AHA Books, 1998