Monday, January 19, 2015

Carpe Diem Ask Jane #8, Is tanka another name for waka or are these two different forms?

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

Not so long ago Gillena emailed a question for Jane and with this episode of "Ask Jane" I present that question by Gillena. By the way Jane has become 78 last Saturday and I have send her our love and congratulations with her birthday.

Waka (literally "Japanese poem") or Yamato uta is a genre of classical Japanese verse and one of the major genres of Japanese literature. The term was coined during the Heian period, and was used to distinguish Japanese-language poetry from kanshi  (poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets), and later from renga.
The term waka originally encompassed a number of differing forms, principally tanka ("short poem") and chōka ("long poem"), but also including bussokusekika, sedōka ("whirling head poem") and katauta ("poem fragment"). These last three forms, however, fell into disuse at the beginning of the Heian period, and chōka vanished soon afterwards. Thus, the term waka came in time to refer only to tanka.
Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki created the term tanka in the early twentieth century for his statement that waka should be renewed and modernized. Until then, poems of this nature had been referred to as waka or simply uta ("song, poem"). Haiku is also a term of his invention, used for his revision of standalone hokku, with the same idea.
Traditionally waka in general has had no concept of rhyme (indeed, certain arrangements of rhymes, even accidental, were considered dire faults in a poem), or even of line. Instead of lines, waka has the unit  and the phrase


Dear Jane,

Is tanka another name for waka or are these two different forms?

Gillena Cox


Dear Gillena,

It is good to see you here in Holland on Carpe Diem! Thanks for the question.
Yes waka and tanka are basically the very same form. In the Japanese passion for giving a thing various names at various times, and since we in English have borrowed the Japanese terms, we are stuck with this problem.

In the very beginning poems in the tanka form were called “uta” or songs and occasionally even this word is still used. I found Akiko Yosano writing in Japan in 1901 did this. Also Jim Wilson, an American in California, in his books of tanka, composes music that can be used to sing or accompany any of his tanka. This is possible because he uses a strict syllable count.

When the Japanese began to compose other song forms (in the 800 CE) they changed the name from uta to waka.  Waka has remained in use up until today when both waka and tanka are employed for the same form. Whenever the court world of Japan refers to the form they use the older world of waka. Most modern Japanese, when speaking of the form and the poems, use the word tanka which translates to “short poem or song or elegance.”  Thus it is possible to hear all three terms used to indicate the same thing. I hope this gives you courage to write down whatever you are feeling in poetry!


Jane Reichhold
PS.: I (your host) will include a waka by Ariwara no Motokata

Within the year
Spring has come again;
The one year:
What should I say: that it's last year,
Or that it's the year to come?

As you can see, Waka follows the same form as Tanka.


I hope you did like this episode of "Ask Jane". Do you have a question for Jane? Than please feel free to email your question to:

I will take care that your question will be brought under the attention of Jane.


  1. Very interesting and thanks to Gillena for bringing up the question!

  2. warbling syllables
    or waka, uta, tanka...
    poe's raven
    trying to sing a sonnet
    ahhh......never morae.......................................opie

  3. Thank you so much, Chevrefeuille --- this is very helpful. And thank you, Gillena!

  4. Dear Chevrefeuille, thank you for being such a wonderful host. I too wish Jane all the very best on her 78th birthday.
    Thanks for the rich and interesting response to my question on wake and tanka

    Much love...