Waka, which basically means “Japanese poetry” in English, is a type of classical Japanese literature that, as implied, comes in the form of poems. Another, more updated, interpretation of the term “waka” uses it as a reference to poems that follow a 5-7-5-7-7 meter – a sequence many now know to be that of tanka poems.
Brief History of Waka Poetry
During the eighth century, the Japanese community used waka to refer to different kinds of poetry that could be categorized to fall under the following genres:
Choka – refers to long poems
Sedoka – refers to poems that feature repetition
Tanka – refers to short poems
Bussokusekika – refers to poems of the Buddha footprint
Aside from choka and tanka, the other forms of waka ultimately became extinct sometime during the compilation of the Kokinshu Wakashu, one of the earliest anthologies of waka poetry. Soon after, choka poetry also significantly decreased in importance and popularity.
As such, waka eventually became a synonym for tanka, up until the nineteenth century when tanka poetry was again revived by several Japanese poets.
About Fujiwara no Shunzei and His Poems
Among the most popular Japanese poets who excelled in waka poetry was Fujiwara no Shunzei. He was the son of Fujiwara no Toshitada and went by the names Fujiwara no Shakua, Fujiwara no Toshinari, and Fujiwara no Akihiro.
Given that he was born to a clan which consisted of various literary and poetry enthusiasts, it came to no surprise that Fujiwara no Shunzei would start writing and composing at an early age, himself. His style followed a relatively old fashion similar to that of Chinese poetry from the T’ang Dynasty.
Among his many achievements, he was best known for having compiled the Senzai Wakashu, which served as the seventh anthology of Japanese waka poetry. Most of Fujiwara no Shunzei’s poetry carried an obvious sense of emotion and sensitivity, while simultaneously maintaining a disciplined form of writing.
By the age of 63, Fujiwara no Shunzei left the worldly life and chose to follow Buddhist ways. Fujiwara no Teika, his son, is often described to have succeeded his father in terms of success in Japanese court politics and poetic prominence.
Other Notable Waka Poets
Yamabe no Akahito
Yamabe no Akahito was among the highly respected poets of the Nara Period. Some of his greatest poetic achievements can be found in the Man’yoshu, which literally translates to mean “ the Ten Thousand Leaves Collection”. In this ancient anthology, a total of fifty literary pieces by Yamabe no Akahito is included, which varies from long and short poems.
According to records, most of Yamabe no Akahito’s poems were created during his time with Emperor Shomu, i.e. from 724 to 736. Given his accomplishments as a poet, Yamabe no Akahito is regarded to be among the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals of Japan.
Henjo, or also known as Soji Henjo, was one of the sons of Yoshimine no Yasuyo, who was the son of Emperor Kanmu. During the earlier years of Henjo’s career, he served as a type of chamberlain to Emperor Ninmyo. After the death of the emperor during the year 850, Henjo decided to become a monk to cope with his grief.
He served as a priest and founded the Gangyoji Temple of Yamashina, while also maintaining his responsibilities in court politics. It is rumored that Henjo had a relationship with Ono no Komachi, one of Japan’s greatest female poets, but is unclear whether or not his own career as a poet started before or after the love affair.
Nonetheless, Henjo is regarded to be among the six best Japanese waka poets and is also included in the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals of Japan.
Fun’ya no Yasuhide
Fun’ya no Yasuhide was a popular poet during the early years of the Heian Period. A lot of historians and literary experts describe Fun’ya no Yasuhide’s work to be interesting works of art which skillfully make use of words that do not necessarily have anything to do with the content, creating a pleasant contrast of ideas.
Some of his most notable poems can be found in the Goshui Wakashu and the Kokinshu. Interestingly, Fun’ya no Yasuhide is also believed to have had a relationship with Ono no Komachi.
Ono no Komachi
Ono no Komachi, is among the six best Japanese waka poets of the Heian Period – the Rokkasen – and the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals of Japan. Aside from her melancholic poetry, Ono no Komachi was also known for her unusual beauty, so much so that the term “komachi” is now used as a synonym for beauty in the Japanese language.
Not a lot of facts are known regarding the life of Ono no Komachi. Most of her poems tackle topics such as passionate love, solitude, and anxiety, making her one of Japan’s greatest erotic poets, according to various experts.
Izumi Shikibu stands as one of Japan’s most popular female poets and has a legacy of more than 240 poems to her name. Her works carry a great sense of passion and have led to her being included in the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals of Japan.
Aside from her poetic achievements, Izumi Shikibu is also known for her rather busy love life, which supposedly consisted of several marriages and affairs, some of which involved those from the Imperial Court. Some of her thoughts and experiences can be read in her diary, Izumi Shikibu Nikki, which she wrote during her time with Prince Atsumichi.
Her undeniably passionate and love-filled life earned Izumi Shikibu the nickname of ukareme, or “The Floating Lady”.
Ki no Tsurayuki
Ki no Tsurayuki was a poet, courtier, and author during the Heian Period. Among his many ambitions, he was best known for compiling the Kokin Wakashu, which roughly translates to mean “The Ancient and Modern Times’ Collection of Japanese Poems”, alongside three other poets selected by Emperor Daigo.
It is also believed that he served as the author behind Tosa Nikki, or Tosa Diary, which was published anonymously during the tenth century.
Ki no Tsurayuki’s waka poetry can also be found in the Hyakunin Isshu, which is among Japan’s most important poetic anthologies and was compiled during the thirteenth century by Fujiwara no Teika, another notable Japanese poet.
Fujiwara no Teika
Fujiwara no Teika, who also went by the name Fujiwara Sadaie, played different roles throughout his life including being a poet, calligrapher, anthologist, scribe, scholar, critic, and novelist. He is considered to be among the most influential figures of Japanese history and is regarded to be one of the greatest waka poets, if not the greatest.
His ideas on poetry were so well-respected that they were studied up until the Meiji Period. He was born to Fujiwara no Shunzei and eventually got the attention of Emperor Gotoba, which led to the development of his distinguished career.
Initially, the relationship of Fujiwara no Teika and Emperor Gotoba held a promising future, with the commissioning of several anthologies. Unfortunately, various differences between the two in terms of poetic sequences, progressions, and the like resulted into tension, petty quarrels, and, ultimately, Fujiwara no Teika’s banishment from the court of Emperor Gotoba.
Nonetheless, Fujiwara no Teika’s ideas and descendants dominated the world of classical Japanese poetry many centuries after.
Saigyo, or Saigyo Hoshi, was another popular poet whose career thrived during the late Heian Period and the early Kamakura Period. He was born to a noble family in Kyoto during a time when power struggles between samurai warriors and members of the court were at large. At the same time, the importance of Buddhism started to decline and was no longer valued as a form of salvation.
As such, much of Saigyo’s work carried a melancholic feel which explored these cultural shifts, among other issues.
During his youth, he worked for Emperor Toba as a guard. For unknown reasons, he quit at the age of 22 and chose to leave the worldly life by becoming a monk under the name En’i. Eventually, he chose “Saigyo” as his pen name which roughly translates to mean “a journey to the west” in English.
Many of Saigyo’s popular poems served as an expression of his love for natural beauty, Buddhist ideas, sadness, loneliness, and sorrow from change.
Emperor Gotoba is best known to be one of Japan’s emperors who reigned from 1183 to 1198. He is also sometimes referred to as “The Next Emperor Toba” because he was named after Emperor Toba and the term “go” literally translates to mean “later” in English. Other names that were used to refer to him include Toba II and Toba the Second.
Aside from being a poet, Emperor Gotoba also thrived in other non-political careers including being a critic, musician, painter, editor, and calligrapher. He also had a blatant love for swordsmanship, equestrianism, and archery, so much so that he eventually became a swordsmith, as well.
Some of his greatest literary achievements include contributions to the Shin Kokinshu, the revival of the Office of Waka, and the Gotoba no in gokuden.
Motoori Norinaga was born on the 21st day of June during the year 1730. He lived until the year 1801 and was among the most prominent scholars of the Edo Period. At the age of 22, Motoori Norinaga was encouraged by his mother to take up medicine in Kyoto.
There, Motoori Norinaga not only pursued his mother’s suggestion but also chose to study Japanese and Chinese philology. During this period, Motoori Norinaga found himself becoming more and more interested in the world of Japanese classics and court culture.
Although known for his achievements as a Kokugaku scholar, Motoori Norinaga spent forty years of his life as a doctor. When he returned to his hometown, Motoori Norinaga established a medical center for babies and young children, all the while studying various Japanese literature during his spare time.
Some of Motoori Norinaga’s greatest accomplishments include his annotations of the Tatle of Genji, his commentaries of the Kojiki, and his analysis on the Japanese language.
Ryokan Taigu lived as a hermit the majority of his life. A lot of historical texts describe him to be an eccentric and quiet monk of Soto Zen Buddhism.
He was born in the Echigo Province and was originally given the name Eizo Yamamoto. According to records, he chose to leave the worldly life at a relatively early age and trained at the Koshoji Temple where he eventually met his discipler, Kokusen, a Zen master.
After the death of Kokusen, Ryokan Taigu embarked on a long pilgrimage and pretty much lived the rest of his life as a hermit. He spent his time communing with nature, practicing calligraphy, and writing poetry.
Most of his poems follow a simple sequence and often revolve around nature topics. In line with Zen traditions, Ryokan Taigu’s poems carried a sense of lightness and even had some humor mixed in.
Interestingly, Ryokan Taigu refused to carry titles or even accept positions such as being a poet or priest. He chose to live a simple life and did not take life’s struggles, or even himself, too seriously.
Emperor Meiji, who was also referred to as Meiji-tenno, Meiji the Great, and Meiji-taitei, was reigned from the 3rd day of February during the year 1867 until his death on the 30th day of July during the year 1912. During his rule, Japan was going through rapid changes from being an isolated country to an imperial world and capitalist state.
According to records, the emperor was quite an indifferent student during his youth. This was also expressed by Emperor Meiji, himself, in several poems he wrote later in his life which talked about how he regretted not exerting more time and effort in the world of literature.
Other poems written by the emperor also provide insights on his thoughts regarding the issues and events Japan went through at the time. A lot of Emperor Meiji’s poems followed a pacifist’s point of view.