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Japanese Poetry Term Paper

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Updated: Dec 9th, 2019


Japan has a history on vast and varied forms of poetry. The history dates back to the time Chinese introduced its poetry to Japan. Afterwards, the history merged into the Japanese culture. The poems stand out for their easy comprehension, and intense, emotional connection with the readers. One of the popular Japanese poems is the Haikai. It consists of three short lines. The first line, has 5 syllables, second has 7, and third has 5 syllables. Haiku’s thematic concerns are experiences, nature, and emotions.

Waka is a general term for Japanese poem and literature. They are short poems that need unique structural features and aim at expressing feelings. In the early ages, poets composed them to capture feelings instead of explaining the feelings. Japanese used waka poems in ancient times to celebrate occasions and they still do. They address real life events e.g. love, misery, poverty and death.

Renga a collaborative Japanese poem involved two or more poets creating a poem simultaneously, writing in alternating sections then compiling the poem. The poem utilizes the pastoral language that merges images linked to love, nature and seasons.

Kanshi refer to poetry that is Chinese but composed by Japanese poets. The poems, found favor among the aristocrats during the early Heian period, and this trend of popularity spread rapidly to the modern times.

Kaifuso was among the popular kanshi and earliest Japanese literature as stated by Judith Rabinovitch and Timothy Bradstock. It entailed a group of occasional verse dating from 672-751. Kanshi not only became popular during the Japan Middle Ages, but also was famous during the Edo and Meiji period where learned men of the school of Neo- confuciusm became experts in composing it.

The kanshi assumed various forms, but the common one had 5-7 syllables in 4 or 8 lines. Japanese poems look complicated, but they are easy to understand.

Majorities of the poems focus on the themes of nature and its beauty, things that make sense to human, love, life, and death. They encompass the beauty of life. The topic nature dominates in the four forms of poems under question. Japanese poets utilize nature to communicate intense feeling, intuition and real life experiences. This is a characteristic of the Japanese poems that plays a key role in reflecting the peaceful relationship existing between human and nature.

The appreciation for nature among the Japanese features in the poems through the constant mention of the four seasons that carry along with them the beauty of nature. For instance, spring occurs in the four forms of poems in question and displays nature differently. In the examples coming up, spring signifies ushering of new life and hope as nature is in quest of renewing itself.

The season sets in with beauty of phenomena like, spring sky, crescent moon shining on valleys, clouds and spring sun, terrestrial phenomena as spring hills, mountains and valleys, human activities like gathering together for diner, life and plants activities e.g. flowering and blossoming of the cherry trees. These images make the Japanese poems unique in terms of aesthetics.

This paper focuses on a common topic of nature that is in the four forms of Japanese poetry. It also covers similarities, contrast and the significance among the poems in question.

Kanshi (Chinese Poetry)

In the Kanshi poem, The Hunt (pg. 37) by Prince Otsu, nature is conspicuous through the mention of dawn and dusk, the moon, “crescent bows shining in the valley”, “clouds like pennants flying down below the hills”, the merrymaking that takes place under the crescent bows before the peak, speaks of the Japanese determination of integrating nature into their lives.

Nature, in this poem, softens and calms human hearts and the tough hearts of the aggressive warriors. This happens when the warriors assemble under the moonlight in the valley (The Hunt, pg. 37). In the Kanshi poem, “Enjoying Myself among Flowers and Bushes” by Priest Chizo, the mention of spring bamboo groove, breeze, the trees filled with scent, the flowers making the thickets smile”, reflects proximity that man has created with nature.

The speaker does not yearn for human companionship, but delights in embracing the beauty of the season of spring and fully exploit nature’s beauty. He says “Very few folks with whom I can converse”, “This day in spring a scent in the air”, “I am happy wandering here and there”.


In the waka poem, “Blossom” by Saigayo, the spring season emphasizes on the beauty of nature through the blossoming of the cherry trees and the beautiful sceneries of mountains covered in white clouds. “The blossom of the cherry trees”, “each and every mountain ridge, draped with cloud of white”. These words incorporate liveliness in the people daily activities in a new season.

In the waka poem, “On the beginning of spring” by Retired Emperor Go-Toba, celestial phenomena mentioned is the sky that is brightening as the dim period fades away to usher the new life. The slopes are also beginning to display their beauty through the heavenly hills. In the above Waka poems, the poet aims at capturing the reader’s feelings.

The feelings aroused in the two poems accelerate anticipation and hope for new life that comes with the spring season. For instance, “all round now” the blossom of the cherry trees”, “are in their full bloom” in the poem Blossom by Saigayo, “spring has come at last”.

Renga (linked verse)

Renga refers to “linked poem”. The main purpose of renga was to promote working together in composition of poems among poets. A number of poets worked as a team and composed renga of hundreds of lines. However, most people preferred renga was usually 36 lines long. This was a form known as kasen. However, the long renga later gave way to a shorter form of haiku. Poets wrote renga in turns. A poet would write the first stanza that consists of three lines and seventeen syllables. The subsequent poets would add their stanzas.

The most crucial element of renga poems is their thematic concerns. It is the thematic element that determined success of the poem. Renga had a pastoral language. The language accounted for images that represented the four seasons, love, and nature in poems. The poets wrote stanzas that leaped from preceding stanzas for the purposes of acquiring trajectory. The leaps in the stanzas were necessary in advancing the thematic concerns of the poems and enhancing unity of the work.

Contemporary works of renga differ significantly from the traditional forms. The structural standards of the poems have changed, and poets have adjusted length of their poems but have retained the excitement and enlightenment that the poems provoked. Teachers have applied renga in schools to enable students learn how to write poems as a group.

Kuwaharo no Haraka talks about a “bright white waterfall” (pg. 76). He refers to waterfall as white like a bleached cloth. He artistically captures the wonders of nature through vivid description of occurrences at the waterfall. The poet, for the first time, appreciates the beauty of nature, though he has heard of them for a long time.

He also makes reference to Mt. Tiantai where elements of nature associated with Buddhist sect took control. People would forgo eating grains but survive on wild mushroom while there. Kuwaharo no Haraka depicts that nature is beautiful, but people do not appreciate it until they experience it.

Yoshimine no Yasuyo in his poem “On Hearing a Koto in a Mountain Pavilion” (pg. 77), captures the beauty of nature in its rugged form by referring to the beauty of the Three Georges consisting of mountains and rivers. He also shows the effect of the moon on the garden of moss. The poet achieves aesthetic by introducing the element of Koto music playing between the mountains yet he cannot locate the source of the sound. He intermingle elements of nature and music produced from man-made Koto for enhancing emotions.


Japanese haikai is a form of poem consists of three lines and seventeen syllables. These poems mainly look in areas that relate to nature. They are intense, lack complication and show open form of expression. The earlier versions of haikai poems were different but linked verses to form long poems.

Haikai is an extension of the popular, noble poems. This made it a dignified form of poetry with linked verses like in waka poetry. However, haikai experienced the challenge of tending to be too dignified than other forms of renga poems. The poetry had flexibility with regard to the choice of the subject matter, the use of humor, and oral wits.

Scholars have attributed the success of haikai poem in the literary field to Matsunaga Teitoku who determined the direction of haikai during the earlier periods of 17th century. This school of poetry considered haikai as an inferior form of renga poetry. These people considered haikai as a conservative form of poetry. Haikai poems observed certain rules at the expense of achieving some artistic integrity.

The later form of haikai lacked rigidness experienced in the past. It was light and witty with no rigid observation of rules. Poets had wide ranges of subject to compose using different techniques. Haikai went through different schools to its maturation as different poets embraced wit and urbanity and others insisted on writing about nature as the true reflection of haikai.

In Tan Taigi (pg. 402), the poet presents nature through the four seasons. Every season presents a new and fulfilling experience to the persona. The spring brings Japanese rose with its bright flowers. In summer, the girls play with the firefly between their hands as the season of autumn brings love, and during winter, the leaves fall symbolizes lifelessness. Oshima Ryota, also talks of nature in relation to the four seasons (pg. 403-404).

Japanese haikai covers the topic nature in winter where we observe cold, sadness, dead tree, snow, tranquility, and leafless trees. On the other hand, the poets cover warmth, romance, love, lightness, and celebrations during summer. During autumn, haikai poems covered several themes.

These related to regrets, loss, and goodbye. There are also falling tree leaves. Spring and summer may share similar characteristics such as those of beauty. We have also observed themes associated with innocence of young girls, love for the first time, new growths, and blossoms.


The traditional Japanese poets concentrated on writing about the beauties of nature. The four forms of Japanese poetry shared common themes such nature and the four seasons that conveyed beauty. The four forms of Japanese poems such as kanshi (Chinese poetry), waka, renga (linked verse), and haikai operated under strict rules that governed choices of subjects and language use. Sometimes, these regulations affected the subject matter and poetic language.

Japanese poems represent their history and celebration. Waka poems dominated communication among Japanese. It held a unique position and influenced most social and political processes in society. Still, elements of nature in these poems are profound. Most haikai poems reflected nature. However, they present nature through seasonal references. This makes haikai poems nature poems of Japanese. Some haikai poems also reflected aspects of humanity.

Nature is perfect for haikai poems because such poems have relatively few words. Thus, poets found phrases such as “cherry blossom” or “fallen leaves” to enhance aesthetic aspects of nature by creating lush scenes and still maintaining the ideas of the verse.

The use of season words enables different forms of Japanese poems to reflect ideas of nature across their themes. We can conclude that the Japanese poems show man closeness and attachment to nature and that he derived fulfillment and tranquility that proved difficult to find in fellow men.

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1. IvyPanda. "Japanese Poetry." December 9, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/japanese-poetry/.


IvyPanda. "Japanese Poetry." December 9, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/japanese-poetry/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Japanese Poetry." December 9, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/japanese-poetry/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Japanese Poetry'. 9 December.

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