What is Waka? It is poetry, culture, and beauty

What is waka?
Let me give you a brief answer to this rough question.

Waka, originally called “Yamato Uta,” is a unique Japanese rhyming text that has been sung since ancient times.
The most well-known type of waka is the tanka form of the so-called “31-miso-moi hitomoji” (five-seven-five-seven-seven), but in Japan’s oldest anthology of poetry, the Manyoshu, compiled in the Nara period (710-794), there were also waka of different forms such as “nagauta” and “kento-uta,” depending on how many times the “five-seven” was repeated (see also “haiku” and “katakana” in the later period). (In later periods, haiku and metrical waka also emerged.) ) However, by the time of the Kokin Waka Shu, the first imperial collection of waka poems in the Heian period (794-1185), the tanka form became the dominant style, and the form we are familiar with today was established.

Incidentally, it was not only the Japanese who favored the syllable “5-7. Chinese poetry is also dominated by five- or seven-syllable exclamations and ritsu poems. Perhaps it is because the odd number of syllables gives an exquisite rhythm to the phrases, and both waka and Chinese poetry were developed through recitation.

As I mentioned a little about Chinese poetry, the characteristics of waka become more prominent when compared with Chinese poetry. In fact, there are many differences between waka and Chinese poetry.
Waka poems are rhymes, but they do not rhyme, and in extreme cases, as long as they are contained in 31 characters, they are poems. However, Chinese poetry is different, in that it always rhymes with the last character of an even-numbered phrase, and must also be in harmony with the rest of the text. First of all, what do you think of this difference?

I think that the reason why waka poems are less regimented is because they are naturally composed in such a way that anyone can compose them. The main characters in Chinese poetry (Tang poetry) were mostly literate people who had passed the National Examination for Japanese Language and Literature (Kakei), and they asserted themselves through their elaborate poetic writings. On the other hand, waka poems, as can be seen in the Manyoshu, are composed by all kinds of people, from emperors to beggars. In other words, waka poems were composed and sung impromptu and enjoyed together at occasional banquets and other occasions.

Unfortunately, the major anthologies of waka poetry of the Heian period contain only poems written by court nobles, but even these poems show that everyone from the emperor to low-ranking officials composed poems, regardless of gender, and that waka was the main form of communication in both public and private life, from courtly congratulations and condolences to poetry contests and love affairs. As for Chinese poetry (Tang poetry), few female poets have survived, so waka poetry was, as Kikanuki says, a “song” for all people.

If you listen to the voice of the kaguhisu singing in the flowers and the kahazu living in the water
All living things will not read poetry.
(Preface to the Kokin Wakashu, in kana syllabary)

Although waka poems had few rules, the rhetoric that made them waka gradually developed. These are techniques such as kakego, engigo, and honka-tori. By making full use of these techniques, the Heian poets elevated waka poetry to the status of literature. This means that waka poems became a source of intellect, and at this point, waka poems finally became a form of culture that was equal to that of Chinese poetry.

The “one and many”. As is the case with tea rooms, gardens, Noh stages, and the like, the best Japanese artists are devoted to depicting an infinite universe in a minuscule space. The first attempt at this was the 31-character waka poem.

Then, what was the universe that waka poems aimed for? It is simply “beauty.
To return to the topic, Bai Juyi, a Chinese Tang Dynasty poet, classified poems into four categories: satire, quietness, sentiment, and miscellaneous rules. Bai Juyi himself devoted himself to satires and quiet poems. Satires are poems that criticize politics, and quiet poems are poems that express his ideological beliefs, so we can clearly understand Bai Juyi’s spirit as a “shi-tayu” (master poet).

On the other hand, as we can see from the Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, there are no poems of satire in the Honcho poets, and Yamakami Imura is the only one who can be called a shidayu. How did this happen? The reason is that Japanese poets considered poetry to be a means of expressing beauty, or “ahare,” a sentiment that wells up from the bottom of the heart. The Heian poets spun laments over the changing nature, not only about the seasons and love, but also about separation and lamentation.
Although Bai Juyi was so familiar to the Heian poets that he accounted for 60% of the poets of the Tang Dynasty in the “Wakan Roshi Shu,” the essence of his spirit has rarely been considered.

The beauty of waka poetry is, in essence, the feeling of “love. The source of beauty in waka poetry is the empty desire for something that can never be obtained, even if one seeks it.

Please take a look at the completed waka poems of the late Heian period (794-1185), the new Kokin period. There are several such highly artistic works that make us believe that the form of waka poetry was reduced to 31 characters because of the careful selection of beauty for expression in literature and art.
The poem is “The Beauty of Ruin,” a scar left behind by a merciless world. It is the ultimate in Japanese literature, which reached its peak before Baudelaire and Mallarmé.

I hope you now have a rough understanding of waka poetry. Waka poetry is a form of song, a form of culture, and a crystallization of beauty.

(Writer: Waka DJ Ucchi)


代表的な古典作品に学び、一人ひとりが伝統的「和歌」を詠めるようになることを目標とした「歌塾」開催中!

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