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TANKA TAKE HOME – 17th May 2023. 20th Century Japanese Tanka Poets: Masaoka Shiki

hosts: Firdaus Parvez, Kala Ramesh, Priti Aisola & Suraja Menon Roychowdhury

Introducing a new perspective to our Wednesday Feature!

This month we will discuss some of the prominent Japanese poets of the 20th century who were influential in the evolution of tanka as we know it today. Much of the material presented is taken from the book Modern Japanese Tanka edited and translated by Makoto Ueda, as well as other sources on the internet.

Masaoka Shiki:

The name Shiki is familiar to any poet who writes haiku and is aware of some of its history. Shiki is considered one of the greats, along with Basho, Buson and Issa. He is well known for revolutionizing the field of haikai writing, and, indeed, coining the word haiku. But he played as important a role in the evolution of tanka as well.

Masaoka Tsunenori was born on October 14, 1867 in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. He was well trained in the Chinese classical literature, thanks to his father and grandfather who were a samurai and a Confucian scholar, respectively. He wrote his first tanka at the age of 15. He entered Tokyo University to study politics, but was apparently more interested in sports and literature, and was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002! He left the university without graduating in 1892 (possibly because of ill-health, a start of the tuberculosis that later afflicted him) to work for the newspaper Nippon. Like Tekkan, he believed that tanka as it existed in the classical 31 syllable form was lifeless and uninspired. Unlike Tekkan, who was associated with the Romantic movement, Shiki went in a different direction. He espoused the 'sketch from life' or shasei method which he had developed earlier in his attempts to reform haiku. In the words of Makoto Ueda, Shiki felt that 'a poem expressive of the poet's self tended to be commonplace and trite, unless that self was highly individualized, whereas a poem that faithfully observed life was always fresh because people's lives were never the same'. Wow...such a simple and yet elegant point of view! Shiki expounded on this opinion in a series of essays and he and his group began publishing a style of tanka that was more observation and less imagination. Tragically, this movement did not become popular until several years after his death.

Why the name Shiki, you may ask. The poet went as a war correspondent to China despite being diagnosed with tuberculosis. In China he began coughing up blood and was sent home to rest and recuperate. In May 1889, he coughed up blood daily for a week. He adopted the name Shiki in 1889, a reference to a small bird that, according to legend, keeps singing until it spits up blood. While the majority of Shiki's published work is in haiku reform, he published a series of essays calling for tanka reform in Nippon. He held tanka-writing parties at his home and the majority of his existing tanka, around 2,500 verses, were written in the last five years of his life. No collection was published during his life. Tuberculosis claimed this brilliant mind, and Shiki died young, on Sept 19, 1902. He was only 25.

Presenting two tanka here translated by Makoto Ueda



the hamlet is asleep

with all its lights out

the River of Heaven*

white above a bamboo grove

*River of Heaven refers to the Milky Way

A purely observational tanka. The only hint of a personal involvement here is the word 'peacefully.' The poet feels this when seeing the small village, tiny and insignificant, against the vastness of the Milky Way, and yet how cosy is the set of homes, with their inhabitants sleeping peacefully...


makes me writhe

in bed, this excruciating

pain of illness

alongside a tree peony

with its flowers open

A young man tortured with a terrible illness, burning up in the flames of tuberculosis, but also the burning desire for reforming an ancient artform, one that has persisted for centuries. The lovely tree peony, so immediate in its beauty, juxtaposed with his illness. Its life is fleeting, and perhaps Shiki knew that his days were numbered. The long history of the poetic forms that he was trying to change, the short time he had. I find several layers in this tanka, sad and beautiful at the same time.


1. Modern Japanese Tanka edited and translated by Makoto Ueda


This Week's Challenge: Write a tanka or tanka prose based on a 'sketch from life' or 'shasei'!

An essay on how to write tanka:


1. Post only one poem at a time, only one per day.

2. Only 2 tanka and two tanka-prose per poet per prompt. Tanka art, too.

3. Share your best-polished pieces.

4. Please do not post something in a hurry or something you have just written. Let it simmer for a while.

5. Post your final edited version on top of your original verse.

6. Don't forget to give feedback on others' poems.

We are delighted to open the comment thread for you to share your unpublished tanka and tanka-prose (within 250 words) to be considered for inclusion in the haikuKATHA monthly magazine.


777 views322 comments


Barbara  Olmtak
Barbara Olmtak
May 24, 2023

#2 ivy climbing never inhibited this urge to reach for the sky the limit barbara olmtak feedback most welcome 🌹 🙏


Kanji Dev
Kanji Dev
May 24, 2023

Tanka #2 - 23/05/23

finally the citrus flowers late bloomer

the last for a first kiss

Kanjini Devi


wanda amos
wanda amos
May 24, 2023


spring equinox

mountain spirits

watching over

nature’s beauty

and the beast


these koi

crisscrossing beneath

the portcullis bridge

ablaze with colours

of spring

Surashree Joshi
Surashree Joshi
May 24, 2023
Replying to

I love the colours! Very vivid...


Surashree Joshi
Surashree Joshi
May 24, 2023


crescent moon

my nephew and I


over each wedge

of the orange

Feedback appreciated!

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