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TANKA TAKE HOME – 31st May 2023. 20th Century Japanese Tanka Poets: Shaku Chōkū

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

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.

Shaku Chōkū

Orikuchi Kinobu, also known as Chōkū Shaku (釋 迢空, Shaku Chōkū), a Japanese ethnologist, linguist, folklorist, novelist, and poet was born on Feb 11, 1887 in Osaka. Shaku Chōkū was the pen name he used while writing poetry and fiction; however he was an ethnologist and published scholarly articles under his original name. Chōkū's father owned a drug store. However, he was keenly influenced by his great grandfather who was a Shinto priest. This interest in Shintoism led him to a deeper study of Japanese mythology and folk tales, ultimately leading him to the Man'yoshu. His research into this classic work of ancient Japanese poetry got him his doctorate and he published a modern translation that is still in circulation. He also began writing tanka at this time. His debut tanka were published in the Araragi, a magazine that was started by Shiki's followers based on the naturalistic realism movement. Araragi quickly became one of the premier tanka magazines, and a few years later Chōkū became one of its editors.

He left the magazine and branched out to fully immerse himself in his own style of writing, not restricting himself to the principles of Araragi. As an ethnologist he believed in searching for the roots of legends and ancient folklore to fully understand human behavior at its most basic. Ueda writes that Chōkū's immersion in the Man'yoshu led him to use language that appeared even more archaic than used in that work, and yet retained the sensibilities of the modern poet. "His tanka are not romantic poems that long for the simple beauty of primitive culture; rather, they focus on the pathos of the human condition, unchanged for millennia of time. Chōkū skillfully expressed that pathos, not through the hackneyed vocabulary of the courtly waka tradition, but in the language of common people far removed from the urban civilization of twentieth century Japan".

Chōkū worked as a professor in two universities and taught until he died. He was gay, and lived with fellow poet Harumi Orikuchi, who he adopted as his son. Harumi was killed at Iwo Jima, plunging Chōkū into a grief from which he never quite recovered. His many books, beginning with his Kodai kenkyū (Studies of Ancient Times), his many theoretical and poetic works, including the song anthologies Umi yama no aida (Between the Mountains and the Sea) and Iwoguna, the poetry anthology Kodai kan'aishū (Sentiments of Love of Ancient Times) and the novel Shisha no sho (Writings of the Dead), can be found in his collected works Orikuchi Shinobu zenshū. He was awarded several honors, including a Japan Academy of Arts prize and the prestigious Emperor's Prize for his collected works. He died of cancer before he could receive this award, in Sept 1954. The Shaku Chōkū Prize, established in his memory, is one of the highest honors that a tanka poet can receive.

I have selected two tanka translated by Makoto Ueda


town children

playing with swords

see how utterly

our age has become

weary of peace

The language is simple, but this tanka makes me think. Children playing with swords is such a common sight. We have idealized wars and equated heroism with winning them, such that it has become ingrained in our culture. There is an undertone of defeat in this tanka, a weariness that's in the bones that's directed at society.


my research

aiming to uncover and tell

how beautiful

love was in the distant past

draws close to an end

This tells me about Choku's interest in the ancients. But even without knowing about his research background, this tanka has an appeal that seems timeless.


1. Modern Japanese Tanka edited and translated by Makoto Ueda


This week's challenge: Write a tanka about endings.

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. We are not looking at SEQUENCES NOW, of any length.

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

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

7. 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.

I realized that the final Wednesday in May this year is on the 31st! And so, you get one more famous Japanese poet:). I do hope you have enjoyed learning about influential 20th century Japanese tanka poets and their work as much as I have during my readings :).


744 views296 comments


Susan Furst
Susan Furst
Jun 12, 2023

Tanka #2 Susan Furst

Jun 04

This is a revise. I was not able to edit the original post from my laptop or my phone.

REVISION Tanka #2 ice jam on the river the day we bury you how long will the sun hide its face from me Feedback welcome Original

ice jam on the river the day we bury you how long will the sun hide it's face from me Feedback welcome


Mallika Chari
Mallika Chari
Jun 06, 2023


near roofless houses

heaps of leaves and branches

on the roads

a crowd of helping hands

Mallika Chari
Mallika Chari
Jun 06, 2023
Replying to

Dear Lakshmi,

I will try . Can you specify any improvement


Unknown member
Jun 06, 2023

#Tanka Prose 4

Summing up ...

the passing leaf

of man is not alone

again, and again

brings me to

i am

Krishna persuades Arjuna that he should accept death as a normal flow of events instead of choosing to lament over it. First, there was no way out, and second, it's like throwing out old clothing.

Kabir sings

of breaking robes

while alive

how foolish of us to think

stay of few minutes as forever

... I become silent within

Feedback most welcome :)

Kanji Dev
Kanji Dev
Jun 06, 2023
Replying to

Love this, Amrutha! What a treat to have the Bhagavad Gita and Kabir in one Tanka Prose. The only thing that may need to be edited is the tense in the second sentence of your prose?

The prose and tanka are written in the present tense except, ' First, there was no way out..'.


lakshmi iyer
lakshmi iyer
Jun 05, 2023

#1, Tanka Prose, revised, 6-6-2023


The Last Time father was taken on a stretcher to the hospital. We never knew it would be his final season the coconut tree stopped yielding how it knew the master had settled its account forever




The Last Time

father was taken on a stretcher to the hospital. We never knew it would be his last season

the coconut tree

stopped to yield

how it knew

the master had settled

its account forever


Just a try, feedback please

Kanji Dev
Kanji Dev
Jun 06, 2023
Replying to

Beautiful, Lakshmi. Similar thoughts here as Suraja's..


neena singh
neena singh
Jun 05, 2023

a peacock

cries relentlessly

this deep longing

since you have gone

the grass grows wilder

Feedback most welcome…

mona bedi
mona bedi
Jun 09, 2023
Replying to


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