The Rediscovery of Japanese Poetry



Japanese tanka and haiku are already well known all over the world and don’t need any special recommendations. Thousands of Europeans and Americans have joined the club of haiku lovers, hundreds tried to compose tanka in their native language. Numerous collections of poetic translations from the old and new Japanese classics in English, French, German and Russian flooded the book market.  The staggering success of traditional Japanese poetry in the West might seem a miracle if we look back at the beginning of the XX c. when tanka and haiku were barely known in Europe and many Japanese were ashamed of their “imperfect” poetic tools.

Since the late 19th c. in the West poets, critics and readers at large split into two opposite factions regarding the appraisal of classical Japanese poetry.

One group would always treat tanka and haiku as exotic decorative genres quite alien to the glorious traditions of European poetry. The members of this faction, even those who liked Japanese civilization, remained very skeptical as far as the possibilities of traditional Japanese verse were concerned. G.Sansom, the most renowned expert in Japanese history and culture, even called Japanese poetic language “an elegant but ungrateful tool”. This attitude, which had influenced European “Japonisme” in the Arts, has been always rather typical of some Western literati who tended to regard Japanese artifacts and poems at large just as beautiful and trendy toys.

However the larger part of critics and readers would accept the Japanese poetic tradition as a mystical revelation full of sublime beauty, supernatural wisdom and unbelievable eloquence – something like a supreme poetic truth and absolute perfection that is a gem in itself, even if its translation looked like an ugly rugged rock.

Of course this blind worshipping denied any need for in-depth formal analysis, practical comparisons or constructive criticism. It dominated in the early 20th c. and is still amazingly explicit in some parts of the world – for example, in Russia. Some self-proclaimed “poets” took advantage of this situation bringing to the market collections of clumsy verse or word for word prosaic interpretations under the name of tanka, or haiku. In fact it was either a mere stylization or a word for word academic translation. Later a number of talented European and American poets contributed to the development of haiku and tanka poetry in the West.

On the first sight, traditional Japanese syllabic verse seems to be rather primitive to the Western readers. For about 15 centuries it remained within the boundaries of a single poetic meter based on the combination of only two syllabic units – 5 or 7 syllables in each. It is a unique example of loyalty to one formal design among the world poetic traditions. But let’s refer to the observations of Professor N. Konrad, the founder of Russian school of classical Japanese studies:

Japanese syllabic verse based on the variation of 5 and 7-syllables units would always sound monotonous. This monotony inflicted by the meter is partly neutralized by the current of musical accents in the verse, which can vary even in two poems with a similar metric pattern. One might add here the melodic patterns that can be different in every particular tanka. Thus alleged visible metric monotony is compensated by acoustic means.”

The first encounter of the Europeans with the legacy of Japanese classics resulted in a few collections of tanka and haiku translated by the leading Japanologists of the time. They tried to perceive the overtones of the miniature poems but failed as there was no ground for it ready yet. Medieval poetics and aesthetics were still shrouded in mystery as the major treatises of the poetic canon remained unavailable.

B.H.Chamberlain in his anthology “The Classical Japanese Poetry” (1891) made a nice selection from the classical monuments. His only concern was to preserve the “idea” rendering  the poems in a westernized form with conventional rhythm and even rhyme:

Oh love! Who gave you koishi to wa
thy superfluous name? ta ga nazukeken
Loving and dying – koto naran
isn’t it the same? shinu to zo tada ni

(“Kokinshu”, #698)

W.J. Aston, a famous researcher of the late 19th c. and a renowned translator of Japanese classics, was less infatuated with exotic images and therefore was more successful in his experiments. Unfortunately he was not a poet and lamented in his works on the absence of a poetic genius who could offer an authentic metric version of the best tanka from the MANYOSHU  and the KOKINSHU anthologies. Unlike many scholars of the late 20th century who would call their unsophisticated interpretations of  tanka “poetic translations”, Aston defined his translations as word for word (or line by line) prosaic rendering.

Here is the same tanka by an unknown author from the KOKINSHU presented by Aston

Who would it have been

That first gave love

This name?

“Dying” is the plain word

He might have used.

The translation is correct but rather neutral, almost immaculate. Of course it is a poor match to the magic poetic splash of emotion in original.

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a renowned American intellectual who lived many years in Japan and published fine translations of Japanese folk tales and ghost stories, also worked on the translations of tanka and haiku. As his proficiency in Japanese was not sufficient, Hearn would hire native speakers as assistants.

This point definitely contributed to the authenticity of his translations although his poetic talent seems very dubious. Hearn tried to keep the original one-line structure of both tanka and haiku making them sound either like pathetic exclamations or like prosaic contemplations.

In the posthumous edition of Hearn’s poetic translations long lines were cut by the editors into two uneven parts, which distorted even the best of the poems:

Wake up! Wake up! – I will

make thee my

Comrade, thou sleeping



In 1896 a collection of poetic translations by Karl Florenz was printed in Germany under the romantic title “A Poetic Greeting from the Orient”. It contained pretty adaptations of the tanka taken at random from different sources, which were inspired by the Japonisme trend in European culture. Needless to say how far were these bijouts from the original songs.

However a number of poems presented in the “Geschichte Japanisches Literatur” (1906) by Florenz were much more correct being in fact normal word for word translations. German versions of tanka by Florenz, Ratgen and Hauser became an incentive for some Russian poets of the time.



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