In the Nara and early Heian period, the Chinese style poetry known as ‘Kanshi’ and the waka poetry form ran out of favour officially in courts. But then in the 9th century the official representatives that were being sent to China were no longer being sent, worsening ties with the Tang dynasty and leading to the isolation of the country from the rest of the world. But this led to the court to encourage and foster new and native talent and harmonize Chinese poetic style and technique as per the local traditions. This was the time when the waka form of poetry started to gain popularity during the rule of emperor Daigo, who arranged for compiling the waka of poets into an anthology which came to be known as ‘Kokin Wakashuu’ meaning ‘’collection of ancient and modern Japanese poems’’. It was the first anthology that was issued by the imperial court to be issued, after that the tradition to issue these anthologies under the imperial court continued till Muromachi period.
The first three anthologies issued by the imperial court were Kokin Wakashuu, Gosen Wakashuu and Shuui Wakashuu. Kokin Wakashuu was compiled by Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Mibu no Tadamine and Oushikouchi no Mitsune on command of emperor Daigo in the year 905.
Gosen Wakashuu was commanded by emperor Murakami in 951 and Shuui Wakashuu was commanded by emperor Ichijou in 1005.
After these three anthologies another five anthologies known as the ‘Collection of Eight Ages’ or ‘Hachidai shuu’ was compiled during the Heian era.
Waka can be first traced back to the 8th century in the ‘Kojiki’ and ‘Manyoushuu’ but as time passed it came under the influence of other types of poetry and stories such as ‘The Tale of Genji’ it broadened its view and expressions.
Nowadays, the people all around the world are the most familiar with the Japanese poetry style known as the ‘Haiku’. Haiku is a 17-syllable poem and gained popularity in the 17th century. Whereas, on the other hand there is another type of poetic form that was developed thousands of years before the haiku, known as ‘Waka’. Waka (和歌) is a form of classical Japanese poetry and the word ‘Waka’ translates to ‘’Japanese Poem’’. Haiku was extracted from the Waka style of poetry.
Waka is a type of short poem with a specific structure, it has 31-syllables and is perfectly arranged in five lines in the form of 5-7-5-7-7 respective words in each line. Waka can be divided into two verses; it has an ‘upper verse’ that refers to the first three lines and then there is the ‘lower verse’ referring to the last two lines of the waka. Waka is written to convey our heart’s feelings. Waka’s both form and influence differs from the form and influence that our own traditional poetry has. Waka is written to encapsulate a person’s emotions and feeling rather than elucidating or explicating their emotions.
There are different forms of waka namely, the major forms being ‘Tanka’ (the short poem) and the ‘Chouka’ (the long poem), the other types of waka also include ‘Bussokusekika’, ‘Sedouka and ‘Katauta’, but these other types of forms were discontinued at the very beginning of the Heian period, now only ‘Tanka’ is the only waka that has remained till this age and when someone mentions waka it refers to tanka only.
In the Heian period, waka was the most major or the most important form of communication among lovers. Not only that but a person’s ability or skills in poetry was a dominant basis for ascertaining a person’s social and political standing in the society.
During the Heian period a renowned poet, Ki no Tsurayuki wrote the following about Japanese poetry:
“The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart and flourishes in the countless leaves of words. Because human beings possess interests of so many kinds it is in poetry that they give expression to the meditations of their hearts in terms of the sights appearing before their eyes and the sounds coming to their ears. Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters — is there any living being not given to song!”
The ‘song’ he mentioned in the lines above is nothing but a ‘Waka’.