Japanese Lyric Poetry in Ancient Imperial Japan

The cultural development of Japan can be divided into three periods. The era of the Samurai - the knight - preceded Japan's transformation into a modern industrial nation. The great emperors reigned from the fourth to the twelfth century A.D. prior to the knights' coming to power. This was the era of the imperial court, which saw the flowering of romantic lyric poetry. Manyoushuu, Kokinshuu and Shinkokinwakashuu, three collections of poetry which are still of great importance today, originated from this time, along with other works. Poems from these three collections were used as the basis for the texts in the song cycle "Longing for Ancient Japan"

This type of traditional poetry is called "Waka", and it is generally recited melodically rather than being read. In comparison to European poetry, a "Waka" is short. It is like capturing a particular moment on film; there's a flash and then the moment seems to have passed irretrievably. The entire content of the poem - including moods and feelings - is expressed in a few words.

This short form of expression demands that the poet has an inner calmness and great concentration. Even if the content of the poems is very moving and stirring, the poet is forced by the poetic style to maintain his inner calmness and concentration. The most popular form of "Waka" is called "Tanka"; its basic form consists of lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 syllables, respectively. (Variations are possible.) In the "Manyoushuu" collection, however, a longer form - known as "Chouka" - occurs often, although it was used less and less frequently later on. The even shorter "Haiku" form - three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables - was developed during the Edo-period from the "Tanka" form. In the last few decades the "Haiku" has become known as a poetic form in Europe as well.

During the time of the imperial court, people liked to exchange poems with one another; thus, a man and a woman might write each other love letters in poetic form. In contrast to the brutal era of the Samurai - with its emphasis on discipline - this era was marked by an aesthetic world of elegance and romance. The ideal of feminine beauty in the "Heian" era was a woman whose hair reached down to the floor. Noblewomen wore twelve dresses at once, one on top of the other; the colors and their combination had a symbolic significance. Incense was used as perfume; the scent awakened the poets' memories of love and became the topic of many poems.

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