Prosaic Basics of Japanese TANKA(短歌)

■Prosaic Basics of Japanese TANKA(短歌)■
AUDIO/VISUAL TUTORIAL of basic knowledge of Japanese TANKA(短歌) with example poems based on “Cogito ergo sum”


■Prosaic basics of Japanese TANKA(短歌)■

●TANKA(短歌) = 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic letters

 A Japanese TANKA(短歌) is a streak of 五(go=5:five)-七(shichi=7:seven)-五(go=5:five)-七(shichi=7:seven)-七(shichi=7:seven) letters. Be advised, especially if you are a non-Japanese, that a single Japanese letter ― KANA(かな) ― straightly means one syllable: in Japanese language, a letter of KANA(かな) equals a single syllable. That each and every KANA(かな) composes one syllable is what you must first grasp to understand a Japanese TANKA(短歌). This notion sounds so strange to English natives that it takes some explaining with insightful examples (special thinks to M. Rene Descartes). Look at the following sentences in 4 different languages and see how many words, letters and syllables they are composed of… and how they should be pronounced in Japanese syllabic units:

Ancient Latin) Cogito ergo sum (3 words…13 letters…6 syllables:Co-gi-to er-go sum…in 9 Japanese KANA letters/syllables:こ・じ・い・と・あ・ぁ・ご・す・む)

French) Je pense donc je suis (5 words…17 letters…7 syllables:Je pen-se don-c je suis…in 9 Japanese KANA letters/syllables:じゅ・ぱ・ん・す・ど・ん・く・じゅ・すぃ)

English) I think therefore I am (5 words…18 letters…6 syllables:I think there-fore I am…in 13 Japanese KANA letters/syllables:あ・い・すぃ・ん・く・ぜ・あ・ふぉ・お・あ・い・あ・む)

Japanese) われおもふゆゑにわれあり:ware omou yueni ware ari(5 words…12 KANA letters…12 syllables)… in KANA-KANJI combined letters(かな漢字交じり文)=我思ふ故に我在り(8 KANA-KANJI combined letters…12 syllables)

 As you can see, in Japanese KANA(かな) writing system, one letter simply represents one syllable, with the exception of small vowels suffixed for palatalized consonants(拗音:ようおん) as in “じゅ”, “すぃ” and “ふぉ”. In contrast, a single Chinese character(漢字:かんじ) can both embrace only one syllable like “在:a” and more than one syllable as in “我:wa-re”, “思:o-mo” and “故:yu-e”. A single letter simply corresponding to a single syllable is a strange idea to English speakers indeed. In English, no single letter can stand alone to compose any meaning, with the exceptions of “a (あ=an indefinite article)”, “I (あい=a personal pronoun)”, “o (おお=an interjection)” and “u (ゆう=a jesting abbreviation of you)”… but even among these stand-alone exceptions, the only case of a single English letter corresponding to a single Japanese KANA(かな) syllable is “a:あ” alone… even that “a:あ” will often be pronounced in two Japanese KANA(かな) syllables to sound like “e-i:えい”, which goes to show the great distance between English letters (alphabets) and Japanese KANA(かな) syllables.

●Japanese preference of letters/syllables to words

 Let it be remembered that in Japanese, at least in poetic terms, the number of words(語数) is much less important than or indeed overshadowed by the count of letters(字数) that translates straight into that of syllables(音節), which has the innate tendency to fall into 5-7 and 7-5 rhythmic patterns. Just ask any Japanese to count the number of letters used in the previous translation, and you’ll see them pronounce it letter by letter (rather than word by word) and easily get to the answer of 5(wa-re-o-mo-u)+7(yu-e-ni-wa-re-a-ri)=12 syllables/letters, while few Japanese could readily answer the number of words (5) which constitute that sentence:

1)wa-re(我=Je, I) 2)o-mo-u(思ふ=pense, think) 3)yu-e-ni(故に=donc, therefore) 4)wa-re(我=Je, I) 5)a-ri(在り=suis, am)

 Just imagine yourself being asked the number of letters, not words, used in the English or French translations above… could you get to the answer without using computing function of your word-processor? In academic contexts, no Japanese examiners would ask examinees to sum up any meaningful sentences in “140 WORDS (instead of LETTERS)”, while asking English counterparts to do the same in “140 LETTERS (not WORDS)” would be a bad joke… o, forget about TWITTER: we are talking “in academic contexts,” do you remember?

●A Japanese style follow-up to “Cogito ergo sum” in 5-7-7 letters

 In case you doubt the credibility of my proposition above, let us think about some suitable follow-up to the Japanese translation ― in 5-7 syllables ― of what M. Descartes said… this time in 5-7-7 letter/syllable Japanese and complete them as 5-7-5-7-7 TANKA(短歌) format:

ORIGINAL 5-7)《Ware omou yueni ware ari》

われおもふ(5 Japanese letters…I think about my existence:5 English words)ゆゑにわれあり(7 Japanese letters…therefore I’m logically sure that I exist:7 English words)



FOLLOW-UP 5-7-7 A)

《Arazaraba waga ari nashi mo omowazaru beshi》

あらざらば(5JL…If I did not exist:5EW)わがありなしも(7JL…even about whether I exist or not:7EW)おもはざるべし(7JL…I would not begin to think about:7EW)



FOLLOW-UP 5-7-7 B)

《Areba koso waga ari nashi wo omou beranare》

あればこそ(5JL…Because I actually do exist:5EW)わがありなしを(7JL…whether I exist or do not exist:7EW)おもふべらなれ(7JL…it’s possible for me to think about:7EW)



FOLLOW-UP 5-7-7 C)

《Omooyu wa waga aru koto no akashi naru beshi》

おもほゆは(5JL…The act of thinking:4EW)わがあることの(7JL…that I do exist:4EW)あかしなるべし(7JL…must be a proof:4EW)



 …Did you see how natural for Japanese language to fit into 5-7 or 7-5 letter/syllable pattern (and what trouble this author took to translate them into corresponding 5-7-7 English words… and how he failed in the last one)?

●A Japanese 短歌 of 5-7-5-7-7 LETTERS is essentially different from an English TANKA of 5-7-5-7-7 WORDS

 From the examples shown above, I think you have now clearly understood the following facts:

FACT ONE) Japanese language is innately conscious of the number of letters(KANA) which automatically translates into syllabic numbers, while being less conscious of the number of words;

FACT TWO) Indo-European languages such as French or English are acutely conscious of syllabic rhythmic patterns, vaguely aware of the number of words, and are totally indifferent to the number of syllables, let alone letters.

 Japanese letters(KANA) and syllables are identical with each other, while in English letters(alphabets) and syllables are two different things; from this it follows that a Japanese TANKA(短歌) of 5-7-5-7-7 letters/syllables cannot be straightly translated into an English TANKA of 5-7-5-7-7 words. Translation is not impossible, but the WORD-based 5-7-5-7-7 English is essentially alien from a LETTER/SYLLABLE-based 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese… too much alien to be deemed even as distant relatives. I’d be the last one to deny the delightful linguistic efforts at composing something meaningful against two-by-four limitations (be it 5-7-5-7-7 words or one-hundred-and-forty letters), but please don’t confuse WORDS and LETTERS and believe a 31-WORD English poem is an authentic counterpart of Japanese TANKA(短歌) in the format of 31-LETTER/SYLLABLE… so long as they go their separate ways, there’ll be joy for each poetic path, but their paths will never cross. In trying to translate a Japanese TANKA(短歌) into English, it is meaningless, semantically or rhythmically, to mechanically tread the 5-7-5-7-7 path: just expand or compress the original Japanese in as many English words as are needed with as much meaning transplanted as can be without saying something different from the original.

 What I am going to present to you is a collection of Japanese 31-LETTER/SYLLABLE TANKA(短歌), supplemented with word-for-word explanatory translations of the original Japanese terms composing the poem, along with English poems sometimes consciously forged into 31-WORD(5-7-5-7-7) format, but this last attempt is mostly to show you how different TANKA can be in Japanese and in English and how futile such formal fitting efforts will turn out to be. A human heart can be medically transplanted from a donor to a patient by a good doctor, but the poetic heart of Japanese TANKA(短歌) can hardly be literarily translated into English even by the best of poets, not at least in its original 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic life form. East is east and west is west, never waste your time in trying to make the twain meet: Japanese TANKA(短歌) is genuinely Japanese, only to wither into something less or different outside KANA(かな) boundaries.











●Hurray for Japan!?… What are you talking about?

 Let there be no misunderstanding: no way am I trying to impress upon you Japanese artistic superiority… on the contrary: TANKA(短歌) is a long-lost art of ancient-day Japan, which still exists in its literal form but not in its literary spirit or poetic beauty in today’s less-than-elegant Japanese. The poems I intend to introduce here are mostly written in the good-old-day style and terms of HEIANESE Japan… Japanese languages after the MUROMACHI era (c.1330) have been, all of them, grammatically and terminologically, simply too prosaic in meaning and too vulgar in sound to come up to the aesthetic standards of HEIANESE Japanese.

 I have studied and acquainted myself adequately with the grammar, terms and poems of the HEIAN era Japan, proficiently enough to write a series of logical guidebooks for Japanese college-bound students and to enjoy reading and composing HEIANESE TANKA(短歌) for my personal pleasure. Don’t take me wrong: I’m no evangelist trying to revive the anachronistic grace and exalt the miserably dejected Japanese of the 21st century. Those ancient poems which I will introduce here are guaranteed to give you artistic pleasure, but they are individual achievements of respective poets, no guarantee for JAPANESE NATIONAL EXCELLENCE: Japanese simpletons, beware against saying things like “TANKA is our proud national heritage”… the fact that those poems which I will introduce here sound totally ARCHAIC and ALIEN to the present day Japan will speak for itself. That is one reason why I’m writing this poetic introduction (except for the verse) mainly in English, not in Japanese, in order to speak to people who would earnestly listen.

 Should any Japanese want to know, they should know what I’m talking about in English language. For those who can’t even understand modern English, grammar, terms and poems of ancient Japan and anything meaningfully profound in today’s world would be naturally destined to remain as alien and meaningless to their self-contained mindset. To deaf ears, no verse, even no prose would I propose to cast. If you want to hear me say something meaningful, don’t expect me to speak in your terms; just walk up to me after being intellectually fortified with the command of English.