Intro-1 A modular TANKA

■Introduction of real TANKA(短歌):PART-I■★A modular TANKA

(AUDIO/VISUAL TUTORIAL)★A modular TANKA… an example of Japanese TANKA(短歌) enabling parallel translation into English verse or even another Japanese TANKA(短歌) with relatively high fidelity in sound and meaning


■Introduction of real TANKA(短歌) : Part I■

★A modular TANKA… an example of Japanese TANKA(短歌) enabling parallel translation into English verse or even another Japanese TANKA(短歌) with relatively high fidelity in sound and meaning

(in 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese syllables)

《Inu wa inu hito wa hito to wa shiri nagara inu no inu yo no hito wa hito kawa》




いぬ【犬】〔名〕<NOUN:a dog>


いぬ【犬】〔名〕<NOUN:a dog>

…A dog is a dog

ひと【人】〔名〕<NOUN:a man, human being>


ひと【人】〔名〕<NOUN:a man, human being>

…A man is a man



しる【知る】〔他ラ四〕(しり=連用形)<VERB:know, be aware>

ながら【ながら】〔接助〕<POSTPOSITIONAL PARTICLE(CONCESSION):although, despite -ing>

…That much I know, but

いぬ【犬】〔名〕<NOUN:a dog>


ゐる【居る】〔自ワ上一〕(ゐ=未然形)<VERB:exist, be>

ず【ず】〔助動特殊型〕打消(ぬ=連体形)<AUXILIARY VERB(NEGATIVE):not>

よ【世】〔名〕<NOUN:a world, life>

の【の】〔格助〕<POSTPOSITIONAL PARTICLE(SITUATION):where, in the case of>

…In a world where there’s no dog

ひと【人】〔名〕<NOUN:a man, human being>


ひと【人】〔名〕<NOUN:a man, human being>


…Can a man be still a man?

(in 5-7-5-7-7 English words)

A dog is a dog;

A man is a man ― oh yeah,

That much I know, but,

In a world where there’s no dog,

Can a man be still a man?

●A Japanese TANKA(短歌)’s modular unit = LETTER/SYLLABLE, an English TANKA’s modular unit = WORD

 As you can see in the preceding explanation and translation part, literal translations of the original Japanese poem in 5-7-5-7-7 letters fit comfortably into English verse in 5-7-5-7-7 word format. Just like well-designed industrial products, the rhyme above can change itself into another piece of work, simply by changing part of its modules: the module in this case is a letter/syllable in Japanese TANKA(短歌) (as opposed to a word in English translation). In Japanese KANA(かな)-writing system, a single letter corresponds to a single syllable; so long as the number of letters and syllables are right, this type of MODULAR TANKA(短歌) can modulate itself into various different poems. Let’s try remodeling by changing the two-syllabled word “いぬ(dog)” into another two-syllabled term “ねこ(cat)” and see how it sounds (or should I say, how it barks or mews?):

(A) DOG → CAT・・・いぬ(2)→ねこ(2)

(○)《Neko wa neko hito wa hito to wa shiri nagara neko no inu yo no hito wa hito kawa》ねこはねこ(5)ひとはひととは(7)しりながら(5)ねこのゐぬよの(7)ひとはひとかは(7)<猫は猫人は人とは知りながら猫の居ぬ世の人は人かは>『猫は猫、人間は人間、それぞれ別の生き物だとはわかってるけど、もしこの世に猫が居なかったら、そこでの人の暮らしは果たして本当に人間の暮らしと言えるだろうか?』

(○)A CAT is A CAT;(5) A man is a man ― oh yeah,(7) That much I know, but,(5) In a world where there’s no CAT,(7) Can a man be still a man?(7)

 …Yes, it sounds just right (unless, of course, you’re a die-hard cat-hater)… all because the number of letters/syllables are the same and unchanged; the same can also be said about its English translation because the word-length and syllabic rhythm of “CAT” is no different from “DOG”.

 A world without cats and dogs may not seem so desolate to some people, but what about a world for men without women or women without men? Let’s try changing the original term “dog” into “woman” (no offense, ladies); “a man” is still “a man” in a new rhyme but stands not for humanity as a whole but for an opposite sex of a woman:

(B) DOG → WOMAN / MAN(=human) → MAN(=male)

(○)A WOMAN is a WOMAN;(5) A MAN is a MAN ― oh yeah,(7) That much I know, but,(5) In a world where there’s no WOMAN,(7) Can a MAN be still a MAN?(7)

 …Oh yeah, that sounds bad enough… and as good enough as a poem as the previous two ones. But how about its Japanese counterpart… does a Japanese man or woman equally feel bad in a world without opposite sex? Let’s see how the poem sounds after changing “いぬ(2 letter/syllable = dog)”→”をんな(3 letter/syllable = woman)”/”ひと(2 letter/syllable = human)”→”をとこ(3 letter/syllable = male)”… here it is:

(C) いぬ(inu:2) → をんな(onna:3)/ひと(hito:2) → をとこ(otoko:3)

(×)《Onna wa onna otoko wa otoko to wa shiri nagara onna no inu yo no otoko wa otoko kawa》をんなはをんな(7)をとこはをとことは(9)しりながら(5)をんなのゐぬよの(8)をとこはをとこかは(9)<女は女男は男とは知りながら女の居ぬ世の男は男かは>『女は女、男は男、それぞれ別の生き物だとはわかってるけど、もしこの世に女が居なかったら、そこでの男の暮らしは果たして本当に男の暮らしと言えるだろうか?』

 …Whoops! Flop! It failed flat! It doesn’t sound like a poem, it even sounds horrid as prose too… all because it goes against the golden rule of Japanese rhythmic pattern of “5-7” or “7-5” syllables; a 7-9-5-8-9 streak of letters just doesn’t sound right in Japanese, be it verse or prose. Just changing a pair of two-syllabled terms (いぬ、ひと) into three-syllabled ones (をんな、をとこ) makes this difference: in Japanese, the number of syllables (not words) makes difference. And syllabic numbers in Japanese sentences have a magical tendency to fall comfortably into 七(SHICHI=seven) or 五(GO=five), taking evasive actions from 4, 6, 8 or 9. Strange, isn’t it?… but it’s true: so true that even elementary-school kids can make concoctions of 5-7-5 Japanese letters, meaning every speaker of Japanese can automatically purport to be a HAIKU(俳句) poet of 5-7-5 (…if not a TANKA(短歌) creator of 5-7-5-7-7). So powerful is Japanese syllabic tendency to fall rhythmically into 七(SHICHI=seven)-五(GO=five) patterns that the pair was molded into a phrase “SHICH-GO-CHOU(七五調=seven-five rhythmic pattern),” into which all Japanese, especially when feeling pedantic, romantic or academic, naturally want to flow. Foreign people should remember this Japanese syllabic tendency by reciting “Go, city, go! GO(五=5), CITY(SHICHI=七=7), GO(五=5)!”… that’s the way to go for all would-be HAIKU(俳句) poets, although there’s still some more distance left for TANKA(短歌) creators to tread.

●English indifference to individual words in the greater stream of a whole sentence

 Now that we’ve found that syllables or KANA letters count in Japanese TANKA(短歌), let us check if words (as opposed to syllables or letters) also count so much in its English counterpart, by cutting down the two word pair of “a dog” and “a man” into single “others” and “I”(or “myself”) and see how the rhyme sounds afterwards: does it sound as stupidly out of tune as in the previous Japanese alteration?

(D) A DOG → OTHERS / A MAN → I,myself

(○)OTHERS are OTHERS;(3) I am myself ― oh yeah,(5) That much I know, but,(5) In a world where there’s no OTHERS,(7) Can I be still myself?(5)

 Well, what do you think? Aside from the unthinkability of a world where there’s no one but yourself, does the altered English poem of 3-5-5-7-5 word composition sound as stupid as the 7-9-5-8-9 syllabled Japanese TANKA(短歌)?… definitely not. When a two-word module of “a dog” is reduced to a single-word “others”, the total number of words reduced in the first phrase will amount to two(2), thereby curtailing the original 5-word composition down to 3… this should sound so stupidly curt in syllable-based Japanese TANKA(短歌), but not at all in English verse, because in English it is not the number of syllables or letters, and not even words, that really counts: what matters in English verse is not so much individual terms as the overall ensemble of words in poetic streams. Just pronounce “a dog” and “others” and see how similar they sound (in sound, not in actual value, I tell you)… in poetic contexts, “a dog” and “others” are phonetically equal. On the other hand, the reduction of “a man” to “I” is a little too much in sound and awkward in meaning, making it necessary to say “myself” instead of “I” at two points; still, the resulting phrases of “I am myself” and “Can I be still myself?” are not so hopelessly distant from the original “A man is a man” and “Can a man be still a man?”

 Why is it so?… it’s because any given English clause or phrase has its own proper size of pronunciation span, which is hardly influenced by the number of words included, but rather change the speed at which individual words are pronounced to make the total pronunciation span within proper range. If a clause/phrase includes too many words, the time spent pronouncing each word will be cut down and uttered that much quicker; if the number of words composing a clause or phrase is relatively small, more time will be leisurely assigned to each word resulting in a rather slow pace of pronunciation. In English, the length of time for pronouncing a clause/phrase is determined by the clause or phrase itself, not by the number of words included therein. On the other hand, the length of time for pronouncing a Japanese clause or phrase is determined by the number of letters/syllables that compose it: if too many, it will be accordingly prolonged phonetically; if too few, it will be felt to fall flat abruptly.

 By literary analogy, you could associate “Procrustes’ bed” with the total time spent pronouncing a whole English clause or phrase: it does not change its own size, but will try to prolong or cut down the words included to fit into the total time range. Japanese language is far from such phonetic flexibility; each and every letter/syllable demands equal amount of time for its pronunciation, resulting in a totally flat stream of relatively stress-free voices. That’s the fundamental reason for the difficulty the Japanese find in properly speaking English: being too busy pronouncing each and every detail of individual words, they just can’t ride on the English sentence streams, ending up in something alien from natural English not unlike computer-synthesized voices in old sci-fi movies.

●Since syllables and words are totally different, Japanese to English translation of TANKA should not be restricted by 5-7-5-7-7 format

 Have I made my message clear?… East is east, West is west… they go their separate ways, at least in their respective poetic uniqueness. In English verse, just ride on the stream of a total line, ignoring how many words it contains… a deliberately composed streak of 5-7-5-7-7 word would be phonetically meaningless in English and fundamentally alien from Japanese 5-7-5-7-7 syllabled TANKA(短歌). If you try composing an English poem at all, never count words, but try to make rhymes and lines count. Except as an intellectual obstacle race, 5-7-5-7-7 word format is sheer nonsense: it only makes sense as the number of Japanese letters/syllables, not as English words.

 And, if you want to appreciate the true meaning and charm of Japanese TANKA(短歌), you should delve into the sound, terms, grammar and background knowledge of HEIANESE Japanese more than a millennium old, with which few Japanese nowadays are sufficiently acquainted to tell you how… I’m one of the few intent on telling you how to appreciate them as directly as possible by way of English without the trouble of having to master Japanese (modern or ancient). Should you be sufficiently interested, try reciting the archaic lines of Japanese in as flat an intonation as you possibly can in order to pay homage to each and every letter of Japanese KANA(かな). As with anything Japanese, details count so much in TANKA(短歌): you’ll be surprised how much is expressed by how few words in how complicated fashion.

●A MODULAR system degrades itself in duplication

 This example TANKA(短歌) of mine is a rare exception which enables straight translation into English and can be equally relished either in Japanese or English, and can even be reduplicated by simply changing MODULES to pretend to be another piece of work. Such easily translatable TANKA(短歌) is quite rare to find but it has to be admitted that most Japanese TANKA(短歌) are more or less products of simple MODULE changes. With the exception of the works made in Japanese TANKA’s burgeoning years C.900, as years went by, it became harder and harder to find uniquely original TANKA(短歌) with authentic creativity. This is quite natural in view of the following facts:

FACT 1) The 31-letter/syllable world of TANKA(短歌) is so small that you can hardly go around without meeting something already too familiar;

FACT 2) The 31-letter/syllable TANKA(短歌) is so easy to concoct that practically every noble man and woman in ancient Japan was required to produce it on so many occasions, so much so that they so often had to rely upon MODULAR DUPLICATION of something they were familiar with;

FACT 3) Duplicated TANKA(短歌) with MODULAR units borrowed from something else calls for the knowledge of the original poem not only on the part of the imitator but also out of the hearer/reader, with the result that the joy of discovering something famous in such copy work became major factor in poetic appreciation of Japanese TNAKA(短歌);

FACT 4) Japanese national tendency makes much more of conformity to something traditional, familiar and common rather than something totally unique, novel, individual or peerlessly excellent.

 Endless or even shameless duplication, reduplication and multiplication of easily copied MODULAR system products are the undeniable hallmark of the present-day Japan. Look around you in Japan, and you’ll find yourself assaulted by waves after waves after vomitting waves of the same old face, same old voice, same old goods, mindlessly replayed farces by swarms of bandwagon jumpers, not unlike the eerily characterless hive of the Borg drones in Star Trek universe… But don’t be afraid; such faceless products of MODULAR system poetry, of course, are not to the taste of this discriminating author(Jaugo Noto) and will not be shown you… except as horrid examples of Japanese conformity.