The Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society

Vol 4-1, 2004

WHCpoetrybridge – the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society
by Hisashi Nakamura

The Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society

After spending years reading Japanese classical tanka written between the 8th century and 1205 I could not keep the beautiful world of tanka within myself. I felt sense of compunction at not helping more people to experience it, but at the same time I knew it would be impossible for anybody to translate tanka or any other form of Japanese poetry perfectly into English. Such an attempt of translation seemed to be cultural vandalism. However, I came to the conclusion that translation was the only way for a large number of people to share the world of tanka.

Prior to the establishment of the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society I organised a music and poetry evening in York, inviting Masanobu Nishigaki, a world renowned Japanese guitarist, and Ria Ulleri, an actress based in London. It was a fusion of tanka readings and guitar music to mark the 800th anniversary of the start of compilation of the 8th Japanese imperial anthology, Shin Kokin-Wakashu (New Collection of Japanese Poems Ancient and Modern, compiled in 1205). Masanobu selected 13 tanka out of about 50 that I had translated into English and he composed 13 pieces for the recital. Ria read the poems with notes I provided for the English audience, following the cadences of the music, and creating a multi-dimensional space in which the emotions of long ago poets came alive for those present. The 13 tanka included the following.

As the floating bridge
Of my spring night dream
A bank of clouds parts from the peak
In the dawn sky.

Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241)
Broken by the sound of the wind
That plays on the bamboo leaves
Near the window,
A dream even shorter
Than my fleeting sleep.

Princess Shikishi (1149-1201)

The association of life with a dream in Princess Shikishi’s tanka may remind readers of: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” (Shakespeare, The Tempest).

The success of the tanka/ music event led to a Tanka Seminar in York as part of Japan Day in York 2003, which in turn, led to the establishment of the Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society in June 2004. It is very new and as can be seen from its website ( we have a lot of things to do from now on. We aim to promote cultural understanding between Japan and the UK through the appreciation of tanka, to introduce tanka to those who are new to the genre, to encourage the composition of tanka in English, and to unearth the richness of the tanka world in the contexts of a wide range of humanities and social sciences through collaborative studies with others.

Although the Society has the prefix Anglo-Japanese we have no intention to limit our activities and membership. Poetic beauty and human creativity should be shared by the largest possible number of people. Poems have the power to overcome space and time among those who have a receptive mind and heart, and to unite them in a sincere way. Very similar sentiments evoked by nature, life and history in the minds of such classical Japanese poets as Ono no Komachi (fl. ca. 850) and Fujiwara no Yoshitsune (1169-1206) can be reborn in the completely different contexts of modern life by such poets as Karina Klesko.

For the year 2005 the Society is preparing a number of activities to mark the 1,100th anniversary of the first Japanese imperial anthology, Kokin Wakashu (Collection of Japanese Poems Ancient and Modern), and the 800th anniversary of Shin Kokin Wakashu. The inaugural meeting of the Society is scheduled at York St John College in York, England, for the 15th of March 2005. In conjunction with the Society about 200 Art and Design students at York St John have been producing art work inspired by classical tanka written between the Kokin Wakashu and Shin Kokin Wakashu eras. The work will be displayed at the Hida Takayama Museum of Art, Japan, in September 2005. We are also planning a tanka competition in English.

If you are interested in our Society please go to our website and join by clicking “membership”. In the first year of the Society a membership fee will not be levied, and in subsequent years it will be subject to consultation through the Committee.

During the past year I have tried to write tanka in English. I am not sure whether it makes any sense to follow the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable units of the Japanese tanka format when one writes tanka in English. However, for the time being I would like to continue the experiment.


Winter Flame

Through the silent mist
The pale winter moon appears
Over the stone sill.
As the candlelight flares, look!
The faintly flushed cyclamen.

The Winter Woods

The gleam and whisper
Of windflowers in the shade
Are long gone by now.
The naked woods stand mutely
Against the whirling snow flakes.

The Shadowy Harp

As the fresh needles
Of the Northern larch forest
Sift the cold moonlight,
A shadowy harp is touched
In the gently rising mist.

Against the pale sky
A sea of silent silver
Drifts in the cold air.
Thousands of mute travellers
Diffuse into the silence.


Stifled by the air
Laden with the rusty dust
Of the passing years
The dead cranes in the shipyard
Idly dangle their cables.

The Struggle

Their life-long struggle,
Their marching and their banners,
Have left no echo,
Like the wind in the bamboos
In a frosty winter dawn.

Hanging from the bows
Of an old rusty vessel
Tied to the pier
The black shadow of a cross
Falls on the neon red sea.

The Shot

The sound of the shot
Is lost in the lethargy
Of the summer day.
The blank blue sky lies mutely
Over the dull horizon.


Choked by waves of heat
The dune writhes in agony
Under the blank sky.
The scorching white sun stands still
Gazing at me in silence.
The Bee

The stillness and warmth
Of the autumn day embrace
The wandering bee.
As the evening rays weaken
His shadow melts into the stone.

The Still Morning

In the piercing wind
An old icicle breaks off.
The still morning brings
Black figures against the snow
Under the blank blue heaven.
I hope that I have not depressed you too much at the festive season! I cannot help composing tanka which are evoked by the fleeting beauty of things in nature and life although they always have sentiments tinged with melancholy. My own transient existence may have influenced my poetic outlook, after drifting from a small village near the Japan Alps to England via Tokyo, Nagoya and Elsinore in Denmark, during which time I have lost my cultural identity in exchange for discovering the universal value of poetic beauty that can be shared by people beyond nationalities and boundaries.


Hisashi Nakamura
Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society
c/o York St John College
Lord Mayor’s Walk
York YO31 7EX


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