Poetry Explained

Tanka vs. Haiku

Haiku and tanka are two major poetic forms that define much of Japanese literary history. But what defines a haiku or a tanka? And how are the two different?  

Japanese art poetry

Japanese poetry has been celebrated for its concise yet evocative nature, capturing moments of beauty, simplicity, and profundity. This tradition of poetry has gained immense popularity worldwide and has become an integral part of the literary canon of many cultures. Two of the most well-known forms of Japanese poetry are Tanka and Haiku.


Definition and Origin 

Tanka is a form of Japanese poetry that dates back to the 8th century. It was initially known as Waka, which means “Japanese poem.” Tanka, which means “short song,” emerged as a distinct form of Waka in the 13th century. Tanka is a lyrical, five-line poem that consists of 31 syllables. It is often described as a “longer Haiku” because of its structure.

Structure of Tanka

The traditional structure of Tanka consists of 31 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. The first three lines have five, seven, and five syllables, respectively, while the last two lines have seven syllables each. The 5-7-5 pattern is similar to that of haiku, but tanka adds two more lines to create a longer, more complex poem.

Traditional Themes/Topics 

Tanka traditionally deals with themes of love, nature, and the passage of time. Many tanka poems express feelings of longing, melancholy, and nostalgia. The themes of tanka often revolve around nature, such as the changing of the seasons, the beauty of flowers, and the sound of rain. Tanka also explores the human condition, including the fleeting nature of life and the struggle to find meaning in an ever-changing world.

Examples of Tanka Poems 

A single robe by Lady Murasaki 

This is not one of the best-known Japanese poems of all time, but it is a good example of the beauty and challenges of tanka poetry. This poem was included in The Tale of Genji, a book that includes over 400 tanka. The poem reads: 

a single robe

yet the two sleeves

are wet with tears

on one side bitterness

on the other affection

With a few more lines than haiku, the tanka form is capable of providing a more expansive scene for the reader (physically and emotionally). Such is the case with this beautiful poem that depicts the two sleeves of a robe. The two are “wet with tears” but for different reasons. 

Lying on the Dune Sand by Takuboku Ishikawa

Lying on the Dune Sand’ is another interesting example of the form. It was published in the early 1900s and reads: 

Lying on the dune sand

this day I recall


the anguish of my first love.

Readers will note that this tanka is one line shorter than the previous one. Often, tanka and haiku will diverge, in small ways, from the traditional form but are still similar enough to be categorized as “haiku” or “tanka.” 

This tanka is very straightforward. It’s hard to misinterpret, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less impactful.  

Tanka 6 by Masaoka Shiki

This is a good example of the ways that haiku and tanka are similar. The poem explores natural images, repeats sounds, and leaves readers with a peaceful feeling. The poem reads: 

The bucket’s water

poured out and gone,

drop by drop

dew drips like pearls

from the autumn flowers.

The poet repeats the “d” sound in these lines, something that helps give the poem a rhythmic feeling without using a specific rhyme scheme


Definition and Origin 

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that originated in the 17th century. It is a short poem that is meant to capture a moment in nature or a fleeting emotion. Haiku is known for its simplicity and brevity and its ability to convey a sense of deep meaning in just a few words.

Structure of Haiku

The traditional structure of haiku consists of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables, respectively. Unlike Tanka, Haiku has a simpler structure and focuses on creating a snapshot of a moment in time. The 5-7-5 pattern is meant to create a sense of balance and symmetry within the poem.

Traditional Themes/Topics 

Haiku often explores themes of nature, the changing of seasons, and the beauty of everyday moments. It is meant to capture the essence of a moment rather than tell a story or convey a specific emotion. Haiku is also known for its use of imagery and for the way it encourages the reader to use their imagination to fill in the gaps left by the poem.

Examples of Haiku Poems 

Here are a few good examples of haiku poems that demonstrate the form’s traditional features: 

On the one-ton temple bell by Taniguchi Buson 

The English translation of the poem reads: 

On the one-ton temple bell

A moonmoth, folded into sleep,

Sits still.

The lines describe a moonmoth sitting on a large temple bell. The lines are short, as one would expect, and should inspire readers to imagine the sound of the bell ringing at any moment and scaring the moth off. It’s a temporary moment and one that’s perfect for the haiku form

Read more Taniguchi Buson poems

After Killing a Spider by Masaoka Shiki 

After killing

a spider, how lonely I fee

lin the cold of night!

This is another very good example of a haiku by a Japanese poet. It is focused on the power of loneliness and the meaning of life. The poem describes someone killing a spider and how, after the act, he feels even worse than he did before. This poem demonstrates the ease with which haiku is capable of capturing a feeling or feelings in a moment. 

Read more Masaoka Shiki poems

Everything I touch by Kobayashi Issa

This is a well-known haiku (that was translated by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn) it reads: 

Everything I touch

with tenderness, alas,

pricks like a bramble

This poem is another good example of the way that short, three-line poems like haiku are capable of capturing and challenging the reader’s understanding of a situation. The poet writes that everything the speaker touches “pricks like a bramble.” 

This example of a similar conveys the immense loneliness this speaker is feeling and how hard it seems to be for them to form relationships. 

Read more Kobayashi Issa poems

Tanka vs. Haiku 


Tanka and haiku share many similarities, including their origins in Japanese poetry, their use of syllabic meter, and their focus on capturing the essence of a moment. Both forms of poetry rely on the use of imagery and symbolism to convey a sense of deeper meaning, and they are often used to explore themes of nature, the passage of time, and the human experience.


While tanka and haiku share many similarities, there are also some key differences between the two forms of poetry. The most significant difference is their structure: tanka consists of five lines, while Haiku consists of only three. Tanka also has a more complex syllabic structure than Haiku, with a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern as opposed to haiku’s simpler 5-7-5 pattern.

Another difference between tanka and haiku is their focus. Tanka is often used to explore complex emotions and ideas, while haiku is more concerned with capturing a single moment in time. Additionally, tanka is often more descriptive and narrative than haiku, which tends to be more imagistic and suggestive.

Comparison of Themes and Subjects 

Both tanka and haiku explore themes of nature, the passage of time, and the human experience. However, tanka tends to focus more on emotions and personal experiences, while haiku is more concerned with the beauty of the natural world and the fleetingness of individual moments. Tanka often deals with themes of love, longing, and nostalgia, while Haiku tends to focus on the changing of the seasons, the beauty of flowers and plants, and the sounds and sensations of the natural world.

While tanka and haiku share many similarities in their origins and use of syllabic meter, they differ in their structure, focus, and themes. Tanka is more complex and narrative, while haiku is simpler and imagistic.

Importance of Tanka and Haiku  

Tanka and haiku are two distinct forms of Japanese poetry that share a rich history and tradition. Understanding and appreciating Japanese poetry is important not only for its cultural significance but also for the universal themes and emotions that it explores.

The ability to convey deep meaning in just a few words is a testament to the power of poetry, and the simplicity and elegance of Tanka and Haiku are a testament to the beauty of the Japanese language and culture.

As the popularity of Japanese poetry continues to grow worldwide, it is important to honor and preserve these traditional forms of poetry while also allowing for innovation and experimentation in the creation of new works.


What is the difference between haiku and tanka?

Haiku and tanka are both traditional forms of Japanese poetry, but they differ in terms of length, structure, and content. Haiku is a three-line poem with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Tanka, on the other hand, is a five-line poem with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern for a total of 31 syllables.

Can a haiku be 3-5-3?

Traditionally, haiku is a form of poetry that consists of three lines. The first and third lines have five syllables, while the second line has seven syllables. This structure is commonly known as the 5-7-5 syllable pattern.

What does tanka literally mean?

The word “tanka” literally means “short song” or “short poem” in Japanese. It is derived from the word “tan,” which means “short,” and “ka,” which means “song” or “poem.”

What is the significance of tanka?

Tanka is significant in Japanese literature as a traditional form of poetry that expresses deep emotions and thoughts in a concise manner. It has been an important form of poetry for over a thousand years in Japan and has been used to express a wide range of emotions, from love and beauty to sadness and grief.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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