Poetry’s divine origins

In a preface to the tenth-century Kokin Wakashu, the poet-courtier Ki no Tsurayuki describes the divine origins of Japanese verse.  What interests me here is the origins of the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern of short verse (tanka). As this was later adapted to the 5-7-5 of haiku, it’s a hallmark of Japanese poetry.

Verse came into being when heaven parted from earth.  Legend has it that in heaven it began with the verse of Princess Shitateru, wife to Prince Ame-wakamiko, and on earth with the song of Susano no mikoto.  In the age of the gods, the number of letters of the tanka (short verse) was not fixed.  It flowed forth as the heart wished to sing, but it seemed the meaning was difficult to understand.  Susano no mikoto wrote in 31 letters.  When he was building a palace in the province of Izumo to live with his wife, he saw eight-coloured clouds rise, and composed the following song:

Eight clouds arising
In Izumo where they formed
A fence eight-fold in nature
Within which the spouses lived –
An eight-fold fence, eight-fold fence


Hopefully there are some poetry experts reading this… Robin Gill, Stephen Gill, Gaby Greve….?  I wonder if they’d agree with my thesis that since Chinese influence was prevalent in Japan after the sixth and seventh centuries, the likelihood is that the 5-7 syllable pattern arose from Taoist numerology and the inclination to see odd numbers as favouring ki vitality and energy flows.  it’s reflected too in the 7-5-3 children’s festival…


Nervous participant in the Shichi-Go-San, which officially takes place on Nov 15

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Poetry’s divine origins — 13 Comments

  1. I want to compliment you on your lovely site. Please keep it going.

    Concerning Japanese poetry translations, I greatly admire those of Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, and recommend them highly.

  2. First, I second the comments by Jim Marciniak — your site is getting better and better and is a treasure chest of knowledge.

    Returning to your comment about the importance of the number 7 and odd numbers. In Chinese Zodiac cosmology, odd numbers are considered auspicious, and hence, major festival days and celebrations were held on odd days. This is known in Japan as Gosekku 五節句 (lit. = five seasonal festivals). The five main Japanese festivals of the old lunar calendar are:

    1. First month, first day = Kochōhai 小朝拝, New Year Celebration, together with the seventh day after the New Year known as Jinjitsu 人日 or Nanakusa no sekku 七草の節句 (feast of seven herbs).

    2. Third month, third day = Kyokusui no en 曲水の宴, Drinking Around a Rolling Stream.
    3. Fifth month, fifth day = Tango no sekku 端午の節句 or Boys’ Festival.
    4. Seventh month, seventh day = Kikkouden 乞功奠 or Tanabata 七夕 Festival.
    5. Ninth month, ninth day = Chōyō no en 重陽の宴 or Feast of Chrysanthemuns.

    Over the centuries several of the festivals changed dates or names. For example, when Japan adopted the solar calendar in 1872, the feast of seven herbs was moved from the 7th of the lunar calendar to the 7th day of January. In addition, the third month festival became the Hinamatsuri 雛祭 or Doll Festival.

    QUESTION. I’ve often wondered why there were only five seasonal festivals. Why not seven?

    Lastly, the number seven figures prominently, as you say, in tanka and haiku. It also figures prominently in numerous other configurations, e.g., the 28 Lunar Lodges (made up of four clusters of seven, 4 X 7 = 28), and the 21 Sannō deities and protective shrines at Mt. Hiei (made up of three clusters of seven, 3 X 7 = 21). The list is seemingly endless. In any case, I will update my Seven Lucky Gods page to include a reference to 7 and poetry.

  3. Hello Mark…

    It’s a privilege to be complimented by the author of the amazing Buddhism and Shintoism photo dictionary website. (See http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/buddhism.shtml)

    I’m reminded from your post of the connection of odd numbers with yang attributes to do with movement and energy. Even numbers by contrast were considered yin and associated with stillness. Seen in this light, the 5-7-5 pattern has a dynamic feel.

  4. Mark Schumacher of the Online Dictionary of Buddhism and Shinto has written in with the following interesting observation. It presents another dimension to the issue – a cosmic dimension, you could say. Given the role of the heavens as the abode of the gods, the configurations of five and seven mentioned may well have sparked divine inspiration. It’s well worth consideration…

    “This might be over the top, but what about looking to star worship
    as another major influence on the preference for odd numbers and
    the 5-7 cadence in Japanese poetry? Of course I agree too with
    your theory that Taoist influences underpin 5-7 (in haiku and tanka).
    There are the five planets, each linked to one of the five elements.
    There are the seven celestial bodies (sun + moon + five planets).
    There are also the seven stars of the Big Dipper.
    There are the nine luminaries (rago + ketu + seven celestial bodies).
    DETAILS http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/28-moon-stations.html#nine-planet

    The above deities don’t really appear in Japanese artwork until the introduction of Esoteric Buddhism in the 9th century — they appear mostly in mandala.”

  5. Anuradha Gupta has written to point out the significance of seven in Hinduism too.

    “The number seven is a symbolic representation of the earthly plane. Hindu scriptures declare that our earth is but one in a series of several planes of existence, some belonging to the higher regions and some to the lower. In all there are said to be 14 planes or worlds of which six are above the earth and seven below the earth. These seven worlds also said to correspond to the seven planes of consciousness or sheaths in our bodies. The higher seven planes also correspond with the seven chakras in the body and seven planets in the solar system.

    The number seven appears very frequently in Hindu scriptures. The seven sages of Hinduism, known as saptarishis played an important role in bringing the Vedas and other texts into our earthly consciousness. The key musical notes are seven corresponding to the seven planes of consciousness both within and without.

    The number seven plays an important role in Hindu marriage which is consecrated only after the newly married couple walk seven steps together around the fire.
    According to tradition, once married, the marriage bond between a couple lasts for seven lives.”

  6. Wow! I was looking for the significance of 5 and 7 syllable use in Japanese poetry as part of a Tanka blog post. Thank you for the post. I’ll site it for reference.

    Something to add to the discussion: The five seasons are discussed at length in Traditional Acupuncture: The Law of the Five Elements by Dianne Connelly and Dancing With the Ten Thousand Things by Tom Balles. My short version can be found at the writersvibe. Search for the Five Elements.



  7. Thanks, Jules, for that…

    The Five Elements is certainly a factor worth considering, I think… also Michael Sosa, an expert in Daoism, suggested to me the other day that the 5-7 ratio was related to the Golden Ratio. There’s a Wikipedia page on it… the proportions are found throughout nature and would therefore constitute the perfect means for verse to ‘resonate in harmony with nature’.

  8. Michael Saso, professor emeritus at Hawaii University, has suggested that the 5-7 pattern is based on the Golden Proportion. I asked Michael Vezzuto about this, since he has written a thesis on the subject in relation to music, and in response to whether the Golden Proportion fits the 5-7 ration, he replied as follows:

    “Yes it does, and it’s an interesting suggestion. To get the golden proportion, start with 1, then add the previous number in the series (with one, you have to start by adding one to itself). So: 1+1=2, 2+1=3, 3+2=5, 5+3=8, 8+5=13, and so on to infinity.

    My Master’s thesis concludes that this proportion often comes up accidentally in art because it surrounds us in nature, and may be the most naturally occurring proportion in existence. It happens in nature because it opens an infinite space for growth, and that infinity can also be felt in the arts.”

  9. Further to the Golden Ratio theory, I’ve now had further correspondence with Michael Vezzuto who pours cold water on the relationship with the 5-7 verse pattern. He writes as follows:

    “Hate to burst your bubble, but 5:8 or 8:5 approximates the golden ratio. 5:7 doesn’t.

    The golden ratio is 1:1.61803399… to infinity. It’s what’s called an irrational number, which is a number that can’t be expressed as a rational number (that is, a number you can fully write down). When you divide a Fibonacci numbers by its preceding Fibonacci number, you always come close to the golden ratio. 8/5=1.6, a rational number, but we’re on the way to the golden ratio. If you use higher Fibonacci numbers, you come closer to the golden ratio. For example: 144/89=1.6179775280… Once you’re using Fibonacci numbers in the thousands and ten thousands, you’re approximating the golden ratio more closely. The Fibonacci series approaches the golden ratio. You could say that the Fibonacci numbers are the shadows or Platonic reflections of the form of infinity.”

    7/5 is 1.4, way off of the golden ratio. Sorry John!

  10. Reading through the above again somewhat later, I note that no one has mentioned the fundamental importance of the phases of the moon, which divide into four phases of seven days each. This is how the week came to have seven days. So seven is clearly fundamental to human consciousness, as must be the number five since we have five fingers. Would this five-seven base then be the key to the Japanese poetic meter, I wonder?

    In this respect it’s worth noting the deceptively simple tanka by Yamanoue Okura in the Manyoshu (vol. 8-1537):
    aki no no ni sakitaru hana o oyobi ori kakikazoureba nanakusa no hana

    When I count on my fingers
    The flowers that bloom
    In the autumn fields…
    I find that they come
    To seven.

    Okura was a clever and original poet. He seems to be getting at something profound here…

  11. To add more complexity to the history of the number seven, see:
    The Historical Buddha was born near Kapilavatthu (in current-day Nepal), emerging from his mother’s side, which emitted a seven-colored light that brought forth the infant, who then took seven steps forward while pointing his right hand to the heavens and left hand to earth, saying: “I alone am honored in heaven and on earth (tenjō tenga yuiga dokuson 天上天下唯我独尊).” Statues depicting the infant in this pose are used in the Kanbutsu-e 潅仏会 ceremony, held annually in Japan on April 8, to commemorate Buddha’s birthday. The child was named Siddhartha, and since his father’s surname was Gautama, he was called Gautama Siddhartha. His mother died seven days after giving birth.

    Other commonalities and curiosities include:
    The Japanese people appear bewitched by the number seven — much like the rest of the world…………………………….

    • Thanks Mark as always for the great info… And thanks for quoting Green Shinto! For those who don’t know, it’s definitely worth marking Mark’s website, best on the internet for Japanese religions. As for seven, I’m sure it must be deeply ingrained on the human consciousness from millions of years of observing the phases of the moon (4 quarters of seven)…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *