This article is about the poetic genre. For the rock band, see La Renga.

Renga (連歌, collaborative poetry) is a genre[1] of Japanese collaborative poetry. A renga consists of at least two ku () or stanzas. The opening stanza of the renga, called the hokku (発句), became the basis for the modern haiku form of poetry.

Two of the most famous masters of renga were the Buddhist priest Sōgi (1421–1502) and Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694).


Renga was one of the most important literary arts in pre-modern Japan. The earliest surviving renga is in the Man'yōshū, where Ōtomo no Yakamochi and a Buddhist nun ( ama) made and exchanged poems with sound unit counts ("on") of 5-7-5 and 7-7.[2] This two-verse style is called tan-renga (短連歌, "short renga"). Other styles are called chō-renga (長連歌, "long renga"). A comparable, though less evolved, tradition of 'linked verse' (lián jù 連句 - the same characters as 'renku') - evolved in Chin-dynasty China,[3] and this Chinese form may have influenced Japanese renga during its formative period.[4] However, there are major differences between the two, the Chinese having a unity of subject and a general lightheartedness of tone, neither of which characteristic is present in Japanese renga; furthermore, the history of Japanese poetry shows renga as an apparently natural evolution.[5]

Around the time the Shin Kokin Wakashū was compiled, the renga form of poetry was finally established as a distinct style. This original renga style, hyakuin renga (百韻連歌, "100-stanza renga") consisted of one-hundred links, used only the standard poetic diction (歌言葉 utakotoba) that had been established in the Kokinshū, used sound unit counts of 5-7-5 and 7-7, and finished with two lines of 7 sound units each. At this time, poets considered the use of utakotoba as the essence of creating a perfect waka, and use of any other words was considered to be unbecoming of true poetry.

Many rules or shikimoku (式目) were formalized in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods specifying a minimum number of intervening stanzas before a topic or class of topics could recur.[6] Renga was a popular form of poetry even in the confusion of Azuchi–Momoyama period. Yet by the end of this era, the shikimoku had become so complicated and systematic that they stifled the active imagination that had been a part of the renga's appeal. During the medieval and Edo periods, renga was a part of the cultural knowledge required for high society.

In the Edo period, as more and more ordinary citizens became familiar with renga, shikimoku were greatly simplified. The 36-verse Kasen became the most popular form of renga, and commonly spoken words as well as slang and Chinese words were allowed. With this relaxation of the rules, renga were able to express broader humor and wit. This style of renga came to be called haikai no renga ("comical linked verse") or simply haikai, and Matsuo Bashō is known as the greatest haikai poet.

The most favored form of renga in the Edo period was the kasen (歌仙), a chain consisting of 36 verses. As a rule, kasen must refer to flowers (usually cherry blossoms) twice, and three times to the moon. These references are termed hana no za (花の座, "the seat of flowers") and tsuki no za (月の座, "the seat of the moon").

The first stanza of the renga chain, the hokku, is the forebear of the modern haiku. The stand-alone hokku was renamed haiku in the Meiji period by the great Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki. Shiki proposed haiku as an abbreviation of the phrase "haikai no ku" meaning a verse of haikai.[7]

For almost 700 years, renga was a popular form of poetry, but its popularity was greatly diminished in the Meiji period. Masaoka Shiki, although himself a participant in several renga,[8] claimed that "(Renga is) not literature" (「文学に非ず」 Bungaku ni arazu)"連歌・連句 (Renga, Renku)". Japan Dictionary (日本辞典 Nihon-Jiten). Retrieved 23 December 2012. . The renga's appeal of working as a group to make a complete work was not compatible with the European style of poetry gaining popularity in Japan, where a single poet writes the entire poem.

Renga outside Japan

An early attempt at renga in English appeared in 1968 in Haiku Magazine,[9] and the same magazine published an issue in 1976 devoted to renga and haibun.[9]

Formats of renga

Here follows a list of the most common formats in which renga have been written, both ushin (orthodox) renga, and mushin (renku)[10]

Name of format Number
of stanzas
Number of kaishi
(writing sheets)
of sides
Originator Date of origin
Hyakuin[11] 100 4 8 unknown 13th century
Senku 1000 40 80 unknown
Gojūin 50 2 4 unknown
Yoyoshi 44 2 4 unknown
Kasen 36 2 4 unknown 1423
Han-kasen (i.e. half-kasen) 18 1 2 unknown 17th century
Shisan 12 2 4 Kaoru Kubota 1970s
Jūnichō 12 1 1 Shunjin Okamoto 1989
Nijūin 20 2 4 Meiga Higashi 1980s
Triparshva 22 1 3 Norman Darlington 2005
Rokku (aka on za rokku) variable variable variable Haku Asanuma 2000

Renga terminology

See also


  1. Carter, Steven D. Three Poets at Yuyama, University of California, 1983, ISBN 0-912966-61-0 p.3
  2. Keene, Donald, The Comic Tradition in Renga, in Japan in the Muromachi Age, edited by John Hall and Takeshi Toyoda. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977. p. 244.
  3. Reckert, Stephen, Beyond Chrysanthemums: Perspectives on Poetry East and West, Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-19-815165-9, p.43
  4. Sato, Hiroaki. One Hundred Frogs, from renga to haiku to English, Weatherhill 1983, ISBN 0-8348-0176-0 p.11
  5. Keene, Donald, Japanese Literature: an Introduction for Western Readers, (New York: Grove Press, 1955) p. 33–34.
  6. Carter, Steven D. The Road to Komatsubara, Harvard University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-674-77385-3, pp. 33–72.
  7. Miner, Earl. Japanese Linked Poetry. Princeton University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-691-01368-3 pbk.
  8. Higginson, William J. The Haiku Seasons, Kodansha, 1996, ISBN 4-7700-1629-8 p.55
  9. 1 2 Van den Heuvel, Cor. The Haiku Anthology, 2nd edition. Simon & Schuster, 1986. ISBN 0671628372 p12
  10. Miner, Earl. Japanese Linked Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1979, ISBN 0-691-06372-9.
  11. Carter, Steven D. The Road to Komatsubara, Harvard University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-674-77385-3.
  12. "Daijirin entry for renju". Retrieved 16 January 2013.

Further reading

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