9 Tanka

BooksI often use tanka, short Japanese poetry, as a warmer in my class. Mostly I do this because my school has a strict policy that teachers must begin each class by taking role call.  But not just any kind of role call.  We have to say every student’s full name, complete with the honorific Mr. or Ms. and wait until each students responds before moving on.  So it takes a bit of time. About 5 minutes in all. Which is just about enough time to read and understand a short poem.

Anyway, I thought I would share some of the poems I’ve used over the past few years in my classroom. All except 1 are translated from the Japanese.  Which is actually pretty cool because it allows for some nice L1/L2 comparison action.  Before class starts, I jot the poems up on the board and usually, alongside the tanka, I write a few questions or suggested activities students can answer or do to better understand the poem.  So here are 9 tanka and questions/activities along with links to the books where I found them:  


On the swings

I kick myself up toward the sky

trying to find

enough strength to make 

even god afraid of getting hurt

—-Kei Amano, Tanka No Kibun


– How old is the person on the swings?

– How is she feeling?


because I thought

it was the girlish thing to do

I pretended

until my 2nd year of high school

to love strawberries

—-Mayumi Satou, Kitto Koi no Sei


– Have you ever pretended to like something?

– Do you think there is a way to act like a boy or a girl?

– Why does the poem end with the word strawberry?


only good

at running away

I realize

I’m the last one left

in this game of dodge-ball

—-Kei Amano, Tanka No Kibun


– What is a metaphor?

– Is dodgeball a metaphor in this poem?

– If it is a metaphor, what is it a metaphor for?


from the outside

you would never know

my tongue

could really be burned 

just as badly as this 

—-Hiroshi Homura, Linemarkers


– How many people are in this tanka’s scene?

– Where are they?

– Make a line drawing of these scene.


you say

this tastes great

and so

the sixth of July becomes

our salad anniversary

—-Machi  Tawara, Salad Anniversary


– Is this a sad or happy poem?

– Can you write a similar poem about a special day you have had?


buying up

all the music and books

in the world

knowing I’ve somehow got to

make it through this one night

—Chie Katou, Happy Ice-cream


– When do you like to listen to music?

– What music do you listen to when you are sad?

– Are there books that help you deal with difficult times?


parent’s say

they raise their children

but in the garden

the tomatoes grow red

just as they please


 —-Tawara Machi, Salad Anniversary

– Instead of asking a question, I leave the last line blank in this poem and students can fill it in themselves.  Most of them actually get pretty close to the intent of the poem.  Best answer so far, “even if the gardner is noisy!”


do they

really belong to me

these tears

falling into the empty

egg tray of the refrigerator 

—-Hiroshi Homura, Linemarkers


– Who is the narrator of this poem? (how old?  man or woman?)

– Make a line drawing of this scene.

– Change any three words in this poem to make a new poem.


my cat’s tail

wrapped around his body

a language

that only I and

my mother understand


– This poem was written by one my student two months ago.  She is a 16 year old, second year high school student.  It wasn’t an assignment.  It was just something she did because she wanted to.  It was nice to think that 5 minutes of what could have just been wasted time at the beginning of class led to this.  I haven’t used it in class yet, but she’s given me her permission.  Maybe if you have some ideas for questions/activities to go along with this tanka, you would be kind enough to leave them in the comment section.  I know Y-chan would be very happy to think that teachers from other schools were reading, thinking about, and maybe even using her tanka.

10 thoughts on “9 Tanka

  1. Thanks for this post. The poem that began with “buying up/all the music and books” made my morning. It took me back to a time (roughly 10 years, actually) when every second dime went to buying music and playing those records all night.
    Did you translate the poems yourself or did you find an English translation?


    • Hi Chewie,

      It’s nice to have a few minutes to post. Most of the poets on the post are kind of minor and also pretty young, so their work hasn’t been translated yet. I do the translations. Which works out pretty well, because my more advanced students are always happy to point out and correct my mistakes. One of the poets, Tawara Machi, does have a book of her poetry translated into English and there are some of her a English poems available here:


      But I think most of the translations go for accuracy over sensibility, so I can’t really recommend them. Although I sometimes have my students use them as a base to make their own, better translations. That’s kind of fun. 

      One of the best things about these “spoken-word” style tanka is just how good they are for younger learners. Heartbreak, not fitting in, wondering just what to do with your day. The themes are the stuff of teenage life. And I guess no matter where you’re trying to find your feet, the way the earth tilts uneasily beneath you is the same in Japan as it is in Brazil as it is in France. And it also helps us, as teacher who passed through the same experiences, connect up with our students as well.

      Thanks for the comment,


      • And thank you for the reply. I especially liked the part about the earth tilting. It’s true. I’ll see about using one of more of these poems in the 1st year high school classes I teach. The “Strawberries” poem could spark some good discussions about “boyish” and “girlish” things. It also lends itself to rewriting. Perhaps the students will enjoy the accomplishment that comes with writing a poem in a foreign language.


  2. Hello Kevin,

    I enjoyed your post and found your idea to use the Japanese short poems as warmer activities in your class really great. These activities are excellent for kindling students’ imagination and I’ll be trying out your poetry ideas with my students very soon.
    I particularly loved the poem “Salad Anniversary” by Machi Tawara and I’ve made an attempt to write my own tanka thinking about a special day I’ve had (I’m not sure that was successful, but thinking about the poem and writing it was really fun and enjoyable):
    you say
    the sea sounds great
    and so
    the tenth of July becomes
    our rolling waves anniversary

    Your idea to share your student Y-chan’s tanka is really cool. I was thinking for a while about this really beautiful poem and some questions/activities that could go along with this lovely poem came to my mind (I hope you like it:)

    Is there any language without words?
    How do we communicate without using words?
    Show that you are: happy/sad/angry/hungry/surprised/excited/scared/bored/… without using words.

    Thanks so much for the very inspirational post. 🙂


    • Ljiljana,

      Thank you so much for the comment, the rolling-waves-anniversary tanka, and the 3 excellent ideas to use with Y-Chan’s poem.

      Today I gave a presentation on using tanka and other short poetry in the language classroom. One of the questions I was asked was, “do you share your feelings and how your personal experiences relate to the poems with your students? How open are you?” In response I said I try and be as open as possible. I pick tanka that I like and am happy to explain how the poems touched me. Like you, I’m slightly mad about salad anniversary, and write my own version of the poem each time I teach it. And I think in general, this sense of open and personal exploration and creative expression is really crucial to using poetry in a language classroom. It’s up to us as both teachers and members of our classroom community to provide an example of what it means to talk about poetry.

      Ljiljana, thank you for providing such a perfect example of what it means to talk about poetry here on this blog post. I hope you don’t mind if I share it with my students.



      • Of course not, that would be great! I’m very glad you liked it and hope your students will enjoy it.

        I’m looking forward to your new very interesting posts, and your really creative and imaginative ideas. 🙂


  3. Hello Kevin,

    For 10 days I’ve been wanting to leave you a comment here. In fact, a few.

    1) I’m happy to see you back on ザ blog.
    2) I’m glad you gave a presentation on poetry and tanka in particular. I’m not glad I couldn’t be there, though.
    3) Tanka #4 blew my mind for some reason, and it keeps doing so every time I read it.
    4) It was a pleasant feeling to read the Salad Anniversary and know where/ who it comes from, as I’ve been to the author’s website before and checked her tanka.

    I liked your post and that it reminded me of some things that had slipped my mind for a while. Thanks.



    • Hi Anna,

      I have to say waiting 10 days for your comment was worth it.

      1) I am happy to be back on 左blog and I wish I had more time to do it regularly.
      2) I think I will give another presentation on this topic. In fact, I would very much like to give a webinar about it. So if anyone reads this comment and thinks, “Oh! Yes! Webinar on obscure Japanese poetry form for English language classroom. Must schedule that!” Please contact me.
      3) Excellent. I also love that Tanka and think Hiroshi is a very strange man and a genius.

      Thank you again for the comment. And hopefully I will be seeing you in this space again soon.



  4. Pingback: The world is full of magical things | Ljiljana Havran's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s