The History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America : Master’s Thesis

Introduction to Tomoe Tana’s Master’s Thesis

by M. Kei

Tomoe Tana (1913–1991) was an American tanka poet, editor, and translator. She was born in a small fishing village in Hokkaido, Japan to a family of Buddhist ministers, including her fathers, three sisters, and a brother, all of whom were clergy. She married the Rev. Daisho Tana, also a Buddhist minister, who traveled from America to Japan to marry her. The husband and wife were interned separately during World War Two. Tomoe and her children were sent to a camp in Arizona, but her husband was sent to a camp in New Mexico. Hostility to the Japanese was so great that Tana felt the barbed wire protected her and the other internees from attack.

After the war, Tomoe worked to support her ailing husband and raise her children. She was employed as a maid for Lucille Nixon. One day, Nixon showed Tana a poem she had written. Tana told her it resembled a Japanese tanka. Thereafter, Tana tutored Nixon in the Japanese language and writing tanka. Tana was herself a winner of the Imperial Poetry Contest (1949), and a member of one of the oldest tanka circles in North America, “Totsukuni tankakai,” headed up by Yoshihiko Tomari. (Founded 1927 under the name “Nan’eikai.”) Later, Nixon won the Imperial Poetry Contest (1957) and traveled to Japan for the award. This garnered considerable publicity and the attention of the State Department when it happened.

During the late 1950s, Nixon, as a member of Tomari’s tanka circle, assisted in the translation of tanka into English. Only fragments of those early works remain, as published in Tomoshibi by Tana. Later, in 1963, she and Lucille Nixon edited and translated Sounds from the Unknown, an anthology of Japanese North American tanka. When Nixon was killed in a car crash in December of 1963, the only copy of the manuscript was lost, but Tana reconstructed it. It was published in 1964.

Tana obtained American citizenship and went to college. She achieved her master’s degree at San Jose State University in California. Her thesis The History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America is the first history of tanka in America, including the United States and Canada, and to a lesser extent, South America.

Tana includes information about American winners of the Imperial Poetry Contest (1947–1984), and what she could find out about tanka poetry by people of Japanese and non-Japanese descent in The United States, Canada, and South America. Although her history is not exhaustive, it is a major source of information about tanka in America from the 1920s through the 1960s, especially the Japanese American and Japanese Canadian tanka circles. A great deal of the information in her thesis does not appear anywhere else.

She also provides a complete publication and translation of Zaibei dōbō haykunin isshu / One Hundred Tanka by our Countrymen in America, which had previously only been published in fragments in Japan. The anthology was the result of a poetry contest with 5000 (five thousand) tanka submitted. It was judged by a trio of Japanese judges: Kubota Utsubo, Saitō Mokichi, and Shaku Chakū. Readers of tanka will recognize Mokichi as one of the great Japanese tanka poets of the modern era.

Tana’s personal vision as a poet, editor, and translator stressed the aesthetic of kokoro, literally ‘heart,’ but also sincerity and honesty. Such poems are unadorned and sometimes artistically naive by Western standards. Fortunately for those who can read Japanese, she includes the originals as well.

Tana’s literary accomplishments are remarkable when it is considered that she was employed as a maid while supporting a sick husband and her children. Yet her indomitable spirit enabled her to overcome many hardships and setbacks. She made a major contribution to the development of tanka in North America and to the documentation of the history of tanka.

The History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America by Tomoe Tana is published online with the kind permission of her son, Shibun Tana.


Author Unknown. ‘Tomoe Tana (1913–1991).’ Third Grade Biographies. Stanford University. Date Unknown. (Copy in author’s possession)

Author Unknown. ‘Tomoe Tana.’ Publisher Unknown. Date Unknown. (Copy in author’s possession)

Kei, M. A History of Tanka Publishing in English, the North American Foundation, 1899–1985. Perryville: Keibooks, 2013.

Tana, Tomoe. The History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America. San Jose, CA: San Jose State University, 1985.

Tana, Shibun. Letters. 2011. (Copies in the author’s possession.)

Tana, Tomoe. Tomoshibi: Lucille M. Nixon’s Japanese poem, tanka collection and biography with her study of Japanese tanka poetry. n.p., 1978.