Melding The Old and The New
By Carlo Longino, Fri May 06 23:00:00 GMT 2005

Mobile phones are provoking renewed interest in a centuries-old form of Japanese poetry, illustrating how new technologies can do more than just destroy old culture and traditions.

Tanka, 31-syllable poems akin to extended haiku, are roughly 1,300 years old, but are having new life breathed into them by Japan's ubiquitous mobile phones. "Keitai tanka", or mobile phone poems, are being somewhat enthusiastically adopted by a new generation of poets, writing and distributing their work via mobiles. Web sites and magazines are popping up, and there's even an NHK TV show, "Doyo no Yoru wa Keitai Tanka", which translates to "Let's Make Tanka poems on Mobile Phone on Saturday Night".

An NHK producer points out that mobile phones, text messages in particular, have taught kids how to communicate using just a few words -- the same skill needed in writing tanka. Not surprisingly, old-school tanka fans, and writers that spend years mastering the form, turn their noses up at what they see as a poor modern bastardization of a classical literary tradition.

But it's pretty remarkable how texting skills can translate to an ancient art form, and it illustrates how technology, mobile phones in particular, don't just destroy social and cultural fabric, they can stand to preserve, resuscitate and remix it too.

Another aspect is that in Japan, where ringtones, wallpaper, tchotkes that hang from phones and nearly every other piece of mobile handset personalization and self-expression began, things are almost coming full circle to where youth are using their phones to express themselves in a much more traditional way -- through poetry. And they're falling back on pretty typical teenage fare, judging by the 24,000 poems the NHK show has received: love is the most popular topic, more specifically love gone awry.