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An Interview with Makoto Ueda

Makoto Ueda
Honorary Curator, 2004–2005

True Before It Is Made Truth: An Interview with Makoto Ueda

by Eve Luckring

The following interview, proposed by Scott Metz, was first published in Roadrunner 12.3 (December 2012) and Roadrunner 13.1 (May 2013). This interview also appears in a Spanish translation at El Rincón del Haiku.

Makoto Ueda is the author of fifteen books about Japanese poetry, of which two are written in Japanese. He is professor emeritus of Japanese literature at Stanford University.

As a translator, critic, and biographer, he has provided English readers some of the finest resources on haiku, senryu, tanka, and Japanese poetics. His numerous groundbreaking publications have broadened and deepened the understanding of Japanese literature through the rigor of his scholarship and the incisiveness of his commentary. He has published influential tomes on Bashô, Buson, and Issa, and he is the first translator to anthologize the entire spans of modern Japanese haiku and tanka in individual books published in English.

English-language readers’ notions of haiku and tanka have been shaped primarily through translations of premodern poets. Therefore, Professor Ueda’s work on 20th century writers, as well as his contextualization of the premodern masters within their literary milieu, has had an enormous impact, destabilizing and expanding the knowledge and practice of English-language poets working in the genre. His translations of senryu provide a much needed cultural history for English readers, while his translations of female haiku poets help to fill a gaping hole in the genre’s history. Professor Ueda’s scholarship has nurtured English-language haiku’s growth from infancy into a burgeoning childhood.

We are honored to offer a rare interview with Professor Ueda, who granted me the privilege to correspond with him despite challenging health issues. The exchange took place via the postal system over the summer and autumn of 2012. Eve Luckring and Scott Metz prepared the following questions, with substantial input from Richard Gilbert and Jack Galmitz.

Eve Luckring
San Francisco, November 11, 2012


Would you please share with us six, or so, of your favorite haiku, choosing examples that represent different historical periods in the development of Japanese haiku?

Could you say why these particular poems move you, or exemplify excellence, or have contributed to the development of Japanese haiku?

It has been more than ten years since I worked with Japanese haiku. I’ll try to remember, but what I recall are the poems that are not very famous. They are as follows:

By Matsuo Bashô (1644–94):

          kumo nani to ne wo nani to naku aki no kaze

          spider—what is it,
          what is it you are crying?
          autumn wind

This is one of Bashô’s early haiku. The repetition of “what is it?” echoes the Danrin style, but covering it is overall loneliness felt by the poet. He knows the spider doesn’t cry, yet he wonders what the crying voice would be like if it were to cry. The haiku is reminiscent of a Zen question.

By Chiyojo (1703–75):

          yûgao ya onna no hada no miyuru toki

          moonflowers in bloom
          when a woman’s skin
          gleams through the dusk

Moonflowers are white, looking somewhat like flowers of a morning glory. They often grow in the yard of a farmhouse, as they eventually produce gourds. Apparently, in the evening dusk a farmer’s wife is bathing in the yard, and while her face and hands are suntanned, the parts of her body that have been covered by clothes are stunningly white. The haiku seems a little erotic.

By Yosa Buson (1716–84):

          hata utsu ya ugokanu kumo mo nakunarinu

          tilling the field—
          the cloud that did not move
          is gone

Buson wrote many painting-like haiku, one of which is this one. It presents a peaceful country scene where a farmer is tilling the field all day. The haiku suggests something that a painting cannot suggest: the passage of time. Time passes slowly but steadily, whether or not man is aware of it.

By Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828):

          aozora ni yubi de ji wo kaku aki no kure

          in the blue sky
          I scrawl letters with a finger—
          the end of autumn

This seems to be one of many existentially negative haiku characteristic of Issa. He writes in the air several characters which in no time disappear in the deep sky. Ultimately, the haiku suggests the futility of all things the poet does.

By Takahama Kyoshi (1874–1959):

          kiri hitoha hi atari nagara ochini-keri

          a paulownia leaf
          basking in the sunlight
          falls to the ground

This is a shasei haiku, the poet looking objectively at a large paulownia leaf falling to the ground. The leaf is somewhat yellowish, as the fall season approaches. The poem reminds of a great man dying after a life of fame and glory.

By Katsura Noboku (1914–2004):

          mado no yuki nyotai nite yu wo afureshimu

          snow on the window—
          a female body makes hot water
          overflow the tub

Traditionally women who write haiku have been very few, as they were more attracted to tanka which expresses emotion far more freely. But they have greatly increased since the mid-20th century, and today they outnumber men. Katsura Noboku was one of the most eloquent of them, as seen in this example.

What would you most like the international community to understand about Japanese haiku and its development over time?

Japanese haiku was well introduced to Western readers by such pioneers as R. H. Blyth, Harold G. Henderson, and William J. Higginson. The nature and history of haiku have since been studied fully by a number of authors, and there seems to be little to add. Perhaps more of today’s haiku may be translated, but it is hard to distinguish good and bad poems in our own time.

If among modern poets there is one who might need more attention in the West, that would be Yamaguchi Seishi (1901–94). I think he was the greatest haiku poet in the 20th century, greater than Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902). Though his haiku collection was published in English translation in 1993 [Note: The Essence of Modern Haiku: 300 Poems by Seishi Yamaguchi, Weatherhill], he does not seem to be known too well. His poems were truly “modern” in subject-matter, technique, and the way in which he perceived nature. He used words and phrases in a refreshingly new way. He saw things intellectually and made them into haiku intellectually. Here is the most famous of his haiku:

          natsu no kawa akaki tessa no hashi hitaru

          river in summer—
          a rusty iron chain, its end
          soaking in the water

The iron chain soaking in the river that flows amid a large city—the haiku suggests the sterile existence of modern men living in an industrious city.

How, or in what ways, has Western art/literature/politics influenced Japanese haiku since the 1930s?

Since the beginning of the modern period, Japanese haiku has been under the powerful influence of Western culture. The idea of shasei, proposed by Shiki, had its roots in graphic realism prevalent in Western painting the latter half of the 19th century. Natsume Sôseki (1867–1916), who wrote haiku under Shiki, was a professor and accomplished scholar in English literature. Kawahigashi Hekigodô (1873–1937), who advocated “haiku with no center of interest,” got his original inspiration from reading Western literature, especially Gorky’s The Lower Depths. In similar ways, subsequent haiku writers have received some kind of influence from Western literature and civilization. I’ll cite three examples since the 1930s.

The first example is one of proletarian haiku that had its peak during the first half of the 1930s. In 1930 Kuribayashi Issekiro (1894–1961), a founder of the movement, said “Capitalism has come to a standstill when it developed into imperialism. At its fall there appears a reaction, namely a movement to class literature—proletarian haiku.” Following is the haiku he wrote in 1937:

          taihô ga ôkina kuchi akete ore ni muite iru hatsuzuri

          a cannon
          with its huge mouth
          turns toward me
          on the New Year’s paper

This is a free-verse haiku, as many proletarian haiku were. In the New Year’s newspaper, the poet saw the photograph of a large cannon with its muzzle turned toward him. The war between China and Japan started in 1937. Issekiro founded a couple of haiku magazines and advocated proletarian haiku, until he got arrested in 1941 under increasingly oppressive measures of the government. Proletarian haiku met the same fate.

The second example has to do with a provocative essay that shocked the haiku world after the end of the Second World War. In 1946, Kuwabara Takeo (1904–68) published an influential magazine article condemning haiku as a “second-rate” art form. [Note: a translation by Mark Jewel is available at Simply Haiku 4.1, 2006.] Before writing the article, he had distributed twelve anonymous haiku among various people and asked their opinions on the poems. Their answers were widely different, the same poem praised highly by some and censured severely by others. No haiku poem, Kuwabara concluded, could be recognized as good unless its author is known to be a famous poet. In other words, a haiku poet must first establish his fame in an area other than haiku. Though mentioned nowhere in the article, Kuwabara’s method and conclusion were the same as those in Practical Criticism (1929) by I. A. Richards, who did a similar experiment in England. Kuwabara was a professor of French at Kyoto University and was well versed in Western culture.

The case of Nakamura Kusatao (1901–83), one of Kuwabara’s contemporaries, would serve as the third example of Western influences on Japanese haiku. Kusatao majored in German at Tokyo University and read a good deal of Western books, especially works of Nietzche, Holderlin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Strindberg. Those works formed the basis of his later view on life and helped him to become a major haiku poet. One of his finest haiku is:

          sora wa taisho no aosa tsuma yori ringo uku

          the sky looks
          primeval blue; from my wife
          I receive an apple

The poem was written when the poet had lost his home in an air raid during the Second Wold War. It reminds us of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as described in the Bible. Kusatao had plenty of biblical knowledge; in fact, he eventually became a Christian.

You have translated into English a multitude of Japanese haiku written in a broad range of styles by poets who have advocated varying principles as to what haiku should aspire to.

In Far Beyond the Field, you say “Most often a haiku is a poem where one or more images present the germs of what the poet feels—the fountainhead, in fact, of her inspiration. The value of an individual haiku depends upon the depth in which its images probe human reality.”

In Bashô and His Interpreters, you say: “To put the matter briefly, I believe that a hokku, when appreciated by itself, is a short, three-phrase poem intended to charm the reader into contemplating an aspect of nature or the human condition, usually through the help of a seasonal image. I also share the view that the seventeen-syllable poem presents an observation or sentiment in all its immediacy, before it is intellectually conceptualized.”

Do you believe that a poem written in English (or other languages) needs to be written in a fixed form in order to be called a haiku?

Or, that it needs to be written in three lines or have ”three phrases”?

Are there any formal requirements (like short/long/short phrases, a clear grammatical break, a season word) that you would require of haiku written in languages other than Japanese?

When I translated a Japanese haiku into English, I had a fairly liberal attitude in terms of its form. All I aimed at was that the work translated into English was in three lines—preferably short/long/short phrases—and read like an English poem. I didn’t believe it should have a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Rather, my thinking was to follow what seemed to be a standard view in America: an ideal haiku in English has the form of three lines of 2, 3, 2 accented beats; but I have to confess that in most cases my translations fell far short of the ideal. There was no question that a normal Japanese haiku had three phrases. I therefore didn’t agree with those who translated it into the form of one line (like Hiroaki Satô), two lines (like Harold Stewart), or four lines (like Nobuyuki Yuasa).

Above is my opinion on translating a Japanese haiku into English. I believe an original haiku written in English (or any other languages other than Japanese) should be freer in form. After all, in Japan itself there have been those like Kawahigashi Hekigodô and Ogiwara Seisensui (1884–1976) who advocated what they called the “free-verse haiku.” Ozaki Hôsai (1885–1926) and Taneda Santôka (1882–1940) produced some of the best works in that form. I think a number of fine English haiku belong to this category, although I am in no position to make evaluative judgment on them.

Is referentiality important to haiku?

Reference to nature, which changes with the cycle of seasons, was essential to classical Japanese haiku. As you know, historically it derived itself from hokku, the opening verse of renku, which was required to present a season word. Today a large majority of those in Japan who write haiku still use season words, though those words have been expanded and become inclusive of foreign vocabulary. A small number of haiku poets who reject kigo do exist, but many of their haiku incidentally contain words implying a season or suggest nature by the whole tone of the poem. There is no doubt that a haiku poem gains its depth in meaning when it is connected with nature or part of nature.

A similar thing may be said about haiku written in English. In America, seasons are not so clear as in Japan; in fact, they differ greatly in various parts of the area. But my hope is that an English haiku has some kind of “flavor of nature” somewhere, because nature is a basic part of haiku. In case the poem does not have that flavor, it may be called, not haiku, but senryu, or short free verse, or some such name.

Your response went straight to referentiality with regard to nature, the cycle of seasons, and the use of kigo—all essential to classical haiku.

What about referentiality to other literature? allusions to historical or current events? —what Haruo Shirane calls “cultural memory” and discusses in regard to “the vertical axis” in Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Bashô (1998)? Or (although we have no equivalent of utamakura and haimakura) references to famous places?

Is this type of referentiality, or allusion, something that can equally enhance a haiku’s “depth of meaning,” as much as a reference to nature?

Do you feel this type of allusion is an important feature for haiku written in other languages in order to further develop the “vertical axis” Shirane said was often lacking in English-language haiku?

Referentiality to historical events and famous places is important to haiku, but its importance seems to have decreased in modern times. It was particularly significant in Bashô’s haiku, partly because he admired past medieval poets like Saigyo and Sogi, and partly because he was a writer of renku which made frequent use of the “vertical axis.” Modern haiku poets do not appear to pay that kind of high regard to past cultural tradition. They make much less use of utamakura or haimakura.

I agree that the vertical axis is often lacking in English haiku, although I hesitate to make a generalization in view of my limited reading of it. The situation is the same to some extent in modern Japanese haiku, in spite of Takayanagi’s example I cite. [Note: See below.]

Uda Kiyoko, the president of the Modern Haiku Association, has said in an interview:

So, yes, haiku “cuts” explanation: this is haiku. Haiku “cuts”: scenes, actions, everything, and cuts time and language. So, though it is said that “cutting” is really omission, I think that “cutting” is at the same time the essential proposition of haiku.

And, if asked about what haiku is, there are a variety of aspects of haiku—that is, as a seasonal verse, or as a form of poetry consisting of “five-seven-five”—but the essence of haiku is “cutting,” in my opinion. (Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry, Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4; accessed Sep 16, 2012 <>).

And as you know, Bashô was recorded by Kyorai in his Kyoraishô (circa 1704 CE):

Placing kireji in hokku [haiku] is for those beginners who do not understand the nature of cutting and uncutting very well. . . . [However,] there are hokku which are well-cut without kireji. Because of their subtle qualities, [for beginners] more common theories have been founded, and taught. . . . Once, the master, Bashô, said, as an answer to the question of Jôsô [one of Bashô's ten principal disciples. 1662?–1704]: “In waka, after 31-on, there is kire. In hokku, after 17-on, there is kire.” Joso was immediately enlightened. Then, another disciple asked [on the same topic], and the master, Bashô, answered, “When you use words as kireji, every word becomes kireji. When you do not use words as kireji, there are no words which are kireji.” And the master said, “From this point, grasp the very depth of the nature of kireji on your own.” All that I have described here is what the master revealed, until the very threshold of its true secret [oral tradition], the thickness of one leaf of shoji-paper.

(Kyorai. (2001) ‘Kyoraishô,’ in Isao Okuda (ed.) Shinpen nihon bungaku zenshu vol 88: “Renga-ron-shu, nogaku-ron-shu, hairon-shu”—The new edition of the complete works of Japanese Classic Literature, vol. 88: “Theories on Renga, Noh, and Haiku”], (Y. It? and R. Gilbert, trans.). Tokyo: Shogakukan, 497–99 (as reprinted in Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry, Winter 2009, vol 7 no 4; accessed Sep 16, 2012 <>).

Although English-language poetics does not contain kireji (cutting words), do you think kire (cutting) is a defining aspect of haiku, no matter what language it is written in?

Do you think that it is important to have a clear grammatical break, or to disrupt grammatical syntax, or to create a semantic cut in the writing of haiku?

Kireji is a certain “postposition” (ya, keri, kana, etc.) or verb ending that originally comes from classical Japanese. It is like punctuation, which did not exist in classical Japanese. In haiku, it is often used to cut a poem into two parts, leading the reader to compare or contrast the two. Haiku is often a poem of internal comparison; to that extent, kireji serves as an important element of Japanese haiku.

As far as haiku in English or other languages utilizing internal comparison, there needs to be no kireji. English haiku may use punctuation (colon, semicolon, ellipses, etc.) or line change, or other ways to juxtapose images or scenes or actions.

What about traditional Japanese aesthetic concerns such as ma, yugen wabi, sabi, etc.? In your opinion, should any of these, or other specific Japanese aesthetics, play an important role in haiku written in other languages despite their foreignness (notwithstanding some parallels) to other cultures’ aesthetic systems?

I see no reason why haiku written in languages other than Japanese should contain yugen or sabi or other Japanese ambience.

Could you expand upon what you mean when you say “an observation or sentiment in all its immediacy, before it is intellectually conceptualized”? Do you believe this to be important for haiku as well as hokku?

I think all literary works tend to present “the true” before it is made into “truth,” and Japanese haiku are generally more so that way than most other genres. As a matter of fact, there have even been some who would exclude haiku from literature because it is so close to actual life. It is well known that Ishida Hakyô (1913–69) once said “Haiku is not literature. It is raw life. Composing haiku is synonymous with living life.” Probably Hakyô overstated the case, but he was emphasizing the representative nature of haiku.

Could you discuss this idea in relation to haiku written by the “obscurists” and other postwar poets?

The so-called “obscurist” haiku poets sometimes went too far toward “raw life” and used too much of personal material for others to understand. One of the poems often quoted as an example is by Nakamura Kusatao:

          hikigaeru chôshi ie saru yoshi mo nashi

          a toad—
          the eldest son, with no reason
          to leave home

          [Note: This poem was written in 1933. Nakamura Kusatao: 1901–83.]

The haiku uses internal comparison between “the toad” and “the eldest son.” The eldest son, as Kusatao was one, had a responsibility to succeed the household with all its family encumbrances; that was the custom in Japan several generations ago. For a freedom-loving modern man, it was a very heavy responsibility he would like to evade if at all possible. Yet the poet could not evade it, for there was “no reason to leave home.” The poet compares the situation to that of a toad. However, different readers have different images of a toad. In the first place, they may not be able to read the two Chinese characters used for “toad” in hikigaeru.

Among postwar poets whose haiku are hard to understand are those who write with highbrow tones and difficult vocabulary characteristic of intellectuals. I’ll cite a famous example composed by Takayanagi Shigenobu (1923–83), an example well known to English readers because it appears in The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson:

          mi wo sorasu niji no

          body-arching rainbow’s

          (trans. by Higginson)

Higginson has amply explained the meaning of the haiku in his book, and that is about what average Japanese readers would get. Yet, according to a student of Takayanagi’s, the poem was based on a haiku written by his mentor, Tomizawa Kakio (1902–62):

          nyûbô ya aa mi wo sorasu haru no niji

          the breasts—
          oh, body-arching
          spring rainbow!

Association with this poem makes Takayanagi’s haiku more sensual and erotic. The “body-arching rainbow” suggests a woman in bed, bent backwards with sexual excitement. The “gallows-stand” points toward a state of trance after maximum excitement and, eventually, toward death. How does an average reader get an implied meaning like this?

Given the distinct developmental histories of haiku and senryu in Japanese literature, and the lack thereof in the English language, as well as the way that the two forms have become more convergent in contemporary practice in Japan, what are your thoughts about how poets writing in English have distinguished between haiku and senryu?

Haiku and senryu have to be considered two distinctly different genres in today’s Japan. No Japanese haiku poet has written senryu, as far as I know. Even though haiku poets do not expressly say so, I suspect they look down upon senryu as being nonliterature or as being in a lower depth in the hierarchy of literary genres. Senryu is tremendously popular in Japan. I subscribe to a well-known Japanese weekly magazine, every issue of which publishes a handful of senryu chosen by a certain professional storyteller. I also watch a weekly Japanese TV program in which a team of guests compete with a host team with senryu; both hosts and guests are amateurs. There seems to be no one called a professional senryu poet in Japan today.

[Note: Of related interest, see the interview with Ônishi Yasuyo (b. 1949) at <> and “A Brief Survey of Senryû by Women” by Hiroaki Satô in Modern Haiku, Volume 34.1, Spring 2003 at <>.]

The situation is quite different in America. Haiku with no seasonal implications and with satirical or humorous contents are called senryu, and I have no objection to that. I have little to say on the subject, because I have read too few English senryu.

What other translators of Japanese haiku into English do you especially appreciate? Can you say why?

I highly admire the works of R. H. Blyth. He did a great deal to introduce Japanese literature to the West, especially in the area of haiku and senryu. The four volumes of Haiku and two volumes of A History of Haiku are monumental works he authored in the way of making haiku available to English readers. Such famous authors as J. D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder are said to have come to know haiku through his books. His translations are generally precise and read well in English; especially I like their inclusion of no word that is not in the original, unlike those by most other translators before him. His comments on haiku, based on his rich knowledge of English literature, are full of insightful perceptions and expressed with wit and humor. Perhaps he overemphasized the Zen aspect of haiku, but that was perhaps inevitable in view of the fact that he was a devotee of Zen. With all things considered, I think he must be said to be the most important person in the international community of haiku.

In the introduction to Bashô and His Interpreters, you comment: “In the final analysis, translation is a form of literary criticism as well as artistic creation . . .”

Could you expand upon what you mean by translation being a form of literary criticism?

How is translation like “artistic creation”? Could you give a few examples of haiku you've translated wherein you feel that the end product (your artistic creation) was especially successful? Why/how so?

I think translation is a form of literary criticism in the sense that the translator’s notion of literature reflects itself in the works he translates. It does so whether or not he is conscious of it. As the critic applies his idea of literature to the criticized work, so does the translator to the translated work. He shapes it in the way he feels a literary work should be.

For instance, Harold G. Henderson translates a haiku into an English poem with rhyme in his book, An Introduction to Haiku. Obviously, there is no rhyme in the original Japanese. Henderson defends it by saying that his notion of a short poem has a sort of “frame,” a frame like that of a picture. To take another example, Hiroaki Satô renders a haiku into a one-line English “poem” in From the Country of Eight Islands edited by Burton Watson and himself. His reason is that the original Japanese haiku is always printed in one line and that the English translation should follow that pattern. His one-line translation emanates from his idea of haiku, which is a one-line poem.

Unfortunately I have to decline your request that I show what I think are the best samples of my translation. I have no sample to show to myself or others. I have always endeavored to do my best, but I have never felt I attained that goal.

You wrote in Far Beyond the Field, “The finest work done by a female haiku poet exemplifies her era just as well as that of a male poet, even though her status in her time’s haiku circles may not have been very high” (ix).

Could you discuss this concept of the importance of era (exemplifying era) in haiku composition?

Why do you feel it is so important?

What are some examples of 20th/21st century haiku that you feel represent this concept?

Japan is a small country area-wise, with a large population. Japanese people are less individualistic and more totalitarian, especially so in the feudal times, when they were expected to serve for their family clan, country, etc. Thus when some new fashion caught the attention of a few people, it might spread very quickly and end up gaining utmost popularity. The situation was the same in haiku. In the first half of the 18th century, for instance, the so-called “plain” style popularized by Kagami Shikô (1665–1731) conquered most areas of the haiku world of Japan. The latter half of the 19th century was mostly the era of what is called the “tsukinami” (conventional) style, a style made up only by conventional words and techniques peculiar to the existing haiku.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Hototogisu (mountain cuckoo) school was prevalent among haiku poets. It taught that haiku should concentrate on the beauties of nature for its subject-matter. Its head was the dictatorial Takahama Kyoshi, and I already cited an example of his haiku (“a paulownia leaf . . .”). Here is another:

          shûten no shita ni nogiku no kaben kaku

          under the autumnal
          sky, a wild chrysanthemum
          lacking one petal

In a poem the author is to be made to recede backward as much as possible—that is what Kyoshi taught.

In the 1930s several major poets began to oppose the tenets of the hototogisu school. The most influential among them was Yamaguchi Seishi, who extended the meaning of nature to include a number of modern man-made objects such as a motion picture, a smelting furnace, and a steam-engine. In haiku he looked at them from a cool, nonhuman point of view:

          shûya au kikansha ni tsuzuku sharyô nashi

          autumn night I watch
          a steam engine
          followed by no car

A steam engine is a modern subject nonexistent in classical haiku. Usually it is followed by a long train of passenger or freight cars, but in this instance there is none. Does the engine stand for something?

The number of haiku schools gradually increased since the end of World War II. According to the Museum of Haiku Literature, schools that publish “little haiku magazines” total somewhere between 800 and 1,000 in Japan today. Poets have become more individualistic, each with his or her tenet. The concept of “era” in the traditional sense is disappearing—or has disappeared—in the 21st century.

What do you believe were some of the most significant changes/developments in Japanese haiku poetics during the postwar period?

I think there were three major movements in Japanese haiku poetics during the postwar period. The first was “social haiku”; the second, “avant-garde haiku”; and the third, “surrealistic haiku.”
Social haiku started partly because some poets wanted to oppose Kuwabara Takeo’s argument for haiku as a “second-rate” art form. [Note: A translation by Mark Jewel is available at Simply Haiku 4.1, 2006 <>.] Kuwabara blamed haiku poets’ concentration on the beauties of nature with little or no concern with political or social happenings. Especially “humanist” poets, such as Nakamura Kusatao and Kato Shûson, argued against this blame and tried to show their concern with contemporary Japanese society. Other poets, like Suzuki Murio (1919–2002) and Satô Onifusa (1919–2002), did not belong to the humanist group, but wrote haiku that connote the discontents and struggles of the lower class. Here is Murio’s poem published in 1947:

          kanashiki kana seibyôin no kemuridashi

          how sad—
          the smokestack
          of a VD hospital

In the background is the image of a large city, with a number of prostitutes serving soldiers of the Occupied Forces. In a short time venereal diseases are widespread, their patients filling hospitals and clinics. The dark smoke coming out of the stack in the poem symbolizes the patient and his secreting fluid.

Avant-garde haiku, meaning a new type of poetry that refreshes the traditional form, had existed many times in Japanese haiku before World War II. The term in the postwar period is applied specifically to the works of Kaneko Tôta (b. 1919), Abe Kan’ichi (1928–2009), Higashigawa Kishio (b. 1927), and others who advocated the expression of the poet’s perception intellectually in terms of images. Haiku, according to them, was a metaphorical presentation of the creative self by way of imagery. An oft-quoted example by Tôta is:

          ginkôin-ra asa yori keikô su ika no gotoku

          like squids
          bank clerks are fluorescent
          from the morning

Tôta explains: “In the dark morning each bank clerk holds fluorescent light lonesomely and shows a vivid shape peculiar to the finny tribe. That has settled down into an image.” In other words, he intellectually made his consciousness into two images; he brought the squid and the bank clerk together, though they were distant and unrelated from each other.

Surrealistic haiku are those that make use of techniques like incongruous comparisons, dreamlike metaphors, and abstruse words and phrases. Some free-verse poets, like Hagiwara Sakutarô (1886–1942), Nishiwaki Junzaburô (1894–1982) and Takahashi Shinkichi (1901–87), wrote moving poems in the preceding years, and haiku poets might have read their works. Among surrealistic haiku poets Takayanagi Shigenobu shocked readers by bringing out his first collection of haiku in 1950; above all, his haiku were printed in multiline form. Other poets like Nagata Kôi (1900–97), Nakamura Sonoko (1912–2001), and Akao Tôshi (1925–81) stuck to the 5-7-5 form, although they used obscure and inscrutable language. I have cited Takayanagi’s haiku before; here is an example by Tôshi published in 1957:

          ongaku tadayou kishi hitashi yuku hebi no ue

          music is afloat—
          a snake’s hunger
          invades the shore

Are the poet’s spiritual hunger and the uneasiness symbolized in the snake slithering along the shore?

Charles Bernstein, an American poet, theorist, editor, and literary scholar, recently made the following statement in an interview on The Poet in Today's World:

“[W]e have many poems translated into English which are much more—they're like expository summaries or paraphrases. . . . [W]e have poems translated into English from Spanish, Portuguese, for instance, which are more comprehensible than the originals. They lose the whole resonance. They become sort of silly—they're like paraphrases. You wanna keep some understanding of the overall incomprehensibilities sometimes of the original.”

Each poem, no doubt, presents different difficulties/issues for a translator. Your book, Bashô and His Interpreters, is a monumental work for a number of reasons, but particularly because it makes every attempt to help readers unravel all the intricacies, allusions, background and cultural capital that might go into, or surround, a haiku written in Japanese.

It could be argued that much, if not most, of English haiku over the last hundred years has been written almost exclusively based upon translations of Japanese haiku (in respectful, reverential imitation). In other words, translations and how they are explicated have had an enormous impact on how English-language haiku and senryu are composed, discussed, and intellectualized.

Could you discuss, if possible, this notion of what “resonance” is most often lost when Japanese haiku are translated into English?

And, do you feel that the “incomprehensibilities . . . of the original” is sometimes, or even often times, lost when translating Japanese haiku into English? How so/in what ways?

It is inevitable that a poem loses something when it is translated. In the first place, the original poem has certain denotations and connotations, and while the translator may be able to convey the most of denotations, connotations are often difficult, sometimes impossible, to transmit to readers in a totally different culture. To cite an example easy to understand, here is a haiku by Nishiyama Sôin (1605–82):

          matsu ni fuji tako ki ni noboru keshiki ari

          wisteria on a pine—
          the scene of an octopus
          climbing the tree

The original poems is humorous, for, beside the fact that the whole poem is a parody of famous lines in a noh play, the octopus is a familiar food item in Japan and has been humorously referred to a number of objects like a bald-headed man. In America the octopus is not a familiar object; it is rather an uncanny, bizarre creature seldom appearing in poetry.

Familiarity and humor that go with the image of an octopus are used in a well-known haiku by Matsuo Bashô:

          takotsubo ya hakanaki yume wo natsu no tsuki

          an octopus pot—
          inside, a short-lived dream
          under the summer moon

In many critics’ opinions, here Bashô identified himself with, or at least had sympathy for, the octopus sleeping in the pot. He wouldn’t have done so if the octopus was not so close to him in his mind. English readers wouldn’t feel the same way, because the octopus is an uncanny creature living under the sea. The familiar and slightly humorous feeling that makes part of the resonance of the poem is gone from the English translation, and the translator can do nothing about that.

It is especially difficult to convey the whole resonance of a haiku in translation, because the verse form is so short. In a long work like a novel, the translator can try to transmit the resonance by adding words and phrases, or even sentences. I’ve heard that Prof. Edward Seidensticker, the famous translator of The Tale of Genji, did not translate haiku for that reason. According to him, the image of a pond makes the Japanese first think of “the quiet place,” while Americans’ first association of it is “water.” Bashô’s old-pond poem, he thinks, is untranslatable.

As for the “incomprehensibilities . . . of the original,” I have an episode to tell. Prof. Royall Tyler, in retranslating The Tale of Genji, said that the original has many abstruse, incomprehensible sentences and that he would try to retain them as such in his translation. Apparently the comment was made to justify his retranslation, for the existing work by Prof. Seidensticker was well known for its fluency and readability. Later Prof. Donald Keene, an expert in Japanese literature and a translator himself, opposed the view and said that English readers would think the abstruseness in translation comes not from the original but from the translator’s lack of skill. I’m on Prof Keene’s side. I think there are incomprehensible Japanese haiku, but I always skip translating them. I see no meaning to translate a haiku I don’t understand.

Do you think haiku is a dying art in Japan, in the sense that it is no longer really a high-art enterprise?

If you feel that it does, in fact, remain a high-art enterprise, who would you consider to be some of the top poets, and why?

I don’t think haiku is a dying art in Japan. It is hard to call it so when ten million people are writing it and when more than 800 “little magazines” publish their works. Whether today’s haiku can be compared in merit to the best of Bashô and Buson, it is difficult to say. But most of the arts have not fared well since the middle of the last century. Japanese poetry, including haiku and tanka, seems to be in the downward trend. I still think, though, haiku occupies a more significant position in Japan than poetry does in the United States.

I am not well read in contemporary haiku, and so my choice for top poets may be too personal to be taken as a standard one. Before I was stricken by a stroke, I had been translating a good number of 20th century poets, and I will select three from among them. Ôki Amari (b. 1914), also a painter, belongs to a group of poets who write not only haiku but many other genres; her haiku present original impressions of various moments in her fresh, peculiar diction. Tsubouchi Toshinori (b. 1944), Takayanagi Shigenobu’s student, holds haiku to be a poem of fragmentary speech and makes intellectual use of colloquial words and phrases. Natsuishi Ban’ya (b. 1955), another of Takayanagi’s followers, has done a lot of experimental writings, one quality of which is to transcend the sense of the seasons. All those poets work in areas outside haiku as well (the latter two are university professors), and their haiku tend to be intellectual and surrealistic.

Would you be so kind as to offer us a few of your translations of these three poets? (A few books by Natsuishi Ban’ya have been translated into English, but the other two are largely unknown in English.)

I hesitate to show these, because they are unfinished translations I had been working on before I suffered a stroke. But here they are, two poems each from the works of Ôki, Tsubouchi, and Natsuishi.

Ôki Amari:

          shonen no tsukue ni chizu to utsusemi to

          on the boy’s desk
          a map
          and an empty cicada shell

          shinu to iu yasuragi fuyu no umi ni nashi

          that peace is nowhere
          in the winter sea

Tsubouchi Toshinori:

          aki no kaze shiosaba wo fuku miko wo fuku

          autumn wind
          blows at a salted mackerel
          blows at a prince

          ganbaru wa nante iu na yo kusa no hana

          “I’ll stand firm!”
          don’t say anything of the sort,
          flowers of grass

Natsuishi Ban’ya:

          hi izuru kuni no tenshi no midaregami

          in the Land of the Rising Sun
          an angel
          with tangled hair

          mangetsu ni kizu ari niku niku yasai niku

          a wound
          on the full moon—meat, meat
          vegetable, meat

What is the relevance of haiku in Japan, particularly after World War II, especially with regards to the postwar gendai and avant-garde haiku movements?

Most remarkable in Japanese haiku after the Second World War was its popularity. Although haiku, as well as senryu, had been an art for commoners before the war, it has become immensely popular as people began to have more time to spend beside making their living. Today haiku is regarded as one of the respectable hobbies. Many popular magazines and newspapers have a haiku column to which readers contribute their works in the 17-syllable form. Haiku (or senryu) accompanied by a photograph serves as another popular competition in a TV program. For that matter, major haiku poets appear on various television programs. Mayuzumi Madoka (b. 1965), a former Miss Kimono, has become a notable talent who writes in various journals and appears on TV programs.

A number of women have become part of the Japanese haiku world. Some say women occupy about 80 percent of the Japanese haiku-writing population. Beyond doubt a large majority of them are amateur poets who write haiku in their spare time.

But since the end of the war such women as Hashimoto Tahako (1899–1963), Mitsuhashi Takajo (1899–1972), and Katsura Nobuko (1914–2004) have written some of the finest examples of 20th-century haiku. Inahata Teiko (b. 1931), granddaughter of Takahama Kyoshi, is the editor of the most influential of the haiku magazines, Hototogisu.

The postwar period was an era characterized by chaotic, transitional and therefore free creative trends; poets could take liberty in whatever style they would like to. It was in that period when avant-garde and surrealistic schools appeared to experiment with extreme styles. Today’s poets do not seem to go to those extremes. No longer is there any major poet who writes free-style haiku like Hôsai and Santôka. Very few poets who follow Takayanagi Shigenobu use a multiline form as he did. But they are well aware that modern haiku has gone through those experiments in the recent past. They write haiku in the 5-7-5 form and use season words, yet their poems are more like free verse in implications.

In your opinion, how does haiku work as a contemporary poetics?

Haiku is one of the shortest verse forms in the world. It is easy to write one. For Japanese people, the 5-7-5 syllable pattern is the basic rhythm of the language, and even elementary school children can produce works without difficulty. For that matter, haiku is being used in American grade schools to teach the basics of poetry. Some mental hospital patients compose haiku to help promote their cure. While poetry is on the decline in many countries, haiku may work as one of the stimulating means to reawaken the significance of poetry.

Haiku is also the type of poetry that makes use of imagery, while leaving its speech fragmentary and suggestive. It creates a good deal of ambiguity, making readers think, associate, and imagine, somewhat like a Zen phrase. It raises questions, yet gives no answers. Beginnings are there, yet endings are not. In today’s world where nothing is clearly closed, haiku may be a fitting art form.


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