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Creative Blooms 17: Remystification (Part 3) — “Haiku is for Freedom”

Haikai is for freedom.” — Bashō (Kyoraishō, 1775)


One of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, though with no religious connotation here, the parasol “symbolizes preservation and protection of the [teachings] against suffering and sorrow … and can be viewed as an axis mundi, a symbolic tree of life.”[1] Not a “big tent” (because wall‑less), or out‑of‑the‑box thinking (as consciousness isn’t boxy), no room with a view (too outdoorsy), the parasol provides a sheltering of qualities that find nourishment via protection from those ablative raspings and scrapings of psychological and emotional rigidity, harshness, that we call society.

Remystification. So off we go, perhaps upon camels on the Silk Road in slow‑time dromedary rhythm, seeking rare and precious items of trade for art materials. With haiku to discuss, as aesthetic arrest, the sense of space, and the arising of “haiku cosmos”—if no haiku have been murdered in this meander.

The parasol extends as far as one might wish to imagine: it has no particular physical dimension, yet allows for appreciation to happen; remystification begins with contexts to poetry, rather than poetic content itself. When Dickinson writes, “it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry,” I get chills, respond with excitement to an enticement. Her statement is likened to a poem, if not being poetry itself. As when Kaneko proposes a challenge for poets to: develop a stance as a “living viewpoint, bearing, or attitude … achieving something of value to say to effectively address and critique society”—such notions provoke aesthetic arrest, enfolded spaces bloom into novel dimensions of contemplation. Is this space sacred? Or as a well… reflecting images ripple, appear in the world, become available for writing.

Allowing for unicorns and Big Sky: alternativity. To journey as “settled wanderers” through unknown liminality, an axis mundi: parasols, in cosmopolitan guise, mediate the coin of the realm: unfiltered pleasure.

Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah (on cosmopolitanism) comments,

“I think there’s also a jouissance, a pleasure reason, namely, that is, you think about it: what are the great aesthetic objects that we care about, if we care about aesthetic objects? They’re things like music, which is fantastically transnational in its sources and effects—popular music, but also Beethoven … A favorite global example: probably the most famous Japanese poet is Bashō; Bashō writes in a script invented by the Chinese and belongs to a religion invented by the Indians, because he was a Zen Buddhist. No China, no India, no Bashō. And no cross‑cultural stuff—no “my [British] mother writing haiku as I was growing up,” because she had discovered Bashō, and thought he was a wonderful poet.

Shakespeare’s play is about a Danish prince, not an English prince. So, the things we care about in the cultural domain spontaneously cross boundaries: steal, borrow, appropriate—whatever you want to call it…. What cosmopolitanism recommends is a kind of cross-cultural conversation…. Wanting to get to know [cultural others] is important because they’re different—some of them—from us; and that’s fine. We don’t need them to become like us. It can be, in fact, more interesting to live in a world where not everybody’s the same, a point John Stuart Mill makes beautifully in On Liberty, that we profit from other people’s (as he called it) “experiments in living.”[2]

Cosmopolitanism is haiku ground-knowledge, pre-formative of “haiku cosmos,” unowned or locatable in any one poem, or culture. As with Einstein’s revelation of spacetime, Louis Armstrong’s invention of the extended jazz‑solo, millennial intercultural histories instantiate in individual genius. New conceptual art forms alter paradigms and permeate cultures (this essay will end with Bashō, though not quite yet).

You too must become a hippo

Haiku surprise—sudden depth cuts through habitual mind. Combining disjunction, concision, and freshness of language, haiku represent something deep, philosophical, and may align with the spiritual in being. Yet must haiku always be so serious?

On the Haiku Society of America website, a legacy page presents the Official Definitions of haiku, senryū, and zappai (2004).[3] It reads in part that senryū “highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.” Associating senryū to humor (implied as throwaway wit), and further associating senryū to zappai[4] as “miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse,” there seems a put‑down of these estimable poetic forms. (The “definitions” are scanned ruefully these days.) Haiku are raised by contrast to the “serious” status of high art. It can be said that these definitions reflect 60 years of cultural reduction, born of mistranslation and fanciful Buddhist-inspired commentaries; yet it may also be said that a culture having been appropriated, these definitions provide a historical landmark for what “haiku tradition” means within Anglo‑haiku culture. But must haiku always be serious, is depth a given signatory to the stamp of a “high art”?

On humor in haiku: the term “haiku humor,” more properly 俳句のユーモア (haiku no yūmoa)—shows that “humor” is in katakana, indicating a loanword. As experienced in the poetry, “haiku humor” isn’t easily definable in English. Sometimes there is wit or pun, the tragicomic, expectation‑reversal, or joke—these forms of humor exhibit nuances specific to the conceptual background of the haiku form, involving layers or elements of paradoxical, puzzling, or ambiguous meaning and imagery.

The feudal‑era term “haikai” in part indicates “humorous verse.” Among the most notable practitioners of haiku humor (he’s published a book with this title) is Tsubouchi Nenten, whose pen‑name (haigō) means “twisted guts.” As an academic, poet, and scholar, Nenten has also written voluminously on Masaoka Shiki, who was playful indeed.[5] Here is a sampling of Nenten’s haiku:[6]

sakura chiru anata mo kaba ni narinasai

cherry blossoms fall —
you too must become
a hippo


tanpopo no popo no atari ga kaji desuyo

tanpopo no popo :
surrounding, burning!


(1) tanpopo is “dandelion.” The popo of tanpopo is a neologistic, onomatopoeic coinage. By utilizing popo, tanpopo, itself not considered onomatopoeic, becomes so. Literally, the “popo” of “tanpopo” is on fire. In the pun, popo can represent the circumference of the flower, and/or the edge (latter half) of the word.

(2) desuyo is a dialogic part of speech which has the sense of a rallying cry, as if to say, “look at this!”, e.g., “Here is the place of the fire’s energy!” and also, ‘Emergency!’

(3) popo-popo-popo (etc.) is the sound of a steam locomotive; a locomotive engineer is known as a “popo‑ya,” and “shushu popo” is a term children use for locomotive. The term poppo can be found in the 1603 Jesuit Japanese translation dictionary, as “the manner in which steam or fire rises.”

haru o neru yabure kabure no yô ni kaba

in the spring —
lying down desperate, as
a hippo

While the layered puns of tanpopo no popo (and many of his other works) present various instances of haiku humor, Nenten is irredeemably associated with the hippo. When Nenten writes, “you too must become a hippo,” what is he on about? I believe he means you must become other than who you are. Though set in a playful context, there is instruction, perhaps insistence. Through the use of alternate “persona” as haigō—via pen‑names, Nenten becomes hippo. And he urges us to also.

The adoption of alternate personae has long been a key aspect of Japanesehaiku composition, though this idea of “becoming animal” or becoming utterly other, is not much discussed in the English haiku world. However, the notion is deeply historical in Japan.[7] Nenten discusses haigō in the short interview, “Haigō: Masaoka Shiki & Haiku Persona” ([8] With some delight, vital aspects of haiku‑humor are communicated:

It is my belief that—how to say this—the “not human” quality [of the poetic “I”] is related with a way to enrich the poetic self, as author. That is, a person—a self—if there is a self—within the poetic‑creational realm, is typically a lone [isolate] self. An isolate author. By contrast, originally, traditionally, in the haiku world, poets used pen-names, that is, haigō. And in this manner, they obtained different selves. Take for example a poet I really like, Masaoka Shiki. Shiki used more than 100 pen‑names. Yes! And in doing so, the pen‑name becomes a kind of mask, persona—so that the personality is changed—it’s true. This was once the traditional haiku poet’s, so to say, “way” [mode, path] of creation.

Broadly speaking, Anglo‑European culture has evolved a socio‑philosophical stance focused on “self”: promoting declensions of willful singularity (e.g. inalienable rights), via the development of self‑autonomy. Represented is psychological concentration and concatenation, a deterministic, centuries‑long move away from polymorphous figuration, as seen vibrantly for example in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. By contrast, consider what in Japanese biomedical ethics is known as “a culture of care.” Drawn from a deep‑seated cultural matrix grounded in Japan’s indigenous, polytheistic religion of Shinto (origin prior to 300 BCE), the emphasis is divergent to autonomy. As a professor of ethics once explained to me, “In Japan, some gods, kami, can get sick, and can even die; so they need our help and energy—this is why we do matsuri (festivals for kami).” There are 1000s of kami, and each is local. In this schema there are no “universal” Buddhas,[9] no monotheistic deep‑seated omnipotent gods, whether in the foreground or background. Instead, there are 1000s of gods/names/qualities associated with specific, sacred locales: kami of ancient trees, pure bubbling springs, ancient trees, waterfalls—each place has specific healing or generative powers. Kami are said to number “8 million,” implying “countless.”[10]

What’s in a name, a name that is life, and gives life? Animate in nature and culture, both; this is kami. And as with ecosystem, vulnerable to destruction, sickness—vulnerable, and delicate. Some kami need us to remain healthy, as we too benefit in exchange from a god’s local, environmental power. An animate, healing power pervades: one walks beneath the tori gate and ritually purifies the body, rinsing hands and forehead from the shrine’s water‑basin. In matsuri, as within the withdrawn god’s dwelling (a smaller structure behind the main shrine, never entered: what is within remains unseen), an environment of the sacred in life is drawn from the timeless, and protected by stages of transmutative purification. “Born of 1000 gods, 1000 names” is an inferential, contextual relationship, incorporated into haikai traditions.

As well, as you know, in the feudal class-structure found in the Edo era (1603-1867), when poets gathered, such situations could become incommodious, uncomfortable. [Lower classes had no surnames, and samurai surnames could easily reveal rank as well as family history.] So, to hold a joyous and expansive haiku party, for all in attendance, by utilizing haigō, all participants become equal. You know, there is a saying, “haikai is for freedom” [quoting Bashō, in the Kyoraishō]. All are equal. Yes, I believe this tradition is really important. So, having not only a usual self with a usual name; being not only an individual human being—but several personalities within a poet’s psyche: this can make one’s haiku much more interesting. And this is my philosophy.

As with the matsuri, the kukai (haiku gathering‑party) is festive, Dionysian and radically egalitarian. “Haikai is for freedom. All are equal … this tradition is really important … all participants become equal.” This is a tradition of democratic résistance, within a strongly hierarchal feudal‑warlord ethos. Haiku is for freedom is relevant in our present era also (even if we are lacking in haigō, as plentiful pen‑names) to the extent that cosmopolitanism remains wedded to the genre.

To discuss this a bit more, from the early-modern era, haiku poets became “actual-name” oriented. For most then, having a pen‑name constitutes nothing but a minor genre‑attribute. Furthermore, using only one’s real name causes a poet to become isolated [alienated]; tends to cause restriction, compositional limitation. I ponder this in some corner of my mind…. And, when I absorb my “Nenten‑haigō self” into hippos, and perceive and feel as a hippo (laughs), I am a totally different personality from my usual self when I do this. I become a man like a hippo. And from within such a mind, perceiving society and nature: I am doing just this. It’s a process which is, in a word, interesting, isn’t it? I both persist in and recommend this method. (laughs)

One practice of haiku poetry is to become “other,” to become multiple, “being not only an individual human being.” Haiku poets may, unawares, be psychic polytheists in this sense. Internal psychological multiplicities provide a poetic and existential impetus, catalysts of “haiku cosmos”—instantiated environments of matsuri; wellsprings of nourishment and cultivation.

Should a haiku poet attain to a deep, profound realm, via the method of shasei [sketch]? I really doubt such a notion. Indeed, examining literature of the modern period, Japanese literature in particular has a strong, even singular tendency to seek profoundness or inwardness. However, in narrowly pursuing such a theme, we may also lose something. I feel that Shiki cherished exactly that something which we tend to lose. So—What is it, would you ask me? It is, in my opinion, the enjoyment of language [kotoba: vocabulary‑ and language‑play].

Nenten is pushing back against a prevailing ideology of haiku, the tragic limitation of the profound, and a misunderstanding of the genre. Shall we imagine a profound lightness, or something more playful, joyful, when the masterful aesthetic quality karumi (lightness) of Bashō’s later period is considered?

Another complication of haiku (and haikai) concerns the historical poetics of kanshi. Shiki adopted this predominant poetic form into his compositional conception of the modern haiku:

In Shiki’s case, he had his own philosophy, regarding the composition of poetry: Language composes worlds via combinations; just like playing blocks. His idea derives from the fact that he began his poetic career based upon his study and composition of poems (kanshi), written in Chinese characters. [Kanshi are structured by ideogrammatic lines having the appearance of “block” combinations.] Shiki became enthusiastic about this compositional method. He adopted it to haiku, and composed quite a number, taking many topics for his haiku. And for each topic, he composed haiku as part of his formal compositional style.

A kanshi example (penned by Shiki):

Kanshi was the most popular form of poetry during the early Heian period in Japan among Japanese aristocrats and proliferated until the modern period.”[11] It is doubtful that a haiku scholar (in Japan or elsewhere), wanting to thoroughly understand traditional haiku, could avoid deep dives into kanshi—incidentally, a poetic form disallowed for women. Kanshi is extremely hard to master (linguistically, poetically, orthographically). Where haikai are—if eloquent and difficult—playful and collaborative, kanshi are serious, solitary and aristocratic: the “higher” art. Shiki’s grandfather, a master of kanshi, was his childhood mentor. Shiki relates the agony of punishing old‑school rote lessons.[12] Yet later,

Whenever [Shiki] and his friends would gather, he lit a stick of incense, and they would write as many haiku as possible before the incense went out. This may seem merely playful—but the process requires intense concentration. As a result, something of the unconscious is revealed: this is similar to a kind of automatic writing, the automatic writing of the surrealist poets, I believe. However, unfortunately, this aspect of Shiki’s compositional method was regarded as that of a person who was always just, and merely, “playing.” This was the view of later generations. As well, his youthful companions, Takahama Kyoshi and Kawahigashi Hekigotō respected Shiki, but likewise also regarded Shiki as being “too playful.”

If we deepen [haiku] too much, won’t we lose the sense of language and wordplay, and a host of related qualities? This is my opinion.

Within paradoxes of persona, and the dialectic of ‘play versus depth,’ aspects of haiku cosmos begin to arise. haru o neru yabure kabure no yō ni kaba (in the spring– lying down desperate, as a hippo). Here the kigo of Spring haru, indicates gentleness and a soft, peaceful breeze. Then there’s a twist in the guts with “desperate.” For haiku, this opposition is emotionally violent: yabure (ragged, torn, shattered); kabure (as a rash, from poison ivy)—yet yabure kabure creates a playful and focused metrical rhyme at the poem’s fulcrum, evoking the serenity of Spring. Where is the hippo? The metaphoric comparative, “yō ni” is open to interpretation. It can be read “like/as”; “as a hippo” (yō ni kaba); also “like a hippo”; “hippo-like”; “as though a hippo”—or, taking Nenten at his word, “as hippo.”

The question “where is the hippo?” mirrors the question “where is the pond” in Bashō’s haiku (‘old pond– frog(s) jump-in water’s sound’). A haiku cosmos begins with a self‑reflexive where. Where are we? Where is mind, the real, illusion? Desperate, like a hippo …

Nenten encourages poets to revisit Shiki’s favorite practices: to “write as many haiku as possible [speed haiku! with] … intense concentration … the unconscious is revealed … [in] automatic writing … [as with] the surrealist poets …” Though writing in Japanese, Nenten references consciousness‑shifts and practices pertaining to Western‑modernist preoccupations. I think especially of Yeats, influenced by haiku, who indulged in practices of automatic writing—also the Beats. Shiki is experimenting along these lines over a half-century earlier. How far apart are we, really?

It may be that each notable haiku poet expresses a unique haiku cosmos—Nenten illustrates a paradigm of haiku‑culture (largely abandoned) of multiple persona, a formal taking‑on of forms: metamorphoses of personality. There remains something ancient, resurgent of animism, echoing Auerbach’s sense of mimesis: a becoming‑into—as opposed to literary tropes of artful figuration, or life imitation. From this perspective, Nenten/hippo is not quite Disney, not really fantasy, and not even metaphor. A haiku cosmos inhabits a mystifying phenomenology that plies a “between”—what is ancient and modern; what simply is and what feels to be more real than what is (the Jungian numinous). The deeper into the origin of projection one journeys, the more form and the known destabilizes. Normative arguments of symbol systems that interlink to create notions of how it is reality is determined shimmer and shape-shift; liminality ensues, the certainty of things being things is questioned, the world being a singularly knowable world, of self being a singular self.

Bashō’s in love

If there is a meeting-point where contemporary Japanese and English-language haiku poets meet, it is in the personage of Bashō. As Hasegawa Kai points out, we all misunderstand the poet equally! Over the centuries, a saintly patina has covered over a person more genuine, vital, and strange than has come down to us though the idealizations of a quasi‑religious history.

Below, unpublished translations of our Kon Nichi translation group present quotations of Arashiyama Kōzaburō, an efficient way of reviving Bashō. Arashiyama[13] has garnered awards for his books on Bashō: Rogue Bashō [Akutō Bashō] 2006, Following Bashō’s Journey [Bashō Kikō] 2000, The Temptations of Bashō (Bashō’s Seductions) [Bashō no Yūwaku] 1995, and others. His works remain untranslated. Below are draft excerpts from Bashō Kikō.

Arashiyama presents a complex, ambitious, obstinate, passionate poet, full of surprises (translator comments are in brackets).

From the Prologue:

The modern evaluation of Bashō emphasizes elements of his spirituality; as a result, he is respected as a kind of sainted poet. Consequently, we have become blind to Bashō’s actual personality. The key to understanding Bashō has to do with the meaning of “living in journey” [“tabi wo sumika”; this phrase appears in the opening passage of Oku no Hosomichi/The Narrow Road to Oku]. Bashō is a refined poet for me, but I sometimes think, “Wait a minute!” Bashō was also an incorrigible outlaw‑vagabond, and he did whatever he wanted during his journeys…. And then there was the mysterious journey of Oi no Kobumi [Notes from my Backpack], his honeymoon with that beautiful boy, Tokoku [aka Mankikumaru], whom Bashō loved. He must have wanted to keep Oi no Kobumi secret.

Rogue Bashō details a coterie of drunkards, violent men, and criminals Bashō hung out with, and how, through several highly risky escapades of subversion, he saved members of his family from the law, along with close friends (these amazing tales await translation).

Haikai rests on the space of “kyo” [虚: non-reality/emptiness], a sensibility which lies beyond class distinctions. The haikai relationship is stronger than such distinctions: even hereditary vassals would not deign to interrupt [such a poetic] relationship (17).

This is a point above‑mentioned by Nenten. The cultural sense concatenated in Bashō’s noted epithet, “haikai is for freedom” did not originate with him, in Arashiyama’s view. Freedom from ‘rank‑equals‑name’ was long‑established in the world of collaborative verse.

Bashō is a dangerous person. He is not enlightened. You can’t write haiku when you are enlightened; this is something Bashō himself understood. He also has physical strength. And a strong will as well (21). Of course, it should be obvious that he’s not “a withered person of refined taste.” Bashō is something like an unmanageable ghost. He doesn’t easily reveal his colors, and he’s not a person with one surface, but a polyhedron. Moreover, he’s a magician who links double or triple fictions together, and then slips away… (22).

Publishing printed books was a weapon, for a poet.… Indeed, in this [Edo] era, a printed book indicated a poet’s value. Even if it was thin [as Kai Oi, his first published book, was], it elevated the poet’s reputation. So, in addition to his literary aspirations, Bashō had a sense of business. Bashō reckoned that with this one [first] book he could “fight it out” in Edo (27). In Kai Ōi, Bashō plied “roppō-kotoba” [lit. “language of the six”; a vulgar language used by youthful gangsters of the samurai class], taken from various ballads sung to shamisen, that were all the rage in the red-light district, or so it is said. He mastered such slang, and applied their phrases and terms humorously [the book is rife with ribald, obscene poetry, which Bashō selected and judged in a novel way—and this caused a sensation]. (28-32).

Around the time of the publication of Kai Ōi, Bashō began to engage in male homosexual behavior … This rumor, that Bashō was quite a womanizer, has been handed down through the generations…. I guess Bashō could have had affairs with women wherever he went, but I believe his main desire was for men, and the partner of his first affair would have been Sengin, who was two years his elder (34). Sengin’s [later] death drove him to be hard on himself. Bashō did not have any notable haiku-poet supporters; and so he all the more deeply desired to move to the capital, Edo. However much he may have possessed a good education and intelligence, he was just a country-person from a “hilly” [podunk] district (38).

Bashō first met Tokoku at a haiku party in Nagoya, in 1684 [Bashō was 41]. Tokoku was so beautiful that Bashō sought him as his lover; he fell in love with Tokoku. We will never know how upset he was after hearing the news of Tokoku’s arrest…. Tokoku was sentenced to banishment on a charge of trading in rice futures [narrowly escaping death, in court he recited a poem he had composed in praise of the judge’s family, and this seems to have saved him] … He was then exiled to Hobi village, near Irago Cape.

It was at this time that Bashō composed the following haiku, with the preface “For Tokoku”:

shirogeshi ni hane mogu chō no katami kana

on a white opium poppy
a butterfly plucks off its own wings –
as a keepsake

[Written in 1685. Tokoku had previously composed a haiku on the theme of an opium poppy. Bashō here refers to the flower, comparing Tokoku to the poppy, and himself to a butterfly upon it. At the time of departure, the butterfly wishes to pluck off its own white wings to leave for the flower, as a keepsake of love.]

Bashō crystallized his ardent feelings through this affectionate haiku (163-165).

Oi no kobumi [Notes from My Backpack]is based on the half‑year trip from October 25, 1687, through the following April. Around that time, Bashō was active in Nagoya as well as Edo. The truth was, Bashō was willing to commit to a solo journey in order to meet “a certain man” [almost certainly Tokoku]. Some researchers believe that Bashō’s homosexuality is a taboo topic because revelations of his sexual proclivities would ruin his “sainthood.” However, in his time, homosexuality was not something to be ashamed of. Quite to the contrary, it was regarded as an act which strengthened spiritual bonds between mates (162).

Oi no kobumi was published in 1709, 15 years after Bashō’s death (172). Bashō wrote, “I dreamed of Tokoku and woke up with tears . . . and squeezed the sleeve of my kimono” in his Saga-Nikki [Saga Diary]. Tokoku is not a member of the “Ten Great Disciples of Bashō,” but he enjoys a popularity which is on par with Kikaku, Bashō’s greatest disciple (173-75).

Matsuo Bashō, Saga Diary, 28 April, 1691:

In a dream, I began to utter something about Tokoku, who is dead, and woke up in tears.

In the ancient Chinese book Liezi, the sage said: When we communicate with sacred spirits, we have dreams. When we lose the power of yin, we will have dreams of fire; when we lose the power of yang, we will have dreams of water. When a bird flies with our hair in its beak, we will have dreams of flying. When we lay our obi under the futon, we have dreams of snakes. The dreams in the books of sages like Handon’s dream of a life, while boiling oatmeal in Zhen Zhong Ji; Nanke’s dream of the ant kingdom in Nanke ji; the dream of the butterfly of Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu]; these books each preach of reasons, but do not explain the mysteries of the dreams thoroughly.

My dream is not of sages. Every day I am in reverie, distraction, and even throughout the nights, and also in my dreams I am in such a condition. My dreaming of Tokoku is, so-called, nen-mu [a dream of hope or desire]. The man, Tokoku, deeply devoted his heart to me, and came to my homeland of Iga Province, even though the distance was great. We spent nights in the same bed, we got up in the morning from the same bed, helped with the hardships of each other’s journey, for a hundred days and nights. Once, we played and shared each other’s joy; once, sharing each other’s sorrow. As such his heart soaked so deeply into my mind that I can never forget him, so I dream of him. I wake, wipe out my tears, and weep. (trans. Gilbert, Itō)[14]

My colleague Itō Yūki writes (as unpublished biography):

Tsuboi Tokoku (1652?-1690), was born into the Tsuboi family, who were wealthy rice merchants in Owari province (today’s Nagoya Prefecture). He was known to be a very handsome man….

[Following banishment, exiled under pain of death for his crime:]

Escape from a place of criminal exile is of course a new crime, and if Tokoku had been caught by the police while on the run he would have been executed. And, anyone helping his escape, in this case Bashō, would also be sentenced and receive the death penalty. Taking these incredible risks, Totoku and Bashō embarked upon their 100‑day journey. The early part of this journey became one of Bashō’s journey‑journal masterpieces, Oi no Kobumi [笈の小文]. The book was published posthumously, because Tokoku and Bashō would have stood a chance of arrest for their criminal conspiracy.

During their escape, Tokoku used various names to disguise himself: Yajin, Yaji, and Mankikumaru. In Oi no Kobumi, Tokoko used the name Mankikumaru, which means “ten thousand chrysanthemums.” In the Edo era, “chrysanthemum” was a symbol of a homosexual relationship between males, known as the practice of shudō [“the way of the young,” analogous to the ancient Greek tradition]. Shudō was both accepted and fairly widespread among the samurai class (and increasingly others), in the era Tokoku (Mankikumaru) and Bashō traveled, in a very intimate atmosphere. Some scholars insist that Oi no Kobumi is but a fiction based on Bashō’s work, first put together after his death. However, Bashō’s private letters at the time reveal their intimate relationship. Following the journey, on February 20, 1690, Tokoku died.

He was just 34 years old.

Concerning Bashō and his great love, Tokoku, there are various twists and turns in Arashiyama’s retelling. Someday we will have the fuller story.

Butterfly souls & singing frogs

Forgotten or obscure stories return to reinvigorate cultural memory, as memories newly formed. Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904, Koizumi Yakumo is his more familiar Japanese name) taught in Kumamoto for five years (1891‑96), my hometown, and actually he taught in my same Department, British and American Literature. Hearn had moved to this southern area of Kyushu imagining Kumamoto’s mild winters. Though was severely disappointed by the thermal‑inversion zone in the valley, causing both hot summers and cold winters. This put an end to his thoughts of the mild South. As well, perhaps half the town and its legendary castle had been burned down in the Satsuma Rebellion (seinan senso, 1877). So much of Kumamoto, being new construction, lacked that “old Japan” feel Hearn so admired and desired. Satsuma is the old name for Kagoshima, the most southern city of Kyushu. The 2003 film (The Last Samurai, starring Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise) is a fictionalized account of the legendary rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, “the reluctant samurai, “still vivid in cultural memory.[15]

Hearn’s exquisite writings saved and re‑conceived a number of ghost stories and folktales, which are read by children to this day. Toward the end of his too‑short life, with the help of former students (Hearn knew no kanji and so relied on others), he researched and produced Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904). The second half of the book treats, rather surprisingly, insects. The four‑part essay “Butterflies”[16] especially embodies a sense of remystification: what makes a butterfly in Japan unlike any other?

[T]here are marvelous Chinese stories about butterflies—ghostly stories; and I want to know them. But never shall I be able to read Chinese, nor even Japanese; and the little Japanese poetry that I manage, with exceeding difficulty, to translate, contains so many allusions to Chinese stories of butterflies that I am tormented with the torment of Tantalus … a butterfly. In classic time this word signified also a beautiful woman …

It is possible also that some weird Japanese beliefs about butterflies are of Chinese derivation; but these beliefs might be older than China herself. The most interesting one, I think, is that the soul of a living person may wander about in the form of a butterfly. Some pretty fancies have been evolved out of this belief,—such as the notion that if a butterfly enters your guest-room and perches behind the bamboo screen, the person whom you most love is coming to see you. That a butterfly may be the spirit of somebody is not a reason for being afraid of it. Nevertheless there are times when even butterflies can inspire fear by appearing in prodigious numbers; and Japanese history records such an event. When Taira-no-Masakado was secretly preparing for his famous revolt, there appeared in Kyoto so vast a swarm of butterflies that the people were frightened,—thinking the apparition to be a portent of coming evil… Perhaps those butterflies were supposed to be the spirits of the thousands doomed to perish in battle, and agitated on the eve of war by some mysterious premonition of death.

In Japanese belief, a butterfly may be the soul of a dead person as well as of a living person. Indeed, it is a custom of souls to take butterfly‑shape in order to announce the fact of their final departure from the body; and for this reason any butterfly which enters a house ought to be kindly treated.

To this belief, and to queer fancies connected with it, there are many allusions in popular drama. For example, there is a well‑known play called Tonde-deru-Kocho-no-Kanzashi; or, “The Flying Hairpin of Kocho.” Kocho is a beautiful person who kills herself because of false accusations and cruel treatment. Her would-be avenger long seeks in vain for the author of the wrong. But at last the dead woman’s hairpin turns into a butterfly, and serves as a guide to vengeance by hovering above the place where the villain is hiding.… [And] so, at last … the white butterfly was her soul.

I had almost forgotten to mention an ancient Japanese dance, called the Butterfly Dance (Kocho-Mai), which used to be performed in the Imperial Palace, by dancers costumed as butterflies…. Six dancers are required for the proper performance of it; and they must move in particular figures,—obeying traditional rules for every step, pose, or gesture …

Hearn translated 21 haiku as Section II of the “Butterflies” essay. A few examples follow:

Rakkwa eda ni
    Kaeru to mireba—
           Kocho kana!

When I saw the fallen flower return to the branch—lo! it was only a butterfly!

[Hearn’s note:] Alluding to the Buddhist proverb: Rakkwa eda ni kaerazu; ha-kyo futatabi terasazu (“The fallen flower returns not to the branch; the broken mirror never again reflects.”) So says the proverb—yet it seemed to me that I saw a fallen flower return to the branch… No: it was only a butterfly. [Later, also to be an important poem for Ezra Pound]

Nadeshiko ni
   Chocho shiroshi—
          Tare no kon?

On the pink-flower there is a white butterfly: whose spirit, I wonder?

[Hearn’s note:] Or, Tare no tama? [an alternate reading of the kanji, as “spirit” or “soul.”]

Ichi-nichi no
    Tsuma to miekeri—
            Cho futatsu.

The one-day wife has at last appeared—a pair of butterflies!

Kite wa mau
   Futari shidzuka no
          Kocho kana!

Approaching they dance; but when the two meet at last they are very quiet, the butterflies!

In Hearn’s recounted history, butterflies in Japan can appear as the souls of the living, as well as the dead. Consider how this awareness conflicts with the prevailing tendency in Western haiku to assume naturalism, regarding animals. If a butterfly is given as kigo in haiku, obviously context matters, as souls are involved—not only in death but in life too. And this means love, jealousy, yearning, and revenge, all the passions of souls in visitation. The butterfly of the soul flits between lands of the living and dead, a hermetic messenger, informing as mukashibanashi often do: old or ancient tales of the supernatural or strange.

Butterflies carry soul in Western history also, so there is some crossover, though strong divergences prevail. The devil is in the details: for the Japanese haiku poet, animals, like kami, may belong to certain places, times, narratives (and earlier literary works)—may possess specific (supernatural) powers, attributes, and auras. As with kigo, haiku animals live within the complex literary frame of a poetic cosmos.

A haiku animal may only represent a singular type of a species! Haiku frogs, aka poetic frogs, are a small subset of frogs, as there is only one type of frog fit for poetry: the “singing frog.” This poetic frog “sings” (utau, utaimasu); this is the same verb used for poetry oration, which is also sung, not spoken. The singing (poetic) frog is the size of a fingernail, light‑green, with cute bug‑eyes, and a soft, high‑pitched peep. It is sometimes audible as an environmental chorus, or as a very quiet, single, short, “peep.” When this minute, easily‑missed and well‑camouflaged creature jumps from a rock into a pool, the sound is barely audible. This is Bashō’s frog.

Though not Ginsberg’s frog:[17]

The old pond—a frog jumps in, kerplunk!

A distinction must be made regarding haiku in the traditional Japanese‑literary frame, and those within the modern cosmopolitan context. Ginsberg grew up in northern New Jersey, where the wetlands (previously) contained many varieties of frog, especially the large bullfrog, which in‑season has a brassy, bass voice. No shy creature to vocalize, it also has a definitive “kerplunk!” Tiny peepers also “sing” in Ginsbergian wetlands, yet the bullfrogs provide all the exclamation points, the foreground. These exclamations are the same seen over and over again in haiku translations, from the late 19th straight through the 20th—an overemphasis on the kireji (or cutting word) in Japanese haiku, reflecting a need to make more of the poem than it seems: louder and therefore longer than it would seem—haiku being briefer than any Western poetic form (for some translators, a consternation). These ever‑present exclamation points croak with overburdened emotional weight, counterweights to brevity.

Bashō’s frog has no kerplunk!; kireji do not exclaim.

As I learned of these poetic frogs, my image of the haiku changed—everything. The animal, the event, the aural landscape, and overall environment. Silence, hint and nuance displaced exclamation. What to make of these two interpretations (among 100+ translations) of this poem? Both are correct, yet only one relates directly to Bashō.

It is not word choice that makes for remystification, but world choice.


Having a sense of the poet and environment, contextualizing the “old pond” haiku, prototype of the genre, the final installment of this essay will focus on the nature of disjunction, cutting (kire), ma (psychological in‑betweeness), and intellectual wildness, as a means of exploring the meaning of “haiku cosmos”—an epistemology unique to haiku.

  1. “Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism: Parasol”; ‘’.
  2. Podcast. Kwane Appiah interviewed (11 Feb 2020, Ep. 83), Sean Carroll’s Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas; ‘’. “Professor Appiah [recipient of numerous awards]; from 2002 to 2013 was a member of the Princeton University faculty, where he had appointments in the Philosophy Department and the University Center for Human Values, as well as being associated with the Center for African American Studies, the Programs in African Studies and Translation Studies, and the Departments of Comparative Literature and Politics. In January 2014, becoming an emeritus professor at Princeton, he took up an appointment as Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he teaches both in New York and in Abu Dhabi and at other NYU global sites…. [He] has also published widely in literary and cultural studies, with a focus on African and African-American culture. His work at the interface of ethics and psychology was recognized in a special issue of the journal Neuroethics devoted to his book, Experiments in Ethics. He also has a continuing interest in literary criticism and theory and a 2018 issue of the journal New Literary History was devoted to his work; but his major current work has to do with the connection between theory and practice in moral life.” ‘’.
  3. A misnomer, as there cannot be precise definitions; in fact, Japan encyclopedias present examples and history (i.e. connotation), rather than definition. For any “rule” proposed, abundant examples break that rule, whether it be 5‑7‑5, kigo, kachofuei (“birds and flowers” imagery), shasei (sketch), proposed limits of sound‑syllable counts (high or low), etc. Cf.’.
  4. Cf. Gilbert and Kanamitsu, “The Distinct Brilliance of Zappai: Misrepresentations of Zappai in the New HSA Definitions”; ‘’.
  5. A selection of his published work includes: Masaoka Shiki: Haiku no shuttatsu [Masaoka Shiki: Beginning of the Haiku Journey] (1976); Haiku kōshō to katakoto [The Oral Culture of Haiku and Katakoto] (1990); Haiku no yūmoa [Haiku Humor] (1994); Furo de yomu haiku nyūmon [An Introduction to Haiku] (1995); Kaki kū Shiki no haiku sahō [Biting a Persimmon: Shiki’s Haiku Manner] (2005).
  6. Tsubouchi Nenten (坪内稔典1944 – ) Selected Haiku from Haiku Nyūmon [Introduction to Haiku], Tokyo: Sekai Shisoushya,1998; ‘’.
  7. A term from James Hillman, discussed in “Creative Blooms 14: On Animal Rhetoric (Reconnecting)”; ‘’.
  8. Video. #1 “Katakoto,” and #2 “Haigō & Persona”; ‘’.
  9. According to the Nihon Shoki (720 CE) (also known as Nihongi [The Chronicles of Japan]), Buddhism officially entered Japan in 552 CE, via Korea. It was first translated into English by William George Aston, in 1896.
  10. The apperception of kami is complex. In this essay, I am following a view put forth mainly via modern Japanese biomedical ethics. For more information on kami, see Yamakage, Motohisa et al (2007), The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart, Tokyo: Kodansha. Also: ‘’.
  11. “Kanshi (漢詩) is a Japanese term for Chinese poetry in general as well as the Japanese poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets. It literally means “Han poetry.” Kanshi was the most popular form of poetry during the early Heian period in Japan among Japanese aristocrats and proliferated until the modern period…. Kanshi had multiple forms, but most notable were in 5 or 7 syllables in 4 or 8 lines. The Japanese poets of kanshi were skilled in the strict rhyming rules of lüshi 律詩 and jueju 絕句, the two forms of the regulated verse that had gained most popularity during the Tang dynasty in China. (my emphasis); ‘’.
  12. Cf. Donald Keene (2013), The winter sun shines in: A life of Masaoka Shiki, “The Early Years,” NY: CUP: “From the age of eight [Shiki] read Chinese texts with Ōhara Kanzan, Shiki’s grandfather. Every morning at five they made their way to Kanzan’s house for sodoku instruction, reading Chinese texts by rote in Japanese pronunciation without at first understanding the meaning. This was a tedious way to learn a foreign language, but it worked. Shiki came to love the concise expression of classical Chinese and composed many kanshi.”
  13. Arashiyama Kōzaburō (1942- ) Born as Yūjōbō Hideaki. Graduated from Kokugakuin University. Hired by the Heibonsha publication house, and later became a chief editor of Taiyō [The Sun], a noted journal of the arts. With the novelist Shi’ina Makoto, he invented a unique writing style, the “Shōwa frivolous style.” Established his own publishing house, Sinjinsha. As a writer, he won the Kōdansha Essay Award in 1988. Following his second major work on Bashō, Rogue Bashō [Akutō Bashō] 2006 [“akutō” can be translated: “hooligan, villain, ruffian, scoundrel”], he won the 2006 Izumi Kyōka Literature Award, and the Yomiuri Literature Award in 2007. In 2012, he became a commissioner of the Japan Writers’ Association.
  14. Quotation from Sinpen Nihon koten bungaku zenshū vol. 71: Matsuo Bashō-shū vol.2. Imoto Noichi et al, (eds.). Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1997, 156-57.
  15. “Satsuma Rebellion” ‘’; “Saigō Takamori” ‘’.
  16. Found in the copyright‑free edition of Kwaidan;’.
  17. This is actually the first line of his Old Pond Song (1979), Cambridge, MA: Firefly Press. Cf. “Allen Ginsberg — Old Pond (Live)” (28 Dec 2010); ‘’. A few more noted translators are presented online here: ‘’: [“water’s music!”, “frog-leaps-in splash.”, “splash”, “gigantic sound.”, “Plop!”, are some endings shown.]


Richard Gilbert, professor of English Literature at Kumamoto University in Japan, is the author of Poetry as Consciousness: Haiku Forests, Space of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom (illustrated by Sabine Miller, Kebunsha Co. Ltd., 2018, ISBN 978-4-86330-189-4), The Disjunctive Dragonfly (Red Moon Press, 2008, rev. 2013), and Poems of Consciousness (Red Moon Press, 2008), among others. He is also director of the Kon Nichi Translation Group, whose most recent book is the tour de force Haiku as Life: A Kaneko Tohta Omnnibus (Red Moon Press, 2019). In January 2020, he announced the creation of Heliosparrow Poetry Journal, an evolution of the Haiku Sanctuary forum.

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