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Envoy 1 (part 1)

Envoys is a section that is devoted to looking at individual, non-English haiku from the 20th and 21st centuries. For an introduction to this section, see Envoys.

Envoy 1 (part 1)

by Scott Metz


When it came to my attention that Kaneko Tōta had won the prestigious Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize for 2008, it seemed fitting (and exciting) to begin this series with a haiku by him, especially since his work is not well known in the west.

Kaneko Tōta was born in Saitama Prefecture, Japan, on September 23rd, 1919. Since 2000, he has been the Honorary President of the Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyokai). To quote some of the short biography that accompanied the announcement of the Shiki Award:

“Kaneko Tōta is one of the most active post-war authors. Realizing more faithfully than anyone else one of Masaoka Shiki’s original ideas that ‘Haiku is part of literature’ (‘Haikai Taiyo (Essentials of Haiku)’), Mr. Kaneko voluntarily took the initiative in advocating and stressing the importance of sociality, plasticism, and avant-garde qualities in haiku poems. His campaign marked one of the landmark events in the post-war haiku history, which deeply penetrated not only a limited number of schools but the entire haiku population. This is exemplified by the fact that, although avant-garde haiku tends to be labeled anti-traditional, Mr. Kaneko’s efforts have, on the contrary, inspired and animated classical haiku to an undeniable extent. His pursuit of avant-garde qualities in haiku actually helped clarify what traditional haiku has endeavored to achieve and, as a result, gave birth to a new movement of classical haiku. Mr. Kaneko has been devoted to nouvelle haiku, without losing respect for popular poets such as Issa Kobayashi or other wandering haiku poets, as well as for indigenous poems associated with his own hometown Chichibu.”

What this award immediately prompted me to do was begin a careful rereading of Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology (University of Toronto Press, 1976) — the only place I knew of that had in it a substantial selection of his work (Tōta is one of twenty-one 20th century Japanese poets featured inside it). For me, this publication seems like a landmark, and something one could and should often return to for possibilities and directions in haiku writing — a tremendous source of inspiration. Initially, I was drawn to featuring translations and commentaries of this haiku by Tōta:

After a heated argument
I go out to the street       
   and become a motorcycle.

As much as I love it (and as important as it is, I’ve been told, in the evolution of 20th century Japanese haiku), there was a different one that seemed to call out more for attention, especially with everything that was and is going on in the world financially: domino meltdowns, endless bailouts, takeovers, bankruptcies, restructuring, massive and ongoing debt, credit, unearned bonuses, the housing bubble, the shifting of worthless paper, lying, deceit, misleading, Ponzi schemes. Not to mention wars being waged, continued, shifted, ignored — all of which is undoubtedly linked to the world economy, national debts, and the military industrial complex. In a nutshell: money/profit first, people last. In a word: greed. All of which is affecting the entire world. In this context, the Tôta haiku I’ve chosen for this first installment seems timely as ever, and therefore is able to breathe new life, gaining new energy and meaning.
What follows is not just the poem in translation but an entire menagerie of translations and commentaries on it from different poets and scholars. This installment began small, but quickly grew to have a life of its own. Because of its size, I have decided to split it up into a few parts. I can’t thank those who contributed to this posting enough for their thoughts and time. I encourage anyone reading this to have a go at translating it themself, and to offer any other light that can be shed upon it.



ginkōin-ra asa yori keikō su ika no-gotoku

Kaneko Tōta 金子兜太

Like squids
bank clerks are fluorescent
from the morning.

-translated by Makoto Ueda (Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology, University of Toronto Press, 1976)

the bankers fluoresce
from the morning
like squids

from the morning
the bankers fluoresce
like squid

from the morning the bankers illuminate fluorescent lights like squids

-translated by Fay Aoyagi

bank employees
fluorescing like so many squid
first thing in the morning

translated by Jacqui Murray


into the morning bank clerks glowing fluorescent as squid

(Note. This haiku is jyûritsu [‘free-rhythm’], is muki [non-seasonal], and contains no kireji. In our commentary, we have adapted these materials and added original historical and biographical research to create the English text.)

The General Strike date of February 1, 1947 was a significant moment in postwar Japanese history; the date on which Japanese unions called for a general strike against General McArthur’s wishes. It was on this date that Kaneko Tōta, after experiencing 15 months as a prisoner of war, having returned to Japan, re‑entered his union post at the Central Bank of Japan: the day of defeat for the worker’s movement.

In 1948, Tōta became the Representative Commissioner (daihyô iin) of the Workers Union in the Central Bank of Japan (Nihon Ginkô jugyôin kumiai), and in 1949 became the first full-time Director-General (jimukyokuchô) of the Union, dedicating himself to supporting the Union in all of its activities. Moreover, he acted as a member of the Federation of the All-Bank Workers Union (zenkoku ginkô-in kumiai rengô-kai). However, in 1950, both the Korean War and the Cold War began. As a result, he was “Red-purged” from the main office of the bank, and sent to work in a small branch bank. This was where ‘fluorescent squid’ was composed. (Cf. Kaneko Tōta, My Postwar Haiku History [waga sengo haiku-shi], Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1985.)

Kaneko wished to compose a haiku about bank clerks, and has described an aspect of his compositional process. There were soroban (a Japanese abacus used for calculation), bills, and other materials in the bank. Contemplating such bank objects, he was h
owever unable to express the  “perplexed and tattered emotions” of the bank clerks, including himself. Additionally, whether he were to write a haiku from “a damned situation or blessed state,” he felt that such a haiku would end up either as a sermon on the one hand, or on the other an expression of logical prose.

At this time, Kaneko found a creative key to his expression. While on holiday, he visited an aquarium, and was impressed by a scene: the image of a squid exuding a blue fluorescent light from its body. The next morning at the bank he noticed the fluorescent lights on the ceiling casting their blue-white lights on all the clerks, and felt a “sense (kankaku).” It was as if squid with blue fluorescent lights emanating from their bodies were swimming in the deep sea.

When Kaneko composed ‘fluorescent squid,’ he writes, “In the gloom, the people in the bank settled in my mind as the image that each squid has a lonely fluorescence, and is a fresh, fishy creature of the sea with feelers.”

(The above is only an excerpt. To read the entire essay, please go to the May ’09 issue of Roadrunner)
-Itō Yûki & Richard Gilbert

Bank clerks since the morning fluorescent like squid

-translated by James Shea

to be continued . . .


This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Joining the conversation late here and only very briefly…just want to observe, Peter, I’m also charmed by the opposite possibility, that in contemplating your mother or some lambent grief or what-have-you, you realize it’s all about the roughness of a pine’s bark.

  2. If I did not know that Tōta served in the military toward the end of WW2, if I only had the poem itself to go on, I would probably look at it as a snapshot of the psychological state of a young man or child. In the translation the “parents” literally come between the formlessness and ephemerality of fog and the very definite stone the boy is holding, or contemplating. He needs something real to hold onto or to wield if he is to go beyond the stifling fog, the fog of fear or not seeing, perhaps, that his parents would keep him in. He may have to risk shattering their dreams or wishes about him if he is to be free. Well, that’s a way of looking at it, somewhat based on the structure of the (translated) poem itself, and perhaps imposing or projecting some of my own psychology onto it. But I think this exercise shows me, at least, that the poem does more than merely tell. By the way, at the risk of quickly getting a reputation here as being hard on translations (but respecting translators, please understand) I’ll say that the word “disperse” seems a little off. It’s cold and distancing for one thing, but for another, I don’t think we often think of two things, particularly parents, as “dispersing.” Words like “separate,” “scramble” or “break apart” all give quite different shades of meaning, and not knowing Japanese, I’m at a loss to know what the author intended. Perhaps he did intend the rather dispassionate feeling of “disperse.”

    Knowing a bit about Tōta’s history will likely lead readers in other directions to consider, as Paul did, the postwar uneasiness in Japan, but I’d like to offer this: that a poem, even a seemingly straightforward sketch (which Tōta’s poem is not) may have deeper underpinnings, not always apparent even to the author. I won’t say it has to be that way, but I’d be curious to know if others have had the experience of writing a seemingly simple poem which wouldn’t let go, wouldn’t stay on the surface so to speak but seemed to want to take you under, to a place where you realized it really wasn’t so much about the rough bark of a pine, but about your father, or about a grief or inexplicable dark joy you had been unaware of.

  3. Hey all. Just wanted to share with everyone a Kaneko Tōta haiku that Scott and I recently knocked around.

    The foggy village 
    my parents would disperse
    if I threw a stone

    Tōta captures the uneasiness of the masses in postwar Japan in this unembellished image of a quiet village in the fog. Within that scene he’s painted in thousands of families similar to his own sleeping on pins in the fretful night, while allowing his thoughts to emerge as a part of that image. We speak of “showing” and “not telling” and I’d love to hear from some of us whether or not this haiku satisfies those criteria. This may be just my interpretation, but I’ve always pictured him standing out there, stone in hand, angry, hopeless, half wanting to test that conjecture and if not to unwind some.

    Also, being that Roadrunner is soon providing Hiroaki Sato’s Tōta translations, here’s a fitting link to an article that appeared last February in The Japan Times.

  4. Can someone provide a literal translation of this poem? I find “from the morning” awkward and baffling.

    Makes it seem like it is the morning itself which imparts or induces the fluorescence, which of course may be an inherent meaning, but the phrase remains clunky.

    1. Here is how the literal translation of this ku appears in Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku (which he gave me permission to share):

      Ginkōin-ra / asa / yori / keikō / su / ika / no-gotoku
      Bank-clerks / morning / from / fluorescence / make / squids / like

  5. Though I was introduced to the potential of the English-language haiku by The Haiku Anthology (2nd edition), it was Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku that first got me really excited about the possibilities inherent in the form. At the time it seemed somewhat counter-intuitive that I felt I could learn how to write artful and engaging contemporary American haiku more from the examples in Ueda’s book than I could from what was considered to be “over 700 of the best” current English-language haiku. And yet much of the English-language haiku I encountered at the time seemed lacking in some way, devoid of internal energy, written in an awkward stilted kind of artificial language that obscured authorial presence and resisted complex or indeterminate meanings.

    Frequently the images and associations in these haiku had either obvious or forced connotations and lacked the depth and resonance that well-crafted poems can engender. I would often note an attempt at reproduction in haiku, as if haiku poets were like bird watchers who waited patiently for a “haiku moment” to appear then reproduced it faithfully, as if the haiku were a snapshot or a recording rather than an initial creation with its own life and internal dynamics. This approach to haiku of course limits our subject matter greatly and often realism takes precedence over creation and poetic rationale, which in turn narrows the possibilities of image and expression that are available to us as poets. The haiku is viewed as a representation of an experience, not an experience itself, an experience that is uniquely available to each reader.

    Many of the poets whose haiku appear in Modern Japanese Haiku do not seem constrained by such limiting definitions and criteria. The poets whose work caught me off guard and inspired me to explore new territories in haiku were Tomizawa Kakio, Ozaki Hosai, and Kaneko Tōta. As I endeavored to take some lessons from these and other poets in the anthology I became interested in writing my own English versions of their haiku. I was reading Robert Bly’s translations at the time and was fascinated and emboldened by the idea that one didn’t have to know the language a poet was writing in to necessarily create a satisfying and accessible version of their work.

    There of course is always the debate around the purpose, or perhaps the etiquette, of translation. Is it to literally recreate the piece word for word to understand its physical nature, to create a bridge between languages and cultures as a learning tool, or is it to create something entirely new for an emerging audience that embodies the essence of the poem while not being tied down by the particulars of the original?

    I found Robert Bly’s The Eight Stages of Translation to be a very useful guide to navigate such questions, providing as it does a framework for approaching a poem and recreating it with all of the important questions that the process of translation asks kept in the forefront. Although Bly does not explicitly say this, his theories about translation imply that all versions of a poem are valid, the original, the academic translation, the recreated interpretation, as if each of them are fragments of an ideal or unformed poetic essence that all parties involved are trying to bring into existence. An invisible face capable of wearing many masks.

    My own approach to translating was to first to come up with a nearly literal translation, then to see where the poem could stretch or needed some adjustment so it could exist as a contemporarily accessible poem. Finally I’d put the text away for a week or two and let the poem roam free in my head. When I came back to express it in idiomatic poetic language I was careful not to look back to my or others’ versions of it. At this point it had to stand on its own as a poem that could be read and understood in some way without needing to know it was a haiku or accepting the supposed limitations of translations and checking for footnotes at the bottom of the page.

    One of the things that engaged me about Tōta’s work was his grim post-war industrial subject matter and the surreal dislocating effect of his metaphors (people are squids and motorcycles, flowers are vomit, etc.). This was a world that was familiar to me. That made sense to me. That said everything is available to the haiku. Three of my favorites by Tōta from Modern Japanese Haiku:

    the whores heckle each other on the corner dry tangerines

    the boys on the beach resolute even on a day the onions rot

    a swarm of mayflies under the streetlight I come for my shadow

    I look forward to the ongoing search for the ideal and unformed essence this column will pursue with its various recastings of provocative genre-questioning haiku that have come to us from other gifted tongues.

  6. 銀行員ら朝より蛍光す烏賊のごとく
    ginkôin-ra asa yori keikô su ika no-gotoku

    Kaneko Tôta 金子兜太

    The fluorescent ika, firefly squid, hotaru ika, are a speciality of Toyama Bay.

    here is my try

    these bank clerks
    already in the morning they are
    like firefly squid

    die Bankangestellten
    schon früh am morgen
    wie die Leuchttintenfische

    Greetings from Japanese Food Culture !


  7. These comparative translations are so instructive. Much appreciated.

  8. Wonderful artwork and wonderful modern/contemporary Japanese haiku in translation from a sensational and extremely important world poet and haiku writer. Thank you!

  9. Kudos to you Scott and to all involved with the Haiku Foundation. And there must be fifty other translations of that one from Kaneko Tôta. It’s an ideal starting point for this blog. Hope it introduces many to his haiku. Here is a link to some more with English translations which includes his own favorites:

    Looking forward to future posts.

    1. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. Please do share your thoughts on these haiku and anything else that appears on the site. One of the blog’s goals I think is for it to be a depository for interpretations, discussions and conversations.

      Alan, I’m happy to hear you are enjoying the artwork. Thank you. It is quite fun trying to find just the right pieces for each post. I look forward to your insights.

      Paul, that is an amazing link. Thanks for sharing it. If anyone else out there has important and pertinent links please do post them.

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