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A Wolf in Firefly's Clothing?

Started by Jim Kacian, February 12, 2011, 07:09:23 PM

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Jim Kacian

Hi All:

Today's Per Diem poem is

A wolf;
one firefly clinging to it
                —Kaneko Tohta

This has been acclaimed as a very powerful poem in the Japanese. Does it retain this power in English? What do you think?


Gael Bage

Hello Jim, thank you for sharing this. I think it depends on our own experience, I live in the country and it is not unusual to see insects and animals together, eg a wasp and a bluetit, horses and flies, so to me it could be mere reportage, but to the japanese who use a lot of symbolism it could be highly significant, we don't have fireflies here, so a little mystery attached to this for me, I imagine them glowing like glow worms but flying. Interesting, I will google to check the symbolism. pleased to see you posting, I guessed perhaps you had been busy. Often these treasured moments with nature can be highly significant on a personal level.
i would think the firefly = illumination enlightenment but still looking for wolf ... maybe learning .. one wolf -- self..or even oneness?
ah, found a reference to wolf as a sacred animal associated with a particular shinto shrine

at one time wrens were sacrificed, this recent ku of mine is also full of symbolism though not japanese, three different symbols... well two, and much symbolism associated with winter solstice

winter solstice -
a wren darts
into the laurel
Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance
- Carl Sandburg

Gabi Greve

ookami ni
hotaru ga hitotsu
tsuite ita

A wolf;
one firefly clung
to the wolf

If you count the Japanese, it is 5 7 5 and written in "normal" language, like one  sentence we use in conversation.

on the wolf
one firefly
clung  / hang / stuck   (verb in past tense)

Gabi (on the formal aspect of this)



Hello, Jim,

Reading in translation is always dicey, IMHO -- I'm forever wondering exactly what the nuances were in the original language.

That said, I like the fierce-and-delicate dichotomy in this haiku, but I don't know as "powerful" would be among my descriptors for it.  I rather expect "powerful" to knock my socks off with a stunning and absolutely apt juxtaposition or imagery expressed in a fresh and original way, and I did not get that here.  Lost in translation?  I honestly don't know what to think.

"Nature inspires me. I am only a messenger."  ~Kitaro


"This has been acclaimed as a very powerful poem in the Japanese. Does it retain this power in English? What do you think?"

I think, "Not really." I can feel my way into this ku a little  by switching species, eg

A thylacine;
one corroboree frog clinging to it

What does a thylacine and a Japanese wolf have in common? Both are extinct.  What does a Japanese firefly and a corroboree frog have in common? They are both endangered species, and the respective nations each have breeding programs going to prevent their extinction.

Then I can try to feel my way a little further by checking the words 'wolf' and 'dragonfly' as kigo,
how the words might function as code words, and yes, 'dragonfly ' is early Summer and 'wolf' is 'all Winter'. But how far does that get me in understanding the ku?

I'd say that Kaneko Tohta's ku relies on the reader's knowledge of both Japanese social history and literary history... and the mythology and symbolism shared by both. I think it's difficult for English-speakers in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA (at least) to comprehend the extent to which the historical past is kept alive in Japan and with it the sense of a national identity shared by all. Even the daily and weekly newspapers keep it alive!

So the Genji (big firefly - genji-botaru) clan defeated the Heike  (smaller firefly - heike-botaru) clan in the 12th-century. The Japanese wolf ( as extinct as the thylacine, but like the thylacine reports of 'sightings' crop up now and then) :

"In Japan, grain farmers once worshiped wolves at shrines and left food offerings near their dens, beseeching them to protect their crops from wild boars and deer. Talismans and charms adorned with images of wolves were thought to protect against fire, disease, and other calamities and brought fertility to agrarian communities and to couples hoping to have children. The Ainu people believed that they were born from the union of a wolflike creature and a goddess.[10]",_religion_and_mythology

There is extensive information about the Japanese wolf on Gabi Greve's data base blogs:

But who could know, apart from a Japanese person, a scholar of Japanese history, mythology and folklore, or a 'gaijin' living in Japan, what this ku is about without the effort of extensive research? Who knows, from all of the Japanese symbology attached to 'wolf' and 'firefly', what this ku refers to, apart from a general sense that it refers to Japan, past and present? (I will have to reread Barthes' Empire of Signs.)

I think that the poem gathers its power in Japan from a shared culture, one which I can only graze the surface of. But I have suspicion that this poem might be a comment and critique on some aspects of that shared culture, from Kaneko Tohta's '21st century' point of view.


clouds gathering thylacine rumours from the mountain

- Lorin


...another translation:

ookami-ni hotaru-ga hitotsu tsuite ita

on the wolf
a firefly
attached itself

(Translated by Dhugal J.Lindsay)

- Lorin



Gabi Greve

There are more haiku with the ookami wolf by Tohta sensei.
I remember him once talking about a different haiku about an ookami coming down the mounain, which was his rendering of a large man he saw running down ...

   おおかみに蛍が一つ付いていた (this is the firefly one)

   おおかみが蚕飼の村を歩いていた (a wolf walked in a village where they keep silkworms)


   おおかみを龍神(りゅうがみ)と呼ぶ山の民 (villagers call the wolf the "dragon god")






I will check more later, not got to run to a busy day.



Quote from: Gabi Greve on February 12, 2011, 11:41:46 PM
There are more haiku with the ookami wolf by Tohta sensei.
I remember him once talking about an ookami coming down the mounain, which was his rendering of a large man he saw running down ...

   おおかみが蚕飼の村を歩いていた (a wolf walked in a village where they keep silkworms)



I was about to say that perhaps one should be guided by what Tohta says about Basho's 'old pond' haiku, and that perhaps it's barking up the wrong tree to infer 'hidden meanings':

"By the way, foreigners usually look at the old pond in the poem very philosophically. I don't agree. The old pond is muddy, filled with algae, the water in it hardly ever moving. Not clear, it reflects the sunshine, and there are bugs jumping in it. That is what the "old pond" is like. I insist that with such an old pond, I can hear the splash of a frog. It jumped in somewhere. When I hear this sound, I imagine the old pond. The combination of these two - the old pond and the sound made by the splash - forms the world of the haiku. After this, each reader receives his own image."

But if this one of his refers, as Gabi says it does, to  "a large man he saw running down. . ."

おおかみが蚕飼の村を歩いていた (a wolf walked in a village where they keep silkworms)

... then out goes that idea! If a wolf can be '"a large man" that he saw, then a firefly can be either of those Japanese clans who were hacking each other up in medieval times, ala Macbeth or rather Holinshed's Chronicles, or it can be simply a real firefly on a man's sleeve, hand, hair, hat or wherever.

If it works on the level of 'language poetry' in Japanese, then translations become impossible, I'd imagine.

thylacine barking up the wrong genus

- Lorin


I read haiku collections and haiku journals for the immediate enjoyment I get from the poems.
Some mean more to me than others because of personal experience or knowledge of the subject treated.  Often I read haiku that are beyond my ken because of unfamiliarity with the experience and or the subject and require an explanation, either by the author or by checking references.  Without knowing the historical and cultural references for wolf and firefly, this haiku, on the surface level,  doesn't leave me with any powerful impression, just a question:
How close was the poet to the wolf to see the firefly?



Quote from: Adelaide on February 13, 2011, 12:13:09 AM
just a question:
How close was the poet to the wolf to see the firefly?


:D ...ha, Adelaide.

After Gabi's post, I strongly suspect that Jim's "wolf in firefly's clothing" has much to do with it all.

If "a large man running down..." can metamorphose into an extinct wolf in Tohta's ku, then a firefly can metamorphose into Red Riding Hood, or anything or anyone the reader projects into the ku. The poet himself might be the 'wolf' and and a nubile new member to the haiku group might be the 'firefly', in which case Tohta might've got a very good close look at the 'firefly' indeed.

Who knows?

- Lorin

Gabi Greve

Your gaijin detective reporting from Japan (it is my lunchbreak ...)

Amazing how many comments to this haiku I found on Japanese websites.


Sensei introduced this haiku in the famous national haiku TV, NHK HAIKU on July 2009, with the following short comment:

I was born in Chichibu. There used to be wolves in the area a long time ago.
And they have been the subject of religious belief, like deities.

Here is one wolf of Chichibu

Like a komainu statue in front of Mitsumine shrine, the most famous in Chichibu.

So maybe he wrote about a real firefly on a stone statue wolf ? ???

Or he identifies himself with the wolf and the firefly is sitting on him? Quite possible if you live in the area.

(I once spent a night at a famous firefly river in Chichibu, they would sit on us humans without being shy  ... )

Off to more checking, this is fun.


More is here now

Tohta sensei also features a haiku group called WOLF


Mark Harris

' refute the Kuwabara thesis via their own haiku compositions, young haiku poets gathered together and founded the magazine Kaze (Wind). The most notable member of this magazine was Kaneko Tohta, who became the principal leader of the postwar gendai haiku movement. In 1948, the New Rising Haiku poets also founded Tenrô (Wolf of Heaven).' ---New Rising Haiku, The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident, by Itô Yûki


An excerpt from

In Japan, fireflies are also thought to be the souls of dead soldiers ... and are a metaphor for passionate love

Which doesn't illuminate much more, just adds another question.

This from Wikipedia in an entry on the anime film Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, Hotaru no Haka:

Mature fireflies which emit light have extremely short life spans of two to three weeks and are traditionally regarded as a symbol of impermanence, which resonates with much of classical Japanese tradition (as with cherry blossoms). Fireflies are also symbolic of the human soul ("Hitodama"), which is depicted as a floating, flickering fireball. Heikebotaru (平家蛍, Luciola lateralis), a species of firefly that exist in the Western region of Japan, is so-called because people considered their lights, hovering near rivers and lakes, to be the souls of the Heike family, all of whose members perished in a famous historic naval engagement - the Battle of Dan-no-ura.

I guess among all this symbolism there's an intersection between wolf and firefly ... but it's not obvious and if we didn't have Google, we wouldn't have got this far.

The moral I'm drawing is that all haiku may be translated from whatever to whatever but that doesn't necessarily help unerstanding.

So I would say, no, this haiku doesn not retain its power in English.


The new data you gathered today is intereting Gabi. You state that the main kigo is firefly and the secondary kigo is wolf. Can you tell us the process by which you arrived at this conclusion? I can't work it out.

"on the wolf
one firefly
clung / hang / stuck (verb in past tense)

Main kigo:
. WKD : Firelfy (hotaru)  

Secondary kigo:
. WKD : Wolf (ookami)  "


WOLF haiku by Tohta sensei,
on his own homepage 

"And then one day came the wolf haiku.
In Chichibu there are still many legends about wolves. In many shrines are stone images of wolves. Wolves are extinct in Japan, but they are still alive (in the memories of people). Especially inside myself, they still live in their original wild form."

- trans: Gabi Greve

.. I might now attempt to revive my thylacine ku drafts (which didn't go down at all well a few years ago) using Tohta's argument as a precedent. Wish me luck!

Last thylacine died 1936:

- Lorin


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