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Gendai Haiku


Gendai Haiku is a website created by Dr. Richard Gilbert (Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University, Japan), and is devoted to six Japanese gendai (modern) haiku poets: Uda Kiyoko, Hoshinaga Fumio, Hasegawa Kai, Yagi Mikago, and Tsubouchi Nenten; Japanese gendai (modern) senryu is represented by the work and thoughts of Ōnishi Yasuyo.

Gilbert has defined gendai haiku in this way:

               “‘Gendai haiku’ means literally ‘modern or contemporary haiku,’ and loosely refers to expansive
               ideas of the haiku form arising from the 1920s on, and more particularly to the direct progenitors
               of the gendai haiku movement. . . . Literally, the word [gendai] means ‘contemporary’ but just as
               with ‘modern art,’ something more is implied, in terms of movements, categories, history and
               personages. . . . Gendai haiku offer the reader the shape of who we are in the shape of things to
               come, in resonance with archaic myth, (and) the formal insights of previous ages. . . .

               Gendai haiku partake of a tradition and culture in which, unlike that of the historical Judeo-Christian
               West, nature and culture were not extensively polarized. So in gendai haiku exists an invitation to
               the present and a future, in congruence with the past. This congruency is also an uprooting,
               accomplished via expansive and often experimental avant-garde language and techniques. Yet the
               old is likewise held in the new, in plying the form.” [Simply Haiku Winter 2008, vol. 6 no 4]

What must have taken Gilbert thousands of hours to research, conduct, produce, compile, translate and upload, Gendai Haiku features video interviews with each poet as well as biographies and selections of their poetry (translated by both Gilbert and Itô Yûki). In the case of Yagi Mikago, there is a section of commentaries (also translated by both Gilbert and Yûki) on her work by other notable Japanese haiku poets.


The interviews cover an amazing diversity of challenging concepts that deserve much more attention and discussion in the West. The interviews touch upon such ideas as cutting/kire, realism and “junk” haiku (Hasegawa Kai), haiku and ecology and its relation to the land (Uda Kiyoko), the non-difference between haiku and senryu (Ōnishi Yasuyo), the use of fragmentary language, the future of haiku, and the concept of multiple persona in haiku composition (Tsubouchi Nenten), animism and spiritual atmosphere in haiku, local environs, and the sacred power of language (Hoshinaga Fumio).

Just to name a few.

What these interviews prove is that just because certain poets are composing haiku that are in many ways avant-garde and/or non-traditional—oftentimes utilizing what are conceived to be Western poetic techniques—does not in any way mean that they have become more egocentric or obsessed with only themselves, valuing self over the external, or have forgotten about the so-called selfless/objective overemphasized “roots” of Japanese haiku (Buddhism, Zen), or have somehow forgotten, no longer appreciate, are less concerned with, or no longer value, Nature. Quite the contrary.

If anything, they seem to be traveling deeper and deeper upon those and similar, and just as meaningful, roots, while remaining cognizant of, and adapting to and with, their present times and era. To quote haiku master Kaneko Tôta (honorary president of the Gendai/Modern Haiku Association), haiku poets need “to practice the modern in the grandeur of the old.”

What traditionalists seem to think though is that Buddhism and Zen, realism and objectivity, somehow have a lock and key on Nature—and that all else is self-centered (as if the self is not part of nature)—completely forgetting about how Shintoism, Daoism, Chinese and Japanese literature, poetry, mythologies and folk tales (not just Buddhism and Zen) greatly contributed, enriched and helped mold haiku since its birth, and that all, in some way, touch upon Nature and the environment.

For this posting I would like to share (with permission) a segment of one of the interviews from the website. It is part 1 of the interview with Uda Kiyoko, the current President of the Modern/Gendai Haiku Association, and who was awarded the Japan Medal of Honor in 2002, in which she discusses the importance of land and water, the wisdom of farmers, and how they relate to her own mortality, as well as how Ecology/environmental issues serve as a a major theme in her haiku:

And so, with the interviews Gilbert has conducted and created a website for, free for all, we are able to find out what is on the minds of modern, non-traditional Japanese haiku poets, what they are influenced by and what informs their work: in essence, how haiku has changed and evolved since the late 19th century. Though none talk about Buddhism or Zen, there is plenty about Nature: ecology, local environs, spirituality/sacredness, and animism. The website serves as an invaluable source of ideas, information, poetry, and inspiration for haiku poets. Hopefully the website is only a beginning and will be added to in time. If anything, it is a call for more research to be done and more essays and discussions to take place on these ideas, as well as other new and different directions in haiku thoughts, aesthetics, education and composition.

How can Japanese gendai haiku and the topics discussed in these interviews influence composition in the West?

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Interesting questions arise. Implicit and underlying them all, for me certainly, is a two-fold question: first, is there a core or essence, a well-spring if you like, from which the several streams, or “strands” as Allan puts it, of haiku originate? (And, prior even to that, from which poetry originates). And second, how might that essence be described? What do the strands have in common, and do they separate only to rejoin? I don’t know that the answer exists, and it may be, to paraphrase Yeats, that it is out of the not knowing and constantly wanting to know, that we make poems. I will say, nonetheless, that for me the source has to be prior to nationality or culture, prior even to language, which makes sense if considering that consciousness may exist prior to the brain makes sense. But I wander…

    In my eagerness to individuate, I have until fairly recently steered at least partially clear from studying gendai haiku. My belief has been that unless serious writers using the insights gained from studying Japanese poetry, perhaps by way of imitation at first, moved on, they could not approach true originality, could not drink from the well-springs of poetry itself, and would be forever frozen looking back at the comforts of home and not risk the garden gate. I still believe this, or rather, I have experienced this and know that in every sense, including artistically, it is necessary to break free.

    That said, I am struck by what Richard says: “…we have much yet to learn from contemporary Japanese poets—not because they are Japanese, but because there are a number of brilliant haiku poets… and they happen to be Japanese”. My sense is this: the spirit of gendai haiku may be what is needed (though not exclusively!) to help us mature as poets. (I will say *us* knowing not everyone wishes to come to my party, and not everyone should). To put it more ironically, or paradoxically, it may be gendai haiku which will help lead the way beyond the Japanese garden, and down, to the source.

    Does this mean that I favor the aims, questions, directions and confusions of modern Japanese haiku over other “strands”. The answer, right now, and mostly, is yes. Quite simply it is where I feel I have most to learn. It is where haiku is most intriguing, most language-and-image-rich, and most seriously… most fun. This does not mean I cannot enjoy other strands, call them what you will.

    I hope there will continue to be serious poets whose inspiration derives from Shiki’s notions of realism, at least as applied to “sketches from life”. I hope there will continue to be serious haiku poets drinking from any and all of the streams issuing from the source, including some that remain underground, or only appear in the Spring. I don’t wish to box myself in. I wish to be generous. At my best I feel that every participant in the haiku community and the poetry community in general is to be held in high esteem and nurtured whenever possible. Even hobbyists blossom sometimes, startle sometimes, and change the landscape. But sometimes nurturance comes with straight talk, and saying unpleasant things. I don’t know what percentage of published haiku might be considered imitative or formulaic. It’s pretty high.

    And pretty discouraging, until I remind myself that the occurrence of compelling art of any kind is always somewhat rare. Will someone please tell me, though, that I’m wrong when I say, on the whole, English language haiku has developed very little over a good many years? I am not saying that there have not been truly marvelous poems written, many appearing here in Allan’s Montage and in the Virals.

    Richard refers to the “fixated posture” of most published haiku. William Higginson, I wish he were here to join the conversation, once referred to the “same-o same-o” of the majority of work he read. Maybe it is unfair to bolster myself by invoking them when I say I would like to agree with what Allan says about “our tradition” being “rich, full of youthful vitality, and growing…” but I can’t bring myself to agree, or only potentially. Potentially insofar as I feel the Montage series as well as other facets of THF do and will demonstrate the life inherent in these strange attractors we call haiku, and the reason some of us are serious about it.

    And yet… I may be dyspeptic, I may be repeating myself, but for the most part I find so little that carries the bracing chill of the well-spring, that floors me (makes me under-stand) with its reality. It’s a lot to ask for. Too much, probably.

    I’ll just add this: for me, *realism* includes inner reality, it includes any form of experience, any movement of human *being* and consciousness. Poetry requires me to stay as true as possible to all experience. The Indo-European root word for true is *deru*, which is the same for tree. If I say I wish to be *tree* to my experience, will you become a bird and land in my branches? Is that not a human possibility?

    I think, though I am a young and poor student (even at my age) that gendai haiku may relate to some of that. And I wonder what modern English language haiku might be?

  2. I don’t think the way to go here is simply to invert the values of the past (and present) and to belittle the achievements of E-l haiku.

    By inversion I mean moving from “realism” = “good” to the opposite extreme of “realism” = “bad (junk)”. First off, do we even have an adequate definition of “realism” and do we know it when we see it? In the case of “old pond” we need information outside the poem itself to know how Basho wrote it–that he inferred the pond from the sound of the frog’s jump (which is not really at all the same thing as the pond “not existing”). Is the poem better or worse simply because of the way it was written? And if it were to be discovered that many of our own key “realist” poems were actually written much the way “old pond” was, would that change how some view E-l haiku? I can imagine Borges writing an amusing parable on this subject….

    I do think E-l haiku can benefit potentially from an “expanded toolbox” and that such a toolbox will be worked out through the practice of the poets themselves, drawing upon what stimulates them; but I don’t think what we need are belittling attacks on 99.9% of what has been done so far. Jim Kacian wisely observes that poets write the poems they need to write. That will continue to be the case. If poets write compelling poems informed by gendai techniques–wonderful. But given the different ways people come to haiku and the different needs they have for it, we should not expect some sudden, absolute transformation of our indigenous tradition. One can adopt an unsympathetic stance toward that tradition, but I don’t think THF itself will stand to gain from promoting hostility or militaristic metaphors (“a call to arms”).

    My Montage series comes at some of these issues from a very different angle. It provides a modest weekly celebration of some of the achievements of E-l haiku and of the many poets who have dedicated themselves to developing this genre. I believe our tradition is rich, full of youthful vitality, and growing according to its own internal logic. It is no more and no less than the sum of all the very different poets who have elected to write within it, and it includes many highly distinctive and accomplished voices–most of whom (as an indication of that youthful vitality) are still alive.

  3. Scott,

    It’s my hope that via your eloquent post, new visitors will find the site. As with you, there are a number of ideas and themes presented by these poets that continue to inspire my life and work. The personal discovery of gendai (contemporary Japanese) haiku was a revelation. It can be fairly said, concerning the English-language haiku, that from a critical perspective, non-realist/subjective, metaphorical, surrealist, imaginal, etc., concepts, approaches and techniques within the haiku genre, up until quite recently, were treated in a dismissive and/or negative manner by various pundits. One only has to look through the journals, essays, books (including Blyth, who wrote of his predilection for ‘fact-based’ haiku — I recently discussed Blyth’s perspective and bias, in the latter part of this interview), etc. The overwhelming bulk of published haiku attest to a fixated posture, with regard to realism in English-language haiku.

    At this point in time, while there is no need to point fingers, nonetheless, re-writing, blurring or whitewashing the often divisive, misinformed, and to be honest, occasionally ignorant “truths” obtaining in the critical history of English-haiku will only further obscure the very cultural and literary background which has provided us undeniable creative roots. The baby and the bathwater are rather mixed and it’s the critic’s and scholar’s job to give a good and honest account. So that we can fairly see who we’ve been, who we are. What we’ve done, and what we want to do from here.

    Hasegawa Kai refers to purely realistic haiku as “junk haiku” (‘garakuta haiku’), stating that this conceptual approach to the form has stagnated haiku. He is talking about haiku in Japan, yet the situation has been much worse within the Anglo-American scene, especially due to a lack of diversity (few journals, few informed critics, the low number of dedicated poets, are contributing factors). Hasegawa is perhaps the most notable contemporary haiku critic in Japan, and his critique is a call to arms in a sense. For us, this cannot be a return, it must represent an advance — a rejection of a limited conceptual stance, but not a rejection, surely, of good poems or dedicated poets. After all, many non-realist haiku have been published over the decades. The point is that up until recently critical validation of such conceptual approaches and techniques was basically non-existent.

    The point Hasegawa makes is that the heart and breath, the essential lifeblood of the haiku tradition has never had anything to do with realism (even Shiki never stuck closely to realism, despite his proclamations — in the Tsubouchi Nenten interview, Nenten discusses Shiki’s creation of more than 100 alternate personae as a means of creative composition, his speed-composition trance-technique/game of group “automatic writing,” etc.).

    I feel we have much yet to learn from contemporary Japanese poets — not because they _are_ Japanese, but because there are a number of brilliant haiku poets, standing on the shoulders of giants, now among us; and they happen to be Japanese.

    The history of the progressive Japanese haiku movement — those ‘shoulders,’ has wended its way through the 20th century, including struggles at risk of life and sometimes to the death against imperial-fascism; a fight for freedom of expression. Giants indeed. How many haiku presses and books burned, and poets tortured? This is a modern history we should I feel remember, appreciate, validate — technique aside, there is an interesting cross-cultural connection with how haiku were popularized, due to the avid interest of the anti-establishment Beats (Ginsberg later chanting his “American sentences” at anti-Vietnam-war rallies). Haiku gets its energy from the street.

    There exists a shared intercultural spirit, potentially of benefit to all participants. Did the frog jump into the old pond? “No, because the old pond does not exist,” Hasegawa writes. That there is no old pond in Bashô’s poem — the very idea sounds paradoxical — in English. This paradox reveals just how distant the sensibility of English-language haiku may be, in relation to contemporary (gendai) haiku — due to apparently realist translations; that is 99.9% of the whole. While creative misinterpretation is a given, the distance between what it was we thought we knew, and what now seems increasingly evident, in both Japanese haiku history and in possible approaches to haiku in English, is a surprisingly vast expanse. And with new critical questions and determinations yet to be made.

  4. Scott:

    Very nice post about this important and exciting project. You do an excellent job of detailing some of its topics and strengths, and your final question is obviously an extremely important one. In a way, some of this is a bit of a “preemptive strike” as well. 🙂

    One question I’d like to raise myself is how appropriate the use of the term “traditionalist” is in this context? If, as you claim, “Shintoism, Daoism, Chinese and Japanese literature, poetry, mythologies and folk tales (not just Buddhism and Zen) greatly contributed, enriched and helped mold haiku *since its birth*” [emphasis mine], then perhaps we should speak of different overlapping haiku “strands” (or something to that effect) rather than pit rival camps against one another–i.e., poets who emphasize these other sources and associated techniques *vs.* so-called “traditionalists” (a term whose connotations seem rather dismissive, implying stagnation and old fogeyism) who emphasize a connection between haiku and Buddhist practice and/or employ “realist” techniques. If all these things you mention have been active influences since the birth of haiku, then it would seem logical to say that it’s all pretty “traditional”.

    I guess I’m just looking for less freighted language, esp. since Buddhist and realist approaches are still very much active, vital parts of the living J & E-l traditions and not simply “old school”. I’m definitely wary of importing divisive political tropes (“conservative”/ “progressive”) into haiku aesthetics in a manner that is not carefully considered or that tends to devalue or marginalize certain groups/tendencies. Likewise, Kai’s dyspeptic term “junk-haiku” might be appropriate to describe certain cliched or imitative tendencies; but is it an appropriate designation for fresh, resonant, keenly-perceived haiku that eventuate from a “realist” approach? Is there a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater here? I’m wary of rushing to popularize a term that seems divisive and lacking in nuance.

    It would also be helpful to demonstrate through clear exs. when, where, and to what extent all the items on your list (quoted above) influenced the evolution of haiku. I’m not doubting that can be done–but it would just put the flesh on the bones of the argument you’re sketching here and help convey accurate proportionalities. I realize perfectly well, though, that the appropriate venue for that might not be this forum but rather another book-length study. (Hint, hint?)

    Just continuing the dialogue…

    In haiku friendship,

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