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Second Life: Japanese Haiku in Translation — “the skeleton”

Welcome to Second Life: Japanese Haiku in Translation, a weekly look at haiku from the source, and how it might be brought to us.



A skeleton; such is the final wreck of a beauty


gaikotsu ya kore mo bijin no nare no hate

(Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石)


1. According to this source, the poem is based on the poet’s direct experience of a ceremony held following the death of his sister-in-law. This ceremony — called kotsu-age, “bone raising” — is a Japanese custom that follows the cremation of a dead body. The family of the deceased use special long hashi (chopsticks) to pick up cremated bones and transfer them to an urn.

2. The phrase nare no hate refers to a ruined state that is finally reached after some sort of downfall.

3. This poem contains no season word. The Japanese technical term for such haiku is muki (無季), “seasonless.”

Second Life: Japanese Haiku in Translation is presented by Dan Bornstein, a language specialist in Japanese and a writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. His work in English has appeared, among other places, in Daily Science Fiction and Star*Line, and is also included in the 2022 Dwarf Stars anthology. He lived in Japan for eight years (four in Kyoto, four in Tokyo). He regularly posts short prose and haiku poetry on his bilingual English/Hebrew website.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. A skeleton; such is the final wreck of a beauty


    gaikotsu ya kore mo bijin no nare no hate

    (Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石)

    Is it possible that this haiku is an allusion to Nozarashi Kikō (野ざらし紀行), variously translated as The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, the first travel journal haibun by Matsuo Bashō?

    Exposed in a field,

    flesh pierced

    to the heart by the wind.

    tr. David L. Barnhill

  2. Wanting to delve a little into ‘kotsu-age’, I found a site that seems to give a pretty detailed explanation of how the ritual works.

    After several revisions, this is the English version I have come up with:

    a skeleton:
    what has befallen one
    who was beautiful

    My version is milder than the one posted above. My thinking is that ‘wreck’ is such a strong word, with violent connotations. I’m wondering how strong the connotations are of ‘nare no hate’. Looking it up online, I see one site that suggests, for a translation, ‘the bitter end’.

    So, another version might be:

    a skeleton:
    the bitter end of one
    who was beautiful

    1. The following quote is from the article I linked to about ‘kotsuage’:

      “Cremation has a strong role in Buddhism. In this culture, cremation is the way to free the spirit from the body. It facilitates the journey to the next world. It’s a physical and symbolic transition into the next phase of existence. ”

      Instead of focusing on the spiritual aspect of ‘kotsuage’, Soseki seems more focused on the material aspect of destroyed beauty. To a Japanese reader, would this haiku seem a little sacrilegious?

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