Dr. A. Robert Lee interviews Hana Fujimoto and Emiko Miyashita of the Haiku International Association on haiku, its history, and its place in literature today. The interview took place at The Asian Conference on Literature & Librarianship 2016 (LibrAsia2016) in Kobe, Japan, where they hosted their annual haiku workshop.
RL: Let’s begin at the beginning and ask the basic question – what is haiku?
EM: I write haiku in both Japanese and English. For me, when writing Japanese haiku, it’s the rhythm of 5,7,5 syllables and the magic of the season word involved in haiku. When I’m writing in English, it’s the authenticity. It has to be brief and it has to be from the real experience, in short.
HF: It is the shortest poem in the world so people can easily write or create haiku. It’s very familiar to our daily life in Japan, because we see the nature; we focus on a little flower on the road, or a bird chirping in the sky. Daily life is close to nature, so haiku is at one with our culture.
RL: What makes a good haiku, whether one that you enjoy that somebody else has written or one that you create yourself?
EM: Haiku that speaks to me is a good haiku. There is no haiku that everybody likes 100 per cent. Haiku is very short – you can’t complete everything or put everything in the haiku. If you can put yourself into that haiku and complete that context you feel like, ‘it’s my haiku’.
RL: How did it come about that you became so interested in haiku?
HF: Once, I happened to read a haiku book written by a famous haiku poet. She is the first founder of our haiku group, and I was fascinated by her haiku. That’s how I got to know haiku for the first time.
RL: And do you have a favourite haiku today?
HF: My favourite haiku writer is Takahama Kyoshi. He is one of the revolutionist haiku poets in modern Japan. My favourite of his poems is:
worries and difficulties
time may solve
awaiting the spring
RL: Well, that has a lot of the concentrated qualities we associate with haiku. The classical tradition of haiku lies with poets like Bashō, Issa, Buson, and so forth, do they still carry the same weight and interest today as they have done in the past?
EM: Haiku is one of the latest waves of the flow of Japanese literature, dating back to times of mythology. Bashō, Buson and Issa are only a little bit up stream, and we are here in the down stream. So we feel very intimate – we read their haiku, actually they’re writing hokku, but we really learn from those. Hokku is a linked verse. Actually, the standard is 100 linked verses, but they have shortened it up to 36 verses, and that style has been very popular.
RL: Given the weight of tradition and of these writers who have set up such high standards, if you like, what are the challenges of writing good haiku today?
EM: As I mentioned before, one of the critical elements of writing haiku is the 5,7,5 rhythm of Japanese syllables and the ‘season’ word, so called ‘kigo’ in Japanese. We’ve got to understand and know those season words, for example cherry blossom, which is blooming right now, is one of the season words. I do understand cherry blossom because I can see it, feel it and I can long for it. But there are different season words, which were very popular in Bashō’s day, in the 17th century, which are not so common nowadays. But still, in order to understand those ancient haiku we need to understand what those season words contain, and that’s a difficult part.
RL: We know that people like Kerouac produced hundreds of haiku – were they respecting the tradition or was it just a fad, or passing interest?
EM: I think that the Beat Generation were interested in haiku from a Zen culture point of view. The definition of Zen haiku is ‘a temporary enlightenment expressed in haiku’, so those Beat poets were interested in those enlightenments and tried to write it down, so that they could share those enlightenments. I don’t think it was so much about sharing the poetry, maybe it was more religious or spiritual, in way.
RL: Would you say that haiku is spiritual?
Hana: Sometimes it is spiritual if it is written from a spiritual way of life. I have gratitude for the foreigners who write three-line poems, with or without the season word, and call it haiku. That is the shortest poem, and I welcome that.
RL: This is an almost quintessential form – we say haiku, and we say Japan. Then of course we have haiku in all these other languages. Haiku written in Japanese, with the sound, the pitch, the intonation is one thing, and yet we have it in other languages which do not have the same sound, pitch or intonation.
EM: But in their native languages they are composing haiku in that way, I think, to go with the rhythm of their feelings, with their heart beating. I think they have their own craft, a way of expressing haiku in their own language.
RL: Tell me what you understand by the word haibun.
EM: Bashō’s very famous book, Oku no Hosomichi, (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) has haiku in intervals throughout his travel journal. That is, I think, a basic style of the pattern of haibun: a journal and then haiku, a journal and then haiku.
RL: So haiku is not necessarily only on its own, it can be interrelated with prose, as it was in the case of Bashō. Does it gain or does it lose, is it more interesting to put it into that kind of context?
EM: Well, may I mention another story about Santōka. Santōka is another popular haiku poet who is well known in North America and who wrote free verse haiku like:
to the sky
Very simple, and he doesn’t follow 5,7,5, nor the season word. And he was considered as a Zen haiku poet because he wore the robe and travelled around. He was writing a diary as well, and at the end of almost every day he would write a haiku poem that came to him that day. In this case it is not the ‘haibun’, it is just the recording of the haiku, and I wonder if Bashō was just recording the haiku to capture the moment of his journey to the north as part of his journal. Or, he intentionally inserted that particular haiku to carry on the story of his journey.
RL: It certainly creates a new literary collage, a kind of new form, when you interpose a prose diary with haiku, and that’s quite common in a lot of literature, when you mix those forms and so forth. Another name I want to throw into our conversation is Shiki, could you say a word about that?
EM: I believe that Masaoka Shiki is one of the reformers of the classical linked verse haiku. He cut out the first verse and re-named it from hokku to haiku and put the author’s name at the bottom so it would be like a piece of art. This idea came from the western influence, because you don’t call a piece of group work a piece of art, it has to come from the individual. In order to do this he had to open a door and free people from all the knowledge you have to acquire to join the linked verse game. Shiki just said, ‘go out, to the field, look at those grasses, look at those flowers and the birds’. And those are the kigo – the dandelion, for example, is the spring kigo. He opened it up. But, that was good and bad, because traditionally our haiku writing stays on the stream of literature, and he made it flood all over, diluting everything. Shiki opened the door and Takahama Kyoshi, like a sheep dog, gathered all the lost sheep back into the stream, into the mainstream of Japanese literature, and said that we should write haiku using only the fixed kigo, the traditional kigo, like cherry blossom and cuckoo birds and nightingales.
RL: When I first came across Shiki there was a lot of hostility towards this, it was somehow breaking good faith with the great tradition of haiku. Is that still around, or is his work accepted as being the new haiku, or a development of haiku or acceptable haiku?
HF: Yes, yes, his haiku is acceptable now.
EM: Good evidence of Shiki’s popularity is that we call haiku ‘haiku’ – he named haiku from hokku.
RL: Why would you advocate that people try to write haiku. What, internationally and indeed domestically, are the motivations for writing haiku?
HF: As I said before, it is very close to our life and it’s very easy and short, so it’s not complicated. It is very simple.
RL: Of course, that does make it very attractive. What advice would you give, if advice is the right word, to someone who wants to try to write haiku – beyond the obvious of ‘go ahead and try’.
EM: Ok, let me read one of my recent haiku and then everybody will think ‘I can do better!’
In my arms
the baby in her lioness suit
This is me and my granddaughter, Waka, standing on the shore of Lake Shinobazu in Tokyo on a windy, windy day. This is a time of the willow trees budding – and you see those really beautiful weeping willows and my little one is in her lioness suit and we are like this (hugging). You can write haiku to record your own life. The willow tree only buds when the circulating earth is just at the right position – if it moves here, it’s summer, too hot, and if it moves here, no budding, no budding of willow trees. But if it’s right here, it buds. If you write haiku you know where you are on this planet and in the universe – it’s a wonderful feeling to know that you are ‘here’, and that you are embraced by the spring breeze.
RL: That’s a wonderful way of drawing together some of the thoughts about haiku generally. Let me thank you both enormously for your contribution, which has been delightful.
Dr. A Robert Lee, a Britisher who helped establish American Studies in the UK, was Professor in the English department at Nihon University, Tokyo from 1997 to 2011, having previously taught for almost three decades at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK. He now lives in Murcia, Spain. He has held visiting professorial positions in the US at the University of Virginia, Bryn Mawr College, Northwestern University, the University of Colorado, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of New Mexico. He is a prolific author of both academic and creative publications, including a poetry series titled Aurora, published on THINK.
Hana Fujimoto is a Councilor of the Haiku International Association, a member of the Japan Traditional Haiku Association, and a writer for the haiku magazine “Tamamo”.
Emiko Miyashita is a prominent and widely published haiku poet, as well as an award-winning translator who has given invited lectures and workshops around the world. She serves as a councillor for the Haiku International Association, as well as secretary of the Haiku Poets Association International Department in Tokyo. She is a dojin (leading member) of Ten’i (Providence) haiku group lead by Dr. Akito Arima, and also a dojin of the Shin (Morning Sun), haiku group lead by Dr. Akira Omine.