Mark Williams, formerly of Akita International University, Japan and now Professor of Japanese Studies at University of Leeds, UK gives a brief history of haiku

A study of the history of poetry in Japan takes us to the earliest extant written documents that date back to the Nara period (702-784). It was at this point that those in the imperial court began the process of seeking to adapt the Chinese writing system to the intricacies of the Japanese language in an attempt to better understand the various Buddhist documents that had been increasingly arriving in Japan. This process was long and laborious, and the problems were exacerbated by the fact that the two languages had very little in common at either the syntactic or semantic level.

The first written manuscripts to emerge from this process were two quasi-historical works, the Kojiki (712) and the Nihon shoki (720), both of which represent imperially sanctioned attempts to record Japanese mythology as handed down orally by the compilers’ ancestors. Both of these texts are marked by the prime position afforded to poetry – with many of the verses attributed to the founding deities (kami) of the nation. With these developments, the Japanese literary tradition of combining poetry and prose into the same text was established, and the importance attributed to verse was subsequently reinforced with the appearance, a few decades later, of the first anthology of Japanese poetry, the Man’yōshū (Collection of a Thousand Leaves).

It is not for nothing that the era that followed – the Heian Period (794-1180) – is remembered for its literary legacy.  It was at this time that life at the imperial court flourished with literacy thanks to the increasing familiarity with Chinese scholarship.  Famously described by one commentator, Ivan Morris, as representing the ‘world of the Shining Prince’, this period saw the production of some of the world’s earliest examples of what can loosely be described as psychological fiction.

Epitomised by Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji, c.1008-20), the period saw the establishment of the monogatari tradition that has, to some extent, determined the future direction of all subsequent Japanese literature.  The term is usually translated as ‘tale’ – but, central to the genre is the inter-relationship between the poetry that populates these works and the prose narrative passages that often serve, inter alia, to elaborate on the circumstances of composition of the poems.

The central position of poetry within the monogatari form was subsequently maintained by several new literary genres, including the zuihitsu (random jottings), gunki-mono (war tales) and setsuwa (Japanese folktales based on oral tradition).  At the same time, moreover, this led to an increasing focus on poetry as a discrete art form, from which several collections of waka (Japanese poetry) emerged.  One particularly popular aspect of poetry composition was that of the renga, or ‘linked verse’, that would often be composed by a group of literati, with each individual adding a stanza to some emerging poem as part of some celebratory occasion.  In time, considerable focus came to be paid to the opening stanza, or hokku, an element of the longer linked poem, with this initial section invariably according to a 5-7-5 syllable count. By the time of the acknowledged master of this form, Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694), these hokku had begun to appear as independent poems – with many of Bashō’s creations now readily accessible in translation to a global readership. Perhaps best known is his ‘frog haiku’:

Furuike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no ot

An old pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water

In this composition, Bashō can be said to encapsulate, within the confines of seventeen syllables, the essence of the form. The juxtaposition of the ‘eternal’ (old pond) with the ‘ephemeral’ (the sudden breaking of the silence caused by the movement of the frog), the use of a kireji (‘cutting word’) in the original Japanese (ya) that serves to highlight the juxtaposition between two initially apparently unconnected concepts, the incorporation of a seasonal word (the ‘frog’, implying Spring): all served to cement the reputation of this poetic form as integral to the Japanese literary tradition.

In the late 19th century, it remained for the poet Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), the major figure in the development of modern haiku poetry, to rename these stand-alone hokku as haiku, with this latter term now generally applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of an extended linked verse. The genre has subsequently moved from strength to strength – with interest in the Vladimir Devidé Haiku competition ample testimony to the enormous prestige currently enjoyed by the form. I have been most impressed by the quality of some of the submissions for this Award – and look forward to the opportunity to read more offerings from some of the contributors.

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