Home 2003-2012 Summer 2012 Reviews The Future of Haiku
PDF Print E-mail

The Future of Haiku
An Interview with Kaneko Tohta
Translated by the Kon Nichi Translation Group
Red Moon Press
ISBN 978-1-936848-02-7

A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Kaneko Tohta is a spokesperson for modern haiku in Japan, a poet who exerts considerable influence as an innovator and critic. His haiku is nothing like the haiku I was exposed to in grade school as a child nor are they like the haiku of Basho, Buson, Chiyo-ni, or Issa. Often his versification is Japan-centric, which makes it hard to critique for non-Japanese poets unfamiliar with Japan's culture and the tumultuous events occurring in Japan during the 20th century.

Tohta's haiku are more often than not, surreal, infused with allegory and metaphor,  his concept, ikimonofuei (poetic conception on living things), permeating his poetic voice. It is a term vital to the understanding of this man's palette of reasoning. States Tohta in his book, Ikimonofuei: Poetic Composition on Living Things:

"Human beings are living things, flowers and birds are living things, cockroaches are living things, tigers are living things --- equally all living things --- there is no need for one to obey the other. Human beings have parity; that is, we are equal and equivalent as ikimono (living things, living beings)"

Posits Tohta:

"… toss out any so-called obedience to nature. All living things are equal. Holding to this sense of equality, writing freely about all living things --- for haiku, this seems the best thing. I think this approach will lead to a promising future for haiku."

Tohta does not view kigo through traditional eyes. Most modern Japanese haiku poets today do not as well. What makes Tohta's theorization of the role of nature in haiku stand out is the globalization he applies to nature and humankind's place in that global picture. His is a sound theory on the surface, and is one, poets world-wide should consider when composing haiku. We, as human beings, are a part of nature, regardless of the role in nature we have given to ourselves via religious and scientific conceptualizations indigenous to our spheres of experience and cultural memory. With this, right or wrong, the need for kigo (saijiki defined) and keywords becomes blurred, and perhaps, unimportant. 

Such a view, of course, is radical, departing from the teachings of his cultural ancestors, who saw the role of nature in a very different light: a light most Japanese today have difficulty comprehending themselves due to the concatenation of Anglo-Western and Japanese thought via the German-based university system Japan adopted during the Meiji Era. What is nature? Whose historical voice defines nature? Is it possible, due to the radical changes that have occurred in the structure and meaning of the modern Japanese language, to even define nature from a purely Japanese viewpoint?

I like much of Kaneko Tohta's haiku. His is a haiku of depth and intelligence, worthy of study. It is from this perspective that I review his newest book, part two in a series featuring Tohta, the Kon Nichi Translation Group are publishing under the Red Moon Press imprint.

The Future of Haiku is a misleading title for Tohta's newest book. The title gives one the impression that the gist of the book deals with haiku's future. This, however, is a topic that could never be adequately covered in a small book containing just 77 pages of actual words by its author. The Future of Haiku is the transcript of an interview with the poet conducted by three members of the Kon Nichi Translation Group: Ito Yuki, Richard Gilbert, and David Osman. Following the interview are two essays by two members of the translation team: Ito Yuki and David Osman. Important to the book as well are the endnotes and the book's Introduction to The Series by Richard Gilbert. 

A prelude to the four interview question is a mini-interview divided into three parts:

Part One:  Shiso: Towards a Living Ideology

Part Two: Shiso & Kobayashi Issa

Part Three: Kigo: (season words), mukigo ("no-season" season words) and Ikimono.

I will not summarize the interview in this review. Instead, let's look at what Tohta had to say regarding kigo:

 "Season words (kigo) should be chosen by oneself, not handed down from on high beforehand --- not learned from the 'sutras' (the established kigo glossary)."

NOTE: KanekoTohta is not a staunch advocate of kigo usage. He is the editor of volume five of the Modern Haiku Season-word Glossary, titled: No Season (2004).

States Tohta: "It's to be used as an alternative to season words (kigo)." 

They are words that deal with nature in a relative sense without delineating specific seasons. Not all are even nature-centric from a general sense of the term but having to do with living "within the human world with a kind of rawness."

valley, carp:
pushing and jolting
pleasure of night

tani ni koi momiau yoru no kanki kana

Kaneko Tohta

*The comma after „valley“ was inserted by the translators.

Regarding his haiku, Tohta states:

"There is no kigo here --- 'tani ni koi momiau yoru no kanki kana' --- in the image of this verse, many carp are raised like this in valley rivers. If you go back to the river at night, you can see the backs of the carp squirming about. I composed the haiku when I saw this. 'Pushing and jolting' is how I perceived the actions of the carp. Within this exultance was something sexual . . ."

Interestingly, Tohta comments:“This is the kind of poem I want to write." A contradictory statement when other of his poems are read such as:

air raid ---
the single well-sharpened

kushu yoku togatta enpitsu ga ippon

Kaneko Tohta's view of nature, it appears, is anything concerning life, human or non-human; natural and man-made. These are concepts more akin to that espoused by Western philosophers than to the precepts harbored in Japan until it was colonized by the German-based university system during the Meiji Era. Then again, what is purely Japanese? Japan was colonized by China thousands of years ago and much of the country's religious and ascetic beliefs are the result of the absorption and mimesis of Chinese religious and ascetic beliefs. 

An "air raid" and a "single well-sharpened pencil" are not indigenous to nature as it was historically conceived by the Japanese prior to the Europeanization of Japan's educational system and language.

Whether or not I agree with his conceptualization of what is and isn't nature, and what is and isn't haiku, is unimportant. What's pertinent is the contribution Kaneko Tohta has made to Japanese haiku poetics and the influence he has in its shaping. As such, it is vital, therefore, that serious students of haiku read Tohta's books published by Jim Kacian's Red Moon Press.

I will end my review with part of the answer given by Tohta to the final interview question regarding the future of haiku in regards to technology, etc.:

"They [young people] may well prefer the stylism of Tsukeku and Tsukeai (short-form poetry of call-and-response). Twitter, which is similar to renku (collaborative short-form poetry) is well-liked. And then, there is the issue of rhythm --- the meter.  Young people today appreciate music, do they not?  As such, there remain a variety of possibilities for the future of haiku."

Some of the poet's haiku included in The Future of Haiku:

nights in a foxhole
night; my body naked
wiping and wiping


a large sailboat
from the toilet window
one night moon

My favorite haiku by Tohta is his book, The Future of Haiku:

island of martyrdom ---
in twilight
a rusting axe