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An Interview with Hasegawa Kai
Robert D. Wilson, Interviewer
Tanaka Kimiyo and Patricia Lyons, Translators


RW: In an interview entitled "Haiku Cosmos I: Bashô's 'Old Pond,' Realism and Junk Haiku," in Richard Gilbert's important new book Poems of Consciousness, you coin the term "junk haiku," that I'm sure will be both controversial and a stimulus for thought. A lot of haiku written today in the English language by Western practitioners fall short of memorability and depth, and appear to be formula based. Is it because Westerners are in a hurry to master an art-form that takes years to learn and ascertain; and is, as you say, the victim of Realism?

HK: Since the 19th century, Japan has learned much from the West. One thing learned is the realism (shajitsu-shugi) found in Western literature and art. Haiku is no exception; realism has had an enormous influence on haiku. In that sense, modern haiku are nothing but "realism haiku." The realism in this haiku is called shasei by haiku poets. To put it briefly, this is the idea that haiku are written about "things" (that actually exist). It is certainly true that modern haiku has gained much from this realism.

However, these "realism haiku" contain a number of pitfalls. The greatest of these is that the haiku have lost kokoro (feeling, heart, spirit). From the time of the Man'yoshu, Japan's earliest poetry anthology, the Japanese literary arts have invested mono (things) with kokoro. Haiku are no exception. Even if they appear to be written only about things, there is definitely kokoro beneath the surface. However, because of the extremes of modern realism, kokoro is neglected, and only "things" have come to be written about in haiku. These are what I referred to as "junk" (garakuta) haiku. Sooner or later this tendency will have to be corrected. For one thing, it is a serious departure from the main principle of Japanese literary art. And more to the point, "junk haiku" just aren't interesting.

There are also various problems related to the current state of Western haiku. They are not, however, the same problems facing Japanese haiku. Rather, the problems are even more complicated. While the biggest problem facing Japanese haiku is that of how to reconcile haiku, a traditional form of literature indigenous to Japan, with the realism learned from the West. Haiku in the West have, in addition, the even greater problem of how to root this traditional form of literature indigenous to Japan in the cultural soil of the West. It seems to me that the current state in which "a lot of haiku written today in the English language by Western practitioners fall short of memorability and depth, and appear to be formula based" has occurred just because they have become the "victim of realism." I think that there are deeper underlying problems even before that, for example, the problem of the fundamental understanding of what a haiku is. That problem is related to the next question.

RW: The influence on American haiku by Imagists such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, Wallace Stevens, and others is obvious. Could this influence be sculpting Western haiku into an altogether different genre? Sometimes the differences between Japanese haiku and Western haiku are vast. An even greater influence on American haiku emanates from the public school system where teachers teaching the genre have little understanding of haiku save for what they teach from in textbooks penned by authors posing as experts in the field, who know little to nothing about haiku theory. If Western haiku is to rise up from its current state of mediocrity, is it imperative that Westerners see and understand the form from a Japanese mindset, taking the time to study, practice, and look beyond western internet blogs and haiku forums?

HK: Since ancient times there have been countless different cultures on this earth, communicating with each other and influencing each other. Many of them have had a correct understanding of their counterparts, but there have also been many misunderstandings. International cultural exchange is the history of correct understandings and, at the same time, the history of misunderstandings. However, it is interesting that not only correct understandings of one's counterpart bear good fruit, but a mistaken understanding can also bear splendid fruit.

In any case, various cultures each have their own soil, and only meaningful seeds will survive in the counterpart's soil. By "meaningful" seed, I do not mean those limited only to correct understandings. Misunderstandings also can be meaningful seeds.

Therefore, when we think about the problems of haiku in the West, I think that the important thing is to consider what within haiku will be meaningful seeds in Western soil. Having made the above points, let me now answer your question.

When we think about the problems of haiku in the West, the first thing that rises up like a huge wall is language. Just as it is hopeless to translate Proust into Japanese, it is also hopeless to translate haiku into Western languages. Of course, there are a number of excellent Japanese translations of Proust, as there are excellent English and French translations of haiku. In both cases, though, it is better to think of these translations as works separate from the originals. To start with the belief that they are the same will, on the contrary, give rise to problems.

The reason for this is that ways of thinking about language are different from each other. Western languages are thought ultimately to belong to God, but in Japan, from ancient times, language has been considered exceedingly private. This is in fact a big problem, but it's also a discussion that won't get us anywhere.

A more realistic problem for discussion is that of ma. This Japanese word can have a spatial meaning, as in "empty space" or "blank space," a temporal meaning (silence), a psychological meaning, and so on. Ma is at work in various areas of life and culture in Japan. Without doubt, Japanese culture is a culture of ma. This is the case with haiku as well. The "cutting" (kire) of haiku is there to create ma, and that ma is more eloquent than words. That is because even though a superior haiku may appear to be simply describing a "thing," the working of ma conveys feeling (kokoro).

In contrast to this, Western culture does not recognize this thing called ma. In the literary arts, everything must be expressed by words. But Japanese literature, especially haiku, is different. As with the blank spaces in a painting or the silent parts of a musicalcomposition, it is what is not put into words that is important.

The reader of a haiku is indispensable to the working of ma. This person must notice the ma and sense the kokoro of the poet. A haiku is not completed by the poet. The poet creates half of the haiku, while the remaining half must wait for the appearance of a superior reader. Haiku is literature created jointly by the poet and the reader. A Western poem is the product of the poet alone, and thus here also the way of thinking about haiku is different.

This process may not work well even among Japanese, who ought to have the same cultural soil. Surely, then, it must be more difficult in the West, where there is no concept of ma. Undoubtedly, Westerners will have to make a great mental effort, at the very least, in order to understand ma. Let me add here that from the standpoint of ma, "junk" haiku are haiku that have no ma.

RW: Juxtaposition is used a lot in gendai haiku. What makes a juxtaposition work? Is it essential to haiku, and what is its purpose?

HK: Among haiku, there are those that posit one thing (A = B) and those that use juxtaposition (A + B). Of the two, juxtaposition is a technique in which two completely different things are combined to describe a single world of harmony. Of course, between these two, ma is born. In other words, juxtaposition is a technique for creating ma in haiku. In contrast, the haiku that posit one thing have ma only on their outside edges.

The important thing to remember is that two completely different things are juxtaposed, and not two similar things. That is because ma cannot be born between two similar things.

RW: You are one of Japan's foremost haiku theoreticians and critics. You've authored over 20 books on haiku criticism. Books of this nature are virtually non-existent in the Western haiku arena. What's been written is geared for beginners, those new to haiku. And the teachings and theories amongst the authors oftentimes vary and, at times, contradict one another. Is there a possibility that some of your books on haiku theory and criticism will be translated into English to fill this void?

HK: Yes, of course.

RW: Matsuo Bashô wrote a haiku that at first glance seems ordinary and far from memorable yet it's often included in collections of his poetry:

Ki no moto ni    shiru mo namasu mo    sakura kana

Under the trees

Soup, fish salad, and everywhere

Cherry blossoms

(translated by Makoto Ueda)


Why is this haiku special and what makes it stand out? And what can Western haiku poets learn from it?

HK: This haiku was composed when Bashô was enjoying the cherry blossoms in his hometown with old friends he hadn't seen for some time. He is saying that petals of the cherry blossoms have fallen onto the soup and the fish salad and that it's as if they were soup and salad of cherry blossoms. In his joy at meeting his friends, this was the highest praise he could give to their hospitality. While the description is of cherry blossoms, soup, and salad, beneath them lies Bashô's kokoro.

RW: Speaking of Bashô, his disciple Doho once wrote:

"A lucid description of the object is not enough; unless the poem contains feelings which have spontaneously emerged from the object, it will show the object and the poet's self as two separate entities, making it impossible to attain true poetic sentiment. The poem will be artificial, for it is composed by the poet's personal self."

(translated by Makoto Ueda)

Do you agree with Doho's teaching? Why or why not? And how does it address the current state of Western haiku?

HK: Doho was adding his commentary to Bashô's instruction to "learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo." Thus, we must keep in mind that Bashô's words and Doho's opinion are separate. Doho's opinion is no more than his interpretation of Bashô's words. Doho was a faithful follower of Bashô and occasionally fell into worship of him, so we must be careful here.

The passage you quote talks about the oneness of things and feelings. This is,as I said previously, and there is no problem with it. But it is separate from Bashô's directive to "learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo."

In regard to these words from Bashô, "learn about the pine from the pine, and about the bamboo from bamboo," the Japanese word translated as "learn," narau, means that one should discard oneself and learn from the thing (in this case, pines and bamboo). The important thing is to discard oneself.

RW: Professor Donald Keene wrote in his book Dawn to the West:

"Is it possible to write poetry [haiku] with a specifically modern intelligence about matters of deep concern to modern men and still satisfy some definition of haiku? Clearly some poets succeeded in this endeavor, but their poems ran the danger of becoming unintelligible, if only because of the compression involved in fitting complex thoughts into so short a form. If a poet is content with the applause of the discriminating few, he can write poems of the utmost difficulty, but if he believes in the social message of his haiku, he will normally wish to communicate with a wider public."

Are Keene's observations on the mark?

HK: The first part of the quotation is a general explanation of the problems of modern haiku, which I already discussed.

A superior haiku is one that can be understood by anyone. A haiku that can be understood by only a few (in other words, a difficult haiku) is not a superior haiku. The idea of the "discriminating few" seems rather odd to me. Even if someone can understand a difficult haiku, it does not necessarily mean that he or she is a "discriminating" reader. On the contrary, I would consider such a reader strange indeed.

RW: As far back as the 17th century, various schools of haiku under the leadership of well-known poets argued with one another about the proper way to write a haiku and what it could and could not consist of. Nothing has changed. The discord is most evident today among those leading Internet forums and haiku organizations both in the West and in Japan. Some disavow the use of metaphors, others the personalization of an object in nature, some see no differentiation between senryu and haiku, viewing the kigo as a hindrance to their creativity and gendai voice. Some haiku leaders espouse the belief that a haiku cannot be a haiku without the inclusion of a juxtaposition. Some of these teachings breed pattern-formatted poetry. Shuoshi Mizuhara (1892-1981) saw the danger of pattern-format haiku in 1924 when he posited regarding the commonality of poetry during his day: "...the majority of poets follow the stereotype." Your comments, please, Professor Hasegawa.

HK: Anything can be put to use. Depending on how you do it, you can put anything to use. People who say "You should not use the word X" or "You should not do X" simply don't know how to make use of X.

I myself just write haiku in a way that is enjoyable to me. I'm not following anyone's theory, and I don't write haiku to prove my own ideas. Haiku theory is always in pursuit of haiku, not the reverse.

There are many haiku poets who are bound up by fixed ideas about things. But, there are also many who are not. The latter are the ones who will seek out the right way from among various opinions. In any age and in any country, those are the people who will lead the way into the future.

RW: Thank you very much, Professor Hasegawa, for taking time from your busy schedule to answer these questions and to illuminate for us the subject of gendai haiku. Your voice is sorely needed. I hope that some of your books will be translated into the English language. Haiku has left the shores of Japan and has become popular worldwide. You as a celebrated Japanese scholar and critic are in a unique position to influence the course English-language haiku takes. Given the breadth of Simply Haiku's audience worldwide, your voice will exert a marked influence and pave the way for a better understanding of what quality haiku is and is not.

Hasegawa Kai is a professor at Tokai University in Japan. He also is a reviewer of literary and cultural works, including haiku, for the Yomiuri Newspaper; a judge of the Asahi Newspaper Haiku Corner; a member of the Haiku Poets Association; and the founder and leader of his own haiku circle and journal, Koshi. Professor Hasegawa Kai is the author of over 20 books of haiku criticism and is an award-winning poet.


Reprinted from Simply Haiku, Autumn 2008, Vol.6, No.3