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Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons:
Nature, Literature, and the Arts
Haruo Shirane

Columbia University Press
ISBN: 978-0-231-15280-8

A Review by Robert D. Wilson


"One of the major reasons for the prominence of nature and the four seasons in Japanese literary and visual culture is the impact of Japanese poetry, particularly the thirty-one-syllable waka (classical poetry), the main literary genre of the premodern period. Indeed, all the major types of Japanese poetry --- kanshi (Chinese-style poetry), waka, renga (classical linked verse), and haikai (popular linked verse) --- use natural themes extensively."

Shirane's book traces the cultural history and use of nature in Japanese literature from the 8th century in pre-modern Japan to the 21st century. Nature plays an integral role in Japanese poetic expression and cognitive direction. What is the role of nature in Japanese literature, specifically, in its poetic expression? Is the Japanese literary worldview of nature encoded with symbolism indigenous to the nation's cultural memory?  Are the Japanese enthralled with nature due to its animistic past prior to Japan's colonization by the Chinese? Do Japan’s agrarian roots form their penchant for nature? How was seasonality in literature and its regulation via saijikis related to power and social hierarchy?

It is imperative to understand the role nature and the four seasons play in Japanese art and literature if one is to understand the pre-Meiji Era mindset that gave the world waka, hokku, renga, haibun, and haiga. Without this understanding, a credible conceptualization of the aforementioned genres will not be possible.

Nature, as expressed in Japanese poetry prior to Japan's adoption of the German-based university system in the late 19th century, is a multi-faceted concatenate that includes Confucian social mores, Daoist thought, Zen Buddhism, Shamanic animism, Chinese philosophy, Shinto beliefs, etc.

"Even those poems that appear on the surface to describe only landscape or nature serve to express particular emotions or thoughts. Japanese poetry rarely uses overt metaphor (for example, 'My love is a rose.'). Instead, the description of a flower, a plant, an animal, or a landscape became an implicit description of a human or an internal state."  

In his new book, Shirane unravels the mysteries and misnomers regarding nature in Japanese poetry held by the West, a mindset that mistakenly classifies haiku as nature poetry.  

"Metonymy, especially the construction of a larger scene from a small detail, also played a crucial role, particularly in short forms like waka and seventeen-syllable hokku (opening verse of renga sequence). From the perspective of the reader, all such poetry will potentially have a surface (literal) meaning and a deeper meaning. Representations of nature in aristocratic visual culture --- whether painting, poetry, or design --- are thus seldom simply decorative or mimetic; they are almost always culturally and symbolically encoded, and that encoding tends to evolve with time and genre."

This duality is absent in much of today's haiku and tanka. Most operate on a single level, the concept of duel meaning connected to kigo and overall references to nature's seasonal and non-seasonal manifestations, misunderstood, if not understood at all, since the bulk of books on the subject of haiku and tanka, in the English language, are written from a German-based university system mindset, with minimal insight into the intent of Japanese poets when composing said poetry. One cannot accurately understand and fathom, with any credence, pre-late 19th century Japanese poetry, without an understanding of the role nature and the four seasons played in early Japanese poetry.

Writes Shirane:

"Each seasonal topic generated a cluster of associations, and the seasons (along with famous poetic places) developed associative clusters that became part of a cultural vocabulary."

What appears to be and what lies below the surface, were both important to the Japanese poetic voice prior to Shiki's reformation of waka (re-named tanka) and hokku (re-named haiku).

"The highly encoded system of seasonal representation created by poetry provided an enduring foundation for an increasingly complex and multilayered view of the four seasons."

Shirane's book is timely, published at a time when the role of kigo and nature in haiku and tanka is being questioned and debated both in and outside of Japan. The Japanese and the Western literary world are in a state of cognitive flux as they grapple over what are and aren’t haiku and tanka, the bulk of their thinking impregnated with a mindset far removed from Eastern thought, one that is more at home with Hegel, Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Baumgartner than it is with Zeami, Lao Tze, Teika, Shotetsu, Buddha, and that espoused in the Zhuangzi.

Shirane's book can help readers in their quest to define and ascertain the intricacies of poetic genres they hitherto weren’t aware of.

Shirane takes no position other than that of a researcher, tracing a pattern and making sense of his findings based upon observation, hermeneutics, and fact finding. His book is, in essence, a historical treatise, documenting and defining what was, what is, and where the aforementioned genres are heading.

The chapters in the book are:

  • Poetic Topics and the Making of the Four Seasons
  • Visual Culture, Classical Poetry, and Linked Verse
  • Interiorization, Flowers, and Social Ritual
  • Rural Landscape, Social Difference, and Conflict
  • Trans-seasonality, Talismans, and Landscape
  • Annual Observance, Famous Places, and Entertainment
  • Season Pyramid, Parody, and Botany
  • Conclusion: History, Genre, and Social Community

In the final chapter, Shirane tells us that haiku theory today is divided into two schools of thought . . . one focused on nature and the other focused on society:

"But whichever direction they take, the vast majority of haiku (as opposed to senryu) continue to use seasonal words, which provide a base of shared associations between the poet and the reader and which remain the cultural foundation of Japanese poetry."

The vast majority of haiku in Japan, yes, include some reference to nature, although that trend is waning, but the use of seasonal words (kigo) now is different from the use and conceptualization of the role played by nature prior to the late 19th century in haiku. This difference must be grappled with and considered in order to determine the direction the genre takes in the coming decades.

Shirane informs us that the Japanese view of nature today has changed: 

"In a country in which little original wilderness survives, reconstructed nature --- in the form of replanted forests, cultivated gardens, famous places (meisho), and shrinesand temple grounds --- has contributed to the greening of both the countryside and the urban environment. For city dwellers, who make up the vast majority of the population, representations of nature . . . raise awareness of the seasons . . . Although nature may be far away, it is relived or recaptured  in the cultural imagination."

Adds Shirane:

"The pervasiveness of secondary nature in Japanese culture has often been mistaken for a closeness to or a belief in Japanese harmony with nature."

Shirane's book is an informative read. It takes, as Shirane states in the book's preface, "a historical approach to the study of nature and the seasons in Japanese culture." As such, it is an invaluable book.