Home Winter 2013 Reviews Selected Haiku - Kaneko Tohta
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Selected Haiku
With Essays and Commentary
Part I: 1937-1960
Translated by The Kon Nichi Translation Group
Red Moon Press
ISBN: 978-1-936848-11-9

A Review by Robert D. Wilson


Kaneko Tohta is a pioneer in the field of Japanese haiku. He is little known outside of Japan due to a lack of translation. In Japan he is revered in literary circles as one of his country'smost important poets, a cultural and literary innovator, whose voice has helped to sculpt Japan's short form poetry landscape. The Kon Nichi Translation Group, attached to Kumamoto University, has taken it upon itself to spread Tohta's teachings and influence worldwide. For this, they are to be commended.


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


in a large sailboat
from the toilet window
a night of moon


island of tantric Buddhism
riddled with birds
I, heretic


penis also fish also
become soiled
offspring of apostles


Writes Richard Gilbert:

"Kaneko is relevant not only as a haiku poet of Japan, but as a philosopher-poet of international stature, whose works place him in rarified company."

Further iterates Gilbert:

"He [Tohta] has redefined haiku as a modern poetics of individual and social relevance . . ."

According to Gilbert, Kaneko Tohta has help to change the course of Japanese poetics, giving haiku a socially relevant voice that ignores taboos, and speaks frankly, poetically about things and issues pertinent to modern life, jettisoning, if need be, a set of formal rules, definitive specificity, subverting and reclaiming "space for the modern psyche. Through his critical writings, he likewise offers maps on how to get there."

After reading this book and two previous books, Ikimono and The History of Haiku, all showcasing the haiku and thought of Kaneko Tohta, I must agree with Gilbert's assessment that Tohta is a major player and sculptor of the Japanese haiku voice. His haiku are evocative, provocative, intelligent, and yes, relevant.

Are they trend setting? Are they different than haiku penned in the United States? That is to be debated, as evidenced by this sampling of haiku penned by other poets, Japanese and American:








on the black



Michael McClure



boy smashing dandelions
with a stick

Jack Kerouac


And lost teacups
full of our ashes-
floated by

Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Shitting in the winter turnip field / the distant lights of the city



A gold bug / I hurl into the darkness/ and feel the depth of night

Kyoshi Takahama


A Wallowing hippo
burns ---

Tsubouchi Nenten


Haiku is not a Japanese poetic genre. It is the invent of Masaoka Shiki, whose literary mindset was shaped by the German-based university system adopted by Japan in the late 19th century. All haiku, therefore, is modern, a breakaway genre eschewing Japanese culture memory, interpreted via a Western mindset that redefined much of the Japanese vocabulary to facilitate learning and communicating in what was perceived by Japanese intellectuals as the modern world, the one opened up to them courtesy of U.S. Admiral Byrd.

Haiku and hokku (pre-Shiki) are two separate genres. Hokku is immersed in Japanese culture, religious beliefs, aesthetic styles, and poetics imbued with a mindset far removed from western thought and literary conceptualizations. Haiku is an anything goes medium that has blended senryu and hokku into a single form that can be subjective and object-biased. The poetic stylizations and voices in and outside of Japan have many similarities.

Kaneko Tohta's haiku changes like the seasons, forging new ground, not content to follow patterns, rules, and styles. Foremost to the poet is the authenticity of the poetic voice. He refuses to be restricted by rules and tradition. 

Writes Gilbert, reflectively:

"Kaneko makes the point that although his roots are local, the poetic truth and power to which he has borne witness are surely accessible to any poet, anywhere. Demonstrated in his haiku, and presented through his philosophical criticism, Kaneko himself most profoundly emblematizes these truths through example: a life of creative exploration and artistic relevance, spanning nearly a century."

Kaneko Tohta has succeeded in gaining acceptance for haiku as a social relevant genre by the Japanese literary world, and perhaps, via this series of books showcasing the poetry and haiku theoretic of Keneko Tohta, translated by The Kon Nichi Translation Group, his influence will spread to the world outside of Japan's borders.

Tohta's haiku are a work of top-notch literature. His voice, an original voice. A clone he could never be.

Read his poetry as literature. Absorb his words and stylizations. As for social relevance, cultural and political, his words will linger in your mind long after reading his haiku. Few poets alive today have that affect on their readers.


graveyard too burned
cicadas like pieces of meat
in the trees


bones of the dead
throw them into the sea!
chewing pickled daikon


b o m b e d
r e d - b a l d
islets of my
green youth


spider lily -
every kid shows their belly
in Chichibu


cloudy city -
immersed in the dust for a while
of a hearse


night sea trip
as if a weapon
holding a banana


island of martyrdom -
in twilight
a rusting ax


a doctor after surgery
becomes a swan
hills of night


The history of haiku in Japan is a Wild Toad Ride with faulty brakes; to be or not to be, the nature of a beast gone feral. 

I recommend this book for all who are interested in haiku history and those who love great poetry, short or long.