Searching for the Young Haiku Rebels

3 March 2004

“What is it about haiku that cannot be defeated?” asked Jim Kacian, one of the founders of the World Haiku Association, in a paper delivered at the first conference of the WHA in Croatia, 2000. It's a good question, one that recurred for me throughout the three days of the second WHA conference “Haiku: Bridges Around the World”, which I attended on behalf of Cordite Poetry Review in October 2003, in Ten'ri, Japan.

Cordite was invited to (nominally) sponsor the Ten'ri conference. Other supporters of the event included the Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia in Japan, the Tenrikyo Overseas Department and, perhaps most vitally, SAPPORO. My participation in the conference itself was limited to two readings of my own haiku and assistance with readings of Japanese haijin's work in English, as well as attendance at the WHA Meeting.

Walking, it's two minutes

to the mailbox –

running, it's spring

Sayumi Kamakura (1953 -)

It was actually a late autumn evening when I arrived in Ten'ri, situated some twenty kilometres from the ancient capital of Nara in the Kansai region of Japan. Kansai is a beautiful and ancient part of Japan, however Ten'ri is only recent by Japanese standards. It is essentially a town dedicated to the Tenrikyo faith. The head of the Tenrikyo Overseas Department, Yoshaiki Mihama, explained the philosophy of this religion thusly:

The teachings of Tenrikyo were revealed through a woman named Miki Nakayama, whom we call “Oyasama” meaning “Our beloved parent”. It was on October 26 1838 – when she was in her fourty first year – that the first revelation of God the Parent took place – The teachings committed to paper, which form the basis of our faith, are written in the Japanese waka style of poetry which has the pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. We are taught that God the parent wished to inform us “by verse” in order to help us familiarize ourselves with the teachings and understand and remember them more easily. I refer to one of our scriptures known as the Ofudesaki (The Tip Of The Writing Brush) which consists of 1711 verses.

I must admit that the notion of holding a haiku conference in a Tenrikyo initially put me on my guard; in each room of the generously appointed guest house, a copy of the Ofudesaki could be found, like a Gideon's bible in a Western motel. Upon reading some of the verses in this thick tome, I was struck by their similarity to the Psalms and Proverbs of the Old Testament. Having endured my fair share of retreats as a Catholic growing up in Australia, I guess I initially mistook the conference, and perhaps even haiku itself, as a cover for this strange religion.

Yoshaiki Mihama went on:

All of you who are gathered here today are haiku lovers. Though I know little about haiku I wonder whether haiku and waka may not be similar in the sense that they both express facets of nature and the depths of the humam psyche by means of extremely concise poetic forms.

I continued to grapple with the issue of haiku in an abstract context, one that is inclusive of meditation, reflection, order in nature. Along one side of the long dining hall of the conference centre, glass windows and sliding doors looked out onto a pond where carp did their stuff and water fell, tranquilly. From the verandahs of the living quarters above dangled long plastic pipes (or what turned out to be a wire strung with hollow plastic shells, kind of like sharks' eggs) suspended there as earthquake warnings. As a slight autumn wind caused the long emergency harbingers to sway, I heard a solitary tuba, played by a young man in the middle of a giant car park across the street. The tune? Copacabana.

Upon walking through the streets of Ten'ri on the way towards Nara the next morning, with its massive youth dormitories (each with its own baseball field) and hospitals (another aspect of Tenrikyo sought out by followers is its supposed healing qualities), every footpath plastered with strips of knobbed plastic to aid the vision impaired, all around us the rice fields and the striking red spider lilies in bloom, and overalled men perched on ladders in trees, patiently clipping off branch and shoot, I realised I should prepare myself to be mistaken about many more things, not the least of which would be haiku.

What is it about the humble haiku that provokes such generalisations and sweeping claims on the part of traditional haiku afficionados, contemporary surrealist haijin and disinterested (or uninformed) western commentators alike? Why is it that interest in this three line poetic form has sparked such an upsurge of internationalism, reflected in the theme of the conference – Bridges: Haiku Around the World – while the equally economical limerick has not?

That's not a serious question but the diversity of international attendees (speaking a babel of languages including Estonian, Bulgarian, Russian, Breton, French, Hebrew, Swedish, Macedonian and English) made me wonder how does the push for international standards in haiku interact with the culture of haiku as it is currently practiced in Japan? What a burden for a short poetic form to bear! Pity the young who must inherit such a burden!

Repeating “Right! Left!”

we walk

on intensely heated road

Jun Osato (1946 -)

In fact, and here again the proof of my misapprehension, I was to meet few young haiku poets at the conference itself apart from Philip Rowland, a lecturer at Tamagawa University in Tokyo, whose “eros/ sore /rose” won my personal award for best poem of the conference all over, and whose paper on, amongst other things, Tomas Transtromer's “place beyond music” I found easiest to relate to in an abstract sense. His haiku inspired by our Sunday trip to a nearby temple, with its line about being “without sunglasses” shall remain with me for a long time.

It was not until I was on a train after the conclusion of the conference heading for Kyoto that a young Japanese poet and I spoke about our countries and poetries, and he informed me of haiku's reputation in Japan as an old man's form of poetry, something younger Japanese are less likely to be interested in. This was later confirmed in part by Kyoto poet Keiji Minato, who is presently studying contemporary Australian poetry, with a view to publishing translations of Australian poets into Japanese. Though he did admit to writing haiku, he was also loathe to admit mastery of the form.

It was not the young haiku rebels or the older men, however but the older Japanese women at the conference who stole the limelight (from where I was sitting anyway). In the way they read their haiku, dressed in traditional kimono, one of them also performing a dance with fan whose energy expressed a fusion of Tenrikyo and haiku, their wit, humour and undeniable humanity, some of them almost bent over double, was truly moving.

In Hiroshima left behind

my 19 year old


Sagicho Aihara (1926 -)

That they expressed their appreciation of we gaijin and our clumsy attempts at haiku (which was also helpfully read out in Japanese, twice) struck me as generous indeed. The generosity of the Japanese attendees in general – when speaking of differences in opinion as to what constitutes a haiga, for example: is it a picture and a haiku that have come into being simultaneously, or a haiku inspired by a picture, or the reverse? – told me more about haiku than any textbook ever could.

The speakers at the official meeting session the next day (complete with U.N. style interpreter services) seemed well aware that their culture was on display during these arguments, perhaps sensing better than any of us the vast gulf between our understandings of the culture that produced the haiku form. Elder statesman Kan'ichi Abe perhaps summed it up best in his greeting speech at the welcome party and dinner:

I don't speak any foreign languages, which makes it rather difficult for me to understand haiku from overseas. Of course I do write haiku in my native language, Japanese, and appreciate haiku in Japanese. However, for me it is almost impossible to truly understand non-Japanese haiku. Whereas I can follow the meaning of each word of the haiku, I don't think I can go into its depths and truly understand it in my heart.”

This recognition of difference would prove an important concept for those of us grappling with the Japanese culture and language which created the haiku form, and also for those non-Japanese building their own bridges of understanding:

old stone bridge

whether i cross it

or not

David Lanoue (1954 -)

My only attempt at humour during the conference, a haiku that runs 'origami girl/ folding paper cuts your hands/ you need more band-aids' was a moderate success. The fact that this haiku provoked such a strong response in the Japanese audience (one woman actually asked me to autograph her copy of the conference anthology, on the spot where she had marked my poem with an emphatic tick) proved for me Oscar Wilde's assertion that youth is wasted on the young.

However I was mistaken in my belief that I would come away from the conference with a definition of haiku that I could show off like a business card or flash whenever quizzed by some interested literature buff, or job interviewer, a kind of answer to the question “What is haiku?” It seems even Japanese experts on haiku can't decide. Now, it may even be too late to try and come up with a working definition, even a kind of user's manual, complete with cross-sections of the machine that is the haiku, featuring the cutting word, the season word, the requisite saba and onji.

Nevertheless, I feel that I gained an extremely rare insight into Japanese verse forms and the place of poetry in Japanese culture. Further, in keeping with the international spirit of the WHA, I now find myself roped into the organisation as the Australian editor! Go Oz Haikunauts!

Let's make a robot

capable of


Jun Osato (1946 -)

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David Prater

About David Prater

David Prater was Cordite's Managing Editor from 2001 to 2012. His first poetry collection, We Will Disappear, was published by papertiger media in 2007, and Vagabond Press published his chapbook Morgenland in the same year. His poetry has appeared in a wide range of Australian and international journals, and he has performed his work at festivals in Australia, Japan, Bulgaria, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and Macedonia. He has also undertaken two writers’ residencies in Seoul, Republic of Korea, and has worked extensively as a teacher, editor and researcher. He currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden.


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