Keiji Minato: Notes on Modern Haiku (2)

11 February 2009

Image by Keiji MinatoThe history of Japanese modern haiku was definitely male-centered until quite recently. There have been many superb female haijin; most of them remained in the “kessha (結社)” system (a “kessha” is a group or sect that is led by a master and usually has a hierarchical structure – followers adhere to basic rules their masters set up). The system and rules served positively for some, whose talents were rather nurtured than hindered by the fixed criteria. Others achieved their own voices outside the system, and their haiku reflect various interests outside or sometimes against male sensibilities.

One of the most notable is MITSUHASHI Takajo (三橋鷹女; 1899-1972). She belonged to a kessha only for a short time and developed her unique voice apart from any sect. Only later she joined in an avant-garde group led by Tomizawa Kakio. Her haiku voice female discontent towards almost everything. Her personal visions often seem Gothic-like, more grotesquely strange than Tomizawa’s works:

Natsuyasete / kiraina mono wa / kirai nari

Thinned by summer heat -                 
I don’t like what
I don’t like

Shûsen wa / kogu beshi Ai wa / ubau beshi

A swing is for you
to swing – love is for you
to take away

羊歯地獄 掌地獄 共に餓へ
Shida jigoku / Tenohira jigoku / Tomo ni ue

The Hell of Ferns
The Hell of Hands
Both in hunger

Mitsuhashi was never afraid of her egoistic nature but kept cultivating it in her haiku writing. That is competely opposite from the dominant ideology (both then and today) that haiku should be centered on observations of the objective world and is not fit to overtly express subjective feelings or visions. Her visions are also irreducible to just surrealistic imagery, deeply rooted in femininity.

HASHIMOTO Takako (橋本多佳子; 1899-1963), a disciple of a disciple of TAKAHAMA Kyoshi (1874-1959), the founder of the biggest kessha Hototogisu (ホトトギス), joined in the group of Shinkô Haiku writers including Saitô Sanki. In a freer atmosphere, she boldly tackled female sexuality in her haiku:

Tanabata ya / Kami nureshi mama / hito ni au

Star Festival –
With my hair still wet
I go out for a date

Ojika no mae / ware mo ara’arashiki / iki su

Facing a stag
I too take
wild breaths

Ubaguruma / Natsuno dotô ni / yokomuki ni

Baby buggy
with its side toward
big summer waves

Her strong but controlled narcissism allows Hashimoto to envision a personal and decisively female point of view without too much sensationalism. In the last example she even challenges the public image of a woman as mother.

HOSHINO Tatsuko (星野立子; 1903-1984) is positioned on the other side of the spectrum from the two above. She is a daughter of Takahama Kyoshi, who doted on her. There was no conflict between male and female, or father and daughter, in this extraordinary case. Faithfully following his father’s advice (that is, the absolute dictums of the kessha Hototogisu), she successfully developed her original style. She is known for her simple diction a la nursery rhymes:

Hô no ha no / ochi ori Hô no / ki wa izuko

Magnolia leaves
fallen on the ground –
Where is the magnolia tree?

Kato hitotsu / hana kui ni ate / yasumi ori

A tadpole rests
with its nose
on a stake

Hotaru no / kuni yori arishi / yo no denwa

From the country of fireflies
a phone call at night

Unlike Hashimoto’s and Mitsuhashi’s her world is self-sufficient without being self-indulgent. It is a completion of Takahama’s aesthetic centered on seasonal themes and objective description, which has become a kind of orthodoxy that remains hugely influential today.

Now the number of the women who write haiku outnumbers that of the male haijin, although male leaders still keep their authority in most schools or sects. Some recent attempts at anthologies of female haijin might prove their genealogy at least partially independent from the male-dominated history and reveal the possibilities they have opened up in the traditional genre of haiku.

Right after the Second World War influential literary critic KUWABARA Takeo (桑原武夫; 1904-1988) severely criticized the traditional form of haiku as “second-rate art (第二藝術).” His Euro-centrism sounds almost absurd and far from persuasive today, but his doubts about the value of the traditional short forms had a great impact on tanka and haiku writers who had been forced to remain in silence or retreat into a private, rear-guard, and non-political realms during the war. Great achievements in haiku after WWII were propelled by the urge to refute Kuwabara’s (and many other critics’) views on the value and possibilities of the genre.

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About Keiji Minato

Keiji Minato was born in Osaka in 1973. He has published a book of poetry, 硝子 の眼/布の皮膚 (Glass Eye / Cloth Skin) (草原詩社, 2003), and as a scholar of literatures in English has written essays, mainly about Australian literature, for national Japanese magazines like すばる (Subaru) and 英 語青 年 (Eigo Seinen). He is one of the three members of the Kyoto-based experimental poetry group, the Experimental Language Factory.

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