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May 2007 Issue VII:2

Gendai Haiku Translations

Translated by Richard Gilbert and Itô Yûki

In the early 20th century, Takahama Kyoshi, one of the two main disciples of Masaoka Shiki, presided over the Hototogisu group (and its journal), which he had inherited from Shiki. Due to his dictatorial and uncompromising style, by the 1920s, several prominent poets had broken with him. Paraphrasing Itô Yûki's article,(1) the ‘New Rising Haiku movement’ (shinkô haiku undô) wished to compose haiku on new subjects, and utilize techniques and topics related to contemporary social life. These poets frequently wrote haiku without kigo (muki-teki haiku), and explored non-traditional subjects, such as social inequity, utilizing avant‑garde styles including surrealism, etc. Therefore, along with aesthetic and technique differences, the New Rising Haiku poets, who began the gendai (modern) haiku movement in earnest, had strong philosophical, sociological and intellectual differences with Hototogisu and Kyoshi. During the war, over 40 New Rising Haiku poets were persecuted; they were imprisoned and tortured, and some died in prison. These progressive poets were also made to sign false confessions and denounce their own and others’ poetry and thought. Various progressive journals were banned and printing presses destroyed. Many of these poets, after a stay in prison, were sent to the front lines of the war. Itô writes that Takahama Kyoshi became the president of a haiku branch of the fascist government culture-control/propaganda group known as The Japanese Literary Patriotic Organization (nihon bungaku hôkoku kai), which was devoted to both censorship and persecution, along with a host of other war crimes. At the time, the Director of the society was Ono Bushi, whose title was: The Agent of Investigation of the Minds of the Nation’s Citizens (kokumin jyôsô chosa iin). Perhaps the most notorious statement published by Ono reads:

I will not allow haiku even from the most honorable person, from left-wing, or progressive, or anti-war, groups to exist. If such people are found in the haiku world, we had better persecute them, and they should be punished. This is necessary. (Kosakai, 169; trans. by Itô, with Gilbert)

At least one poet who survived imprisonment reported that he was commanded by the Secret Police to “write haiku in the style of Hototogisu” (Kosakai, 79). According to the fascist-traditionalists, to write haiku without kigo meant anti-tradition, which in turn meant anti-Imperial order and high treason. As such, all New Rising Haiku was to be annihilated. Ito writes, “We are reminded of how the Nazis preserved so-called pure nationalist art, while persecuting the modern styles of so‑called ‘degenerate art’” (Cf. Shôzô Kosakai, Mikoku: Showa haiku danatsu jiken [Betrayer/Informer: Showa era haiku persecution]. Tokyo: Daimondo).

One sees that, historically, “freedom of expression” in the gendai haiku movement was not an idle aesthetic notion. A significant context to modern Japanese haiku history links certain influential persons and groups promoting traditionalist haiku culture with Japanese national-socialism. It would be a mistake to assume, regarding these facts, that traditional approaches are inherently lacking or that traditional haiku culture is by nature nationalist, particularly these days – however, history leaves little to the imagination; more light needs to be shed on these facts, if only so that people outside of Japan can obtain a clearer understanding of the context of gendai haiku. Clearly, the spirit of the gendai poets in the face of fascism, repression and persecution is laudable. The liberal, democratic spirit and freedom of expression exhibited by the New Rising Haiku poets remains at the core of gendai haiku.

anshi jutsu yasen no tani no kani ni aru

clean kills: in a night war a canyon a crab

Hirahata Seito



houon ni choujuu gyokai hie kumoru

at the shriek of artillery
birds beasts fish shellfish
chilling dim

Saito Sanki

senshisha ga aoki suugaku yori detari

war dead
exit out of a blue mathematics

杉村聖 林子
Sugimura Seirinshi



tareshi ki o hanare kareshi ki toshite utare

leaving a withered tree
being shot as a withered tree

Sugimura Seirinshi

sensou ga rouka no oku ni tatte ita

has stood
in the depth of the corridor

Watanabe Hakusen



kikanjuu miken ni korosu hana ga saku

a machine gun
in the forehead
the killing flower blooms

西東 三鬼
Saito Sanki

zangou no san-shaku no fukasa horite shishi

a trench dug
to a depth of three feet --

Sugimura Seirinshi





 Saito Sanki (1900-1962)
 Sumimura Seirinshi (1912-1990)
 Watanabe Hakusen (1913-1969)




Arrested  by the Japanese Secret Police

 Saito Sanki (August 31 1940)
 Sugimura Seirinshi (May 3 1940)
 Watanabe Hakusen (May 3 1940)

Publication note (2)

(1) Itô Yûki, New Rising Haiku: The Evolution of Modern Japanese Haiku and the Haiku Persecution Incident (Red Moon Press, forthcoming).

(2) These haiku translations originally appeared in NOON: journal of the short poem issue 4. The introductory text on gendai haiku history appeared as part of a Haiku Heute online interview of Richard Gilbert by Udo Wenzel, and is available in English at [tinyurl.com/2rbdob].

Copyright © 2004-2007 by Roadrunner Haiku Journal. All rights revert to the authors upon publication.