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May 2009  Issue IX:2

Kaneko Tōta: A Selection with Commentary
by Hiroaki Sato

It is ironic that it was a book Kaneko Tōta 金子兜太 wrote with the tanka poet Okai Takashi 岡井隆 on the short poetic forms of haiku and tanka that I picked up when I, an English major in Kyoto, wanted to find out what makes the haiku tick: Tan-shikei Bungaku-ron 短詩型文学論 (Kinokuniya Shoten, 1963). The irony was that I didn’t know anything about Kaneko’s haiku at the time—that they go out of the set form 定型 of 5-7-5 syllables often enough to make not the man the most appropriate person to discuss the haiku “form.”

There was another irony, I might add. Once my interest was aroused by haiku, it was unconventional writers like Kaneko that attracted me. As a result, I in time acquired more of his books than those of any other modern haiku writers.

At any rate, as an English major — and that was more than four decades ago — I took to the view of the haiku form that it is too compressed to make full sense on its own, and it is a view I haven’t been able to shake off all these years. I am reminded of this as I write about Kaneko. In my other piece on Kaneko (forthcoming on The Haiku Foundation website; see also the essay "Fluorescent Squid" in this issue), for example, I think I got most of what he was describing in the haiku about bank employees and phosphorescent lamps, but it was only after I started writing this article and picked up Kaneko’s “history of [my] postwar haiku”—Waga sengo haiku-shi わが戦後俳句史 (Iwanami Shoten, 1985) —that I found one additional piece of information that might throw further light on the haiku: he wrote it the day after he saw firefly squid 蛍烏賊 in an aquarium in Onomichi.

Not that this additional information is indispensable to a fair grasp of that particular piece. But Kaneko’s haiku often require a good deal of explanation for the reader to have a fair understanding, which may be natural: he set out writing haiku with the “recordability” of things observed in mind, then moved on to the stress on “quotidianness” — by which I think he means what may be worth writing down of things he sees in his daily life, regardless, one ventures, of intelligibility to others. Here is one of his early “postwar” pieces:


Shinishi hone wa umi ni sutsubeshi takuan kamu

Suppose I translate this, remaining as faithful to the original as I can as is my wont:

The dead bones to be thrown into the sea I chew pickled radish

Would the translation mean anything to an English reader? For that matter, does Kaneko’s original make sense to a Japanese reader beyond, say, a hint of determination and some sense of incongruity?

To begin to grasp what this haiku in 6-7-6 syllables is all about or what was on Kaneko’s mind and wanted to convey when he wrote it, you need to know the following: Kaneko, back from the South Pacific where, as second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Navy, he had seen a great many of his comrades slaughtered or die, had just read David Ryazanov’s book on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that had moved him to tears where it describes how Marx had refused a monument to be built after his death and how Engels’ ashes, following his own will, were thrown into the sea; Japan, in the postwar chaos after a thorough military defeat, was suffering from food shortages, except that for some reason Kaneko had an ample supply of takuan, pickled radish, which makes a good deal of noise when you chew it, like large fresh celery; and Kaneko was pondering on the need of self-abnegation in order to do “what should be done” — whatever that might be.

Now you may begin to see why haiku (and tanka) poets find it hard to resist the temptation to indulge in the practice called jikai 自解, “self-explication.” Kaneko is no exception. Among the books I have, he explains some of his pieces in the “postwar haiku” just mentioned and in his section of Vol. II of the six-volume anthology of modern haiku, Gendai haiku zenshū 現代俳句全集 (Rippū Shobō, 1977-1980), where he makes a selection of 400 from his own haiku and provides some of them with background information. The small selection with commentary below is made mainly from these two items.


一群の遠森に蝉 病む広額
Ichigun no tōmori ni semi   yamu hironuka
 In a herd of remote forest cicadas     the ill large brow


The first question is: What does ichigun, here given as “a herd,” modify? Distant forest? Cicadas? Either way, it isn’t the right “counter” — a definer of number of things — here. The words tōmori and hironuka make sense to the Japanese reader largely because the Chinese characters, or kanji, are given; they are compressed enough to look like neologisms. Kaneko also puts an interlinear space between the first 12-syllable and the second 6-syllable phrases, something he seldom does. He does so probably to avoid the sense “cicadas are ill” that might result without it: semi yamu.

Kaneko explains he wrote this piece when he learned that his haiku comrade and literary critic Hori Tōru 堀徹 (1914-1948), suffering from laryngeal tuberculosis, was put in the national sanatorium on the border of Tokyo and Saitama. He gives this information in his “postwar haiku,” but does not include the piece in the 400 he chose for the volume mentioned above.

In a different piece, meanwhile, he gives a sinister image of cicadas that is unconventional.


Bochi mo yakeato semi nikuhen no goto kigi ni
The graveyard also burnt ruins cicadas like pieces of flesh on the trees


In 1946, when Kaneko wrote this, most of the major Japanese cities that U.S. air raids had turned into burnt-out fields, including Tokyo, had hardly been rebuilt. From the black or brown cicadas shirring away that he saw on tree trunks in or around a graveyard in the midst of Tokyo, he apparently recalled or imagined pieces of flesh of the soldiers blown into bits clinging to palm trees and such on Truk Island.

(Careless or deliberate, Kaneko includes this haiku among the nine that follows the intertextual headnote, “Hori Tōru Dies,” in his selection of 400. In the jikai section, though, he says he composed it when he visited the haiku poet Harako Kōhei 原子公平 (1919-2004) in the late fall of 1946 after returning from Truk. If that was the case, there is a puzzle: In late fall you don’t see many cicadas in Japan, even though in that country these insects are regarded as “a seasonal poem,” not as an object of eradication.)


Karei na hakahara join arawani mura nemuri
A resplendent cemetery field vaginas bared the village asleep

This eye-catching — shall we say, shockingly macabre — haiku in 8-7-5 syllables could utterly mislead, if only because the surface meaning seems to make sense more or less.

To combine the accounts Kaneko gives both in “the postwar haiku” and the jikai selection: in January 1958 he was reassigned from the Kobe branch to the Nagasaki branch of his employer, the Bank of Japan. With Japanese government agencies, such reshufflings of employees from one place to another, every few years, are routine. Nagasaki, of course, was the city that suffered the second atomic bomb, on August 9, 1945. (I recently met an artist whose father died of secondary exposure to the radiation —that is, he was not directly exposed to the bomb blast but, while helping the victims the following day, absorbed radiation from them and developed leukemia.)

The city is also famous for secretly preserving Christianity after the Tokugawa government strictly banned it in the early 17th century and for reviving it as soon as the ban was lifted following Japan’s decision to open itself fully to international intercourse 200 years later; many of the believers had gone underground and continued to transmit their faith. The special emotional appeal of the city for many Japanese since its nuclear bombing, even though the Japanese as a whole are known to be least interested in Christianity as a faith, has been the fact that America, the Christian nation, destroyed the city, including the cathedral that was the symbol of Christian resurrection.

(I will not get into it here, but that special appeal was crystallized in the 1949 song that struck the Japanese heartstring, “The Bells of Nagasaki.”)

So, to be closer to what he described in this haiku, what were the things he saw, what were the overlaying images and thoughts?

Once settled down, Kaneko walked about the city and its vicinities, the ground zero and the execution ground of Christians where those who refused to give up their faith were executed en mass and turned into martyrs. One day, he went to Cape Waki at the southern tip of Nomo Peninsula that extends southwest from Nagasaki City into the East China Sea where he came upon a dune which was in truth a cemetery with large gravestones, “well polished and oily,” tidily, neatly aligned. The gravestones looked as if freshly made for the Christian martyrs because Kaneko had heard that the surrounding fishing village was one of the places where the inhabitants held on to their Christian faith throughout the period of brutal repression and persecution.

In stark contrast, the village itself, once well-known for great sardine catches, was now practically dead, a collection of scattered, rundown shacks in which he saw women lying on the floor and napping though it was midday, so sloppily dressed some of them had their buttocks and vaginas bared for all to see . . . though perhaps I should add that in those days Japanese houses, especially those in rural areas, were made in such a way that at least two sides were completely open, unless you put up sliding doors and such, so you could see through the entire house, and that rural women were mostly alien to things like undies and panties.

Additional Notes:

1. Kaneko Tōta, Waga sengo haiku-shi, pp. 22-26.

2. "The Bells of Nagasaki":

3. After I finished writing this, I received a report on the Internal Haiku Convention 2009 in which the winner of the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize was none other than Kaneko Tōta. He gave a long speech on that occasion, citing and commenting on, among other haiku, the vagina piece. There the translation given says: “On a magnificent graveyard / a woman exposes her vagina / while the village is asleep.”


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