A Famous Buson Haiku: Is It ‘Kite’ or ‘Kites’?


One of the peculiarities of the Japanese language is that while it’s does have a plural form for nouns it almost never gets used, mainly because the context that speaker is in dictates if they mean more than one of something. This gets a little tricky when it comes to reading haiku because the reader isn’t in the same physically present context as the speaker. And this haiku by Yosano Buson is a good example of it:

Ikanobori/ kinou no sora no aridokoro

Kites Yesterday’s sky’s having place.

Kites have been in Japan since the 600s when the were imported from China and in the past they were used in many ways as symbols of good luck and talismans for good fortune. Nowadays, we tend to think of kites as something children enjoy, but in the Edo era adults enjoyed them as well. Besides flying them as omens, kite fighting was something that people pursed with enthusiasm as well. Kites became so popular that the Edo government finally banned them except during the o-shougatsu holiday (the few days before and after New Years Day).

The banning of kites caused a problem for haiku. Kites as a “kigo” (season word) were listed as something done in spring, but with what is the now metropolis of Tokyo having forced the flying of them into the New Years’ holiday, the “kigo” had to accommodate that as well. Any seasonal reference books for haiku (‘Saijiki”) are in five volumes, four for the seasons and the extra one for the New Years period which is the most important religious holiday of the Japanese calendar. The old “Saijiki” I have has a double listing for kites, one in spring and the other for the New Year. However, the practice now is to only have kites listed as something done in spring.

Understanding the history of kites in Japan is important in the context of reading plurals into this haiku because, as anyone who lives long enough in Japan learns, there is a right date and a wrong date for everything. My wedding, for example, ending up being on a Tuesday instead of the more preferable Saturday because of it being a more auspicious day, or as it got explained to me “Saturday is no good because it is a bad Buddha day.”

Having good days and bad days makes religious things a bit more communal because people will always do things on good days. So, if someone wants to fly a kite as an omen of something then they would necessarily do it on a good day and not a bad one, meaning that there will be more than one person out flying kites on the good days. Since kites could only be flown during a short period of the year in Edo, probably not longer than a week, then there will be hordes of people out flying them before the ban kicks in again,

The point I am trying to make is that it is hard to read this haiku and not think of there being more than one kite up in the sky and that Buson was actually implying the plural here. The Nihon Daisaijiki, a large full color “saijiki” published about ten years ago, discusses this haiku and states this about the number of kites:

This doesn’t have to necessarily refer to the whole of the sky. It indicates the scene of a part of the sky that has one, or more likely, several kites in it.


Above is the picture that is included in this book under the heading of kites. Because is a wood block print, you can’t say that it is of the whole sky, but it is a part of the sky that has several kites floating in it.

Even when a commentator wants to you read this as being about only one kite, they have to couch it in terms of other kites in the sky. A book titled “Haiku Daikan” published by Meiji Shoin explains it like this:

There aren’t a large number of kites flying in the sky. In the very least, there are no other kites nearby this one, to follow this instruction to its obvious conclusion, there is a solitary one afloat.

Asking the reader to follow this instruction is a dead give away that the writer automatically assumes that the reader is reading the plural for kites.

I don’t find the argument for a single, or actually separated, kite very compelling because it makes the image a very personal one, which is exactly how at the end this commentator reads the symbolism of the kites:

It seems that the loneliness of human existence is suggested with this kite, sadness and at the same time a kind of fond remembrance is to be felt in this expression.

Whenever we feel fondness and sadness at the same time it means we are becoming nostalgic about something. It’s easy to understand how Buson would get nostalgic about his childhood from a kite, but I’d argue that the experience of flying a kite rather than watching one is what would more likely trigger the flood of emotion that would bring the bittersweet memories argued for above. I think it is next to impossible to read that Buson is flying this kite because I don’t think he would be able to make the topographical description of them being in the same spot as they were yesterday if he was.

The commentator in the Daisaijiki makes this conclusion about the haiku

Everything is calm and peaceful, indeed, there is a deepness to the feeling of the mild spring. Getting that as a scene, the impression in a person’s mind too will surely be similar.

This reading has the scene influencing the feelings in the writer, it’s a lovely spring day and people are enjoying it by going out with their kites and the scene has Buson feeing relaxed and secure about life. The immediate problem with this reading is that there aren’t any emotional markers in the haiku to expresses the “feeling” that the commentator mentions. In haiku, particles of speech are how the writer attaches personal emotions onto images, but in this haiku Buson didn’t use any. If he was feeling the mild spring so deeply you’d expect that there would be a particle used somewhere to express it.

Japanese is my second language, and, so sure, there might be a nuance in this haiku that I am unable to catch because I’m not a native speaker, but for me the lack of a particle shows that Buson is being intellectual rather than emotional here. Saying that the kites are in the same spot as yesterday is not a visceral reaction to the scene, rather it is a measured logical one.

Therefore, the symbolism for me becomes a little more generic and less personal. Instead of being a privatized experience, I tend to see this as a universal one. Everyone has flown a kite or watched kites in flight sometime during their life. Besides the universality, kite flying is also a timeless enterprise. How long have people been flying them? Although the popularity of kites wane, somebody somewhere still enjoys flying them. The kite designs are timeless as well, kites patterned after those made in the Edo era still fly as true today as they did back then, and I’m sure that the even older designs will still be able take to the air.

So, with ‘timelessness’ as the optimum idea in my mind:

    in the spot
        of sky 
           they were  
               in yesterday.

The problem with this literal translation is that the Japanese language doesn’t need adjectives to fill scenes for the reader because connotations between words implies scenes that don’t need to be openly stated. Unfortunately, in English, we need adjectives to paint the scene, and since we use sound as a way to imply emotions, adjectives are also the means of achieving syntax as well.

Kites aloft....
      in the same exact 
              spot of 
                clear sky 
            they wafted in yesterday.

All I have done is put in some adjectives around the images and use a verb that adds a descriptive element rather than a nondescript one. I don’t think I have impinged in on what is in the original is by doing this.