Tag Archives: haiku translation

Haiku: A Form Not A Style

(photo courtesy of Kayoko Sato)

There is no unequivocal doubt about the fact that many Western ideas about Japanese haiku have been completely wrong. How these wrong ideas about came into fashion is probably something that happened because haiku opened up to the West in an era when ideas about poetry were being rethought, but it is now paramount for poets in the West to come to the truth that the idea that Zen is the underlining tradition that defines the haiku genre is false and must be discarded.

Honestly, it is quite frightening to see it being still argued by people serious about poetry. It was more than unquieting to see Stephen Adams in “Poetic Designs” (pg. 99) offer this up as the definition for what the form of haiku is:

“most poets imitate not its formal pattern (or its other elaborate Japanese conventions) but it’s paradoxes and logical dislocations, the Zen spirit that underlies the tradition and that seems compatible with Western theories like imagism.”

The reason why that “Zen spirit, a.k.a haiku” is compatible with theories like imagism is because translators have mistakenly made it so. And there are no better examples of this than the two haiku that Adams used in his book.

The first is by Matsuo Basho:

On the wide seashore
a stray blossom and the shells
make one drifting sand.

To honest about it, some haiku translations are so far away from the original that it is quite hard to be sure of what haiku it is if the original isn’t quoted. Adams got these translations from a book by William Howard Cohen, “To Walk in Seasons: An Introduction to Haiku”, and in its preface Cohen states “these translations are freely made poems based on the originals” and he since he didn’t bother to include the original he was working from, one has to make an educated guess of what Basho haiku is being dealt with here. I’d think that it was this:


Nami no ma ya kogai ni majiru hagi no chiri

“Nami” is “wave”
“no” is the possessive (‘s) which translates to “of”
“ma” means “interval” or “pause”
“ya” is a interjection that is an exclamation (!)
“Kogai” is “small shells”
“ni” is “in” or “at”
“majjiru” is the verb of “mix”, “mingle” or “blend”
“hagi” is “Japanese Bush clover tree” that have pink or red blossoms “no” is the possessive (‘s) which translates to “of”
“chiri” is “dust”,”trash” or “rubbish”

To put this into a more poetic form:

The pauses between waves! 
Pink bush clover 
with the small shells. 

The first thing to say about this is that the Japanese bush clover bloom many small blossoms that fall and can scatter as much as the cherry blossoms do, although not quite as dramatically, which makes it very improbable that Basho was writing about a single blossom as Cohen gave us.

Besides this, the translator also changed quite of few of the images images around, he added in “seashore” when none was mentioned, proffered “drifting sand” instead of the “pause of the waves” devalued the “bush clover” into a nondescript “blossom”, changed “rubbish” into “stray” and ignored the size of the shells and depersonalized it by ignoring the exclamation Basho used to point out his emotional attachment to the scene.

Cohen’s rewrite simply erases all the subjective use of language that the original uses and so blurs the descriptive elements of the haiku into an objective act of writing, thus changing the haiku from a poet on the shore expressing delight at the beauty of an occurrence in nature into a tour de force image that paints an impersonal view of a wide expanse of nature.

Cohen gives you the sense that this is a completely deserted shoreline, something which is impossible in the Japanese because the language is implicit in having Basho at the shoreline describing the scene. In Japanese exclamations are only used as spoken particles by an “I” speaker, which in haiku means the poets themselves. When we see an exclamation point used at the end of a sentence we English speakers also understand that what it is attached to is something that is being spoken by someone and it is the same for Japanese speakers.

The whole idea that this haiku has “the Zen spirit” which Adams states as being “its paradoxes and logical dislocations” is immediately undermined by this because the heart of the language of haiku, especially the ones that use exclamatory interjections (of which there are plenty) immediately shows a different thought process than what Adams is paraphrasing from Cohen.

No one has to be a Zen adept to understand this, all you have to do study the Japanese language a little to understand that Basho never could write what Cohen has ascribed to him. Poets who write with exclamations are making emotional connections with what they experience in nature and are not involved in paradoxes or dislocations of thought.

The second haiku is by Kobayshi Issa and it does follow the original a bit more:

White, sifted mountain 
reverberates in the eyes 
of a dragonfly 


Touyama ga medama ni utsuru tonbo kana

“Touyama” is “distant mountain”
“ga” is a particle the makes the noun it follows the subject
“medama” is “eyeballs
“ni” is “in”
“utsuru” is verb meaning “reflect”
“tondo” is “dragonfly”
“kana” is an interjection that is exclamation

The mountains far 
are reflected 
in their 
the dragonflies! 

It’s hard to understand how Cohen got “white, sifted” when the original only says “far mountain”. It might have been used to imply that the mountains are snow covered, but the “kigo” (seasonal word) for “dragonflies” means that the haiku is set in the autumn, so it is hard to see how having them white fits in with the implied context that the seasonal word brings to this haiku.

The verb “reverberate” he used is acceptable, but it implies that the dragonflies actually have the mountains in their eyes, and the footnote that he put on this haiku in his book actually states that:

“This beautifully evoked encounter between the tenuous and the permanent recalls the Buddhist idea of the unreality of the visible world, in that the great mountain exists momentarily in the insect’s eye even as the great world exists in the mirror of the mind for the brief instant that is life.”

No one in Japan believes that the dragonflies actually have the mountains reflected it their eyes because the opening image of “far mountains” parenthetically makes it implausible to be so. What the “far mountains” at the opening of the haiku do is get the reader’s eyes up into the air which make you see the image of the dragonflies, posited at the last line and accented by the exclamation, as being airborne.

This makes you realize that Issa is punning about the dragonflies’ eyeballs reflecting the mountains because he is using it a device to imply something not mentioned in the haiku. Dragonflies are very active when it’s warm, and since they are flying about it means it is a clear blue sky autumn day, making easy to imagine that it is so clear that Issa might feel that the tiny dragonflies are able to see the mountains too.

It’s often said that the reader’s personal experience is what makes a haiku and what I’ve written above is based on my personal experiences of seeing the dragonflies fly around my house and over the rice paddies that checker board the area I live in. This doesn’t mean that you can’t read this haiku as being about one dragonfly as Cohen did (the Japanese language really doesn’t use plurals) and the dragonflies don’t have to be airborne either. However, one thing that you can’t read out of the haiku is that Issa has told you that he subjectively feels that the dragonflies have the mountains in their eyes, which is what Willard Howard Cohen’s translation did completely.

The phrase of “me in utsuru” (literally means “reflects in the eyes”) is an idiomatic expression that means “meet my eyes” or “to be able to have seen” and this echoes in the phrase of “medama ni utsuru” that Issa uses in the haiku. So, there is a bit of verbal play being employed to pull off the implied meaning in this haiku. This is, of course, quite contrary to Cohen’s belief that “deep dish imagery” was the way most haiku was written when he explained in his book that:

“we can put our fingers on one of the main devices by which the haiku achieves its characteristic effects. This consist of a simple ‘charged’ image with atmospheric, emotional of ‘mood’ effects. The ‘charged’ image is a way of conveying intense emotional content through a simple objective image.”

Cohen’s “charged image” theory is really only a paraphrasing ideas about the “deep image” style of writing which was a “stylized, resonant poetry that operated according to the Symbolist theory of correspondences, which posited a connection between the physical and spiritual realms” which is “narrative, focusing on allowing concrete images and experiences to generate poetic meaning.”

Unfortunately, to repeat the point I made above, the language that the Japanese haiku poets used immediately rules out this style of writing because they wrote with exclamations that colored subjective emotions onto the images they wrote with, which is something that the “deep image” was never about.

Exclamation becomes a kind of a trigger that alerts the reader that the poet is emotionally moved by what they are experiencing and then they go on to explore or express that emotion in the rest of the haiku. I think the two haiku being talked about here are good examples of how this works with the exclamation being set at the beginning and the end of haiku. Basho expresses wonder at the pauses in the waves and then fills in the reason why after, and Issa builds up the reflection in an eyeball and then gushes out what eyeball it is.

Having said this, it is important to note that I am not saying that there has never been any haiku written with “pure imagery”, or that Basho and Issa themselves never wrote anything but exclamatory haiku, but there is no getting around that fact that the “main way” the great haiku of the past was written is with exclamations.

The irony of Stephen Adams’ passage about haiku is that it is in a section titled ‘Stanza and Form’ because Adams explains absolutely nothing about the “form” of haiku. Indeed, he simples throws the idea of haiku as a form under the bus by writing “most poets imitate not its formal pattern (or its other elaborate Japanese conventions)”. Instead, he talks about how it “seems compatible with Western theories like imagism and “creates an implied metaphor by juxtaposing elements.”

What Adams is really telling you is that haiku isn’t a “literary form”; per se, rather it is only a poetic sensibility that is defined by a narrowed style of writing. This is something that the Japanese find quite absurd because they see the genre as a form and a form only, not a defined and regulated poetic style. It would be like arguing that a sonnet could only be written with paradox and bright imagery.

Another interesting thing is that Adams’ choice of apt examples of haiku in English is from a translator that is not known at all in the haiku world. Cohen’s translations do have a poetic heft to them that you rarely find in original English language haiku, but this isn’t question of Cohen’s ability as a writer, it is about the narrow range of possibilities that his ideas about writing give to haiku. Ideas that didn’t have a very long life cycle with our poets anyway, and ones that ignore all the possibilities that the Japanese can offer to us.

I can only unpoetically say it: it is time to flush this idea that a “poetic style” is what defines haiku as a “poetic form or stanza.” If one takes a look at what this “form” in Japanese original is, at the bare minimum it is a stanza form which calls for two breath pauses, one longer than the other with some kind of a cut between the two. If you want to count syllables, then this pretty clearly shows that it needs to be on an even number rather than the 17 that the original has. As for the poetic sensibility, that is up to the individual poet to find best what suits their talents.

And who knows, maybe there might be a day when people who write books to explain poetics will find enough original English language haiku written well enough to actually learn what one is. To be fair, Adams isn’t the real culprit here, so he can be let off the hook. It’s the people who have been writing haiku that have set it in such a deplorable state that it is neither been explained as plausible poetry in translations from the east nor written as believable original poetry in the west.


The Spaces of Robert Hass




One of the peculiar things about haiku written in English is that it the people who creatively write it have often followed those who have translated it as the models for what they write. It is natural for translators to have somewhat of an unchallenged status about their knowledge of another language, but what if the translators simply misunderstand what they are translating and generally give translations that completely change what the haiku were in the originals?


Robert Hass is a distinguished poet and critic who has had a successful career that led him to even being the poet laureate of the United States for awhile, but it when comes to his book, “Translations from The Essential Haiku: versions of Bashö, Buson & Issa”  (The Ecco Press, 1994) it can unequivocally be stated that what he has published as the essential part of the first three great masters of Japanese haiku is often flawed by the single worse thing any translator can do, i.e. make the translations read as the complete opposite of what they are in the original language.


Tracy Koretsky has written an article titled “Haiku and its Relationship to Space” and she uses examples from Hass’ book to show how the Japanese masters used space in their haiku and what follows is such a comedy of errors in talking about the Japanese haiku used in the article that one can only shake their head and smile at them. And yes, you can blame Hass for this.


Koretsky starts off interestingly enough when she talks about the tonal quality of the Japanese aesthetic of sabi:

That is exactly the effect the unresolved tanka that is haiku has upon the Japanophone’s ear. This trailing off, this ellipses leading to nothing, effectively imbues haiku with its predominate tonal mode: the untranslatable quality known as sabi. Inadequately understood, sabi is the sadness of aloneness, or perhaps better phrased as the more Zen concept of the solitariness of no-mind.

Notice how space functions to convey this quality in this haiku by Bashö:

         first snow
         on the half finished bridge


The haiku she quotes does add to our understanding of what she has written, but since this is a Hass translation one has to assume that what the haiku aims for in Japanese might be a bit different than what he presents it as being in English.


In the early 1990s a Japanese man named Toshiharu Oseko self-published a two volume called “Basho’s Haiku” where he translates about two thirds of Basho’s haiku into English giving insight and commentary on each haiku. This haiku is in Volume Two on page 548 and this is how Oseko translated it:


Hatsu-yuki ya
hashi no ue ni.

The season’s first snow,
Is falling on the new bridge
Almost completed!


Immediately we are struck by the difference between the “half finished bridge” that Hass gave us and the “almost completed” one that Oseko does. The difference is so striking that there isn’t even a semantical argument about the two ideas.


The great thing about Oseko’s book is that he lays out and explains what the verb is in each haiku and how the conjugation of them works out in English. The way verbs are conjugated in classical Japanese are difficult enough for the average Japanese person, so this is an invaluable guide to how verbs work and the effects they give in the originals. He explains the verb conjugation here as:

Kake = kakeru: to build (a bridge)
kakari= kakaru: to start  ~ing
tari= taru: almost finished


Which is easy to see that this literally translates as “building bridge starting to finish” which although might seem like a tortured phrase to us in English is something that is natural to the Japanese. Sure, the language of Hass’ translation is more poetic, but there isn’t any doubt that Oseko correctly understands the grammar of the original and is able to accurately render the sentiments Basho expressed in this haiku.


Oseko also notes how the haiku has a preface that says “When Fukagawa O-hashi is almost finished” and also more information about what bridge it is:

The official name of the bridge was Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). The construction started in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693. It was about 200 m. long. People living on the east side of the Sumida River were anxious for the completion, because they expected much easier access to the city center.


The woodblock print that is the picture on this article is of the Shin Ohashi and it is an imposing structure due to it having the height to let ships pass underneath it. Basho lived on the east bank of the Sumida River and no doubt having this bridge built affected his life and this haiku is attaching the thrill and excitement of the first snowfall with the feelings that accompany seeing a much welcomed bridge nearing completion. The woodblock print makes it easy to imagine what a sight it would be (and if you click on it you’ll get a fuller sized picture.) Which of course makes Koretsky’s conclusions on this haiku completely superfluous:

The bridge, the only mode of connection between people of the day, is not only unfinished, but, because of the snow, will remain so for the long winter ahead. The image confirms an unbroken emptiness of space and time lying ahead.


The only way she can get the reading of this haiku so backwards is because Hass has made the translation into something that the original never was. It also needs to be mentioned that although Tokyo does get some snowfall during the winter, the snow never accumulates and within a few days what has fallen melts away.


Yosano Buson is famous for writing some panoramic haiku that are able to convey an astonishing wide sense of view and space, so it is a bit surprising to have Koretsky arguing the opposite when talking about him:

One way, to borrow a term often applied to the paintings of Edgar Degas, is to “break the frame”. He was the first painter, at least in the Western tradition, to “crop” in ways that implied extension or continuation beyond the composition. For example, by depicting only the thigh and forearm of one of his famous dancers, Degas left the viewer to complete the partial limbs mentally. This is, in a sense what the second of the great classical masters, Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is doing in this haiku:

field of bright mustard,
       the moon in the east -
the sun in the west.


The problem with Hass’ translation is that he added the image of a “field” to it which isn’t in the original:


Na no hana ya Tsuki ha higashi ni hi wa nishi ni


The opening phrase of the haiku simply states “the mustard flowers” so the image isn’t delineated into the space of a field as Hass gives us, and although the translation faithfully follows the original after this, it is easy enough to see how inserting a field into the reader’s view crops the imagery. As Koretsky writes:

Notice that in Buson’s haiku above there is just pure description, and sparse description at that. Not only must the continuation of the mustard field be supplied by the reader, so too must the emotional content, the sense of awe, or perhaps humility, the poem instils. By the way, take care not to read meaning into the moon coming before the sun. The haiku has been translated both ways.


But the problem is that the “pure” and “sparse” description occurs because space has been defined by the translator’s decision to crop the mustard flowers into a defined place and not by the person who wrote the haiku. The idea that the emotional content of the haiku is supplied by the reader and not the writer is also another thing that comes about by another translation decision to completely ignore the spoken particle of “ya” altogether. In fact, the particle of “ya” is the thing which makes this whole haiku come together for the Japanese because it indicates where the writer is placing their emotional content in the haiku.


Toshiharu Oseko in the introduction in Volume One defines how “ya” works a particle:

It is an interjection for a strong impression, emotion, excitement and exclamation. This is used most often as a “kire-ji” (cutting word) to cut a haiku into two sections giving a pause for intensifying the impression and emotion giving more depth and the expansion of imagination.


An good example of how this is used is in Haruo Shirane’s “Claasical Japanese, A Grammar.” (Columbia University Press, 2005). It states, using a quote from the Genji Monogatari (Yugao, NKBT 14:139):

If “ya” has an exclamatory function, it is an interjectory particle. An example of “ya” as an interjectory particle is

あはれ,いと寒しや     Aware ito samushi YA.

Well (aware), it’s very (ito) cold (samushi)!


Buson is using “ya” here to intensify his emotional response to the mustard flowers in the same manner it used above to state the speaker’s reaction to the cold. Because of it, the reader picks up the cue and reacts to it the same way we would if someone had said “Ah, the mustard flowers!” Since the writers attention has been captured by it, the reader then fills in the space between the eastern horizon the moon is rising in and the western horizon the sun is falling on by realizing “oh, the mustard flowers!” and thus filling out the panoramic view that Buson expresses by placing an interjection on the flowers.


To put it a bit more succinctly,  the interjection attached to the flowers piques the reader into wondering why Buson has had a reaction to them, and then, because of it, come to understand that his emotional response was to the vast swarth of yellow. The use of “ya,” the personal emotion of the writer, is where the poetry of the haiku blooms from.


Cheryl A. Crowley in her book, “Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho” (Brill, 207), on page 278 says that this haiku was the opening hokku of a linked verse sequence and notes that “scholars have pointed out the similarity between this verse and the second of Tao Yuanming’s “Untitled Poems:”

The white sun sinks into the western slopes,
the pale moon rises over the eastern peaks.
For ten thousand leagues the light shines,
Over a great distance the sky is bright.


The allusion is quite apparent and this isn’t the only haiku Buson wrote which is indebted to Chinese poetry. Crowley also notes that there are two separate headnotes for this haiku in different sources that have “Spring scene” and “Scenery outside the capital” which “later critics have tended to ignore.” (pg 279). Anyone who has spent some time in Japan can attest that there are many amazing places where the scope and amount of the same wild flowers in bloom can be a sight to marvel at, but, considering how clear the allusion is in this haiku one has to wonder if Buson had actually witnessed this or not.


Robert Hass is an accomplished poet and his ability with language is shown in this translation:

A poem from the third of the triumvirate of classical masters, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) demonstrates the point:

        the snow is melting
and the village is flooded
        with children



He made a great connection that catches the idea of the melting snow, tying the water that comes out of  it together with the image of children out to play in it. However, the word “flooding””isn’t in the original at all. Rather, all Issa wrote was “full of” (ippai):


Yuki togete mura ippai no kodomo kana

And, as in the other haiku above, Hass simply ignored the exclamation that Issa included, which here is the particle of “kana.”


Toshiharu Oseko’s introduction in volume one of book on Basho explains “kana” as a “conclusive particle” that is “also used very often as a “kire-ji” like “keri” which is an auxiliary verb, cutting haiku not in the middle, but at the end, giving a strong feeling of exclamation.”


Haruo Shirane’s grammar book on page 241 states:

In the Heian period, the Nara period exclamatory final particle “kamo” was replaced by “kana,” which derived from the exclamatory final particle “ka” and the exclamatory final particle “na.”

And in separate entries on pages 239 and 240, ka” is listed as “final particle” and an “exclamation” and “na” is listed as a “final particle” that has two separate functions, one as an “exclamation” and the other as “seeking assurance, confirmation. “(The note below at the end of this article quotes the example usages the book has for them.)


So again, it is the use of an exclamation to bring the poetry into this haiku; by strengthening the the image of the village full of children with an exclamation, the reader understands what the most important part of the haiku is for Issa and now can share his wonder at the joy that the children are expressing as they play in the melting snow. Although Hass’ translation does perfectly mirror the sentiment that Issa expresses, it is important to understand that he still did add his own imagery in and ignored the verbal context that the exclamatory particle sets into the haiku.


Koretsky’s comments take everything that Hass did as being a literal translation of the haiku:

Notice how the poem sets up its first two ominous lines and then cuts, like a punchline, to its resolution. In Japanese, Issa would have had a variety – nearly 50 – ways to punctuate the end of the lines to build toward the joke, then to let us know it was time to relax and smile. Western poets, on the other hand, have about four end punctuations from which to choose. There is the dash, the ellipses, the comma, the colon.


It’s hard to understand what is “ominous” about the first two lines because it is hard to imagine that a village would be seriously flooded by the snow in it melting, but of course in the original this is something that isn’t there anyway. Nor is the break in the same place either, it is after “melting.” It is interesting to see in her list of end punctuational that she left out the exclamation point and the period, which are ones we often use in English.


This punctuation list is wherein the problem lies with this idea about the Japanese haiku always being “unresolved, (“the predominate tonal mode of the Japanophone’s ear” as Koretsky calls it.) Imagine if all you ever spoke could never come to a full punctuation stop, and that every verb you used had to be in present tense and you couldn’t express any self-emotion, then everything you said would be the ellipsis of some idea that left the resolution of what you were saying all in the listener’s mind because all you could ever present was an image of what you wanted to express. Wanting to write this style of haiku is one thing, trying to say that this is the only kind of haiku that the great Japanese masters produced is another.


The problem with haiku in the English language is that it has always been a monolith to mistaken ideas that translators have propagated about it. Robert Hass’ translations aren’t literal representations of these great writers in English, they are faint copies by someone who didn’t have the grammatical background to properly get all the poetry in them into his translations; because of this he was only left with the imagery and if there wasn’t enough imagery to fill out the poetry in the original he added in his own.


Hass wrote in his preface, “When the “hokku” became detached from linked verse….what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images of themselves.” It is better to take this as an unconscious admission of his own inability to understand how  haiku, because of the imbedded grammar of kire-ji, layers poetic meaning onto the imagery. He only saw the concrete parts of haiku and never understood how these great writers were filling in the spaces around the imagery.


I’m not arguing that these three great haiku writers never wrote “unresolved” or “open ended” haiku if it was the sensibility they had at the time the wrote it, but they certainly wrote a lot more “connected” haiku with as much personal emotion and poetic technique as any conventional poetry in the west did.


The reason why they could do this is that they understood haiku as a verse form and not a single style of writing,  which is what what Hass’ translations aimed for and what Koretsky’s  article is arguing for.  The first hundred years of haiku in our language has been hampered and held down creatively by this and the wrong ideas about Japanese haiku it profligates. One has to wonder if the second century of it in our language will ever pull itself from the sand it continues to keep its head stuck into.


Note on Shirane’s examples.

On page 238 “ka” is listed as “final particle” and an “exclamation” with this example from the Kokinshu (no. 73, NKBT 8:117):

うつせみの世にも似たるか  Utsusemi no yo ni mo nitaru KA

How it resembles (nitaru ka) the ephemeral world (Utsusemi no yo)!


On page 240 “na” is listed as a “final particle” that has two separate functions, one as an “exclamation” and the other as “seeking assurance, confirmation.”

The example for the exclamation comes from the Kokinshu (Ono no Komachi, Spring 2, no. 113, NKBT 8:124):

花の色はうつりにけりな   Hana no iro wa utsurinikei NA

The colors (iro) of the cherry blossoms (hana) have faded completely (utsurinikerina)!

And for assurance and confirmation it is from the Gengi Monogatari (Yomogiu, NKBT 15:152:

ここは常陸の宮ぞかしな.  Koko wa, Hitachi no Miya zo kashi NA

This is (the residence of) the Hitachi prince, am I right?


“Kana” is still used in modern Japanese. This entry in the “A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar” (The Japan Times, 1995) pg. 90 explains its usage:


Konshumatsu ni wa nani wo shiyo KANA

I wonder what I should do this weekend.


If you read “kana” in the Issa haiku as being spoken by a writer who isn’t looking at the scene he is describing, then it is possible to get the reading that Issa is wondering if the children are out at his old village which he has left. As Koretsky noted, Issa moved from his home in the mountains into the city at an early age so he could have been wondering about the action of this haiku instead of seeing it.

There are two extant versions of this haiku. One has “town” (町) instead of “village” (村) and the other has “town” as well as “sparrows” (雀) instead of “children” (子ども). Town indicates a more urban setting than village does so this might give credence to Issa being away from the mountains when he wrote it. It could also just prove that he just rewrote it and put kids and village in when he had made back to a rural area. You would need to know when and where Issa was at the time.


Buson Haiku: Komabune (The Korean Ships)


高麗舟のよらで過ぎゆく霞かな            蕪村

Komabune no yorade sugiyuku kasumi kana

Koma Ship/’s/without stopping/go pass/mist/(exclamation)

The ship from Koma doesn’t stop and passes…… the mist!

Koma is the Japanese shortened reading of the Chinese character for Goryeo, which was the name for the country of Korea from 936 to 1392. After a long 25 year war against the Mongolians the country signed a treaty in 1256 which made Goryeo a tributary ally of the Mongols for 80 years. After the power of the Mongolian empire waned in the 1350s, the country returned to being free of foreign influence and the name of it was changed in 1392 to Joseon by the general who had been the shadow leader of the country since 1388.

Most modern Japanese commentators on this haiku will back off from the reference to Korea and state that it just means any big continental sailing ship from another country that was different from the types of boats the Japanese used. The reason why the reference to Goryeo gets whitewashed out is because having it in the haiku gets in the way of the Shiki idea that everything must be a sketch of life around you. That the change in the country’s name predates Buson’s birth by about 320 years is the antithesis of this.

The commentators who read the reference to Goryeo as being relevant to the haiku tend to see the ship in terms of the country before the Mongols took power of. As Haruo Shirane explains:

“Komabune were the large Korean ships that sailed to Japan during the ancient period, bringing cargo and precious goods from the continent, a practice that had long since been discontinued by Buson’s time.”

So, to write a translation that follows this reading:

The merchant ship 
from Koma 
passes without stoping……
the mist!

Although the countries enjoyed good relationships in,the beginning of the Goryeo era, the political situation between the two countries was warlike for quite a long time after the Mongol lead invasions in the late 13th century. Their relationship wasn’t repaired until the regime change in 1392 to Joeson when the new Korean leaders began to make overtures towards the Japanese Shogunate. This led to the Koreans sending official emissaries for a wide variety of differing reasons into Japan until the late 1800s.

This blog (written in Japanese) has an impressive wood block print of visiting Korean ships in port at Murotsu in Hyogo and looks at this haiku in terms of the emissaries that Joseon occasionally sent into the Japan.



For certain, as shown by the wood block print, the coming of the emissaries was a memorable event. They came to Japan three times during Buson’s life, in 1719, 1748 and 1764, and since this is a Buson haiku from 1670s you have to wonder if this was something that he actually saw first hand. Especially in light of how the official government ships were the only ones he could have seen since for most of his adult life the Japanese foreign policy had closed its borders on the point of death, and trade between the two nations was confined to the island of Tsushima that lay in the strait between them.

To do a translation that looks at the ship being an official government vessel:

The elegant Koma
emissary ships
without stopping…..
the mist! 

The problem most Japanese people now have with this haiku is that they don’t understand what “yorade” mean because it is archaic. The commentators above took it to be an ancient verb construction of the verb “yoru” (to stop in, to drop by) being conjugated by “de” (which is the negative) to make the phrase “yorade” (without stopping).

However, if you check in a Classical Japanese dictionary, there is an entry for the word “yora” (夜ら) which is defined as meaning “yo” (night) plus “ra” (the suffix for the plural) which would translate into “nights.” “De” is an article that indicates space and time the way we do with “of,” “at,” or “in.”  So, since “yora” is written in hiragana, and the Chinese character isn’t used, then the phrase can also be read as “yora de,” which translates as “the nights of,” meaning that the haiku is employing a “kakekotoba” (pivot word)  word play that allows the reader to read this haiku with a double meaning.

A “kakekotoba is:

“A kakekotoba (掛詞?) or pivot word is a rhetorical device used in the Japanese poetic form waka. This trope uses the phonetic reading of a grouping of kanji (Chinese characters) to suggest several interpretations: first on the literal level (e.g. 松, matsu, meaning “pine tree”), then on subsidiary homophonic levels (e.g. 待つ, matsu, meaning “to wait”). Thus it is that many waka have pine trees waiting around for something. The presentation of multiple meanings inherent in a single word allows the poet a fuller range of artistic expression with an economical syllable-count. Such brevity is highly valued in Japanese aesthetics, where maximal meaning and reference are sought in a minimal number of syllables. Kakekotoba are generally written in the Japanese phonetic syllabary, hiragana, so that the ambiguous senses of the word are more immediately apparent.”

Although the wiki entry only states that it was used in “waka,” it was widely used in haikai as well. The reason why it has disappeared in haiku is mainly because of Basho who first studied this style to later abandon it. (Well, not completely, Donald Keene has written about Basho’s development in “World Within Walls” and states that the “Kisagata ya” haiku in “Oku no Hosomichi” (Narrow Road of Oku) is a “kakekotoba” that plays on the word “nebu” to have two readings.(pg.74))

To fill in this second reading of “the nights of,” we must turn towards the time when relationships between Japan and Goryeo were not as cordial. Specifically, when under the control of the Mongols the Koreans tried to invade Japan and there were many nights of many Korean ships In the waters around Japan. The first invasion in 1274 was with mainly Goryeo ships that were built for this purpose, since Mongolia is a land locked country and had no navy. The invasion failed because for some reason the forces that had gained a foothold in Japan were ordered back on the fleet ships that then sailed into a typhoon.

The second invasion was in the spring of 1281. By this time, the Mongolians had also taken control of Southern China and now had two navies to attack Japan from. The plan was for the Korea invasion force and the Chinese invasion force to meet and attack together. However, the fleet from Goryeo reached Japan first and decided to attack without waiting for the Chinese to arrive, but found that the Japanese had fortified their coastline so their attempts to breach it were futile. With the Chinese attacking by day and getting nowhere, the Japanese took to guerrilla warfare on the seas by night:

“In July 1281, the eastern army which carried 25,000 soldiers and 15,000 sailors aboard 900 ships attacked Tsushima and Iki before attempting to land at Hakata Bay without reinforcements. The Mongols launched attacks along the bay for about a week. The Japanese would respond to each attack with night raids. The Japanese ships would carry between 10 – 15 samurai and would close on the Mongol ships under the cover of darkness. When the ships were close enough the ship’s mast would be lowered to act as a bridge and the samurai would close in on the Mongol crew. The samurai excelled in close-quarter fighting and the Korean, Mongol and Chinese were no match for them in such tight quarters. On one occasion 30 samurai swam out to a Mongol vessel, decapitated the entire crew and swam back. Kusano Jiro led an attack in broad daylight and set a ship on fire even though he had his left arm cut off in the process. Kono Michiari also led a daylight raid in which the Mongols were led to believe they were coming to surrender. Instead of surrender Kono and his samurai boarded the vessel and captured a high-ranking general. These raids began unsettling the Mongols.”

It’s easy to imagine that the samurai in their boats were using the mists on the sea to cover their movements against the Goryeo fleet. Reading the phrase as “yoru de” also changes the position of the break in the haiku because it now makes a phrase out of “sugiyuku kasumi” which makes “de” as the point where the cut is:

The nights of 
        the warships from Koma……
the mists that
        go passing by!


Bowdoin University has a great site that digitalized the “Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba” which is a picture scroll that illustrates the two Mongol invasions of Japan. There are plenty of boats in the mist in it.