A Voyage into Haibun

by Beverley George 

When David Bingham, editor of the British Haiku Society’s journal Blithe Spirit, extended an invitation to join a small group exploring aspects of haibun, I was happy to accept. Under the guidance of Janice Bostok, I had included haibun in the 12 multi-genre issues of Yellow Moon I produced and edited 2000-2006, as did Pat Kelsall, the journal’s founder, in the earlier issues.

I was familiar with a number of Bashō’s haibun, particularly of Oku no Hosomichi, (The Narrow Road to the Far North). On my bookshelves are translations of this haibun by Yuasa, Sato, Keene, Hamill, Britton and Barnhill, all of which seem to me to be relevant and engaging in subtly different ways, including through their introductions and footnotes.

A translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa of Issa’s Oraga Haru, (The Year of my Life) indicated that not all haibun described a voyage. Although Issa did sometimes travel, Oragu Haru is ‘primarily a record of what Issa did, felt and heard in 1819′. In the introduction to the 1960 translation of this book, Yuasa writes about Bashō’s creation of haibun, explaining:

Haibun is a mixed form containing both haiku and prose. During Bashō’s lifetime, the 5-7-5 form had not yet been freed from the tradition of renga, and the technique of linking was still of vital concern to the practicing poet. […] Many of Bashō’s haibun were in the form of travelogues, and between the haiku and the prose sections in these works there existed the same kind of “feeling harmony” as he required for the composition of good renga.

One of the questions posited by the British Haiku Society’s explorative enquiry was whether Japanese people routinely studied haibun as part of their education and whether they wrote it themselves in contemporary terms. My first thought was to ask Japanese friends and acquaintances about their experiences, and to this end I devised a simple questionnaire. May I extend sincere appreciation to each person who responded. The general comment was that while everyone to whom I sent the questionnaire was well acquainted with classical examples; few, if any, wrote it regularly themselves, although several people responded they just might start doing so.

It wasn’t long before an intriguing answer came back from Noma Minako, whose significant contribution is mentioned in the review of this book (the review appears below). It was Noma Minako’s further distribution of the questionnaire to Professors Wada Katsushi and Imamura Takeshi and their generous response, that directly set the stage for this first translation into English of Tsukiyo sōshi (Sketches of Moonlit Nights).

While I had not expected when I sent out this questionnaire that a first translation into English of a work by a highly regarded Japanese haibun writer would emerge as a direct result, I should not have been surprised. Matsuyama is a lively, literary city. The Shiki-kinen (Memorial Museum to Shiki) is flanked by Dogo Park with its haiku stones and a replica of a renga party. Nearby, on the onsen wall, is a plaque for Natsume Soseki and not far away is a Botchan train to commemorate his famous novel of that title. Santoka, Chodō and Shiki are remembered with traditional small buildings and everywhere, even on trams and street corners as well as in the castle grounds, are post boxes in which locals and visitors alike, are welcome to deposit their haiku poems.

When Imamura Takeshi first sent a copy of Tsukiyo sōshi to Minako Noma, he explained that Chodō wrote the work from within his room, neither as a travel account or a diary, but using the moon as a metaphor for the changeability of his own life, and all around him. From the first thought of translating a little of the work in response to the questionnaire, emerged the exciting idea of presenting the entire work in original Japanese, modern Japanese, and English, with supporting information on the lunar calendar, a chronology of Chodō’s life, and other information described in the review.

In his brief, informative introduction, “What is Haibun”, Imamura Takeshi cites the following Japanese examples: Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) of Matsuo Bashō; Shin hana tsumi (The New Gathering Flowers) by Yosa Buson; Kōshin’an-ki (Notes from Kōshinan’an) and Tsukiyo sōshi (Sketches of Moonlit Nights) both by Kurita Chodō; Chichi no shūen nikki (Last Days of My Father) by Kobayashi Issa, and Byōshō rokushaku (Six-foot Sickbed) by Masaoka Shiki.

Respondents to the questionnaire also mentioned several of the above as fine examples of Japanese haibun. Their other suggestions included works by Morikawa Kyoroku and Kagami Shikou. Two haibun, Uzuragoromo (Mottled Quail Cloak) by Yokoi Yayū and On Releasing a Sparrow by Kawai Chigetsu were included in several of the responses.

In the months since I received copies of Tsukiyo sōshi from Minako Noma my folder of information on Japanese haibun, sparked by this small book, has continued to swell. As with any Japanese poetic genre, there is always so much more to learn. In the near future I will have two opportunities, each of several days duration, to enjoy and study this book and in the company of other poets.

I would like to thank David Bingham and members of the British Haiku Society who triggered my interest in finding out about haibun in Japan written in more recent times than I had previously read; everyone who gave their time to answer the questionnaire; Imamura Takeshi and Patricia Lyons for their translations and for gifting me a bilingual reading on CD; and Minako Noma for her generosity in publishing this book, copies of which I hope to place wherever possible in libraries or within groups where they can be shared.

An Introduction to Haibun with a Translation of Kurita Chodō’s Tsukiyo sōshi: Review

Tsukiyo sōshi (Sketches of Moonlit Nights) by Kurita Chodō; translated by Imamura Takeshi and Patricia Lyons with photography by Kondo Masahiro and illustrations by Noma Hiromi. Edited and published by Noma Minako, Matsuyama, Japan, 2013.

Of the many informative and valuable features of this small book, foremost is that the haibun it contains derive from primary source literature. Imamura Takeshi has researched and lectured on aspects of Japanese literature, including the works of Kurita Chodō and Masaoka Shiki, at Ehime University. He is vice-president of the Matsuyama Shiki Society and co-author of There is Today: Kurita Chodō and His Writings. 1

In presenting Kurita Chodō’s Tsukiyo sōshi for the first time in English, Imamura Takeshi includes each haibun in the author’s original Japanese text, in addition to his own translation into modern Japanese. Interleaved with these are the translations into English by Patricia Lyons, who studied Japanese Literature at the University of Washington and Stanford University, and who later taught English at Ehime University. Patricia’s translations flow easily and demonstrate not only linguistic skill but her sensitivity to the nuances and lightness of the original text and to Japanese sensibility.

Kurita Chodō (1749-1814), may not be well known to Western readers but within his own country he was highly respected, including by Nobuyuki Kobayashi (1763-1827), better known as Issa, who visited him in Matsuyama in 1795 and again for a more extended period during 1796-97. They corresponded regularly during 1801-1808. Masaoka Shiki, born just over half a century later in Matsuyama, also greatly esteemed Chodō’s works.

The book opens with an introductory chapter, titled “What is haibun?” written by Imamura Takeshi. Succinct yet scholarly, it summarises the attitude of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) to both haiku and haibun:

Bashō “added feeling and emotion derived from a deep observation of nature and human life, in an attempt to fuse elegance with the commonplace. Thus, even when the content of the haiku was deep, Bashō took care to use plain expressions.”

Takeshi advocates “lightness” of expression that suggests “a deep understanding of the impermanence of human life” and states that haibun, although prose, “should possess poetic sentiment and rhythm”.

With regard to the placement of haiku within haibun he writes:

“The haiku may be placed where it is most appropriate given its content. The ideal is that the haiku and haibun enhance each other. In addition, if the haibun itself bears haiku characteristics, a haiku need not be attached.”

Of the 10 haibun by Kurita Chodō in Tsukiyo sōshi, two do not include a haiku.

Tsukiyo sōshi translates as Sketches of Moonlit Nights. Of the 10, nine were written under the pen-name Chodō, and the tenth under the pen-name Sokunin. This last haibun addresses old age and has a more sombre tone than any of the preceding haibun, most of which are celebratory in tone.

The titles of the haibun reflect phases of the moon such as “The Third and Fourth Day Moon”, “The Waxing Moon” and so on. To help the Western reader relate to this, an appended article by Imamura Takeshi titled “The Moon and the Japanese” explains the combined solar/lunar calendar that was in use in Japan until 1872, as well as other aspects of Japanese aesthetics relevant to moon-viewing.

Photographs of the moon by Kondo Masahiro are in empathy with the text.

Every haibun in this book is a delight to read, but particularly droll and appealing, for this reader anyway, is one titled “The Midpoint of Autumn”, which extols the virtues of moon viewing from a simple straw mat, conveniently placed.

“People of high rank and great wealth lack composure, and of what use are their riches for looking at the moon? There are those who play about, wandering among the hills and fields or punting on rivers and lakes, but as amusing oneself elegantly must be done with a true heart, they are only acting foolishly. Some turn blank faces to the moon and lament the passing of time. Others bemoan the troubles of the world and think of dwelling deep within the mountains. Most of what they do brings no gain and is utterly pointless.”

This small book yields many delights. The black-ink illustrations by Noma Hiromi are very appealing. They are executed with a light touch which is in harmony with the desirability for simplicity discussed in the introduction, but from wooden rowing boat to child on the window sill, they exert their own charm.

A chronology of some key dates in Kurita Chodō’s life, compiled by Noma Minako, together with several favourite haiku and tanka and his final words, “Three Useless Things” precede her “Afterword”, which explains how this book came to be.

Production values of the book are high, with clear print on non-glare paper and richly coloured end papers.

An Introduction to Haibun with a Translation of Kurita Chodō’s Tsukiyo sōshi was published by Noma Minako, convenor of the 3rd Haiku Pacific Rim Conference, Matsuyama 2007, who has served as chairperson of the Shiki Memorial Museum English Volunteer Group and who has attended haiku conferences in Australia and the US.



1: Imamura Takeshi, Matsui Shinobu. GCM Kōshin-an Club, ed. Kyo arite: Kurita Chodō sono hito to sakuhin (“There Is Today: Kurita Chodō, his life and works”). Matsuyama: Ehime Cultural library publisher, 2008.

Editor’s note: This article and review were first published in Blithe Spirit: Journal of the British Haiku Society 24 (3) in 2014 and appear here with the permission of the author.

Beverley George is past-editor of Yellow Moon, 1997-2006, and editor/founder of Eucalypt: A Tanka Journal in 2006, Australia’s first journal for tanka only. In 2009 Beverley, a former president of Haiku Oz, convened the 4th Haiku Pacific Rim convention in Terrigal, New South Wales.  Her haiku have been published in eight languages and her international first prizes include the British Haiku Society James W Hackett Award, 3rd Ashiya International Contest (Japan) and the World Haiku Club RH Blyth award for haibun.