Beyond our Borders

by Sandra Simpson

It’s easy enough to keep up with developments in haiku in the English-speaking world, thanks to the internet and sites like Haiku Newz that offer resources including links to online journals, an archive of articles and an archive of interesting and informative sites and pages.

The electronic web that encircles the globe has also facilitated contact with poets in other countries – allowing us to become email “buddies” with writers and editors whom we may never meet but with whom we build up a relationship based on the mutual love of one or more of the Japanese forms (haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun and haiga) becoming, in effect, a global “haiku community”.

For a small haiku community in a small country at the bottom of the world the internet and email has caused a revolution – submissions to many journals and contests fly off at the press of a button, we have access to a huge online “library” of topics and poems, and on various fora we can “chat” (in real time too) to people in other parts of the world about anything to do with haiku and its related forms.

But there is still a language barrier that sits between us (English-speaking haikuists) and the homeland of haiku? What’s going on there and how do we find out about it?

The great masters from other centuries are widely accessible online and in books of translated works (that may be purchased online and arrive in our letterboxes within a week or two) but it’s a source of frustration that I have had a very limited window into contemporary haiku (20th and 21st century) being created in Japan.

I don’t read Japanese so must rely on translations and, as the recent article on the gnarly question of translation by John Carley pointed out so eloquently, there lies another problem. How good is the translation? It bothers me that I have no way of knowing.

The other major issue is, even in translation, actually understanding the poems – after all, my cultural terms of reference (putting aside the issue of language) are entirely different.

Of course, this is nothing new – haiku by the great classical masters contain all sorts of references that elude non-Japanese readers, especially if editors don’t see the need for footnotes. By way of example is this haiku I came across while researching this article:


Hototogisu heianjo wo sujikai ni

lesser cuckoo
crossing diagonally
above Heianjo

Yosa Buson, translated by Keiji Minato

Keiji 1 explains:

“Heianjo (平安城)” is the same as “Heiankyo (平安京),” an old name of Kyoto City and it is important to know what Kyoto is like to fully appreciate the poem. In Kyoto City streets are laid out on a grid. In European culture the layout is so common that there seems nothing special about it. But in Japan this is not the case. Both in the Tokyo and Osaka city areas many streets are unnamed and do not run straight. That is why Buson uses the word “diagonally/筋違に” here. The movement of a lesser cuckoo is measured according to the chessboard pattern of the Kyoto streets. The superb spatial grasp reminds us of the fact that Buson was also a master in the field of painting. 

Occasionally though, one thing leads to another and a recent discussion on The Haiku Foundation Forum 2 neatly illustrates this point and allows me to share a collation of some interesting insights and poems by others.

The following haiku (and translations) by Kaneko Tota 3, written in 1961, was used to illustrate a point (in a discussion about another haiku).


gekiron tsukushi machi-yuki ootobai to kasu

After hateful words,
I roar off
like a motorcycle

translated by Lucian Stryk

After a heated argument
I go out to the street
and become a motorcycle 

translated by Makoto Ueda

the ferocious argument exhausted I go through town and become a motorcycle

translated by Hiroaki Sato

Although I can intuit a meaning to this poem, it’s not particularly clear what it is about. After all, a man cannot “become” a motorcycle in a literal sense so is this a haiku? And these translations differ on some important points, nuances that can slightly change the poem’s meaning. “Hateful words” and “ferocious argument” are, to my mind, much more serious than “a heated argument” .

Dr Gabi Greve, a long-time resident of Japan who speaks and reads Japanese, says “this seems to be about the haiku poets enthusiastically discussing the development of modern haiku until late into the night”, quoting from what is presumably a newsletter (in Japanese) 4.

She then went on to post, in response to a question, that “tsukushi” (see the line of phonetic Japanese written in Latin script) is derived from “tsukusu” meaning to exhaust. So there may be a play on words in the poem that neither of the first two translators has teased out, or understood.

Mr Tota, born in 1919, was president of the Modern Haiku Association from 1983 to 2000. He is revered in Japan and still appears regularly on television to talk about haiku.

弟に貸す短夜のオートバイ   村上鞆彦

otôto ni kasu mijikayo no ôtobai

a motorcycle
I rent to my baby brother
short summer night

Tomohiko Murakami (born 1979), translated by Fay Aoyagi 5

I have come to understand that kigo and the way they are used in Japanese haiku is of utmost importance in understanding some of the poems that appear outlandish to our eyes. Kigo are more than simple “season words”, many of them also carry cultural import that only another Japanese could recognise, the “vertical axis” referred to by Haruo Shirane – “a movement across time including geographical, historical, and literary references”, as Michael Dylan Welch has it.6

The horizontal axis, by contrast, is a focus on the present, contemporary world.7


ginkooin ra asa yori keikoo su ika no-gotoku

like squids
bank clerks are fluorescent
from the morning

Kaneko Tōta, translated by Makoto Ueda

Dr Greve’s World Kigo Database website quotes from a 2009 talk Mr Tota gave 8, including information about this poem which helps non-Japanese make sense of something that otherwise seems surreal.

After the war, Kaneko sensei worked at various branches of a bank and in Kobe each morning saw his fellow workers arrive at the office. Each had a small fluorescent lamp on his desk which he switched on to show he was there and working. This reminded Kaneko sensei of the hotaruika, the firefly squid of Toyama Bay.

And from the same website I finally understood the intent of this haiku which, at face value, combines a very traditional haiku image with an outlandish opposite:


sakura chiru anata mo kaba ni narinasai

falling cherry blossoms –
you too must become
a hippopotamus

Tsubouchi Nenten, translated by Richard Gilbert and Itô Yûki

Dr Greve’s explanation: This is a play on words. When Japanese people die, their corpse becomes a “sleeping hippopotamus” (shi kabane) … kaba ne, sleeping hippo. 

In her delightful memoir, The Haiku Apprentice, Abigail Friedman is told by the leader of the haiku group she joins that “of the thousands of seasonal words you might find in a large sajiki, perhaps 500 can be considered fundamental. If you become familiar with these 500, you will have a great knowledge not simply of Japanese haiku, but of Japanese culture, life and traditions”. 9

Her teacher goes on to add: “But please remember that not everyone writing haiku in Japan believes in seasonal words or considers them essential to haiku.”

So lost in translation appears to be only the half of it – not having the key to the underlying, deeper meaning of phrases and kigo means that some poems will always remain beyond our ken, no matter how skilled the translator.

Fay Aoyagi, a poet who was born in Japan but who has lived in the US since 1982, translated a sample of poems from Shinsen 21, an anthology published in 2009 10. The collection featured 21 Japanese poets who were all born after 1968, and who did not publish his/her first haiku collection, or win any haiku awards, before the year 2000. Some certainly seem more accessible than others.

arukidasu isu arukidasanai fuyu no neko

a chair starts to walk
a winter cat does not
start to walk

Yasunobu Nakamura

himo areba kekkai to naru aki no kure

a string will mark
a boundary of the sacred place
autumn dusk 

Satoshi Fujita

yuki rashii seiri ga okurete iru rashii

I hear snow will fall
I hear her period
is late 

Tsubasa Kitaohji

Poet and translator Keiji Minato was born in 1973. His speciality is literature in English, mainly US and Australian contemporary poetry, and he has studied at Melbourne University.

In an online article he describes the “well-established” haiku scene in Japan thus: Japanese newspapers call for haiku submissions, and a large number of amateur poets send their works to be chosen for publication by famous masters. There are some TV programmes specialising in haiku, for which big events are often held and big auditoriums filled with hundreds of haiku enthusiasts. You can always find several commercial haiku magazines lined up in the racks of bookstores.11

Abigail Friedman, meanwhile, recalls having watched “an hour-long programme devoted to haiku about the biwa or loquat fruit”12 so haiku and its traditions are taken far more seriously in Japan than most of us in the West appreciate. Which then means that poems may be far denser, in terms of their content and “hidden meaning”, than we can easily understand.

In this article Keiji reviews a book by Chidzuku Ueno (born 1948), a member of the Kyoto University Haiku Society who, he says, pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as haiku. Ms Ueno, who no longer writes haiku, states her position plainly in the preface to Eldorado (a collection of her work from 1972 to 1982): “These are haiku. So, this is a book of haiku. To those who say they are not haiku I will say bye-bye.”


Ore ga kajitta hagata o tsukete tsuki ga kake

with teeth marks left by me the moon wanes

Chidzuku Ueno, translated by Keiji Minato

Translator’s note: The narrator of a haiku usually corresponds with the author. Here Ueno uses “Ore” (俺), a first pronoun for a male, which gives a fictional taste to the poem. 

Yukihiko Settsu (1947-1996), Keiji writes in another article, is still one of the most influential figures among young haiku writers today. His style depends mainly on surprising combinations of images and this haiku is satirical – “they” who “gratefully send southerly winds” are those who died for the Emperor in World War 2. “As in the case of Katô Ikuya, Settsu’s style is in part a revival of the playful elements repressed in the modern history of haiku.”13 


Nangoku ni / shishite go’on no /minami-kaze

dead in southern countries
they gratefully send
southerly winds

Yukihiko Settsu, translated by Keiji Minato

And, finally, a haiku by Keiji himself, which featured in a spotlight on the poet’s work on The Haiku Foundation and which included commentaries to three haiku, including this one.14


hiyayaka ya gyorui zukan ni ha no shiori

autumn coolness —
a leaf as a bookmark
in an encyclopaedia of fish

Keiji Minato

There are those who argue that what we write in English should not be called haiku at all – one school of thought is that if it isn’t written in Japan, it isn’t haiku. However, I’m not a member of the brigade that’s bothered about names and labels. Perhaps English-language haiku is unrecognisable when translated into Japanese, perhaps readers there are just as perplexed by “difficult” poems as vice-versa.

We are working with a living organism, something that is evolving all the time, partly thanks to the poets who push and pull at the form … some of whom may have been inspired directly by the “oddness” of the Japanese poems we read in English.

Roadrunner15, an online journal edited by American Scott Metz, deliberately stretched the boundaries of haiku in English – and just as deliberately chose to call the poems that appeared “ku”, despite many at least looking like haiku, if not necessarily sounding like haiku.

the high fizz nerve the low boom blood dead silence

Jim Kacian 16

the scent of
somebody’s wife
a changing wind

Lucas Stensland 17

Please note that this article in no way sets out to be a definitive examination of contemporary haiku in Japanese, I am unqualified to do that and the topic is too great to be covered in one sitting. But I am curious about what is going on in haiku there and thought I would share some of the poems, poets and information I have found. For further reading please use some of the links in the Footnotes. You might also try the website of the Gendai Haiku Association which features six poets and their works.



1: Deep Kyoto website, Keiji Minato’s pages

2: Become, haiku and translation, The Haiku Foundation in-depth discussion area, 2011.

3: Kaneko Tota, read a biography.

4: World Kigo Database, the website of Dr Gabi Greve.

5: Blue Willow World, the website of Fay Aoyagi.

6: Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō by Haruo Shirane (Stanford University Press, 1998).

7: A Sampling of Cultural Haiku by Michael Dylan Welch (Haiku NewZ, updated by the author, 2010).

8: World Kigo Database, scroll down.

9: The Haiku Apprentice, Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan by Abigail Friedman (Stone Bridge Press, California) 2006.

10: A sampling from Shinsen 21 at Roadrunner journal.

11: Deep Kyoto website.

12: The Haiku Apprentice.

13: Commentaries on 3 of Keiji Minato’s haiku by David Lanoue.

14: Notes on Modern Haiku, article by Keiji Minato (Cordite Poetry Review, Australia), 2009. The article is in 4 parts.

15: Roadrunner journal.

16: Ibid, Issue 11.1

17: Ibid, Issue X.3

Editor’s note: Sandra Simpson is editor of Haiku NewZ, a member of the Katikati Haiku Pathway committee, a nominating editor for the Red Moon anthologies, and an award-winning haiku poet. She lives in Tauranga, New Zealand.